The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man


James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man [Boston; 1912]

I read a scanned copy of a first edition, published anonymously in Boston in 1911. James Weldon Johnson wouldn't take credit for the work until the 1927 reprint, when the novel was acknowledged as a forerunner to the Harlem Renaissance. I've long admired Johnson's work, particularly as a historian (his Black Manhattan is a key text for me) and as a member of the Johnson, Johnson & Cole songwriting team who wrote popular "coon" songs that declined to be derogatory to Black people in the 1910s, but I hadn't read this short novel before.

It's excellent, as expected, if rather conventionally sentimental in its prosody. (Conventional for the time, that is; by the standards of an earlier generation it's almost shockingly unadorned, but by the standards of the next it's too pietistic about manners and morals and squeamish about class and sex.) It's a serious advance on a polemicist Harriet Beecher Stowe or even a timid naturalist like Charles W. Chesnutt, but (strictly in terms of prose style) it doesn't reach the heights of modernists like Jean Toomer or Claude McKay.

My greatest delight in it was to discover the role that Black vernacular music, particularly ragtime, plays in the narrative, which (once the protagonist reaches adulthood) roughly covers the 1890s and early 1900s. Several passages are worthy of being copied-and-pasted into Tumblr quote posts, diagnosing the causes and effects of race relations in the United States with pitiless accuracy, and in ways that are just as relevant today. I saw a Twitter thread today advancing, and receiving ignorant pushback, on arguments Johnson and Du Bois were making over a century ago. This should be a cornerstone of any education on race in the United States; just as equally, it should be only a small part of a much broader curriculum.

April 3, 2017