James Weldon Johnson’s Ex-Colored Man

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I’m not sure where this little book came from / how it ended up on my shelf, but I’m glad it did. This somewhat abridged version of James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (first published in 1912) was made for use in schools in the 1950s, and it made for an interesting read even if it skips (and instead summarizes) two or three parts of the narrative. Of course I recommend reading the full version over any adaptation or abridged version whenever possible! And I’ll likely get myself an unabridged copy of this before long, because I quite enjoyed Johnson’s style here.

I wanted to post about this in connection to / relation to George S. Schuyler’s Black No More (1933), which I wrote about here, and also mention Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), because there are interesting overlaps, similarities, and differences between these texts.

In Johnson’s book, the eponymous ex-colored man narrates his life story from being a young boy to becoming a widower and father of two. The story begins when the boy and his mother are sent, presumably by his father, from the South northwards to Connecticut. The boy doesn’t know his father, but doesn’t miss him or wonder much about him until one day, in school, he finds out that he himself is black. Some of the white boys start teasing him, and when he returns home the first thing he does is go look in the mirror. Then, he scrutinizes his mother and starts asking questions.

When the boy is 12, his mother introduces him to his father, ‘an important man in the South.’ While there are some dim recollections of putting away this man’s shiny shoes for him when he was very small, the boy does not feel any real connection and doesn’t know how to respond to this man. As abruptly as the father appears, he also vanishes the next day, since he has business in New York to take care of.

The boy is a prodigy at the piano, and his mother wants him to go to university, but by the time he finishes high school, his mother dies. He moves to Jacksonville and, having no money left for school, works in a factory there until that factory is closed. With some other men he moves to New York, and the big city life draws him in — he starts gambling and falls in love with rag time music. He has grown into a young man and frequently passes for white among white people.

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It’s his love of music that finally helps him break out of the gambling, since he soon becomes one of the best rag time players in New York. He catches the eye of a well-meaning millionaire and gets to travel to Europe, where he realizes what he really wants to do is turn the slave songs and other traditionally black music into something new, so he returns to the States.

In search of inspiration and raw material, he travels the rural South, and while he finds lots of material for his musical project, he also witnesses the relative poverty of the black people in the South as well as the cruelty that is inflicted on them: just as he is ready to leave the South, he becomes a bystander as a black man is burned to death for some sort of crime that is never specified. This is a turning point for our narrator: he remembers the advice his millionaire friend gave him just before he left Europe, and comes to the conclusion that it is not dishonorable or wrong for him to NOT tell anyone he is black.

There’s one point in the story where I found myself wondering if Schuyler had taken his inspiration from Johnson, though the scene / set-up may be too common to attribute direct influence. At a social event, our narrator meets ‘her’ — she is a singer, tall, slender, blonde, and blue-eyed, and he falls in love with her almost instantly. This is another turning point, because as the relationship progresses and he realizes he wants to marry her, he also realizes that his secret — that he is black — will have an impact on her life too if they want to be together. When they run into an old (and more obviously black) school friend of his (now a professor) at a museum, he fears his cover will be blown, but his friend doesn’t call him out, and the woman he loves seems quite impressed with this educated black man. This gives him hope, and he tells her his truth.

In Schuyler’s Black No More, Max Disher falls for a Teutonic blonde beauty and is rejected by her because he is black. Once he’s changed himself into a white man, and under a new name, this ex-colored man approaches her again and she accepts him as a partner. He decides not to tell her about his background. Instead, while they are together, he has to hope she won’t get pregnant because the color of the child would reveal his secret.

In Johnson, the ex-colored man levels with the woman he loves. She goes away for a whole summer, and he fears he has lost her, but in the end, her love for him is stronger than her fear of the social repercussions of being his wife. They marry and have two (fair) children before she dies. The ex-colored man keeps up his passing for white for the sake of their children, to safeguard them from the cruelty and injustice black people experience.

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“The Wish” by Theodore von Holst

Some other texts that deal with the concept of passing or of mixed heritage that you might find interesting are the Magazine Novels of Pauline Hopkins, which predate Johnson’s novel. I’ve written about them here: Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest, Of One Blood, and Hagar’s Daughter.

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About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

2 comments

  1. Fin

    This sounds like a really interesting read. Thank you for sharing your review!

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