Academic journal article MELUS

Narrative Order, Racial Hierarchy, and "White" Discourse in James Weldon Johnson's the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and along This Way

Academic journal article MELUS

Narrative Order, Racial Hierarchy, and "White" Discourse in James Weldon Johnson's the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and along This Way

Article excerpt

African Americans became increasingly mobile during the early twentieth century, as exemplified by the Great Migration that began around 1910. Reflecting the general anxiety about such racial mobility, the March 2, 1911, issue of The Independent included an article about racial passing, "When Is a Caucasian Not a Caucasian?" Referring to the downfall of a "white" family whose part-black ancestry, unknown even to themselves, accidentally became public, the anonymous author discusses the "stupidity" and "cruelty" of the one-drop law and advises "all white negroes" to leave the South and live as "white people" so that, "as the bleaching process goes on, the conundrum will cease to concern them, When is a Caucasian not a Caucasian?" Despite the author's insight into the precarious nature of racial categories, the article's logic is predicated on the assumption of stable whiteness. On the one hand, along with its title, the article's rhetorical question "Who knows where ... it [the family's tragedy] may strike next?" emphasizes that any white person can really be nonwhite. On the other hand, to highlight the "stupidity" and "cruelty" of white supremacy, the writer must posit an unquestionably pure-white man as the society's representative. Thus, concerning the husband who annulled his marriage to an unwitting passer under Louisiana's "infamous law against intermarriage," the article states that "[t]here was no question that he was a full Caucasian" (479) despite its ongoing claim of the endless questionability of pure whiteness.

One finds such simultaneous refutation and affirmation of clear-cut racial classification in James Weldon Johnson's novel about passing published a year later, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). As Samira Kawash points out, the novel's scrutiny of the racial binary even problematizes "the simple 'black passing for white' logic of passing ... and its attendant model of race as the expression of a prior, embodied identity," so that the "Ex-Coloured Man's relation to blackness is shown to be as inauthentic as his relation to whiteness; rather than being 'both black and white,' he is in fact neither black nor white" (70). At the same time, the novel seems to contradict its own racial investigation when it draws plot development, dramatization, and closure from the essentialist and binary-predicated assumption that the Ex-Colored Man looks white but is actually black. (1) Indeed, though the character, with his endlessly fluid identity, cannot but feel he has "never really been a Negro" (Johnson, Autobiography 153), his narrative only suppresses this indeterminacy by beginning with a confession of "the great secret of [his] life" as a passer (1), featuring those scenes that revolve around his alleged blackness (e.g., his dramatic first recognition of not being a "white scholar" at elementary school [11]), and ending with a regret for abandoning black identity as his "birthright" (154). (2)

I argue that while the Independent article's tacit belief in pure whiteness undermines its own racial critique, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man utilizes the narrator's same belief--and his resulting self-identification as passing-white, that is, deviation from real, pure whiteness--to show how white hegemony reproduces itself by limiting one's ability to speak outside of the white/black binary opposition. (3) In other words, Johnson configures the text so that, while the Ex-Colored Man's white body can put the idea of whiteness into question, (4) the character-narrator fails to convey this subversive potential because the white-dominant system of order and hierarchy controls his approach not only to race but also to storytelling itself. Johnson signals this interconnection between racial hierarchy, narrative order, and white-dominant discourse through the way the Ex-Colored Man fictively stabilizes his indeterminate race--and, accordingly, the story itself--to accommodate the white audience he (the Ex-Colored Man) has in mind. …

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