Thursday, January 17, 2008

Review: The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912)

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), by James Weldon Johnson, narrates the story of a young mulatto man who decides to permanently "pass for white" at the turn of the century (early 1900s). Throughout his young adulthood, he embraces African American (Negro) musical traditions but struggles with the daily difficulties of identifying as a black man in American society.

In his childhood, he and his black mother relocate to Connecticut from Georgia where he excells brilliantly in his studies, especially becoming a music prodigy on the piano. However, one day in school, he is stunned when the teacher asked for him to sit down when all the white students continue to stand. He wonders why he was treated differently from his peers.
He rushes home to tell his mother what happened in school. As he compares his dark curly hair and fair skin complexion to his mother, he learns that he is indeed considered black (because of the racial identity of his mother) and that his father is a white Southerner.This news shocks him. By high school graduation, the sudden death of his mother and the sale of his home leaves him alone with little money to attend Harvard. Following his mother's wishes, he heads south to Atlanta University to pursue his music studies.

Unfortunately, as he reaches the university, he discovers someone has stolen his money. To recover his loss, he finds a job at a cigar factory in Florida and teaches piano lessons on the side. When the factory shuts down, he relocates to New York City where he discovers ragtime music. An older, white gentleman overhears the young man playing the piano at a club and persuades him to tag along on a tour of Europe.

Although he enjoys his trip in Europe, he desires to return to America to pursue his studies on Negro music. His curiosity and admiration for Negro culture is shattered when he witnesses firsthand a white mob lynch a black man. In the wake of this experience, he abandons his musical ambitions. He feels too much shame to associate himself to a group of people "treated worse than animals."

This is a riveting story of the struggles of a young mulatto man living in two separate worlds: one black and one white. As he travels throughout New England and the American South, he develops an appreciation for African American musical traditions, such as ragtime music. Unfortunately, the incident with the white lynch mob terrifies the narrator greatly. Although this book written nearly 80 years ago, its importance in African American literature is still essential. African Americans developed a sense of double consciousness, where they struggled in a society where racial identities were rigid and binary. Racial prejudice was very common and harsh , and those who could escape it "passed for white", or crossed the color line.

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), best known as the composer to Life Every Voice and Sing, wrote his first and only novel on the complexity of race in American society at the turn of the century. As one of the first fictional novels using the first person written by an African-American author, this famous book inspired other African-American writers, such as Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, to create fictional novels on African American life and culture. Johnson would later become an active leader and writer in the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), African Diaspora studies and the Harlem Renaissance.

I also recommend Danzy Senna's Caucasia and Nella Larsen's Passing, which also explores themes of race and biracial identity throughout African American history.

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