I had to keep reminding myself that The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson was actually a novel. It was realistic, and it was engaging and entertaining at the same time. Even more, it has a place in history alongside true-life narratives as an account of what some African-Americans may have felt in the early decades of the 1900s: enslaved in a world that catered to whites.
The first thing I loved about Johnson’s novel was his writing. I want to reiterate that it is a short, easy-to-read classic: some people may be intimidated by classics, but this is not one. It was about 140 pages, and it is so realistic that I was drawn right in to it. I finished it in one sitting.
Take this very superficial example:
I can see in this little half-vision a little house – I am quite sure it was not a large one – I can remember that flowers grew in the front yard, and that around each bed of flowers was a hedge of vari-colored glass bottles stuck in the ground neck down. I remember that once, while playing around in the sand, I became curious to know whether or not the bottles grew as flowers did, and I proceeded to dig them up to find out; the investigation brought me a terrific spanking, which indelibly fixed the event in my mind. (page 2)
Surely, Johnson himself could have had this event, and adding a little memory like that makes the book itself realistic as a life-remembrance. Yet, every subsequent event, big or small, seems to be as real as this one in the narrator’s memory. I was convinced almost from beginning to end that it happened. (It wasn’t perfect, and there were a couple of sensational events that were not quite as realistically written from my perspective – but it is possible that those events were also realistic.)
In the end, the narrator must choose between being a ragtime player among the blacks and being a mediocre white business man. The irony is that those who do not want to mix with those of a black heritage may end up not knowing who among them are truly “black.” “Passing” for white becomes an alternative way to live to the discrimination and abuse. (Then I thought back to Black No More, which I read last month, and thought how funny the ending of that was.)
(Spoiler: I was particularly annoyed that his fiancé needed a few months to decide she was okay with him actually being “black.” These attitudes broke my heart and made me mad at the same time. What difference should his heritage make in a relationship like that? Obviously, my perspective is completely different. This book is nearly 100 years old. Still, the past can make me mad, right?)
Since I read Frederick Douglass’ Narrative in February, reading The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man soon thereafter helps me to see just how the traditional narratives inspired the development of an African-American fiction. I know I’ve said it before, but I will say it again: I am so glad I read all sorts of background information for the February Harlem Renaissance Classics Circuit, because it has made me so excited to read and become more familiar with African-American Classics. I still don’t know much, but at least have some background.
This was one of the first African-American novels (written 1912). I can see how it is it is a bridge between the previous nonfiction, such as slave narratives (such as Frederick Douglass) and the political/sociological works of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois (neither of whom I’ve read), and the world of African-American fiction which would flourish during the 1920s and thereafter with Claude McKay (novels in Harlem speakeasies), Nella Larsen (Passing), and later Zora Neale Hurston.
I realize I haven’t told you much about the story of the Ex-Colored Man, and that it is intentional. Suffice he faces real issues, and the book is an engaging read.
Side note: I loved the emphasis on ragtime music in New York City too, and as I was reading it in the family room, my husband was playing some Scott Joplin. It was perfect reading music for this novel!
What is your mood music? I normally like quiet when I read, but I loved the ragtime during this read, since it’s a theme in the novel!