The “Autobiography” of James Weldon Johnson
February 11, 2013
During Black History month, the most famous African American authors will be celebrated. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, and Zora Neale Hurston are often the first names to spring to mind when people are asked to recount an author of color. However, there are many other writers who don't get the same recognition. One of these is James Weldon Johnson.
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was many things in his life: a poet, a novelist, an activist with the NAACP, an educator, and even a songwriter for musical theater. Johnson grew up in the period following the Civil War. This was a time when African Americans were struggling to find their place in a world where slavery was no more, yet racism was rampant in every part of American society. Stereotypes about who blacks were and what they were capable of were entrenched in people’s minds. It was in this environment that James Weldon Johnson composed what many consider his masterpiece.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was originally published anonymously, and that led many people to believe that it was a true story. The tale of an unnamed black man, who was so light skinned that he could "pass" for white, exposed the double standard that existed in an America where everyone was judged by appearance. In the book, the protagonist must decide between a career as a ragtime musician (who then had to risk the dangers that came with the racism of the day) or the life of an average white businessman. After witnessing a horrific lynching, he chose that latter, and in so doing had to give up his love of music for the safety of being white.
With the narrator’s ability to be taken as both black and white, the hypocrisy of judging people simply based on skin color is laid bare. The fact that he was educated and talented made it easier for him to blend in to white society. After all, to most, only whites could be mannered and intelligent. Playing ragtime music, however, was confirmation that he was not. So the part of him that made him who he was had to go. In the end, after marrying a white woman, he had to continue the deception in order to give his children every advantage possible.
The autobiography was one of the first books written by an African American in the first person. It also was one of the first books to portray a black society that was just as stratified as white society. At the time, many believed that all African Americans lived as the same class. Johnson’s book showed that blacks had the same kind of economic and educational divisions as whites as well as the same desire to climb the social ladder. This concept was surprising to a population that looked at every person of color through the same lens.
I first read The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man in college, and it quickly became one of my favorite novels. The difficult choices that the people of that era faced, an era not as far removed from our own as we might like to think, is portrayed beautifully in the book, as is the ridiculousness of deciding who people are simply by skin pigmentation. This point is driven home quite effectively when the main character, now passing as white, has a conversation with a man who insists that black people are inherently inferior to their own "white" selves. This is a book that should be more known among the general population, and Johnson should have the same name recognition as his more famous counterparts.