James Weldon Johnson was the most urbane and best connected forefather/sponsor of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. (The points of comparison are to W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke.) Because many readers seem to think that the book is Johnson’s own story (and because I am writing during Black History Month), I want to begin by sketching the author’s background. (He also wrote an autobiography, titled Along This Way,first published in 1933. Both and more are included in the recent Library of America collection of his work.)
Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1871 (six years after the surrender of the Confederacy, eight years after Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation). His father was a freeborn Virginian, his mother was the first African American teacher in the state of Florida. Johnson wrote that his first experience of racial discrimination was taking the train to begin Atlanta University. From the pictures of him I have seen, it is plausible that he could have passed for being Cuban. Speaking Spanish to a friend on that train, he did.
After graduating from Atlanta University, he returned to Jacksonville and was the principal of a large African American high school. In 1895-96 he edited the first national newspaper, the Daily American. With his younger brother Rosamond, a pianist, he wrote half a dozen musicals and more than two hundred songs, the most famous of which is “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the “Negro national anthem.”
Having written a campaign song for Theodore Roosevelt, Johnson was appointed U.S. consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua from 1906 to 1912. It was in Latin America rather than in Europe that he wrote The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which, given his official position, he published anonymously in 1912.
After his return to the U.S., Booker T. Washington recruited him to write editorials for the New York Age. In the split between the accommodationist (Southern) Washington and the more confrontational (Northern) W.E.B. DuBois that produced the NAACP, Johnson sided with DuBois and went to work as field secretary for the NAACP in 1916. He became its national executive officer in 1920, and held that position until 1931, when he took a teaching position at Fisk University. He died in an automobile crash in 1938.
Besides giving personal support to the younger writers of the Harlem Renaissance and linking them to various white patrons, Johnson edited The Book of American Negro Poetry in 1922, and The Book of American Negro Spirituals in 1925. These two collections and the example of his own poetry that was heavily influenced by spirituals (God’s Trombone: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse) were important in making available a literary heritage on which the “New Negro” writers could build.
The phenomenon of passing as white, the valuation among African Americans of lighter skin, and the freedom from legal discrimination were major themes of Harlem Renaissance writers Nella Larsen (Passing) , George Schuyler’s Black No More, Jean Toomer (Cane, Wallace Thurman (The Blacker the Berry), and Claude McKay (Banjo, etc.).
In just over a hundred pages, Johnson hit on these and many other themes, the most horrifying of which is lynching. Johnson’s narrator watches a lynching. Johnson himself was (later) actively involved in lobbying the U.S. House of Representatives, which passed an anti-lynching law in 1921 that was then blocked in the Senate.
The novel’s narrator is never-named (as in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man published 40 years later). He grows up in Connecticut with no connections to any black community (unlike Johnson who grew up within a black community in Florida) and no family except his light-skinned mother. She continues to be in love with the Southern “gentleman” who impregnated her and who visits her and their son once in Connecticut. Impressed by his illegitimate son’s musical gifts, he has a better piano sent to the house. It is unclear whether he regularly sent money; he does nothing for his invisibly Negro son after the woman dies.
The narrator is robbed of his savings in a Negro boarding house before he can enroll at Atlanta University. He goes to Jacksonville, works in a cigar factory, and hangs out with Cubans, quickly becoming fluent in Spanish. Later he moves to New York, where he acquires a white patron.* At first he performs (classical music and ragtime) for the man’s parties, and then accompanies him as a paid companion for a lengthy stay in Paris, followed by briefer ones in London and Amsterdam.
He decides to return to New York and write symphonic works on African American musical themes. He goes south in search of material (which is when he witnesses the lynching). He never gets around to doing his life work, though. He marries a white woman (who after initial horror upon learning of his ancestry colludes in keeping it a secret). They move to Europe, where she dies giving birth to their second child and first son.
The narrator’s experiences have given him many reasons to pass as white, but in the famous closing paragraphs he expresses deep ambivalence (and survivor guilt) for having opted out of the struggle for justice in America (and for making the important contributions to African American culture he believes he could have). The last words are “I cannot repress the thought that I have chosen the lesser part [personal comfort, private happiness], that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”
The book must have been a revelation when it was first published in 1912, and even when it was republished with the author’s name in 1927. The existence of a black bourgeoisie “liv[ing] in a little world of their own” was mostly unknown and there was what I have called a “will not to know” (Stillschweigen) about the pressures and indignities that educated, accomplished persons of color faced. The lengthy account of a Southern smoking car conversation about “colored folks” is one of the strongest and most interesting parts of the book.
Johnson obviously drew on his own itinerant experiences and rearranged them for a character I’d guess was based as much or more on his musician brother than on himself. Most importantly, unlike his narrator who eventually lives as an expatriate white American, he did not withdraw into a quest for private happiness but threw himself into the struggle against lynching and to build pride in African American cultural achievements, particularly spirituals and jazz.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a worthy and historically important book. It is closer to Johnson’s later (nonfiction) Black Manhattan than to most novels. The narrator has a wide range of experiences and makes credible reflections on them, but there is not much that could be called a plot and the characters are types rather than individuals. In that I am not at all enthusiastic for Candide, and find Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas unreadable, I guess that I don’t like the genre of episodic, philosophic “novels.” My own preference is for interesting dialog (as in the smoking car episode, or in Wallace Thurman’s Infants of the Spring – or Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew). I can unhesitatingly recommend the book as a document of the plight of “the talented tenth” in the years before World War I, but can’t muster very much enthusiasm for it as a novel.
Other Relevant Stuff
There are multiple editions of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man including a $1 Dover edition, and the Library of America collection of Johnson’s writings. It is also included in Three Negro Classics, along with Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folks, and an introduction by John Hope Franklin. BTW Johnson’s narrator praises as “remarkable” DuBois’s book and Washington’s earnesteness and faith.
As an introduction to the Harlem Renaissance, I recommend Steven Watson’s book The Harlem Renaissance.
* Some have supposed that Carl Van Vechten (about whom there is a new biography) might be the model of the rich white man who took the narrator to Europe, but the book was written long before they met. Van Vechten’s photographs and other Harlem Renaissance memorabilia are in the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale, btw)