Intertextual links: reading Uncle Tom's Cabin in James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.
A range of critics have convincingly identified how James Weldon Johnson's 1912 novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is reminiscent of its literary predecessors, particularly the slave narrative. For example, the young narrator's journey from Georgia to Connecticut, the white father's gift of a coin as the boy and his mother are sent north, and the fact that the narrator never gives his name all invite readers to see close parallels to fugitive slaves' escape to the North, to their experiences of being bought and sold, and to the practice of remaining secretive about names and locations.' Although the novel indeed "operates along several discursive lines, including ... signifying riffs on conventions from the book's literary ancestors" (Andrade 2006, 257), very few readers have considered the scope and significance of Johnson's reference to a major best-selling literary predecessor that is named in Johnson's novel: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabinjohnson's explicit reference to Stowe's 1852 text early in the narrative solicits a reading of the intertextuality at work within his novel. In particular, I argue that the references to Stowe's novel in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man expose the historical challenges faced by biracial men of the early twentieth century, whose lives continued to be shadowed by the legacy of slavery. Johnson's allusions to specific characters and narrative choices found in Stowe's novel shed significant light on the racial and sexual ideologies that persisted in his own era.
Readers cannot miss the explicit reference to Uncle Tom's Cabin as Johnson's novel begins, for it furnishes the protagonist with lessons about his newly-discovered identity. At the start of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the unnamed narrator explains that he never knew he was anything other than a white boy until a teacher revealed his biracial identity in grammar school. By the time he is twelve, the narrator has begun to read books to fill in the blanks about his African American history. He explains that he first looked to the history books, but "the story was told in such a condensed and skipping style" that he could not gain any real understanding. In a library, however, he discovered Uncle Tom's Cabin and it "cleared the whole mystery" (Johnson 1990, 28). He says that the novel "was a fair and truthful panorama of slavery," and states that "it opened my eyes as to who and what I was and what my country considered me; in fact, it gave me my bearing" (29). In these terms, the narrator makes clear that Stowe's novel informs him about his identity as an African American and his place within the nation.
Though the boy's evaluation of Stowe's novel is sincere, critics see the reference to Uncle Tom's Cabin as one more example of Johnson's irony. Specifically, it is often noted that the ex-colored man's early training in how to be black comes from a work of fiction by a white woman. Thus, the narrator's encounter with Stowe's novel reveals his identification with white definitions of blackness. Martin Japtok argues the boy's identification with Uncle Tom's Cabin "is likely only to deepen his tendency to see blackness through white eyes" throughout the remainder of the book (1996, 36). Roxanna Pisiak concludes that after he reads the novel, the young narrator "wants desperately to comply with the cultural codes (whether they are enforced by the legal system or [by Uncle Tom's Cabin])" (1997, 106). Critics also see the narrator's identification with Stowe as a predictor of his aloofness from lower-class African Americans and his admiration for "those characters--such as Eliza and George [two characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin}--who are closest to Anglo-Saxon norms in speech patterns, values, education, and looks" (Japtok 1996, 36). In essence, his enlightening experience reading Uncle Tom's Cabin is seen as setting the stage for the racial and class prejudices found within his later choices and observations about blacks and whites.
Indeed, these ironies exist. However, I read Johnson's deployment of Uncle Tom's Cabin within his own novel as also involving a sincere representation, as opposed to being a purely ironic moment. I believe that Johnson found truths in Stowe's panorama of slavery, and her depiction of particular characters resonated in his own time and place. No doubt there is irony; however, the boy's life reflects Stowe's novel in significant ways. In particular, Johnson's narrator echoes Uncle Tom and the biracial character, Adolph, in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Like Stowe's characters, Johnson's narrator finds himself in the grip of white paternalism. And like Stowe, Johnson polices a biracial character who tries to be seen as white. In the following, I illustrate how The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man makes allusions to Stowe's novel that are not simply ironic, but which expose how the legacy of white paternalism remained influential in the lives of twentieth-century African American men. Furthermore, the intertextual comparison of male biracial characters reveals that Johnson narratively polices his narrator in much the same way Stowe polices her biracial character, Adolph. The two authors' similar choices reveal how racial and sexual cultural ideologies from the nineteenth century remained embedded within Johnson's era.
My argument is that Johnson utilizes Uncle Tom's Cabin not simply for the sake of irony, but also for its explicative force. As evidence, consider the boy's pointed choice when researching his African American origins. Rather than believing what he reads in a history book about slavery, the boy reads and praises Stowe's novel. Johnson was likely aware that in the early twentieth century, history books often claimed that the Civil War was not the result of unjust enslavement, but was rather a violent reaction against the unfair economic conditions of white people. (2) History as it was recorded gives the boy a very limited reading of the past lives of African Americans. And just as significantly, Johnson has the narrator read the novel, rather than experience the novel through the route that was more common at the time, namely in the theatre. By the end of the nineteenth century, many Americans were more familiar with the stage productions of the novel than the novel itself. By t902, according to one reviewer, "one in every thirty-five inhabitants of the total population" of the United States would see a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin on the stage somewhere throughout the country (Gossett 1985, 371). However, the dramatic versions of Stowe's novel failed to highlight nearly all of her attempts to garner sympathy for African Americans and convey an abolitionist message. In his study of stage performances and reviews of the play from the turn of the century, Thomas F. Gossett offers evidence "that the play did not cause audiences to reflect on the meaning of slavery or on the role of the free black in society" (1985, 376), in part because it "frequently pandered to popular taste (so) that its antislavery theme was weakened and its black characters became increasingly stereotyped" (367). Even though more people would have been familiar with the bowdlerized version of the novel as it appeared on stage, _Johnson makes the distinctive choice to have his narrator read the novel itself.
Johnson's choice of Stowe's novel, rather than the various dramatic versions of the novel or the prevalent historical accounts, suggests the relevance of Stowe's novel at this time. Whether or not Johnson consciously relied on characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin in developing his narrator, he was concerned about the integrity of the original novel and the way contemporary plays scripted racist parodies that misrepresented Stowe's depictions of slavery. Though there is no mention of Uncle Tom's Cabin in Johnson's real autobiography, Along This Way (1933), he wrote an editorial in the New York Age, published two years after The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. In "Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Clansman," Johnson expresses concern about a recent dramatic production of Stowe's novel. Johnson observes that the performance was retitled "Old Plantation Days,' [that] the offensive parts were expurgated, [that] Simon Legree was transfigured into a sort of benevolent patriarch, [and that) Uncle Tom was made into a happy old darkey who greatly enjoyed being a slave and who ultimately died of too much good treatment" (1995, 12). Johnson is clearly troubled by contemporary drama's revision of Stowe's representations of the cruelty of slavery; he goes on in the editorial to lament that such a production "was no doubt a great success and offended nobody's sensibilities" (12). Such productions were becoming more and more common in Johnson's time, largely because post-Reconstruction audiences likely preferred a version that overlooked Stowe's representations of the extreme hardships of slaves and the moral corruption of Southern slave owners. (3) Johnson's novel, however, exemplifies many of the realities depicted in Stowe's novel. Even though a work of fiction, Uncle Tom's Cabin provides an important intertextual frame for Johnson in plotting the narrator's life.
Strikingly, in both novels the coin necklace holds similar significance for Uncle Tom and for Johnson's narrator. The narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man describes the origins of his ten-dollar gold coin necklace as he begins the novel recounting his earliest childhood memories. Though the narrator remembers only bits and pieces about his white father, he recalls that before he left for the North, his father drilled a hole in a gold coin and tied it around his neck with a string. Later we learn that he and his mother moved away from his white father in Georgia when he was very young. His mother's illicit affair while working for his father's family apparently prompted their flight from the south, but the narrator recounts that he has "worn that gold piece around my neck the greater part of my life, and still possess[es] it" (Johnson 1990, 3). This gold-piece necklace is a direct allusion to the coin that Uncle Tom wears around his neck when Mr. Shelby sells him off to a new owner in Stowe's novel.
Just as Johnson's narrator dons a coin necklace as he leaves his home, Stowe's Uncle Tom receives a similar gift after he is sold and carried away from his home. As Tom is taken away in a cart, George, Mr. Shelby's son, jumps into the cart and tearfully ties a dollar coin around Tom's neck with a string. He tells Tom that he put the coin there so that each time Tom looks at it, he'll "remember ... that [George will) come down after you, and bring you back" (Stowe 1998, 106). Some critics have noticed the coin's presence in Johnson's novel, and have outlined how the coin indicates "the chain of neoslavery" (Sundquist 1992, 18) and the infliction of a philosophy of materialism that would guide the narrator's life throughout (Japtok 1996, 40; Goellnicht 1997, 123). (4) However, what remains unexplored is how the tie to his white father launches a lifetime of attraction to white manhood, a tie that echoes Uncle Tom's tie to his white master. While his white father leads the narrator to make economically minded choices in his life as critics contend, he also represents a paternal presence that consistently influences the narrator's self-definition.
The subtle power that the boy's white father has over him is foregrounded as the narrator approaches adolescence. Up until this point in the narrative, when the narrator is twelve, he has had no contact with his white father and only vague memories of his presence when he was a boy. Like the history books that told a spotty, selective, and abbreviated version of African American history, the narrator's memory of his own past and father are equally spotty. He has only "a faint recollection of the place of [his) birth" (Johnson 1990, 2), and is only able to recall a white stranger whom he remembers most for his shoes and the coin necklace. One day, however, the narrator is surprised by a visit from his father. The way he describes his father and the occurrences of that day begin to reveal the foundations for the narrator's future identification with white manhood.
On the same day the twelve-year-old narrator meets his father, Johnson creates an important coincidence that reveals the power the boy's father holds over his identity. When the boy meets his father for the first time, he puzzles over what his father means to him. He says that he "ran over the whole list of fathers 1 had become acquainted with in my reading, but I could not classify him" (Johnson 1990, 24-25). He claims his father "was not different from me" but that did not diminish the "mystery" that surrounded him (25). Clearly, he is pulled toward identification with his father, for he claims he "was not different from me." Yet, since the boy is having such a difficult time classifying himself as a biracial boy, he has a hard time articulating the meaning of his father as well.
In the next scene, this "mystery" becomes conflated with the boy's own sexual mysteries. After meeting his father, the narrator leaves home to rehearse a musical number with a female musician. He is excited to be with her because she is his "first love" (Johnson 1990, 20), and he articulates those moments of love as "the budding dawn of manhood" (25), an experience he describes as "still shadowy and mystical enough to be intangible" (26). When he returns home, his father has gone, but his mother assures him that his father is "going to make a great man of [him]" (26), a promise she repeats in the next chapter (30). Here we see the early influence that the narrator's father is to have on his identity.
The narrator confesses his feelings of true love for a girl on the very day his father visits and promises to make a man out of him. He describes his infatuation with this girl as a "shadowy" and "mystical" experience, words akin to his description of his father. Thus, his first romantic attachment merges with his white father's promise to make him into a man. When his mother tells the narrator that his father has promised to make a man of him, her words finish off a day truly illustrative of the "budding dawn of manhood." However, it may not be a manhood of his own making, for his father is the one who claims and asserts the power to do so. Like Uncle Tom, who is rendered passive by the financial whims of paternalistic white males, so too is the narrator pressured to passively await the white father to fulfill the promise of manhood. In essence, both men are tethered to white males. So when the narrator picks up Uncle Tom's Cabin, he is already seeing its truth being played out in his life. His immediate world may be different than Uncle Tom's, but his situation is not.
The narrator, however, never expresses disappointment or rebellion against his passive role in his relationship to his father, because it is associated with both the "bliss and fear" (Johnson 1990, 21) of his new love, and with the promise of white manhood extended to him by his father. In the narrator's mind, the "bliss and fear" of white manhood is far preferable to the black manhood the narrator had assumed was to be his reality. The narrator characterizes his discovery that he is black by comparing the experience to "my first spanking" (13). The narrator believes that seeing the world as an African American may have given him his bearings as a boy, but rather than it being a nourishing truth, he characterizes it as punishment. He indicates here that his realization of his black identity is comparable to a child's punishment by a parent, whereas the reality of his white father holds the mysterious promise to reward him with white manhood. Furthermore, he claims that learning he is black was not only punishing, but tragic as well; he had to "take his outlook on all things ... from the viewpoint of a colored man," a necessity he describes as one of "the tragedies of life" (14). The narrator, who once saw himself as white when he was a young boy, now believes he must hereafter see the world from the viewpoint of an African American, a tragedy in his life. Such a 'tragedy' traces back to the character of Uncle Tom and his sale; Tom sees himself as part of the white Shelby family until he is tragically reminded of his slave status when he gets sold away. Both Uncle Tom's reality and the narrator's outlook are presented as tragic.
The narrator's tie to his father causes him to perceive one of his central challenges: to be black is to be punished for wrongdoing, while to be white is to feel stirrings of love and the promise of manhood. The former racial identity is 'tragic,' while the latter holds the promise of the mysteries of manhood. The coin, his encounters with his father, and a love interest all set in motion a journey to manhood that would prove the chain around his neck to be as oppressive as the one around Uncle Tom's.
While critics have referred to the allusion to Uncle Tom in Johnson's novel, they rarely take seriously the fact that the narrator describes Stowe's novel as "a fair and truthful panorama of slavery" (Johnson 1990, 29), and not just a better understanding of Tom's troubles. Indeed, the narrator affirms that Stowe's novel "opened my eyes as to who and what I was and what my country considered me; in fact, it gave me my bearing" (29). Critics assume that the presence of the coin motif signals that the narrator follows a path reminiscent of Uncle Tom only, but have not made much sense of the fact that the narrator is quite different from the image of Tom. Specifically, the narrator is biracial and eventually passes as white in order to enjoy a bourgeois life of economic security in the North. Uncle Tom is a dark-skinned African American man held in bondage from the beginning to the end of the novel, when he is killed; he is described by Stowe as "a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man, of a full glossy black, and a face [with] truly African features" (1998, 27). This depiction does not resemble Johnson's narrator, an "ivory"-skinned "ex-colored" man (1990, who likens his manners, dress, and classical piano skills to a "perfect little aristocrat" (4). Unlike Uncle Tom, the narrator later moves to the North and writes his autobiography as an economically independent widower with children.
If we are examining the allusions to Stowe's novel in order to trace how racial and sexual cultural ideologies concerning biracial men in particular emerge in the twentieth century, then the "ex-colored man" might also be seen as a kind of reformulation of another character in addition to Tom, namely, the aristocratic, light-skinned slave Adolph. Not only does the narrator share character traits with Adolph, but Johnson polices his narrator in ways that are similar to Stowe. Specifically, Johnson and Stowe make politically charged narrative choices concerning the sexuality and fate of his narrator and Adolph respectively. Though these choices are not guided by the same motivations, they do have the same effect: Stowe's and Johnson's narrative choices restrict, even punish, biracial men who try to pass as white. Specifically, it is insinuated that the narrator and Adolph are effeminate, even homosexual; their relationships with whites are severed; and their futures are immersed in misery. The reasons are different for their narrative punishment, but the similar effects are remarkable for the way sexuality is implicated in the punishment for attempting to pass.
The first point of comparison between Adolph and the narrator is that they share similar duties. Adolph is Augustine St. Clare's closest house servant in Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the narrator in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man has a similar occupation: he is responsible for entertaining a white millionaire who takes the narrator to Europe with him. Both characters strive in their positions to be like their white bosses, but it becomes clear that Stowe and Johnson police this behavior by feminizing them, and eventually by severing their relationship to their owner and patron respectively. We are first introduced to Adolph's mimicry of his owner in Uncle Tom's Cabin as he fusses over the arrival of his white master, Augustine St. Clare. Stowe satirically shows Adolph performing as an effeminate aristocrat, a caricature of St. Clare; the slave is "a highly-dressed young mulatto man, evidently a very distingue personage, attired in the ultra extreme of the mode, and gracefully waving a scented cambric handkerchief" (Stowe 1998, 170). The amiable St. Clare jokes with Adolph about his silk vest that Adolph apparently took from St. Clare's closet (170). Adolph even clothes himself in St. Clare's habits. While St. Clare "was indolent and careless of money," Adolph "was, to the full, as careless and extravagant as his master" (210). The wearing of the master's vest parallels the mimicry of the master's personality; thus Adolph is daring to mimic the power and prestige of St. Clare's white, aristocratic identity.
Stowe implies that such mimicry is related to effeminacy, as evidenced by Adolph's extravagant dress and penchant for waving his scented handkerchiefs like his master. As Michael Borgstrom asserts, Adolph "mimics the attitudes of his white masters ... and, perhaps most compelling--because so often unremarked--he adopts strikingly effeminate postures" (2003, 1292). As an 'effeminate' mulatto performing as a white aristocrat, Adolph attempts a kind of border crossing between race, class, and gender, a variety of cultural lines. (5) Stowe's light-hearted, mocking tone in describing Adolph's attempts to cross those lines exposes her racial and class prejudices. In the terms of the text, Adolph is the 'uppity' servant who thinks he is better than his fellow slaves because he sees himself as an aristocratic white man. Stowe polices this behavior by mockingly portraying Adolph as 'effeminate' through behaviors that are clearly meant to be amusing to her readers. As Adolph's story proceeds, he is punished with a reminder of his lowly slave status and his blackness.
Stowe separates St. Clare and Adolph from one another when she kills off St. Clare and sends Adolph to the auction block. Perhaps as narrative punishment for allowing Adolph to mimic him, St. Clare is killed during a phallic knife fight with another man (Stowe 1998, 325), and Adolph is consigned to be sold. Prohibited from further attempts at boundary crossing, Adolph confronts the fate of the "tragic mulatto" (6) who suffers punishment for seeing himself as white. Even the scene at the slave auction continues the mockery of Adolph's effeminacy and mimicry of a white aristocrat. His fellow male slaves at the auction scoff at his "airs and graces" and his effeminate smell: "0, Lor! He'd do for a tobaccer-shop; they could keep him to scent snuff!" (336). The slaves belittle Adolph by reminding him of his true status when they tell him "they's gwine to trade ye off with a lot o'cracked tea-pots" (337). Adolph's mimicry of whiteness and the corresponding effeminacy attached to this performance will never give him agency because, Stowe suggests, his blackness will "break" him like the "cracked tea pots" sold along with him, tea pots that once served as an indicator of respectability. Regardless of how hard Adolph tries, slavery will always enforce his blackness and corresponding powerlessness. Limited by her own prejudices about race and gender, Stowe ensures that St. Clare and Adolph do not remain together, and Adolph remains cognizant of his inferior status.
Though Johnson does not apply a mocking tone to the relationship between the narrator and his white patron in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. he chooses a narrative strategy similar to Stowe's by eventually punishing the two men for their sexual and racial border crossings. Like Adolph, the narrator in Johnson's novel is portrayed as effeminate when he is attracted to the white man he serves. In fact, the effeminacy of his youth and his attachment to whites foreshadow the homoerotic relationship with his white millionaire patron. His relationship with the unnamed millionaire begins when the millionaire hires the narrator to play piano (7) for his guests at his home in New York City, and eventually invites the narrator to accompany him to Europe and play for him there as well. During their travels, the narrator's appearance and experiences mimic the tastes and appearance of his white patron. (8) His patron buys the narrator "the same kind of clothes which he himself wore, and that was the best" (Johnson 1990, 95), and the narrator becomes an aficionado of French and English culture just like his boss. The two men are on such familiar terms that the patron evidently feels comfortable returning late at night and awakening the narrator in his bed to request a song on the piano (96).
By the end of his time with the patron, when the narrator decides to return to the United States, he calls him "my millionaire" with whom "there had grown a very strong bond of affection," having been "made" into "a polished man of the world" (Johnson 1990, 104). The narrator leaves his patron because he believes that even though he can pass as white, which his patron has insisted he do (I05), he wants to make a living writing African American music as a black man. But the language Johnson uses before the narrator takes his leave makes it clear that the patron holds a great deal of attraction for the narrator; he says that not only was their "bond of affection" strong, but he was "the best friend I ever had, except my mother, the man who exerted the greatest influence ever brought into my life. ... My affection for him was so strong" (108). (9) The twice-mentioned strong "affection" for the white patron, then, is in retrospect the "greatest influence" in the narrator's life. The patron is the return of the white father, who promised to make a man out of him. By the end of the novel, Johnson shows that the attraction to white manhood never goes away.
In fact, looking back at the narrator's childhood, we find that his 'effeminate' tendencies were always tied to a white identity. By writing a novel about the entire life of a character who will choose to pass as white, Johnson provides early clues from the narrator's boyhood which illustrate that even as a youth, the narrator identifies with 'effeminate' aristocratic tendencies. At the stage in his life when he remained unaware that he had any African American blood, he describes himself as "a perfect little aristocrat" (Johnson 1990, 4). As such, he says he was always well-dressed and "particular" about his "associates." When he first attends public school (still unaware of his biracial identity), he is a bookish piano player and compares the wild boys around him to "savages" (6). Later he befriends a big red-headed white boy with whom he surmises a "simultaneous mutual attraction" (7); he helps this boy, nicknamed "Red," with his spelling problems under the assumption that Red will be a kind of bodyguard for the narrator (7-9). Though unarticulated, Johnson implies that when the narrator sees himself as white he imagines himself as more civilized, discerning, and attracted to white boys with power. In his descriptions of the narrator as a boy, Johnson hints at the inevitability of the narrator's attraction first to his white father, then to his white patron. Johnson implies the narrator has always been 'effeminate' when attracted to a white identity, which sets the stage for his fear of living as a black man at the end of the novel.
The narrator's final decision to pass as white occurs after he leaves his patron, and returns to the American South to cull material for musical compositions that incorporate African American forms and styles of musical expression. During the narrator's time in the South gathering material for these musical compositions he witnesses the murder of a black man, which profoundly influences his desire to pass as white. The way he characterizes his choice to pass as white punctuates his long history of passive acceptance of the power of white manhood, and his feelings about being black (10) illustrate that he has never let go of his feelings of shame for having a black heritage. While the narrator looks on from a mostly white crowd of people, an African American man is slowly murdered by being tied to a stake and burned alive. After viewing the horrific scene in silence, the narrator says that in a "dazed" state he sat and thought about two things: the "shame" he felt "belonging} to a race that could be so dealt with; and shame for my country, that it, the great example of democracy to the world, should be the only civilized, if not the only state on earth, where a human being would be burned alive" (Johnson 1990, 137). Like Adolph who is horrified that his blackness signifies his own subjugation and inferiority, the narrator sees the black body as shameful, signifying a subjugation no different than that of slavery. Witnessing the violence against a black man confirms the narrator's childhood belief that learning he was black was like a punishing spanking, which translates into the "shame" he feels for his black race when he sees someone die for the color of his skin. Having to choose "either the denial of his own history, on one hand, or the acceptance of an unjustifiable but undeniable economic and social subjugation, on the other" (Sheehy 1999, 401), the narrator decides to move to the North--and pass as white.
Significantly, Johnson suggests that the very strategy for passing as white sacrifices masculine assertiveness. The narrator's strategy to pass as white is to be passive. After he witnesses the murder of the African American man, he writes:
I finally made up my mind that I would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race; but that I would change my name, raise a mustache, and let the world take me for what it would; that it was not necessary for me to go about with a label of inferiority pasted across my forehead. (Johnson 1990, 139)
The narrator's volition is "couched in passivity, a refusal to declare himself one way or the other" (Kawash 1996, 71). He frames his racial passing as an act with no preference for either race ("I finally made up my mind that I would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race"), essentially promising to be passive about his racial identity. Even though he says he says he would "disclaim" neither race, the remainder of the passage indicates that he knows the consequence of such passivity is the end of his black self-identification, even admitting that shame is "driving him out of the Negro race" (Johnson 1990, 139). Though he says he is simply going to "let the world take me for what it would," he is perfectly aware of the words of his father, who promised to make a (white) man out of him, and of his one-time patron, who made him into a "polished man of the world" (Johnson 1990, 104) and once told him, "you are ... a white man" (Johnson 1990, 105). Passivity is his strategy for passing as white, and doing so stunts his growth as a man; "instead of allowing the possibility of growth through suffering," says Valerie Smith, "he chooses to avoid it" (1997, 99). Johnson's portrayal suggests that unconsciously, the narrator may be aware of the 'unmanliness' of his passing; perhaps as compensation, he vows to "raise a mustache" (Johnson 1990, 139), a distinctly masculine physical feature. (11) Later, such passivity and avoidance comes to define his new life as a white husband and father.
In John Sheehy's discussion of the passing novel and Johnson's narrator, he asserts that the narrator occupies aliminal space where he cannot locate "a workable identity," in part because he is "incapable of convincing himself that he is white" and is "unwilling to accept what follows from being black" (1999, 406). In these terms, the space portrayed by Johnson is not liminal; it is not a transitional space, but one established by Johnson from the beginning of the novel. According to this view, the narrator is hardly in a transitional space between white and black if he believes that he does not have to convince himself that he is white. He remains passive, as he has done throughout the novel, and to remain passive means to pass as white. Descriptions of his childhood and the homoerotic relationship with his patron foreshadow the narrator's passive acceptance of his white identity, a choice requiring neither courage nor assertiveness, qualities usually associated with masculinity. Thus, while Adolph's climactic tragedy is his recognition that everyone in his society sees him as a black man and a slave, Johnson suggests the narrator's tragedy is that he is not 'man enough' to assert his black identity.
While Adolph and the narrator both feel victimized by their African American identity, they also represent Stowe's and Johnson's vision of the future of biracial men who try to cross racial and sexual cultural boundaries. Stowe suggests that when a biracial man such as Adolph mimics whites in order to raise his status, he behaves 'effeminately,' loses the object of his admiration, and in turn, becomes an object of derision. Similarly, Johnson characterizes the narrator as effeminate and passive because he prefers to pass as white; consequentially, he cannot sustain a romantic relationship, and lives a life of remorse and regret after he chooses to pass as white. Comparing the characterization and fate of Stowe's Adolph and Johnson's narrator is provocative, in that they parallel a historical trajectory of cultural politics that simultaneously worked to define race and normative sexuality.
From the 1850s, when Stowe wrote and published her novel, to the early 1900s, Johnson's era, race and sexuality were in law and culture increasingly under surveillance. Siobhan B. Somerville explains how Plessy v. Ferguson fixed racial categories at the same time cultural authorities began to define homosexuality as a permanent "condition" rather than an isolated 'perverse' act (2000, 2). (12) Lines were drawn for African Americans and homosexuals alike. We see this beginning to play out in Stowe's novel. Adolph is biracial, adores his white master, and tries to perform as a white man; in doing so, he is portrayed as effeminate. He is punished when St. Clare is killed, and Adolph is mocked for his effeminacy and assured of his blackness by his sale at the auction block. Though Stowe was in favor of abolishing slavery, she polices Adolph, punishing him for overstepping culturally imposed sexual boundaries in his imitation of whiteness. With a thoroughly different understanding of "homosexuality" (for which there was not even a term in the 1850s), Stowe imposes punishment for nearly transgressing both racial and sexual cultural boundaries.
Likewise, the narrator in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is punished for his homoerotic relationship with a white patron and his attempt to pass as white. The homoerotic relationship with his patron would have been explicitly condemned by the twentieth century, (13) and Johnson's literary policing of their relationship resonates with the sexual and racial identity politics played out in the narrator's other relationships. (14) After the narrator expresses intense affection for his white patron as he leaves him and returns to the US, Johnson does not allow the narrator to sustain any further contact with his patron. We learn that the patron commits suicide several years after their relationship ends. (15) Like Stowe, Johnson kills off the white master/patron who indulges the narrator as his protege.
Johnson's policing goes even further by denying the narrator any successful romantic relationship with either men or women. For one, the narrator and his white patron go their separate ways, never to reunite upon the patron's suicide. Just as significant, the narrator cannot sustain his romantic relationships with women, particularly white women. Nearly every one of the narrator's heterosexual relationships ends with the woman's death, and it is no coincidence that all of these women, with the exception of his mother, and most notably his wife, are white. These female characters include a white wealthy widow, who is shot as the narrator sits with her in a club in Harlem, and his white wife, whom he marries at the end of the novel after passing as white. She dies while giving birth to their second child, having kept their own children's biracial identity a secret (along with the narrator). All of these women, as Somerville stresses, "are aborted in some way beyond the narrator's control, as if they must be expelled from the narrative" (2000, 122). (16) And all of these relationships abort the development of the narrator's sexual identity whenever he is culturally/racially passing as white. Neither of his two relationships with black women when he is passing as black results in their death; it is as if the narrator cannot be white and be in a sustainable relationship as he is culturally, if not textually, policed (as are the white women who are killed off). Johnson's narrative choices reveal that to admire whiteness and pass as white is to be effeminate, even homosexual, and incapable of romantic attachments. So while "segregation is rendered suspect by [the narrator's1 presence" and ability to pass, as Kathleen Pfeiffer asserts (2003, 62), Johnson is also implicitly denying interracial relationships in the deadly failures of the narrator's romantic forays as a way to punish the narrator for passing. While Johnson may not be arbitrarily disapproving of interracial relationships, (17) he is putting forth a biracial man who cannot maintain a relationship as long as he passes as white.
While Stowe's punishment of Adolph and St. Clare is a result of her own and her culture's racist prejudices, Johnson's policing likely arises from concerns in the early twentieth-century African American community about representations of black masculinity. As John Dudley explains, post-Reconstruction white America facilitated "the persistent and calculated 'feminization' of the black race and fear-driven negation of black manhood" (2004, 138). Black leaders found the "establishment of masculinity both exceedingly difficult and--paradoxically--necessary for leaders in the struggle for racial justice" (138). The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was written in the first decade of the twentieth century, during widespread lynching of black men (an issue in which Johnson was deeply involved). (18) African American men were compelled to eliminate the victimization and feminization of black men. Johnson's anxiety over black masculinity arises in his suggestion that biracial men should not choose to pass as white, for doing so degrades their masculinity and results in unsustainable romantic relationships. Biracial men who choose to embrace their black identity, Johnson implies, would never have to live with being 'un'-or-'ex'-manned, as his narrator must.
Ironically, when the narrator explains why and how he came to live as a white man, he again appears passive by claiming that he has little power over his own identity. In the opening pages of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the narrator explains why he wrote his story. He says he "feel[s] that [he is] led by the same impulse which forces the un-found-out criminal to take somebody into his confidence, although he knows that the act is likely, even almost certain, to lead to his undoing" (Johnson 1990, 1). His words are a criminal's confession, and since we are taken into his confidence by reading his tale, the reader is not just a listener but becomes part of his punishment: our listening may lead to his 'undoing.' The narrator bitterly realizes his identity is in the hands of those who police him as they judge/read him; he is once again made passive by the telling of his act of passing.
In fact, the narrator sees himself as a criminal in need of punishment: he says he feels "remorse, from which I am seeking relief" (Johnson 1990, 2). The narrator compares himself to a criminal because, much like the criminal Michel Foucault describes, the narrator puts forth a body (and its racial and sexual transgressions) to be judged and punished by his readers. Like the criminal confessions that Foucault examines, the narrator's admissions expose his body as "a political field [in which} power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs" (1995, 25). Ironically, by indicating here that he is in our hands to make of him what we wish, he exhibits passivity and alludes to his father's promise to make a man out of him. This time, however, he will not be made into a man; rather, he will be "undone"--not by his own decisions, but by ours.
The narrator's implied criminality is like the implied criminality of Adolph's acts of mimicry. Stowe implies that Adolph was trespassing on white property when he behaved and dressed like a white man, and his criminality is affirmed by his subsequent imprisonment at the slave auction. Stowe abruptly ends Adolph's passing practices, un-manning him so that he is a slave, not a man in the end.
Reading Uncle Torn and Johnson's narrator alongside one another exposes the long shadow that slavery cast on the twentieth century. Critics such as the famous activist writer James Baldwin have contended that Stowe's Torn is not only "robbed of his humanity," but he is also "divested of his sex" when he dies at the hands of the slaveholder Legree (quoted in Greven 2005, 154). Within the context of early-twentieth-century debates about black manhood, Johnson suggests his narrator in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is likewise un-manned by his own passivity and transgression of racial and sexual cultural boundaries, for he is both 'ex-colored' and 'ex-manned.' Stowe depicts an antebellum Uncle Tom as a slave tethered first by law and then by the dollar tied around his neck by his paternalistic former owner. Likewise, the coin necklace given to the narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by his father literally strings the narrator along, showing him the alluring mystery of white manhood. The narrator's intimate engagement with white paternalistic manhood is repeatedly represented as an act of passivity, even homosexuality, when men like the millionaire patronize his talents and have lasting effects on the narrator's preferred racial identity.
Comparing Johnson and Stowe's narrative choices for their biracial characters illustrates the trajectory of cultural politics involved in defining race and normative sexuality from the pre-Civil War years to the early twentieth century. Like Stowe's treatment of Adolph, Johnson punishes the narrator for transgressing racial and sexual cultural boundaries. While Stowe punishes Adolph by severing his relationship with his beloved white master and putting him on the slave block to be jeered by his peers for his effeminacy, Johnson ensures the narrator in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man fails in any romantic relationship with whites and is punished, even criminalized, for choosing to pass as white. Both authors are influenced by the same cultural politics concerning racial and sexual identity, but Johnson makes it clear that being black is the more masculine and admirable choice for a biracial man. (19) An intertextual reading of Johnson's and Stowe's novels exposes the legacy of the past and the enduring challenges faced by biracial men in the early twentieth century.
Andrade, Heather Russell. 2006. "Revising Critical Judgments of The Autobiography of Ex-Colored Man." African American Review. 40.2: 257-70.
Baker, Houston A. Jr., 1997. "A Forgotten Prototype: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Invisible Man." In Critical Essays on James Weldon Johnson, edited by K.M. Price and U. Oliver. New York: G.K. Hall.
Borgstrom, Michael. 2003. "Passing Over: Setting the Record Straight in Uncle Tom's Cabin." PMLA (October): 1290-1304.
Bullock, Penelope. 2000. "The Mulatto in American Fiction." In Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law, edited by Werner Sollars. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dudley, John. 2004. A Man's Game: Masculinity and the Anti-Aesthetics of American Literary Naturalism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
Foreman, P. Gabrielle. 1993. "'This Promiscuous Housekeeping': Death, Transgression, and Homoeroticism in Uncle Tom's Cabin." Representations 43 (Summer): 51-72.
Foucault, Michel. 1995. Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage.
Ginsberg, Elaine K. 1996. "Introduction." In Passing and the Fictions of Identity, edited by Elaine K. Ginsberg. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Goellnicht, Donald C. 1997. "Passing as Autobiography: James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man." In Critical Essays on James Weldon Johnson, edited by Kenneth M. Price and Lawrence J. Oliver. New York: G.K. Hall.
Goldsby, Jacqueline. 2006. A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gossett, Thomas F. 1985. Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press.
Greven, David. 2005. Men Beyond Desire: Manhood, Sex, and Violation in American Literature. New York: Palgrave.
Japtok, Martin. 1996. "Between 'Race' as Construct and 'Race' as Essence: The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man." Southern Literary Journal 28. 2 (Spring): 32-47.
Johnson, James Weldon. 2.008. Along This Way. New York: Penguin.
--.1990. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. New York: Penguin.
--.1995. "Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Clansman." In The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson Vol. I, ed. Sondra Kathryn Wilson. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kawash, Samira. 1996. "(Passing for) Black Passing for White." In Passingand the Fictions qt. Identity, edited by Elaine K. Ginsberg. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Pfeiffer, Kathleen. 2003. Race, Passing and American Individualism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Pisiak, Roxanne. 1997. "Irony and Subversion in James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography ofan Ex-Colored Man." In Critical Essays on James Weldon Johnson, edited by Kenneth M. Price and Lawrence J. Oliver. New York: G.K.Hall.
Raimon, Eve Allegra. 2004. The 'Tragic Mulatta' Revisited: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Antislavery Fiction. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Sheehy, John. 1999. "The Mirror and the Veil: The Passing Novel and the Quest for American Racial Identity." African American Review 33.3 (Fall): 401-16.
Smith, Valerie. 1997. "Privilege and Evasion in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man." In Critical Essays on James Weldon Johnson, edited by Kenneth M. Price and Lawrence J. Oliver. New York: G.K. Hall.
Sollors, Werner. 1997. Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.
Somerville, Siobhan B. 2000. Qrjeering the Color Line: Race and the Invention ofllomosexuality in American Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1998. Uncle Tom's Cabin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sundquist, Eric J. 1992. The Hammer of Creation: Folk Culture in Modern African-American Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Wald, Gayle. 2000. Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Wasburn, Leah H. 1997. "Accounts of Slavery: An Analysis of United States History Textbooks from 1900-1992." Theory and Research in Social Education 25.4 (Fall): 470-91.
(1.) See for instance, John Dudley's assertion that Johnson's novel "invites comparison with the slave narratives that constitute the foundation of African American literature, [particularly] Douglass's 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (2004, 165). For other discussions of these parallels between Johnson's novel and slave narratives, see Donald C. Goellnicht, who sees the white father's farewell gift of the gold coin as a parallel "to the auctioning off of the slave-owner's bastard children" (1997, in); Valerie Smith's characterization of the similar opening formats (1997, 92); and Kathleen Pfeiffer's assertion that the namelessness of the narrator highlights how "[t]he very act of speaking a 'master's' language brings with it recollections of the painful linguistic expropriation that slavery, an inescapable historical fact, can never avoid" (2003, 69).
(2.) By 1900, according to social historian Leah H. Wasburn, school history textbooks were asserting that "the injustices of the system [of slavery] could only be found in the wide differences in lifestyle between the slaveowner and the nonslaveowner, and in the inhumane treatment of indentured servants" (1997, 475).
(3.) Thomas F. Gossett quotes Cordelia Howard, an actress who once played little Eva in the 185os. She characterizes the changes in the play from the mid-nineteenth century to the twentieth: "'It kept its own for many years, and then gradually became so degraded, with its bloodhounds, donkeys, and double casts, that it has become really a burlesque and is the butt of all the critics' ridicule'" (1985, 372).
(4.) Smith asserts the coin is a way of "affix[ing] a financial value to his son: the necklace functions as a yoke or restraint by means of which he continues to exert his control" (1997, 93). Houston A. Baker Jr. describes the coin as "a symbol of the commercial transactions to which black Americans were prey during the days of American slavery" (1997, 33). There is irony upon irony as well in the presentation of the gold coin. Johnson's vision of a gold coin would probably have resembled the gold coins minted in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and early-twentieth century. These gold coins typically pictured Lady Liberty or a Native American on one side and an eagle on the other. Both images of course convey the irony; the boy's restricted liberty is symbolized by two emblems of the United States, one of which represents natives nearly exterminated by American notions of freedom.
(5.) Though Adolph is not passing, he clearly behaves as if he would like to do so. While Werner Sollors acknowledges that the term "passing" most often suggests a "'crossing over' the color line in the United States from the black to the white side," he explains that passing can also simply denote "the crossing of any line that divides social groups" (1997, 247). Adolph's behavior suggests his desire to cross the line between slave and master in order to be part of the social group in power--white landowners like St. Clare. A great deal of scholarship exists concerning the history and definitions of passing in American literature and culture. For instance, see Elaine Ginsberg's Passing and the Fictions of dentity (1996) and Gayle Wald's Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century US Literature (2000).
(6.) In light of the portrayal of Adolph as effeminate, it is ironic that Borgstrom asserts that Adolph "most closely resembles ... the tragic mulatto" when he is brought to sale, a common literary type traditionally associated with biracial women (2003, 1297). The tragic mulatto depicted in stories about slavery usually experiences "privileges and opportunities" as a result of her light skin, but such advantages are typically "short-lived" (Bullock 2000, 281). After the Civil 'War, tragic mulatto tales evolved into stories of racial passing, particularly stories of "respectable" biracial women who are caught passing as white, or pass as black after much struggle. For instance, see Eve Allegra Raimon's chapter on Our Nig in The "Tragic Mulatta" Revisited (2004, 120-145).
(7.) The connection between the white father and white patron is symbolized by the piano. The narrator plays piano at the service of his patron, and earlier in the novel, he plays piano for his father when he visits the boy for the first time. After the narrator's father leaves, he sends a piano to the boy as a gift.
(8.) Johnson applies the characteristics of an antebellum master/indulged slave relationship like that of Adolph and St. Clare to the growing patron/artist relationship increasingly evident in the years leading up to and including the Harlem Renaissance. Both Adolph and the narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man are asked to perform in such a way that meets with their master/patron's approval, much like the patronage system (and minstrelsy) with which Johnson himself was familiar. Johnson was very familiar with the white patronage system particularly in the music world, "having worked with his brother Rosamond and their partner Bob Cole composing 'coon songs' on Broadway" (Dudley 2004, 168).
(9.) Somerville says that there is "an implicit analogy between the narrator's relationship with the patron and his mother's relationship with his father: both echo the figure of the slave mistress, who is given a minimal amount of financial and material security in exchange for her sexual service to the white master" (2000, 119).
(10.) I am aware of how fraught these terms are, and that to assume one can choose to 'be' a particular race or ethnicity works against contemporary identity theorists who deny essentialist definitions of race and ethnicity. I am not asserting he 'becomes' one race or another; I am merely reiterating Johnson's representation of the pressure on a biracial man to choose a racial identity in the twentieth century.
(11.) I agree with Roxanna Pisiak, however, who stresses the fact that "His passing is not a conscious strategy, but a consequence of his own silence and passivity and of how others regard him" (1997, 109). The narrator is choosing to be white, but not consciously; his passivity acts as cover for what he unconsciously desires.
(12.) Somerville refers to Foucault's History of Sexuality and his succinct depiction of the transition: "The sodomite had been a temporary aberration, the homosexual was now a species" (quoted in Somerville 2000, 3).
(13.) Somerville begins her study illustrating the cultural criminalization of the famous end-of-century cases of Alice Mitchell (convicted of murdering her lover, Freda Ward) and Oscar Wilde against whom "more than nine hundred sermons were preached ... in churches in the United States" (2000, 2).
(14.) Gender and race are often difficult to separate in the analysis of cultural identity surveillance. As Ginsberg suggests, "gender, in the arbitrariness of its cultural prescriptions, is a trope of difference that shares with race (especially in the context of black/white passing) a similar structure of identity categories whose enactments and boundaries are culturally policed" (1996,13).
(15.) The narrator says, "As I remember him now, I can see that time was what he was always endeavoring to escape, to bridge over, to blot out; and it is not strange that some years later he did escape it forever, by leaping into eternity" (Johnson 1990,104).
(16.) It is striking to note the way literary critics have asserted similar interpretations of the deaths in Uncle Tom's Cabin. As P. Gabrielle Foreman (1993) argues in "'This Promiscuous Housekeeping': Death, Transgression, and Homoeroticism in Uncle Tom's Cabin," nearly all the deaths in Stowe's novel, including those of Tom, Eva, Mr. Shelby, and Augustine St. Clare hint at some kind of abortion, however tragic, of sexual transgression.
(17.) Though I do not think Johnson is condemning the notion of interracial relationships across the board, he did seem to hold an opinion about them. At the end of his autobiography when he comments on the state of the African American, he says he is often asked if he is "in favor of amalgamation." He says that his primary hope is that "the Negro would retain his racial identity ... [yet] it seems probable that, instead of developing them independently to the utmost, the Negro will fuse his qualities with those of the other groups in the making of the ultimate American people, ... My hope is that in the process the Negro will be not merely sucked up but, through his own advancement and development, will go in on a basis of equal partnership" (Johnson 2008,411-12).
(18.) See chapter four of Jacqueline Goldsby's study (2006) of lynching in American literature and culture for an exceptional rendering of the ties between Johnson's personal experiences and activism as the first black leader of the NAACP and his representation of lynching in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.
(19.) The narrator's wrong path is confirmed in Johnson's autobiography, when he recounts being asked by a white man what he wouldn't give to have been born white. After mulling it over, he arrived at the conclusion that while "all of us have at some time toyed with the Arabian Nights-like thought to be anyone but myself[,] to conceive of myself as someone else is impossible, and the effort is repugnant" (2008,136).
ROBIN MISKOLCZE is Associate Professor of English at Loyola Marymount University. She is the author of Women and Children First: Nineteenth-Century Sea Narratives and American Identity (2008).
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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