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A Negro's Chance: Ontological Luck in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.

Just why exactly does the narrator at the end of James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man feel that he has been a coward, a deserter 53) in having decided finally to pass for white? From a certain perspective, the ex-colored man's decision is anything but unreasonable, and no cause for self-censure. As a white man, he of course has access to opportunities (financial as well as social) otherwise prohibited him as a black man, but even more fundamentally, and more importantly, he does not have to face the very real dangers of being black in the America he describes: prejudice, discrimination, violence. His decision to pass comes immediately after witnessing the horrors of a lynching--surely his desire to make himself (and, crucially, his children) immune from such a fate is perfectly understandable. (1) As he himself asserts, "Nor is it any more a sacrifice of self-respect that a black man should give his children every advantage he can which complexion of the skin carries than that the new and vulgar rich should purchase for their children the advantages which ancestry, aristocracy, and social position carry" (114). Yet, despite these good and justifiable reasons, based in an understandable self-and-family-interest, the ex-colored man nonetheless feels, in the novel's last lines, that, "after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage" (154). Should he feel this way?

My title comes from a letter Johnson received from a friend who was hoping to argue the young Johnson out of his plan to abandon a promising teaching career in Jacksonville to pursue a much less-certain career as a songwriter in New York. Johnson recounts, in Along this Way (1933), the words of the letter writer: "What's the matter with you, thinking of giving up a life position to take a chance, and a Negro's chance, at writing music in New York? Have you gone crazy?" (189). In what follows, I want to explore what is behind the letter writer's insistence that Johnson was taking "a Negro's chance," and further, why it is important, in the context of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, that it be "a Negro's chance," and not just simply a chance. Fundamental to understanding the notion of "a Negro's chance," and the ex-colored man's regret, is the vital connection between luck and identity.

I will thus not be focusing here on the compelling but familiar thesis that this novel, and other novels of passing, upset or subvert racial divisions (and hierarchies) by exposing the arbitrary nature of racial categorization. (2) I wish rather to focus on the particular moment of regret that the ex-colored man expresses at the end of the novel, for it is important to recognize that in spite of the novel's exposure of the obviously artificial nature of racial classification, his racial loyalty nevertheless persists, if in nothing else but exactly this expression of remorse. Even though he recognizes that he is only arbitrarily defined as black, and that contemporary racial classifications have basis in neither logic nor reality, the ex-colored man still feels bad that he passes. Why must this be the case? Why, if one is involuntarily subjected to what one recognizes to be a fundamentally arbitrary system, would one feel bad about "breaking the rules" of that system? As I will argue, the causes and sources of the ex-colored man's remorse lies in the relationship between contingency, identity, and moral evaluation. (3) At the heart of the ex-colored man's justifications is his claim that, since his racial categorization is merely a contingent component of his self-description, a component whose arbitrary nature is exposed by the very fact that he can freely pass into and out of it, race is not an essential part of his identity--it does not touch on the deeper truth of what or who he "really is." Against these claims of his, I will argue that the ex-colored man's ultimate remorse stems from the fact that his racial categorization does persist as an essential component of his identity, and persists precisely because of its contingent quality. By bringing into the discussion of The Autobiography the philosophy of moral identity, as especially articulated in the too-often ignored Anglo-American tradition, I hope to show that luck and contingency are not just a tangential influence on, but instead are the crucial framework of, personhood and self-identity. (4) It is precisely because the ex-colored man denies his contingencies that he feels remorse, shame, and a sense of being incomplete. The novel thus endorses a view of what we may call "ontological luck"--the luck of one's given "being," in terms of the contingently given (or acquired) elements that nevertheless constitute the essence of one's being.

This is my reading of the novel, and not, of course, the ex-colored man's reading of his own story. Far from it: the ex-colored man in fact sees luck in a decidedly different way. Rather than ontologically, he sees luck epistemically, in that for him luck only reveals and does not constitute one's essential being. In order to accomplish this revision, the ex-colored man exploits the structural tendencies of his narrative to transform ontological luck into epistemic luck by retroactively reformulating the events of his life not as contingent experiences that form his identity, but instead as lucky occurrences that simply help him "truly" to see and understand his "real" identity. In a novel full of disguise and dissimulation, ontological luck, as it were, "passes" as epistemic luck.

In her essay investigating the psychic ramifications of passing, Kathleen Pfeiffer argues that Johnson in his novel proposes a psychic national unity based neither on racial opposition nor on sustaining the power of white rule, but on a mutual collective recognition of the artificiality of racial distinctions," and that the ex-colored man's ability to move between races "challenges race's role in cultural identity" by shifting the source of identity from the group to the individual (405). A large point of the novel, argues Pfeiffer, is the success the ex-colored man has in transcending racial roles and stereotypes, in his "idiosyncratic, undisciplined" and improvisational attitude to identity, and in forging and claiming his own unique individuality despite the social demands for categories and classifications (403). She writes, "For years, critics have sought a racially loyal agenda from James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and have, as a result, restricted the text. In fact, Johnson's novel celebrates the individual; its whole mission is to expose the narrow demands of group loyalty, particularly when the group is arbitrarily, if not artificially defined. The power of the individual, as opposed to the group, to affect change, ought not to be underestimated" (406). Pfeiffer's argument is an attractive reading of the novel, especially in that much of what the ex-colored man says about himself seems to confirm it. When he first discovers he is black, he is upset not because of anything inherent in what it means to be black, but because he is now seen only in terms of his being black. Before learning his "true" race, he explains, "I had had no particular like or dislike for these black and brown boys and girls"--instead, the true problem of being black for him is that, "when the blow [of discovering his race] fell, I had a very strong aversion to being classed with them" (15; italics added). The real problem is that he no longer has the freedom to see himself, or to be seen by others, as an individual, but instead only as a member of a certain community. Being black impinges his individuality, both in the eyes of the community and his own, for, from the moment he learns of his racial heritage, "I looked out through other eyes, my thoughts were colored, my words dictated, my actions limited by one dominating, all-pervading idea which constantly increased in force and weight until I finally realized in it a great, tangible fact.... He [i.e., the black man in America] is forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man, or even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man" (14). The ex-colored man's actions are restricted by what he sees as an artificial and arbitrarily imposed category which hampers access to and expression of his true, individual self.

Philip Roth's much later novel of passing, The Human Stain, explores this same struggle of the individual identity against the confinements of categorization. Coleman Silk imagines how be would explain to his white girlfriend (and himself, in the process) his good, justified reasons for having abandoned the black race: be would "ask her to understand how he could not allow his prospects to be unjustly limited by so arbitrary a designation as race. If she was calm enough to hear him out, he was sure he could make her see why he had chosen to take the future into his own hands rather than to leave it to an unenlightened society to determine his fate" (120). For Silk, passing becomes an assertion of freedom: "only through this test can he be the man he has chosen to be, unalterably separated from what be was handed at birth, free to struggle at being free like any human being would wish to be free. To get that from life, the alternate destiny, on one's own terms, he must do what must be done" (139). The ex-colored man decides to pass for the sake of this same kind of freedom--the freedom of having a self unhampered in its expression by arbitrary racial classifications, and the freedom to describe one's self and explain one's life "on one's own terms," from "the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man, or even a human being."

In this way, then, it seems that Pfeiffer's argument is accurate, and that The Autobiography militates against smothering the individual in the aggregate that racial categories require. However, if the ex-colored man does indeed reject racial classification in favor of the individual, why should he be, at novel's end, ashamed of his choice? Why would one have cause to regret a choice one believes is right? As the ex-colored man's persistent shame suggests, there is, despite its ambiguity, a deeper significance to racial classification than Pfeiffer allows--a significance that continues to influence the ex-colored man despite all his admirable efforts to argue himself out of it. If, as Pfeiffer claims, the novel argues for the importance of the assertion of individualism in the midst of the group, it also argues for the fact that without the group, the individual is meaningless. This is no less true if the group is arbitrarily assigned; indeed, I will argue that it is quite the opposite: one's identity is fully and authoritatively established only when one embraces, and not when one denies, one's contingencies.

To begin my argument for this deep connection between contingency and identity in the novel, I want to turn momentarily away from The Autobiography back to Along this Way. Johnson recalls a scene from his early days as a schoolteacher in Jacksonville. One day, while taking his bicycle to a repair shop, Johnson falls into conversation with several white men, only some of whom he knows. "Because of" his presence, he writes, the conversation shifts as always to the "race question," and, while he is expressing some of his opinions, he is "interrupted by a nondescript fellow, who remarked with a superb sneer, 'What wouldn't you give to be a white man?' The remark," writes Johnson, "hit me between the eyes" (135). Johnson describes how he had at the moment quick-wittedly replied that he would not want to be "the kind of white man" his questioner was since he would "lose too much by the change" (135). Johnson, however, goes on to admit that the question had stuck:
 Yet, I was disturbed; and I thought: I must go over this question
 with myself; I must go down to its roots; drag it up out of my
 subconsciousness, it possible, and give myself the absolutely true
 answer. I made a sincere effort to do this. I watched myself closely
 tried to analyze my motives, words, actions, and reactions. The
 conviction I always arrived at was that the answer I gave the young
 in the bicycle shop was the true one. (136) 

The conclusion that Johnson arrives at is startling in its singular simplicity: "I find that I do not wish to be anyone but myself. To conceive of myself as someone else is impossible, the effort repugnant" (136). What is of interest here is that Johnson sees the question in precisely this way--that to conceive of himself as a "white man" is to conceive of himself as "someone else." In his self-analysis, Johnson is not engaged in an exercise of simply imagining what be would have been like had he been white, in which the kernel of "James Weldon Johnson" is preserved and unaffected while only outward manifestations are (however slightly or deeply) altered. Instead, his self-analysis reveals that he cannot preserve his identity through a racial transformation: something gets lost in the process that makes him conclude that the identity on the other side of the racial divide is not his at all. Bernard Williams explains the difficulty inherent in imagining one thing "as if" it were another: "the thoughts start with a particular object, but do not succeed in preserving its identity through the speculations. The possibilities invoked in that case are not possibilities involving that object, but rather possibilities involving some other, perhaps similar, object that might have existed instead" ("Resenting" 224).

Thus, in Johnson's self-analysis, it seems that being black is a definitive characteristic of who he is, as a self and an identity, and any hypothetical transformation or eradication of his being black therefore threatens his self and identity. There is, it appears, a fundamental connection between the arbitrary physical characteristics of Johnson (for in a theoretical sense he could have just as easily been any other face) and the "essential" identity of Johnson. This is a connection that we do not see at work in other kinds of transformation, such as changes in nationality, or even religion: "What would I be like if I were to move to X?" seems a much easier question to answer. (5) For Johnson, and as I will argue, also for the ex-colored man, race, though arbitrary, is also a crucial component of identity. As the brother of the passing Coleman Silk in The Human Stain puts it, "[Coleman] is more or less as be would have been, except he would have been black. Except? Except? That except would have changed everything" (327).

The role of luck in the novel itself has received surprisingly little critical attention, though it figures prominently throughout the ex-colored man's story. Many of the ex-colored man's major, life-changing decisions are the result of a chance event--his mother's death drives him south, his being robbed of his tuition money forces him to Jacksonville, the murder of the rich widow precipitates his sudden departure for Europe, and so on. (6) But the ex-colored man himself overtly enters the world of explicit luck when he spends, as he tells us, "more than a year" living in the gambling world of New York. After he leaves Florida--a departure that in itself is precipitated by the chance closing of the cigar factory--he goes to New York, where he soon encounters a scene of backroom gambling. In his initial foray into gambling, he has remarkable success: he starts with a twenty-dollar bet and, he explains, "In less than three minutes I had won more than two hundred dollars" (70). Throughout this scene, the word "luck" is invariably joined to the ex-colored man and the other gamblers by possessives and an intimate sense of ownership: the others encourage the ex-colored man to try his luck, to follow up his luck. He himself admires other gamblers' luck, and their courage in exploiting it. Luck, in other words, is something that people simply have, something with which one is born, an inherent trait. Acts of gambling, in this conception, are simply the venue through which one can see one's luck; gambling neither creates nor collapses one's luck, but instead simply reveals it. (7)

The ex-colored man is quickly drawn into the gambler's lifestyle, becoming in short order the type of gambler that he had initially scoffed at: the type of gambler who, once they "had lost all the money and jewelry they possessed, frequently, in an effort to recoup their losses, would gamble away all their outer clothing and even their shoes," and for whom "the proprietor kept on hand a supply of linen dusters" (70). For more than a year he gambles almost professionally, earning (and losing) his rent and meal money, passing through "all the states and conditions that a gambler is heir to," explaining that "[s]ome days found me able to peel ten- and twenty-dollar bills from a roll, and others found me clad in a linen duster and carpet slippers" (83). It is important to note that this period of his life, the period during which gambling is his primary "profession," is almost the only period of the ex-colored man's life in which he is not an unqualified success. In every other aspect of his life (school, music, languages), and at every other profession (cigar-roller, musician, real estate speculator), he is universally, almost incredibly, successful. This difference between gambling and all other components of his life stems from the radical absence of skill in matters of pure chance. When the gamblers at the craps table ask others to "fate them" (i.e., to cover their bet in the belief that they will win), they are asking for a commentary not on their skill at attaining successful rolls, but rather for a simple, brute belief in their luck. "Fate" by its nature is absolute, exempt from all manipulation, development, or adjustment: when one has a certain fate, that is all there is to it. While the ex-colored man, previous to his gambling at the craps table, "had played pool in Jacksonville" and "seen others play cards," these are games involving a greater degree of skill (68). The use of dice in craps, however, effectively eliminates any possibility of actual skill entering the game, making it a game of pure chance (as the game's popularity in probability exercises attests).

At the same time that the ex-colored man lives via the pure chance of the gambler's lifestyle, he becomes involved in another, more complicated kind of luck. Ultimately, he escapes from the craps table because, he tells us, "I finally caught up another method of earning money, and so did not have to depend entirely upon the caprices of fortune at the gaming table" (83). This other "method" of earning money is, nonetheless, the product of another piece of luck: his musical talents. He explains that, "[t]hrough continually listening to the music at the 'Club,' and through my own previous training, my natural talent and perseverance, I developed into a remarkable player of ragtime; indeed, I had the name at that time of being the best ragtime-player in New York" (83-84). While he here claims that his success as a ragtime player is the result in part of his skill and hard work, his actual understanding of musical talent is quite different.

The ex-colored man is first exposed to ragtime music immediately after his initial success at the craps table; awed by the musician's performance, he enters into conversation with him and finds that he and all ragtime players "knew no more of the theory of music than they did of the theory of the universe, but were guided by natural musical instinct and talent" (73). The ex-colored man learns that the ragtime player "was just a natural musician, never having taken a lesson in his life," and that "[h]e had, by ear alone, composed some pieces, several of which he played over for me; each of them was properly proportioned and balanced" (74). This instinct for music, the ex-colored man speculates, would have been only deadened by artificial assistance, and he would have become with training merely "a mediocre imitator of the great masters in what they have already done to a finish, or one of the modern innovators who strive after originality by seeing how cleverly they can dodge about through the rules of harmony and at the same time avoid melody" (74). Just as the luck of the gamblers is something that they merely have, something that is simply in them, the ragtime musicians' skills are similarly inherent and can only be discovered, and not created. Indeed, this view of the ragtime musicians' skill correlates with the ex-colored man's sense of his own artistic skill: he discovers his musical talent while listening to his mother play the piano, and it is not long before, when only a child, he "could play by ear all of the hymns and songs that [his] mother knew" (5). Also, just as the ragtime musicians' skill would only be corrupted by formal training, the ex-colored man similarly resists musical lessons: "I had also learned the names of the notes in both clefs, but I preferred not to be hampered by notes.... My music teacher had no small difficulty at first in pinning me down to the notes" (5). The ex-colored man sees himself (and the ragtime musicians) as an artist natural-born, which the accoutrements of training and experience can serve only to obfuscate and smother. He argues that it is not, in fact, lucky that one is an artist, it is simply lucky that one has discovered that one is indeed an artist. It is as if to say, I was born a masterful ragtime player, and it is my great luck that along the way events happened to reveal these inborn skills I have always had (including, so the logic might go, the fact that I was luckily exposed to ragtime music!). Indeed, the sudden money and praise the ex-colored man receives in his first bout of gambling is echoed almost immediately at the "Club," where the musician performs to "great applause and a shower of small coins at his feet" (72)--simple luck rewarded, in both instances.

The ex-colored man most obviously sees his musical talent in this revelatory way; less obviously, though no less importantly, the ex-colored man sees his identity in a similar fashion, and accordingly manipulates his narrative as the means to create the impression that his identity, like his musical talent, is something that had always been present within him in its eternal state. His self-narrative is one of epistemic luck, in which lucky events reveal his identity, instead of form it. I would like now to turn to this issue, and explore how the ex-colored man's narrative tries to contain luck by limiting it to this epistemological role.

Much earlier in the novel, while still a schoolboy, the ex-colored man undergoes an experience that informs his vision and presentation of himself for the rest of the novel. The scene occurs when he is nine years old, during the initial few hours of his first day at the public school. The ex-colored man recounts how, once the children had entered the classroom, the teacher "had strung the class promiscuously around the walls of the room for a sort of trial heat for places of rank" (7). As the ex-colored man and class soon find out, the teacher has the intention of having each student "spell the words according to our order in the line" (7); thus the first student must spell "first," the second "second," and so on. He instantly sees the injustice of the situation: "As young as I was, I felt impressed with the unfairness of the whole proceeding when I saw the tailenders going down before twelfth and twentieth, and I felt sorry for those who had to spell such words in order to hold a low position" (7-8). This is the vision of face in America. The social position of blacks in the novel is that of the students at the end of the line--not only are they arbitrarily consigned to a low position, but they are similarly expected to work harder, to spell more difficult words, simply to maintain that low position. The system is therefore doubly unjust in the ex-colored man's eyes: it is unfair first because it is arbitrary in how it positions individuals, and it is unfair in a second way because it then goes on to punish systematically those it had unfairly positioned in the first place. Individual merit is irrelevant in such a system.

However, the ex-colored man's need to assert his individualism, immune from the mete caprices of fortune, does not allow him to settle for his having attained a good position simply through good luck. For even as the young boy recognizes the unfairness of the situation in the classroom, he somehow sees himself to be not luckily, but skillfully positioned near the front of the line. "[W]hen the line was straightened out," he explains, "I found that by skillful maneuvering I had placed myself third and had piloted 'Red Head' [his friend] to the place next to me" (7; italics added). Even though he recognizes that he has been compelled to participate in an incontrovertibly arbitrary system, he somehow claims the ability to have skillfully maneuvered within that system. He seems to argue that, if one must be placed in a position, and it some placements carry with them greater punishments than others, then those participants with the skill to recognize the process can maneuver themselves into the more beneficial positions. But the ex-colored man's presentation of the situation is crucially and tellingly erroneous, and in fact undercuts his claims to having acted skillfully, for he explains that he had piloted himself and "Red Head" into position before the teacher had explained the rules of the task. That is, according to the narrative, only after each student had taken his position does the teacher tell the students that they must spell their position. The teacher could easily have had in mind a multitude of other tasks for the children to perform, or similarly, the teacher could quite conceivably have begun the line at the other end--in which case not only would the ex-colored man have ended up with one of the more difficult words to spell, but, since the line would have been moving in the other direction, he may not have had such an easy opportunity to assist "Red Head" with his spelling. The quality of the ex-colored man's skill in his "skillful maneuvering" seems to run deeper than the mere ability to recognize and then capitalize on a system. Instead, the skill demonstrated seems almost preternatural: he knows what one must do to succeed even before the rules are explained, and, further, by noting that he "found" that he "had placed" himself in the beneficial position, he seems to claim a natural, ingrained ability, in much the same way that a star athlete may explain that as a child she simply "had found" that she had the necessary talents.

But the ex-colored man's "skillful maneuvering" is of course simply a product of his narration. Had the events unfolded otherwise than they did, there would be no opportunity for him to claim such "skillful maneuvering"; indeed, it is likely that the scene itself would have been forgotten, or ignored. These are the privileges of the retrospective narrator: knowing how a scene, or indeed the whole story turns out, one can narrate in such a way as to create the impression that everything was necessarily leading to this conclusion, or that one had all along anticipated such a finale. In large part, the purpose of the structure of The Autobiography as a whole is to reframe in this fashion the events of the ex-colored man's life into a cohesive narrative that retroactively excuses and justifies his decision to abandon the black race. By telling his story retrospectively, after the conclusion of the events he wishes to narrate, the ex-colored man reconfigures each event of the novel into a meaningful progression; by narrating from the end, event follows event in an apparently inevitable manner. Thus each event takes on its significance in terms of how it contributes to an already present ending. (8)

Though Johnson's novel is more episodic than is the traditional Bildungsroman, I nevertheless see the ex-colored man as enacting a common narrative trope of that genre, in which the hero grows to adulthood through a (usually troubled) quest for his identity. Embedded in this structure is an essentialist concept of the self, for in a Bildungsroman, the hero's identity is the object of his quest--that is, his identity is a "thing" already out there that he must through trial and adventure find, recognize, and inhabit. The events of a Bildungsroman are meaningful only in how they contribute to that quest, only in how they assist or hinder the hero in his discovering and obtaining that true identity.

Taking James Joyce's The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as paradigmatic of the modernist Bildungsroman, we can see the model of the essentialist self of narrative: the title itself points to the nascent artist, already present in the figure of the child of Stephen Dedalus, for it is a portrait of the artist as a young man, before he has done anything artistic, before he himself (through much of the novel) has even come to think of himself as an artist. The artist is, as it were, "always already" there, waiting to emerge and become the thing that he has always been; the birth of the artist is a process not of gradual formation and development (e.g., through hard work and intense devotion, one may one day become an artist), but is instead a process of stripping away the contingencies of one's surrounding environment to reveal the true, unobscured artist. At one point in Joyce's novel, Stephen explains to a friend his vision of the struggle of the emerging artist: "When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets" (220). Underneath these contingencies of identity, so Stephen and the ex-colored man would like us to believe, is a non-contingent, essential artistic identity. The ex-colored man sees his entire life in a similar fashion; he does not merely recognize that later outcomes determine the meaning of earlier events, but also retrospectively interprets the eventual "discovery" of his identity as the force that had all along driven these events. That is, the result of the events of his narrative is the revelation of his identity, and the revelation of his identity is retroactively inscribed as the meaning and purpose of the events themselves. Thus the contingent events happen and are important, the ex-colored man seems to tell himself, only insofar as they contribute to his (true) knowledge of his essential self.

In this understanding of the process of narration, the ex-colored man reconfigures the accidents in his narrative in terms of what they help reveal about his true nature, about what he "really is like." In other terms, the ex-colored man sees himself as engaged in an epistemic project in which luck is revelatory rather than formative of the truth. He wants to see his narrative as a process of what Mylan Engel and others have come to call "evidential epistemic luck": being evidentially lucky is to be "epistemically lucky in virtue of the fact that she [an agent] is lucky to be in the evidential situation she is in but that, given her evidential situation, it is not a matter of luck that her belief is true" (67). Thus, one could only by luck be in a situation that nevertheless leads one to form a true belief (in a reasonable and reliable fashion); Engel gives the example of a woman who normally studies in a windowless room, but by chance one day studies in a room with windows--if the woman sees that it is raining, she is lucky to know that it is raining, but not lucky in how she knows it is raining. (9) There is, however, a crucial difference between this sense of evidential epistemic luck and what is in fact at work in the ex-colored man's narrative. For in true evidential epistemic luck, the belief one comes to form (through luck) is nonetheless a true belief--that is, it matches up with some state of affairs "out there"; however, in the kind of evidential epistemic luck we see at work in the ex-colored man's narrative, the process of retrospective narration itself inevitably "makes" the belief a true belief, in the sense that it has only its own narrative product with which to match up. As with the case of the schoolroom scene, the ex-colored man can claim to have "skillfully maneuvered" only because, as his own narrative subsequently shows, it turns out that he has indeed "skillfully maneuvered."

Thus does the ex-colored man self-narrate: chance events conspire to confirm the essential identity that his narrative unfailingly produces. For example, when the ex-colored man learns of his racial heritage, he has a shattering moment of doubt regarding his true nature. After being told in school to stand with the "colored" scholars, he rushes home to examine his face in his mirror, and sees for the first time his image framed against this new piece of self-knowledge. "For the first time" he becomes conscious of his appearance, "noticing" the "ivory whiteness" of his skin and the "glossiness" of his "dark hair" (11). Through a chance event--the appearance of the principal and the directive to separate the class racially--he has suddenly learned to see himself "correctly" for the first time. This moment is the model for the way that evidential epistemic luck informs his "self-discovery" through the rest of the narrative: a chance experience, a chance event, is after-the-fact reconfigured as the fortuitous acquisition of the knowledge of something that has always been true. This is the formula for the narrator of an essentialist self: what I become is the eternal truth of what I have always been. What contingently happens to me does not affect or determine my identity, but is meaningful only insofar as what it reveals of an already present, already embedded true nature. The ending of my story, which is in turn the discovery or revelation of that which I have always been, is the true meaning of my story's beginning and middle--and all else only the nets I must fly by.

Through his manipulation of his narrative, the ex-colored man thus wants to promote a vision of his having successfully emerged at the end of the novel liberated from the confines of racial classification and free to assert his individuality and essential identity. Yet as we know, he ends not on a triumphant note, but a remorseful one. What is ultimately behind his remorse, and the reader's contempt, is his failure to admit that luck is not merely epistemic but fundamentally ontological. Because the ex-colored man wants to see and understand contingencies only in terms of what they reveal about his self, he refuses to see or understand them in terms of how they constitute his self.

But to say simply that the ex-colored man's contingently being black in part constitutes his identity is to get us no further in the pursuit of our original question regarding his remorse about, and our condemnation of, his final decision to "become" white. Instead we have merely dodged the question by implying that race may be constitutive of identity. The real question obviously remains: why is race considered fundamentally constitutive of identity, when other equally contingent physical things, such as hair color, nose shape, or shoe size, are not? Or even, from our earlier question, other abstract, social things as large as one's nationality or original citizenship? All of these things may be changed without our considering one's fundamental identity as altered (or, worse, betrayed or abandoned), yet race in this case may not. Why does race touch on identity in a way that these other qualities do not? The answer I would like to give to this puzzle is unavoidably inconclusive: race is fundamental to identity because it simply is fundamental to identity. Valuing race in this way is as much a matter of contingency as is race itself. But this arbitrary assignment of value, however, does not rob the valuation of its worth. It is, rather, the basis for its worth.

In a scene near the close of the novel, the ex-colored man is traveling in a Pullman across the South. Passing here for the convenience of the nicer facilities, he moves into the smoker and listens raptly to a conversation among the other passengers regarding, yet again, "the race question." The two main interlocutors are a Civil War veteran and a Texan, the former supporting the position of racial equality, and the latter opposing. Both men are extremely conscious of the contingent nature of their respective positions, but think of this contingency in different ways. The veteran, responding to the Texan's claims that the Anglo-Saxon is, by "law of nature," the superior race, explains that few of the important advances in the history of civilization have been made by the Anglo-Saxon. He says, "We are a great race, the greatest in the world today, but we ought to remember that we are standing on a pile of past races, and enjoy our position with a little less show of arrogance. We are simply having our turn at the game, and we were a long time getting to it. After all, racial supremacy is merely a matter of dates in history" (119). The veteran here points out that the Anglo-Saxon is only contingently and not necessarily the dominant race at the current historical moment, thus emphasizing the contingencies of time and place that determine one's social position. The Texan, however, acknowledges and incorporates another kind of contingency into his argument--the contingency of values. He replies to the irrefutable arguments of the veteran by saying, "[Y]ou might argue from now until hell freezes over, and you might convince me that you're right, but you'll never convince me that I'm wrong. All you say sounds very good, but it's got nothing to do with facts.... We don't believe the nigger is or ever will be the equal of the white man, and we ain't going to treat him as an equal; I'll be damned if we will" (120). The Texan bases his position on a contingently inherited set of cultural values, which have to him a history as real as the veteran's more objective one. Both embrace contingency, but at different levels: the veteran argues the contingency of historical facts, the Texan the contingency of social values. This discrepancy in perspective between the two debaters leads the ex-colored man to the surprising conclusion that there is more hope in the Texan's argument than in the veteran's. He writes, "The Texan's position does not render things so hopeless, for it indicates that the main difficulty of the race question does not lie so much in the actual condition of the blacks as it does in the mental attitudes of the whites; and a mental attitude, especially one not based on truth, can be changed more easily than actual conditions" (121). The ex-colored man's hope comes from understanding the situation in the following terms: it is not that prejudice and racism stem from actual conditions, however unlucky those conditions may be--instead it is simply unlucky that people like the Texan are informed by prejudiced and racist views. In other words, blacks are not necessarily (or even contingently) inferior; they are only contingently perceived as inferior.

The Texan brings to light a fundamental claim of the novel: the connection between moral valuations and identity. For the Texan, valuing allegiance to one's race is a contingent but meaningful component of his self-definition as a person (as is, his title indicates, his regional affiliation). The Texan's sense of identity emerges only within this social structure of value in which race plays a crucial role; since the ex-colored man is also stuck within this social structure, he cannot simply brush off his later "choice" to be white as without extensive and complicated implications for his own sense of personhood. This is impossible not because, as we have seen, race is an indelible, inherent physical characteristic, but because race is a fundamental category of moral evaluation in the ex-colored man's particular society at that particular time.

In The Ethics of Authenticity, Charles Taylor argues that a self, and the moral evaluations necessary to the constitution of that self, are inescapably the product of historical contingencies: "I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter. But to bracket out history, nature, society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself, would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters. Only if I exist in a world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial" (40-41). (10) The ex-colored man can thus not bracket out race as a morally important category because his society does not; in other words, as arbitrary as it is, in the America that the ex-colored man describes, race is a meaningful, identity-defining characteristic, and one's character is constituted not only by one's race, but also by one's response to it. (11) It is easily conceivable that any other characteristic--eye color, number of freckles, day of the week on which one was born--could also have been a condition of this kind of identity-defining valuation; the simple fact is, however, that these categories--contingently, arbitrarily, accidentally--are not, while race is. It is here that an identity rooted in contingent valuation emerges, for it is only in these few points of contact where identity bumps up against irrationally meaningful contingencies that one may assert oneself as a self. Only when one asserts a valuation for no other reason than that one holds that valuation as crucial to one's essence, to one's meaning as a person, can one recognize one's identity as a meaningful thing within its environment. Without these kind of brute valuations, one's identity is rootless. When one denies the importance of these evaluations, as does the ex-colored man, one's identity fills with shame.

So what we ultimately see in the novel is a notion of identity that resists individualism and essentialism by instead emphasizing luck and contingency. In Thomas Nagel's version of the paradox of "moral luck," in which we simultaneously do and do not want to hold people morally responsible for the lucky (or unlucky) accidents of their lives, moral assessment is not based on what happens to a person but is rather based on the person himself:
 Moral judgment of a person is judgment not of what happens to him,
but of
 him. It does not say merely that a certain event or state of affairs
 fortunate or unfortunate or even terrible. It is not an evaluation of
 state of the world, or of an individual as part of the world. We are
 thinking just that it would be better if he were different, or did
 exist, or had not done some of the things he has done. We are judging
, rather than his existence or characteristics. (36) (12) 

This sense of moral evaluation is what makes the ex-colored man's assessment of his (white) father's character particularly damning. When his mother finally reveals her past to the ex-colored man, and comes to explain her relationship with his father, the ex-colored man tells us, "She always endeavored to impress upon me how good he had been and still was, and that he was all to us that custom and the law would allow" (30). The father, so says the mother, is a good man unfortunately hampered by contingent customs and laws, and thus prevented, as it were, from expressing himself as the good man he is at heart. Yet the ex-colored man finds this argument hard to accept--unable to form the word "father" to describe the man (24), or to speak to or even look at him at a later encounter (98), the ex-colored man shows that he cannot buy into this kind of justification for, and thus cannot excuse, the conduct of the negligent father. Despite the mother's protest, he assesses the internal quality of the father based on his actual actions within the real world, not his potential actions in a hypothetically different kind of world. Again, as Nagel points out, "We judge people for what they actually do or fail to do, not just for what they would have done if circumstances had been different" (36). But why is it legitimate to assess character in this way?

Nagel argues that we simply do assess character in this way, and that, indeed, our sense of identity is crucially wrapped up in this particular process of assessment:
 We do not regard our actions and our characters merely as fortunate
 unfortunate episodes--though they may also be that. We cannot
 take an external evaluative view of ourselves---of what we
 most essentially are and what we do. And this remains true even when
 have seen that we are not responsible for our own existence, or our
 nature, or the choices we have to make, or the circumstances that
 our acts the consequences they have. Those acts remain ours and we
 ourselves, despite the persuasiveness of the reasons that seem to
 us out of existence. (37) 

This argument for the ineradicable presence of a sense of moral responsibility despite the contingency of the situation and context is, I think, why the ex-colored man finds himself similarly unable fully to justify his abandoning the black race. The ex-colored man cannot excuse himself from the contingency of events without at the same time excusing himself from the ranks of personhood. No matter how he may argue to us or himself that his choice is justified, it cannot be if he at the same time wants to maintain an image and sense of himself as a person rather than as a machine or automaton wholly determined by, and subservient to, external causes and forces. There has been a reversal in the presentation of his identity, for what had been taken as the contingent has now become the essential; where he once wanted to dismiss his race as a contingent and arbitrary classification and thus as meaningless to his true identity, by novel's end he has come, against his own will, to see that his true identity is meaningless without precisely those contingent and arbitrary classifications. As with Johnson's own experiment in imagining himself as another race, the ex-colored man comes to realize, regretfully, that race cannot simply be reduced to a contingent, external factor, but must persist as one of those qualities of moral assessment that allow him to maintain his sense of a meaningful identity. (13)

We can see this at work when, near the end of the novel, the ex-colored man describes how he has fallen in love with a white woman who assumes he is also white. Until this point, he had seen his passing as "a sort of practical joke" on white society "which made the whole thing more amusing to [him] than serious" (145-46). However, as soon as he falls in love with the (never named) woman and hopes to marry her, he can no longer regard his passing with the same "nonchalance" (145), and feels instead absolutely compelled to disclose to her his racial heritage: "My sense of what was exigent made me feel there was no necessity of saying anything; but my inborn sense of honor rebelled at even indirect deception in this case" (146). This scene illustrates precisely how identity is wrapped up with accepting the contingent, for to present himself to his love in the proper capacity as an actual, lovable person, he must reveal, and by revealing accept, what he nevertheless wants to convince himself is a completely arbitrary, meaningless quality.

I would like to close my argument by turning finally to the way in which shame functions in the novel, especially as the involuntary force of moral self-evaluation as manifested by the ex-colored man's concluding moments of remorse and regret. The ex-colored man's decision to abandon the black race and pass as white comes shortly after the novel's climactic scene depicting the brutal lynching of a black man who is only vaguely and probably falsely accused of some ambiguous crime--a victim, quite likely, of his own, more dramatic kind of bad luck. As the ex-colored man watches the man be consumed by flame, he is filled with shame--"Shame that I belonged to a race that could be so dealt with" (137). It is also shame that informs and guides his decision: "All the while I understood that it was not discouragement or fear or search for a larger field of action and opportunity that was driving me out of the Negro race. I knew that it was shame, unbearable shame. Shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals" (139). The ex-colored man experiences a similar bout of shame earlier, when during his trip to Europe a "young man from Luxemburg [sic]" asks him whether it were actually true that "they really burn[ed] a man alive in the United States?" (99). Both of these instances of shame function as what Williams calls, in his Shame and Necessity, "the basic experience connected with shame," that of "being seen, inappropriately, by the wrong people, in the wrong condition" (78). In these instances, the ex-colored man is ashamed not only at being part of a nation that allows and promotes such conduct, but also at being the object of such conduct. In both cases, his position in the eyes of others is a low, degraded one that challenges his claims to the dignity of being human. He is embarrassed, as it were, to hold the kind of position he holds in the world, or at least to be classed again in a group that holds that kind of position. However, the shame that he feels at the conclusion of his narrative is a different shame, because in this instance it is not shame in the eyes of others, but rather in his own eyes.

After witnessing the lynching, the ex-colored man then pretends to cast off his race in the same way that he had cast it on prior to his return to the United States. For in his earlier decision to travel the South collecting Negro spirituals, he had told his millionaire patron that he "chooses" to be black because he "should have greater chances of attracting attention as a colored composer than as a white one" (108). His subsequent abandonment of the race is made from a similarly cold, practical perspective: the stakes in being black are simply too high to justify the gamble. He has a much greater chance of avoiding this shameful (and potentially much worse) treatment as a white than as a black man. In other words, as a white he has better, because safer, odds. Indeed, as a white man, his new business is a comparatively safe brand of "gambling": real estate speculation. He develops a sudden urge to cultivate the "practical sense and judgment" with which he earns slowly but surely the wealth for which he had once recklessly gambled (142). Despite this seeming pride in his new lifestyle, however, in a key passage describing his life as a gambler the ex-colored man reveals how a person's reaction to the caprices of fortune reveals the kind of person he is:
 I lived to learn that in the world of sport all men win alike, but
 differently; and so gamblers are rated, not by the way in which they
 but by the way in which they lose. Some men lose with a careless
 recognizing that losing is a part of the game; others curse their
 and rail at fortune; and others, still, lose sadly; after each such
 experience they are swept by a wave of reform; they resolve to stop
 gambling and be good. When in this frame of mind it would take very
 little persuasion to lead them into a prayer-meeting. Those in the
 class are looked upon with admiration; those in the second class are
 merely commonplace; while those in the third are regarded with

By the end of the novel, the ex-colored man has become exactly this third type of gambler, the type that is regarded with contempt. For in his decision to pass for white, the ex-colored man has refused any longer to face the risks, and has become just the type of gambler that loses and "resolve[s] to stop gambling and be good."

The result is that the ex-colored man's life is of course unsatisfying. It is unsatisfying because he wants to believe that his choice of race is as much a casual consideration of luck and odds as is any other. At the close of the novel, having been to a meeting featuring Booker T. Washington and others "of that small but gallant band of colored men who are publicly fighting the cause of their race," he writes that "[b]eside them I feel small and selfish. I am an ordinarily successful white man who has made a little money. They are men who are making history and a race" (154). By abandoning his race, he has traded the high stakes gamble of the "gallant band of colored men" for the low stakes and low reward of an ordinary life. Such a backing away from the excitement, with all its inherent dangers, of engaging and gambling on one's luck recalls the scene of his early success at the craps table after which he tells us, "I felt a bit ashamed, too, that I had allowed my friends to persuade me to take down my money so soon" (70; italics added). By novel's end, not only has the ex-colored man "taken down" all his money, but he has also come to pretend that his race is merely one factor with which to calculate odds. He has come to pretend that he now agrees with the millionaire's argument that blacks simply "are unfortunate in having rights to wrong, and [he] would be foolish to take their wrongs unnecessarily on [his] shoulders" (106). Ineluctably, he must regret his decision and feel remorse, for shame works not only in one's relations with the public world but also privately, in one's relations with one's self. As Williams writes, the other who is the object of evaluation in shame "may be identified in ethical terms. He ... is conceived as one whose reactions I would respect; equally he is conceived as someone who would respect those same reactions if they were appropriately directed to him" (84). Because he abandons precisely those values that he would admire and praise in others--accepting contingency, loyalty to one's group however arbitrary and difficult, and most fundamentally, courageously pushing one's luck--the ex-colored man feels remorse and shame: he is embarrassed to be the kind of man he has become, if only in the way he sees himself in his "fast yellowing manuscripts" (154).

Ultimately, what the narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man fails to understand, and (to return to my tide) what Johnson's worried friend fails to understand, is that there can be no other sort of chance for them but "a Negro's chance." This is not because race is indelibly marked on them, nor because racial classifications can never be avoided or eluded. It is rather because fulfillment and satisfaction require them to embrace those contingencies that control the nature of the chances they must face and must take. In order for the chance to be at all a meaningful chance, it must be a "Negro's chance."

Works Cited

Engel, Mylan. "Is Epistemic Luck Compatible with Knowledge?" The Southern Journal of Philosophy 30.2 (Summer 1992): 59-75.

Goldsby, Jacqueline Denise. A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2006.

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. 1912. New York: Penguin, 1990.

--. Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. 1933. New York: Viking, 1968. Joyce, James. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916. New York: Penguin, 1993. Nagel, Thomas. "Moral Luck." 1976. Nagel, Mortal 24-38.

--. Mortal Questions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.

--. "The Policy of Preference." 1973. Nagel, Mortal 91-105.

Norris, Frank. Vandover and the Brute. 1914. A Novelist in the Making. Ed. James D. Hart. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1970. 279-591.

Pfeiffer, Kathleen. "Individualism, Success, and American Identity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man." A frican A merican R eview 30.3 (Fall 1996). 403-19.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Philosophy of Composition." 1846. The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Tam Mossman. Philadelphia: Running P, 1983. 1079-89.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. 2000. New York: Vintage, 2001.

Skinner, Quentin. Visions of Politics I: Regarding Method. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Sollors, Werner. Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.

Williams, Bernard. "Imagination and the Self." 1966. Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956-1972. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1973.26-45.

--. "Resenting One's Own Existence." Making Sense of Humanity and Other Philosophical Papers. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. 224-32. --. Shame and Necessity. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.


(1.) As Goldsby notes, lynching gained much of its power as a social force from its arbitrary employment: "lynching was traumatizing not because it was an anomalous or exceptional form of violence, ... but precisely because white mobs murdered black people any day and every day" (174).

(2.) Nor will I be focusing on the equally compelling argument that novels of passing also can be read as reinforcing racial categories and boundaries. Sollors explores this latter point, arguing that to claim that one has passed is also to acknowledge the existence of racial borders by indicating that something has been crossed. If the borders were not indistinct, one could not pass, but, simultaneously, if the borders did not exist, we would not be able to recognize that one has passed. Sollors thus concludes that "one may therefore say that the term 'passing' is a misnomer because it is used to describe those people who are not presumed to be able to pass legitimately from one class to another. ... Ironically, the language speaks only of those persons as 'passing' who, it is believed, cannot really 'pass,' because they are assumed to have a firm and immutable identity" (250). For discussions of these and other similar issues, see Martin Japtok's "Between "Race' as Construct and 'Race' as Essence: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man," and, among others, Houston A. Baker's "A Forgotten Prototype: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Invisible Man," Judith Berzon's Neither White Nor Black: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction," and Robert B. Stepto's "Lost in a Quest: James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man."

(3.) A moment for definitions: "contingent" as employed here will signify in the philosophical sense, i.e., as opposed to "necessary." If a necessary truth is a truth that is always true, and cannot be otherwise, a contingent truth is a truth that only happens to be true, and could have been otherwise. In the terminology, a necessary truth is true in all possible worlds, while a contingent truth is true only in some (even if most) possible worlds. Thus, the four-sidedness of a square is a necessary truth, but historical events are contingent truths (i.e., things could have occurred otherwise). It is important to note, however, that a truth's being contingent does not make its truth-quality any less than a necessary truth's. A certain historical event's being contingent does not in any way make it less true that that event took place. "Arbitrary" as employed here will signify situations in which a choice between alternatives is not based on supporting evidence or justifications, but is simply made, as it were, at random; "accidental" will signify without premeditated intention. "Lucky," as is always the case with the concept in English, will signify less neatly, and mean as employed here a combination of all three terms: one can have a lucky accident, one can make a lucky arbitrary decision (as in betting, for instance), and one can be lucky to be in the contingent position one is in. This last--being lucky in contingency--is clearly of particular focus here.

(4.) My argument will thus proceed in abstraction from the very real social goals and commentary of the novel, and focus instead on larger, more philosophical questions of personhood, knowledge, and ontology. While it is important, as Skinner reminds us, always "to situate the texts we study within such intellectual contexts as enable us to make sense of what their authors were doing in writing them" (3; italics added), it is also important to investigate the philosophical base structures which inform the assumptions and presumptions of a text, writer, or period.

(5.) Though is the question "What would I have been like had I been born in X?" any easier to answer? The question differs in a not irrelevant way from the first in that it posits a fundamental contextual change at the beginning of one's life, at the origin, rather than a transformative one in the middle of one's life, or at least at any point subsequent to the initiation of the many processes of identity formation. It is a different question altogether to ask, "What would the ex-colored man have been like had he never found out he was black?"

(6.) Embedded within these events is, I think, a subtle critique of the romantic notion of the epiphany. The ex-colored man does not evolve or develop via a series of moments of clarity of vision and understanding, but instead via a series of accidental occurrences that push and toss him around the country. Race, again, is a crucial part of this critique, for the critique seems to suggest that the epiphany may after all be a luxury of the members of the dominant class; only if one is not continually, and overtly, subservient to the forces of environmental conditions, can one be in a position to have the typical, and typically sentimental epiphanic moment. Seeing truly is one thing, earning a living another. But investigating this critique further is unfortunately beyond the scope of the present essay, and I will instead be focusing on a different consequence of luck.

(7.) Cf. in this regard the narrator in Norris's Vandover and the Brute: as Vandover and his friends sit down to a game of Van John, their initial plays are only exploratory, for "[t]he luck had not declared itself yet; none of them had won very much" (528). The characters seem to wait passively until the luck finally "declares" itself, and the playing may begin in earnest.

(8.) There is of course nothing new to this claim, but is instead one of the favorite arguments about narrative. It is the same argument that Poe presents in his "The Philosophy of Composition," in which he writes, "Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention" (1079). Cf. in this regard, among numerous others, Peter Brooks's Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992); Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Ficion (New York: Oxford UP, 1967); Gary Saul Morson's Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time (New Haven: Yale UP, 1996); and Gerald Prince's Narratology: The Form and Functioning of Narrative (New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1982).

(9.) For an especially thorough investigation of evidential epistemic luck, as well as other forms of epistemic luck, see Duncan Pritchard's Epistemic Luck (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007).

(10.) Williams argues a very similar point about the importance of contingent social forces on the formation of identity. In his "Imagination and the Self," he points out that different cultures at different times will value different elements to such an extent that what may to "us" seem a small influence on identity is to "them" a crucial one. For example he writes, "In the Guardian class of Plato's Republic [for instance] the difficult supposition would not have been that one might have had different parents (since one was not to know who they were, anyway), nor yet that one might have been born years earlier (since the state was supposed to go on without historical social change), but rather that one might have been born somewhere else, and not be a Platonic Guardian at all. One's sense of identity involves one's identifications" (41).

(11.) It is worth pointing out, as does the ex-colored man himself, that race plays an important part in all aspects of American life, and that whites are very often just as defined and controlled by their racial affiliations as are blacks; however, might we not also say that race plays a more important role in identity formation for those in the typically oppressed racial groups? Does "being white" play as crucial a role for a white person as "being black" does for a black person? Perhaps not. Nagel ponders this question in a footnote to his essay "The Policy of Preference"; he writes, "If some people decided that they would have nothing to do with anyone left-handed, everyone else, including the left-handed, would regard it as a silly objection to an inessential feature. But if everyone shunned the left-handed, left-handedness would become a strong component of their self-image, and those discriminated against would feel they were being despised for their essence. What people regard as their essence is not independent of what they get admired and despised for" (102n9).

(12.) Nagel's discussion of moral luck differs importantly from Williams's, who originated the phrase and first investigated the paradox. Williams's treatment focuses more on how luck factors into the process of rational self-justification for having done a certain act with lucky or unlucky consequences. This is of course not without relevance to the process of narration described above.

(13.) Rorty discusses a similar vision of the power of self-narration, an act that he argues is an essential element in the developmental process of the strong, modern identity. To Rorty, the strong self is one that can take the givens of a language and community and artistically re-describe them in such as way that they appear self-crafted. Pointing to Nietzsche as a proponent of this vision of selfhood, he writes, "[Nietzsche] thinks a human life triumphant just insofar as it escapes from inherited descriptions of the contingences of its existence and finds new descriptions.... The paradigm of such a narrative is the life of the genius who can say of the relevant portion of the past, 'Thus I willed it,' because she has found a way to describe that past which the past never knew, and thereby found a self to be which her precursors never knew was possible" (29). Thus, the strongest self is the self that can overcome what has been given it not via escape or annihilation, but via the refiguring of contingencies into the willed necessities of being.
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Author:Wandler, Steven
Publication:African American Review
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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