Contemporary Racist Views in James Wheldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
In the Preface to the 1912 edition of James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the publishers make a clear effort to defend the author’s commentary on race as clear-sighted and objective, writing that:
This vivid and startlingly new picture of the conditions brought about by the race question in the United States makes no special plea for the Negro, but shows in a dispassionate, though sympathetic, manner conditions as they actually exist between whites and blacks today (xi).
This quotation, coupled with Johnson’s own approach to discussing race in the novel, seems to provide a good illustration of the delicacy with which the topic of racism had to be addressed in the early twentieth century in order to gain support from mainstream audiences. While heavy-handed pathos may have been a key element to the success of antebellum works advocating for the rights of black American slaves, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it seems to have fallen out of fashion after the emancipation of slaves, when the goal of the conversation turned from addressing the most basic of human rights—freedom—to the consideration of African-Americans as equal members of our society.
Decades after the Civil War made black Americans free, they still faced oppression in a variety of forms, ranging from legal segregation and vigilante lynching to more insidious discrimination through personal prejudice and animosity. While most whites—particularly in the North—may have supported the end of slavery, few whites were ready or willing to acknowledge black Americans as equals. For this reason, it was almost certainly easier for white audiences to relate to a narrator like Johnson’s—who is almost white in appearance, cultured, educated, and even in possession of a few racist ideas of his own—than it would be to sympathize with a darker, more heavily disadvantaged character. Although this approach does make a few concessions, posing a smaller challenge to its audience than a more radical “plea” for fair treatment might, it was likely able to reach a wider audience because of its relative conservatism. By writing a fictionalized autobiography of a man able to “pass” as white, rather than an autobiography of a darker man such as himself, Johnson created a narrative that his publishers could defend as “dispassionate” and mainstream whites could more easily embrace.
From the beginning, Johnson’s narrator shows some biases that were likely shared by the majority of white readers at the turn of the century. At the beginning of the narrative, he is, in fact, not even aware that both he and his mother are of partly African-American descent. As a result, he participates in the bullying of a black child from his school, observing a taunting chant and throwing stones at the boy after he retaliates. Returning home to tell his mother about the incident, he even refers to the boy as a n-----, an epithet she tells him never to repeat (6-7). When he later learns that he himself is black, it is a traumatizing experience for him, and even his own thoughts and his mother’s descriptions of his heritage reflect something of a racist bias against black features and blood. First, the narrator tests the claim that he is black by examining his mother’s face “for defects,” noting that “her skin was almost brown, her hair was not so soft as mine, and… she did differ in some way from the other ladies who came to the house” (8). Although the narrator still claims that his mother was more beautiful than these other ladies, his identification of her African features as “defects” rather than simply features is likely in line with the prevailing opinions of the time. Additionally, even the narrator’s mother seems to be in agreement with this assessment. When he asks her if he is white—and if she is—she answers, “No, I am not white, but you—your father is one of the greatest men in the country—the best blood of the South is in you” (8). Here, his mother shows that she subscribes to at least some of the race and class biases of the day, privileging the “blood” and heritage of the narrator’s white father over her own. We as readers are also shown that the narrator is not simply the illegitimate child of a black woman, but the son of genteel white Southern stock. This, coupled with his education, his interest in music, and his light skinned appearance, allow readers to separate him from more brutish stereotypes about darker, lower class black men. White readers are able to sympathize with the narrator because he is, in many ways, like them.
In addition to creating a narrator whose appearance, upbringing, and interests align reasonably closely with middle class, white readers, Johnson creates a seemingly “dispassionate” and easy to swallow narrative by allowing this narrator to echo some of the racist prejudices common at the time. Beyond his own and his mother’s fairly subtle comments on the inferiority of black heritage, the narrator makes many other remarks about black Americans that would probably be perceived as racist today. For example, when dividing black people up into three separate “classes,” he evaluates the lowest class as “men [who] conform to the requirements of civilization much as a trained lion with low muttered growls goes through his stunts under the crack of a trainer’s whip.” Although he also says that they are “in numbers… only a small proportion of colored people” (37), their state seems to be portrayed as a natural one, resulting from innate deficiency rather than their circumstances, which are not described at length. This state is even described with an animal metaphor, a rhetorical flourish in line with arguments made for black inferiority since the time of slavery.
Finally, blacks are not the only people of color about whom the narrator expresses limiting, essentializing opinions. American Indians are also assessed as a race with innate, negative qualities, including humorlessness. In what might seem an inconsequential aside, Johnson praises African-Americans’ ability to laugh in their circumstances as their “salvation… [which] does much to keep [them] from going the way of the Indian” (27). While this comment may perhaps by itself seem like the use of a popular idiom rather than the judgment of a race of people, the narrator again favorably contrasts African-Americans from Native Americans when he praises black American contributions to American culture, including ragtime and the cakewalk:
These are lower forms of art, but they give evidence of a power that will some day be applied to the higher forms. In this measure, at least, and aside from the number of prominent individuals the colored people of the United States have produced, the race has been a world influence; and all of the Indians between Alaska and Patagonia haven’t done as much (42).
Here, in one fell swoop, our narrator dismisses the cultural contributions of the native people of an entire hemisphere of the earth for purposes of defending the relevance of blacks to the American artistic and cultural landscape. Nevermind that the Mayans were the first to use the number zero in math; that Native Americans were the first to cultivate chocolate, tobacco, turkeys, corn, tomatoes, and other crops and livestock; or that American Indians have produced their own beautiful crafts and music for centuries. Although the message and intentions of Johnson’s novel are doubtlessly progressive, the methods used to go about communicating this progressive method would hardly be considered forward thinking today.
While Johnson’s novel contains a number of shocking and poignant moments, which do indeed offer a “vivid and startling… picture of the conditions brought about by the race question in the United States” (xi)—culminating in a horrific lynching which convinces the narrator to hide his black identity permanently (91)—this picture is hardly as “dispassionate” as the publishers claim (xi). Rather than presenting an unbiased picture of relations between the races as they are, Johnson’s narrator presents things in the only way that he can: through the lens of his culture and time. Whether as the result of actual prejudices endowed upon the author and narrator by culture, or as a strategic attempt to produce a sympathetic narrative for mainstream audiences, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man advocates for the advancement of black Americans from a perspective that reflects some of the racial prejudices of its time. However, this perspective likely increased its rhetorical effectiveness, creating a narrative—and a narrator—with which a broader audience could sympathize and agree.
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