Academic journal article African American Review

A Negro's Chance: Ontological Luck in the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Academic journal article African American Review

A Negro's Chance: Ontological Luck in the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Article excerpt

Just why exactly does the narrator at the end of James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man feel that he has been a coward, a deserter 53) in having decided finally to pass for white? From a certain perspective, the ex-colored man's decision is anything but unreasonable, and no cause for self-censure. As a white man, he of course has access to opportunities (financial as well as social) otherwise prohibited him as a black man, but even more fundamentally, and more importantly, he does not have to face the very real dangers of being black in the America he describes: prejudice, discrimination, violence. His decision to pass comes immediately after witnessing the horrors of a lynching--surely his desire to make himself (and, crucially, his children) immune from such a fate is perfectly understandable. (1) As he himself asserts, "Nor is it any more a sacrifice of self-respect that a black man should give his children every advantage he can which complexion of the skin carries than that the new and vulgar rich should purchase for their children the advantages which ancestry, aristocracy, and social position carry" (114). Yet, despite these good and justifiable reasons, based in an understandable self-and-family-interest, the ex-colored man nonetheless feels, in the novel's last lines, that, "after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage" (154). Should he feel this way?

My title comes from a letter Johnson received from a friend who was hoping to argue the young Johnson out of his plan to abandon a promising teaching career in Jacksonville to pursue a much less-certain career as a songwriter in New York. Johnson recounts, in Along this Way (1933), the words of the letter writer: "What's the matter with you, thinking of giving up a life position to take a chance, and a Negro's chance, at writing music in New York? Have you gone crazy?" (189). In what follows, I want to explore what is behind the letter writer's insistence that Johnson was taking "a Negro's chance," and further, why it is important, in the context of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, that it be "a Negro's chance," and not just simply a chance. Fundamental to understanding the notion of "a Negro's chance," and the ex-colored man's regret, is the vital connection between luck and identity.

I will thus not be focusing here on the compelling but familiar thesis that this novel, and other novels of passing, upset or subvert racial divisions (and hierarchies) by exposing the arbitrary nature of racial categorization. (2) I wish rather to focus on the particular moment of regret that the ex-colored man expresses at the end of the novel, for it is important to recognize that in spite of the novel's exposure of the obviously artificial nature of racial classification, his racial loyalty nevertheless persists, if in nothing else but exactly this expression of remorse. Even though he recognizes that he is only arbitrarily defined as black, and that contemporary racial classifications have basis in neither logic nor reality, the ex-colored man still feels bad that he passes. Why must this be the case? Why, if one is involuntarily subjected to what one recognizes to be a fundamentally arbitrary system, would one feel bad about "breaking the rules" of that system? As I will argue, the causes and sources of the ex-colored man's remorse lies in the relationship between contingency, identity, and moral evaluation. (3) At the heart of the ex-colored man's justifications is his claim that, since his racial categorization is merely a contingent component of his self-description, a component whose arbitrary nature is exposed by the very fact that he can freely pass into and out of it, race is not an essential part of his identity--it does not touch on the deeper truth of what or who he "really is." Against these claims of his, I will argue that the ex-colored man's ultimate remorse stems from the fact that his racial categorization does persist as an essential component of his identity, and persists precisely because of its contingent quality. …

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