Originally published in 1912, this novel was one of the first to present a frank picture of being black in America
Masked in the tradition of the literary confession practiced by such writers as St. Augustine and Rousseau, this “autobiography” purports to be a candid account of its narrator’s private views and feelings as well as an acknowledgement of the central secret of his life: that though he lives as a white man, he is, by heritage and experience, an African-American. Written by the first black executive secretary of the NAACP, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, in its depiction of turn-of-the-century New York, anticipates the social realism of the Harlem Renaissance writers. In its unprecedented analysis of the social causes of a black man’s denial of the best within himself, it is perhaps James Weldon Johnson’s greatest service to his race.
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How well does the narrator truly know himself?
The narrator has difficulty understanding himself and his choices. He often vacillates back and forth between binaries, expressing ambivalence about truly inhabiting one identity. He has opinions and beliefs that he ruminates on in his autobiography, yet he rarely takes the time to delve into exactly why he possesses those opinions and beliefs. He falls into lassitude quite easily, staying in situations far too long for what they can actually offer him. This can be seen in his becoming a gambler instead of remaining gainfully employed and working toward his goals and his traveling around Europe working for a rich white man and ignoring his own ambitions. When he does make the decisive choice to pass as white, he cannot remain convinced that this was the right decision. He is full of doubts and recognizes those doubts exist, but he does not probe any deeper than the surface. Finally, he is also a rather unreliable narrator, glossing over events and making claims that a reader could find suspicious.
Why does the author never give most of his characters names?
Some characters have nicknames while Johnson simply labels others using some distinguishing characteristic. One reason for this may be tied to the author's desire to convey that the narrator has no fixed identity, that he merely embodies a "blankness" or lack of identity. His own invisibility is mirrored in his lack of a real, defining name; his anonymity in America is solidified by his lack of a definitive name. The lack of names may also signify something more positive, however; it may demonstrate that the narrator is refusing to enforce concomitant classifications of power in his story and instead, creates his own system of identification. Johnson himself knew the power of names: he dropped his own middle name, William, and assumed Weldon instead, which he felt was more aristocratic.
What does the novel suggest about the reality of racism in the North vs racism in the South?
In the world of the novel, Johnson portrays the South as more racist (which was commonly believed at the time), but he does not portray the North in a flattering light, either. In Connecticut, where the narrator grows up, he experiences the prejudice of his principal. Similarly, in New York, the narrator finds that racial barriers exist, even though they are more complicated. When the narrator is in Boston, he praises the adaptability of African Americans, who seem to have embraced the "Yankee" ideology and social mores. This adaptability may be one strategy for disenfranchised African Americans who need to find a way, albeit a problematic one, to forge a decent life in a terribly racist environment. However, it may also be an indication of the colonial subject who erases all of his heritage and identity to merely mimic the dominant race and class. The narrator notes that Northerners will frequently argue against discrimination at a dinner party but then throw a fit if too many black families move into the neighborhood. He generalizes that Northeners like African Americans as a race but do not care for them much as individuals. For the narrator, the South, though brutal, is more honest and authentic.
Why do you think Johnson choose to write the novel as an autobiography?
The genre of autobiography has a long history when it comes to African American literature. It comes from the slave narrative tradition, where former slaves published their stories in the first person. These slave narratives were critical in the fight for racial equality, and Johnson may have wanted to guarantee the same credibility and financial success as his predecessors. Autobiographies like those written by Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington had sympathetic protagonists and were also significant and popular. The autobiographical form made stories of the "other" palatable for a wide swath of readers of all races. Furthermore, the autobiography was a format that was specifically about discovering one's identity; which is the narrator's focus in i[Autobiography]. The idea of a fictional autobiography also allows a unique level of distance between the narrator and its author, and Johnson perhaps wanted to express views that were not necessarily his own.
Do you believe the narrator is racist? Why or why not?
Many scholars and literary historians describe Johnson's narrator as racist. He continuously offers commentary on the inferiority of certain African Americans as compared to others. His classification of the population of Jacksonville comes to mind, as does his disgust at the poorer African Americans in Atlanta. He agrees with the doctor that the educated African Americans must represent the race. He often finds himself sympathizing with white men's perspective on issues, and of course, he eventually decides to pass as white and distance himself from the African American community. When the narrator witnesses the brutal lynching of a black man in the South, instead of feeling like he needs to do something about it, his instinct is to disassociate himself from a race that “allows” itself to be treated thusly. All of these examples lend credence to the claim that the narrator himself is molded by white society as well as self-interest, and that he harbors some racist tendencies as a result. However, he has moments of pride in his racial identity as well, so the answer to this question is very complex.
Do you feel that any of the characters in the novel embody Johnson's own views on race? Why or why not?
One of the most interesting elements of the novel is the ideological distance between the author and his narrator. The narrator is not, in fact, a proxy for Johnson, who was extremely participatory in racial politics and culture. Therefore, Johnson peppers his opinions throughout other characters in the novel. For example, the ex-Union soldier makes a case for the social equality of African Americans and notes their immense cultural and historical achievements. The millionaire may also articulate some of Johnson’s concerns in regards to the how even an educated "colored" man will live a difficult life. The doctor’s words about the progress of the race also yield insight into the author’s mind. Some critics also believe that the narrator’s division of African Americans into three social classes represented Johnson’s ideas on the subject as well. The author believed that all African Americans should be treated with respect and dignity, but that the educated class needed more attention because they were carrying on the work of the race.
Why do some scholars refer to the narrator as an "antihero"? Do you agree or disagree with this assessment?
In most literature of the Harlem Renaissance (as well as the earlier slave narratives), the protagonist comes to terms with his or her identity and place in the African American community. The protagonist recognizes the importance of his or her heritage and collective experience of slavery and oppression. These protagonists often advocate on behalf of the race, publicly advocating freedom, equality, and the end of discrimination. In [Autobiography], however, the narrator has the option of embracing his biracial identity or by letting people think he is 100% white. After witnessing the extreme cruelty that white Americans inflicted on their dark-skinned neighbors, the narrator decides to take the path of least resistance towards material success, choosing to pass as a white man. He marries a white woman and makes his money off purely capitalistic pursuits. By not taking a heroic stance and instead, making a decision that many viewed as cowardly, the narrator is an anti-hero. He does offer reasons and a context for his decision, however, and shows regret at the end of the novel, but he does not earn the label of "hero".
How do you interpret the narrator's final thoughts on his identity in the last lines of the book?
When the narrator makes the decision to pass as white, he does not appear to question his decision. However, in the last pages of the novel, he expresses much more ambivalence. He writes that he wonders if he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, an allusion to the biblical story of Esau selling his birthright for soup. He reflects on the accomplishments of other African Americans and wonders if he might not have been like them if he were not so “small and selfish” and an “ordinarily successful white man who has made a little money” (154). He feels lost, fragmented, and confused. His story is one of regret and is a cautionary tale for those who might feel that embracing racial dominance leads to a more fulfilling life. Also, he refers to his blackness as a "birthright", when earlier, he saw it as an embarrassment, even a curse.
What role do women play in the novel?
There are very few female characters in this novel; they include the narrator’s mother, his first crush - the brown-eye girl, the widow, and the narrator’s wife (the singer). All of these women are mostly two-dimensional, with perhaps the exception of the narrator’s mother, a woman who skirts the issue of race while idolizing the white man who left her a single mother. The brown-eyed girl is simply aloof. The widow is a louche temptress and makes the narrator uncomfortable when she ignores any societal taboos about interracial relationships. Of course, the narrator himself does this very thing with own wife, but he legitimates this no doubt because he is the man and because he is half white. The singer, his wife is a cliché of beautiful, virtuous white womanhood; the narrator is taken aback by her brightly white skin. She represents a major part of his turn toward complete self-interest. The mother’s apparent embarrassment at her skin color and her irrational love for her white lover, the narrator’s father, is repeated in her son, who comes to loathe his blackness and prefers to live as a white man.
What do the structure and content of the novel have in common with slave narratives?
Johnson's fictional autobiography was inspired by the great slave narratives of Douglass, Equiano, and Jacobs. In these narratives, the protagonist always had the realization of his or her blackness and subsequent marginalization; then the protagonist would escape from ignorance and bondage to freedom; and finally, slave narratives represented their authors' writing of the self into existence and the formation of identity. In Johnson's book, the narrator has the same struggle in trying to assert his individuality in a system that aggressively denies him equal rights. However, even if the structure is similar to a slave narrative, the central component of a slave narrative -the formation of a true and vibrant identity -is absent in Autobiography. The narrator does not ever discover his true self - he is a blankness, a void, a multiplicity of identities. He does not embrace the African American community and become a "race man" or a representative for his race, instead, he chooses to pass as white and negate his heritage. He embraces the society that would immediately reject him if he were less skillful at concealing his race.