Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"Playing with Fire": The Aestheticization of Southern Violence in James Weldon Johnson's the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

"Playing with Fire": The Aestheticization of Southern Violence in James Weldon Johnson's the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Article excerpt

In his autobiography Along This Way ( 1 933), James Weldon Johnson recounts a conversation with H. L. Mencken on the status of African American literature in the early twentieth century. Although the discussion included topics ranging from the "Negro problem" to "Negro music," Johnson-"fascinated" by Mencken's assessments-relates in particular detail his evaluation of "Negro writers": Mencken "declared that Negro writers in writing about their own race made a mistake when they indulged in pleas for justice and mercy, when they prayed for indulgence for shortcomings, when they based their protests against unjust treatment on the Christian or moral or ethical code, when they argued to prove that they were as good as anybody else" (305). Criticizing the apologetic tone too often found in the writings of African Americans, Mencken instead suggested a possible solution. "What they should do," he argued in Johnson's account, "is to single out the strong points of the race and emphasize them over and over and over; asserting, at least on these points, that they are better than anybody else" (305). In apparent agreement with Mencken's recommendation, Johnson submitted that he "had attempted something ofthat sort in The Autobiography of an ExColored Man" (Along This Way 305).

Published over twenty years after Johnson completed The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Along This Way casts Johnson's prior work as revisionary. Demonstrating a "departure from its autobiographical predecessors" as well as from "traditional narrative representations of 'passing,'" as Heather Andrade argues (257), The Autobiography undoubtedly exemplifies Johnson's shift from established African American literary practice. Yet Johnson's suggestion that his Autobiography embodies Mencken's vision for a self-affirming aesthetic seems at odds with the text's conflicted ending. Framed as anon-fictional account of one man's decision to pass as white, The Autobiography concludes with the failure of the very thing that Mencken argues should be "singlefd] out," or the narrator's chief "strong point" - his musical faculty. Unable to challenge the racism diminishing and destroying the African American race, the ex-colored man instead trades his musical racial heritage "for a mess of pottage," becoming a mediocre white man (Autobiography 100).

Its storyline featuring the defeat of a black man's desire "to voice all the joys and sorrows, the hopes and ambitions, of the American Negro, in classic musical form," The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man for many readers tells the story of Johnson's loss of faith in the political influence of the African American aesthetic (Autobiography 69). I will argue, however, that this defeat in fact reveals Johnson's advocacy for a carefully structured black aesthetic. In his portrayal of the aestheticization of violence, Johnson both represents the racial violence that leads to the narrator's "unbearable shame" for his race (Autobiography 90) and formally confronts this aestheticization with The Autobiography's own structure. While The Autobiography appears to appropriate a white discourse, emphasizing the very cultural tropes that African American artists struggled to avoid, the narrative's fractured form, its self-consciously hyper-aesthetic frame, reveals a narrative that destabilizes what Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture describes as the "fixity" of colonial discourse (66).

From the novel's falsely proclaimed "autobiographical" label to the narrator's decision to perform or pass as white to Johnson's own mask as "The Publishers," these and other literary techniques all highlight the artificial nature of the narrative. Staged as a musical performance, The Autobiography, I will argue, directs its audience to a musical subtext that paradoxically evokes the racial stereotypes of a blackface minstrel stage if only to demonstrate the ease in which such racial translations (from the transformation of blackface to whiteface to the transposition of one aesthetic medium onto another) can, and should, occur. …

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