Revising critical judgments of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.
Moreover, Johnson represents a fictional anti-hero, a black man who chooses to "pass" for a white man who need not negotiate the hardships of race relations in America. As a consequence, The Autobiography is a thematic departure from its autobiographical predecessors, Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery (1901) and W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903). It also departs from traditional narrative representations of "passing" such as those found in the late 19th-century novels of Frances Harper and Charles Chesnutt. Still, Johnson was a publicly acclaimed "race man." The intrigue of his formal variations is that he knowingly wrote such hybrid "anathema" in the highly charged racial climate of a rabidly Jim Crow era.
The narratological trajectory of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, then, as a result of what might be considered the work's contending forces, operates along several discursive lines, including a "false" fictional representation of the narrator, Johnson's own political reflections and theories and signifying riffs on conventions from the book's literary ancestors. Themes such as black uplift, racial pride, and social responsibility--borrowed from antedating black autobiographical and fictional works--clash with the ideological position that the narrator must espouse to justify his own politically charged identity choices. The Autobiography's manifold positions create a writerly tension that is inherent and identifiable in the text, a tension that serves, finally, to undermine the integrity of the first-person narrative voice. Clearly, Johnson's ability to conjure and craft his anti-heroic protagonist is thwarted by historical circumstances surrounding his writing and by his own political sensibilities. The sociohistorical circumstances framing Johnson's act of writing, principally the struggle for black enfranchisement, plainly conflict with the narrator's portraiture. Although conventions of form would seem predisposed to a close subjective connection between the author and the narrator, the narrative occasion of Johnson's endeavor is such that the views upheld by the narrator are often radically divergent from those of his creator. Johnson, then, is writing out of what Houston A. Baker, Jr., in Turning South Again (2001), has termed "a tight place": "'Tight places' are constituted by the necessity to articulate from a position that combines specters of abjection (slavery [or Jim Crow]), multiple subjects and signifiers ... representational obligations of race in America (to speak 'Negro' [or for "Negroes'], and patent sex and gender implications (the role of the Law of the Phallus)" (15, insertions added).
At the center of Baker's theoretical formulations is the notion that the black male subject at the turn into the twentieth century is always already "framed" in relation to the dominant white social structure and thus affirms, subverts, or at least navigates through a social arrangement marked by "domination and subjugation," the white public's "network of opinions and desires," and "the always ambivalent cultural compromises of occupancy and desire.... Who moves? Who doesn't?" (Baker 73, 75, 69). Furthermore, the early 20th-century textual black subject is also located within what Claudia Tate describes as a firmly entrenched "black [male] heroic liberational discourse," the contours of which shape another kind of "tight space," one in which there tacitly exist "agreed upon" rules governing black male subjectivity and its literary representation within the black public sphere. (2) We might say, then, that Johnson writes out of a doubly determined "tight space." The aforementioned withstanding, it is curious that Johnson would embark upon the narratological experiment that is The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man in such a vexed environment. Why did he engage such risky genre crossing business at precisely what the black historian Rayford Logan calls the nadir of Jim Crow racism in America?
Passing for White, Passing for Man
The impetus fueling Johnson's narrative experiment seems clearer if one summons to view the African American male writerly tradition. In his own autobiography Along This Way (1933), Johnson maintains that he expected that the title The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man would immediately reveal the work's ironic inflections and implicit relationship to prevailing discourses on black male subjectivity. He writes: "When I chose the title, it was without the slightest doubt that its meaning would be perfectly clear to anyone" (238). Although Johnson's ironic title borders on satire, the discursive subversion marked by satire is meaningless without a clear contextualization of the black male literary enterprise upon which satire would, as it were, "signify."
The scholar William Andrews has provided the most astute account available of this enterprise. He asserts that "in the African American novel [at the turn into the twentieth century] the leading characters almost always have a choice between self-interest and self-sacrifice in the name of uplifting the race. Generally, the choice is in favor of the latter" (xviii). Johnson's text reverses the norms of the dilemma described by Andrews. His narrator chooses self-interest. As such, while other works reveal the hero's growing racial awareness, Johnson's Autobiography plots the anti-hero's movement toward racial disengagement.
In brief, Johnson's representation of the first-person narrator invokes the myth of the heroic black male--then inverts it. Within the context of an already established African American male protest tradition that links the proud display of masculinity with the struggle for racial justice, Johnson's narrator invites criticism as a "failed" race man and a failed man, for he has chosen to "pass"--a choice that symbolizes synonymous rejection of both social equality and masculine pride.
To locate The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man vis-a-vis the thematic and formal expectations framing its production, it is useful to elaborate Tate's formulation of the black heroic liberational discursive project. (3) Even before Du Bois theorized the emasculation of black men as an attenuate of slavery (speaking as he did of the "red stain of bastardy") and the twin evils of segregation and poverty, Frederick Douglass had already discursively connected racial oppression and black emasculation. His famous statement, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (294), at once fore-grounded both the emasculating character of slavery and its reversal. Douglass's assertion of physical strength and defiance in which he throttles the slavebreaker Covey, the man to whom he has been hired out to be "broken," "revived within [him] a sense of [his] own manhood" (Douglass 299). Black "manhood" is reconstituted by way of physical encounter, transmuting Douglass from a "slave in fact" to a "slave in form alone." (4) Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk later yokes "masculinity" and "racial responsibility," placing these constructs in dialectical relation to material acquisition and rugged individualism. Du Bois, speaking directly against Booker T. Washingtonian strategies for social change, says: "If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of our education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools ... this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life" (qtd. Franklin 279).
Throughout his brilliant 1903 collection of essays, Du Bois insists upon the importance of attaining unequivocally equal rights as a necessary prerequisite for claiming black "manhood rights." He maintains that these latter rights must frame the current political struggle for racial equality--a New England platform bequeathed to the black New Englander by the Abolitionist movement. Du Bois writes: "To be sure, ultimate freedom and assimilation was [sic] the ideal before the leaders [of the abolitionist movement] but the assertion of the manhood rights of the Negro by himself was the main reliance, and John Brown's raid was the extreme of its logic" (35). Du Bois continues by praising the example of Douglass who, even "in his old age, still bravely stood for the ideals of his early manhood--ultimate assimilation through self-assertion and on no other terms" (35). (5)
Du Bois's principal criticism of Washington is that his "gospel of Work and Money," and "counsel of submission," "overlooked certain elements of true [black] manhood" (32). Significantly, the chapter in which Du Bois renders his critique begins with an epigraph from Byron: "From birth till death enslaved; in word, in deed unmanned!" (30). The mutuality of race and gender in Du Bois's social gospel is, according to Hazel Carby in Race Men (1998), an integral facet of early black male intellectual ideation (12-13). Washington cannot legitimately lay claim to the tenets of "true manhood" because he has not publicly defied institutional authority and resisted its racist stranglehold. He has not embraced the philosophy of "ultimate assimilation through self-assertion, and on no other terms" (35).
Du Bois's critique of Washington's strategic assimilationism is inextricably linked to a critique of Washington's gendered subjectivity. Carby argues, for example, that Du Bois challenges "Washington's standing as an intellectual and as a race leader" while simultaneously undermining the Tuskegee power broker's masculinity (39). Race and gender exist as they always do, as coterminous and social operators. Carby's foregrounding of "black masculinity" as a site of necessary interrogation is crucial. Such gendered constructs, as she argues, affirm and indeed perpetuate patriarchal imperatives, as they always have. What is of most critical and theoretical interest for this discussion, however, are the implications of such ideological formulations for authors, like Johnson, navigating their way through the terrain of literary innovation, production, and representation, and the ways that we might shape our conception of race and gender constructs into renewed cultural understandings.
Clearly, then, the ideological divergences, be they real or perceived, between Washington and Du Bois become symbolically mapped onto the literary formulations that Andrews articulates. The black protagonist's struggle between "self-interest" and "self-sacrifice" is, narratologically, at the heart of the matter of race, ideology, manhood, and social progress. In other words, the public discourse framing black masculinity is rhetorically embedded in public acts of literary representation that offer spatial possibilities for the enhancement of black public life in general. Johnson's narrative representations must be re-examined precisely because his narrator opts for personal and financial gratification rather than the existential rewards of racial responsibility and the public avowal of black self-determination. Yet, in his seemingly ironic refusal of traditional role and context, he creates a new space. The Bakeresque "tight space" from which Johnson crafts his narrative is flamed by contemporaneous and competing negotiations of nationhood and the black subject's place within it, and by the genre expectations that Johnson's chosen form engenders.
In Along This Way Johnson vigorously critiques Washington's ideological position. Contemplating Washington's infamous figure of a southern hand with five separate fingers, he writes:
It was this figure of speech, this stroke of consummate diplomacy, that made the whole of his eloquent plea swallowable for Southern throats.... Beyond the ineptitude of its implication that separate fingers (though separated only socially) can constitute an efficient hand, is the fact that it raises an illimitable question: of what do "things essential to mutual progress" consist? (312)
Concluding that there ought be no "intellectual dilemma in this question for a self-respecting Negro," Johnson makes it very clear, here, where he stands on the issue of compromising full social equality for potential gain of material security. At the same time, it is important to recognize that this statement is written some 21 years after Johnson anonymously published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.
In his fine biography of Johnson, the scholar Eugene Levy notes that Washington and Johnson shared an affable relationship during the period in which The Autobiography was written and that Washington was instrumental in helping Johnson secure his first Consul-General post in Puerto Cabello in 1905 (103). Levy further contends that Johnson's decision not to join Du Bois's Niagara Movement after being invited by Du Bois himself "clearly placed him in the Washington camp" (104). However, Levy also insists that Johnson was among the younger generation of blacks who "admired Washington for his ability, even though some of them disliked his methods" (104).
While it may be true that Johnson recognized Washington's influence and felt compelled to retain his support, such diplomatic and strategic affability is not endorsement. Johnson may have felt it would be career suicide openly to condemn the most powerful black leader in America at the time of The Autobiography's publication. In addition, even after Johnson took over editorship of The New York Age in 1914, he was renowned for his ability to "articulate clearly on a variety of subjects without tying himself to one or another of the factions then contending for power within the black community" (Levy 153). Obviously, Johnson was extremely careful about his public pronouncements of political affiliation. But certainly the authorial anonymity of The Autobiography enabled a fleer critique of Washington's strategies.
By 1927, when The Autobiography was republished bearing Johnson's name, Washington had already been dead for 12 years. Thus, in spite of his affiliation with Washington, nothing suggests that Johnson ever fully supported Washington's racial accommodationism. Washington's trademark "race work" was his public and publicized involvement with Northern philanthropists. In Johnson's text, the ex-colored man's relationship to "his millionaire," the white philanthropist represented in the narrative, unequivocally invokes the problematic and enduring ideology of "benign paternalism." Is Johnson's narrative construction in The Autobiography, perhaps, a cautionary tale against subscribing to the Washingtonian "gospel of Work and Money?" It is "self-interest" and not "self-sacrifice" for which the anti-hero ultimately opts. In this context, it is instructive to examine the narrator's textual representations in terms of his racial and his gendered identities. This mutuality is central to the text and its milieu.
"Who is my Father? Am I a Nigger?"
In a pivotal moment of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, after having discovered he is black, the narrator demands of his mother: "Where is my father? Who is he?" (12) His query raises an issue of paternity that speaks directly and profoundly to African American historical experience in the United States of America. (Shades again of the "red stain of bastardy.") In her germinal essay "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe," Hortense Spillers explores the impact of the hegemonic structure governing filial relations during US slavery. Whether forcibly or voluntarily bound by social proscriptions, the biological father, whether slave master or slave, could not fulfill a traditionally "paternal" role in the lives of their progeny. As a consequence, Spillers argues, the slave child had to look to the mother, or to external sources, for "gender construction and identity development"--what Spillers terms the "law of the Mother." This "law," Spillers insists, signifies "only and precisely because legal enslavement removed the African American male not so much from sight as from mimetic view as partner in a prevailing social fiction of the Father's name, the Father's law" (80). Spillers's critical apparatus provides generative material for "reading" the narrator of The Autobiography in terms of his problematic gendered and racial representation. It is curious that the narrator's questions regarding paternity are spoken at the precise moment that he queries his racial origins: "Am I a nigger? ... Well, am I white?" (12).
Inherent in the youthful narrator's query regarding race is the knowledge that to be black is to be unmanned, to be a "nigger." It seems relevant that the narrator doesn't ask whether or not he is colored or white, he asks if he is a "nigger" or "white." The significance of this moment is carried further in the mother's response: "No, I am not white, but you--your father is one of the greatest men in the country--the best blood of the South is in you" (12). This charged and ambiguous reply assures that the narrator's confusion surrounding his racial identity is never resolved. His full-fledged emergence as both a gendered and racialized subject is stunted by, as it were, "the law of the Mother." (6)
In extending Spillers's formulations, I would argue that the "law of Race," or the public declaration of racial pride, often displaces the "law of the Mother." It is clear that the "law of the Mother," as Spillers convincingly demonstrates, is fraught with intrinsic tension for black men, within both the symbolic and public/institutional orders. Rejecting the "law of the Mother" and unable to name the Father, the "law of Race" thus becomes guarantor of racial and masculine identity. Hence, the "law of Race" becomes a metonym for the Father's name, the Father's law. Du Bois's theoretical construct regarding double consciousness is germane here.
According to Du Bois's paradigm, to be "black" and a "man" is an American oxymoron. At the turn into the twentieth century, according to prevailing white standards, successful negotiation of masculinity in America rested upon material gain, unrestricted access to the public sphere, and unlimited acquisition of goods and land. By contrast, the successful negotiation of African American masculinity, by African American standards, was to fight for social equality and racial justice. (7) As a result, there existed two competing and irreconcilable definitions of masculinity, but only one viable option for African Americans--unless, of course, one could "pass." Having his narrator pass, Johnson both "ex-colors" and "ex-mans" his anti-hero who chooses material success, and assumes an identity to which he can only (via his mother's answer) ambiguously lay claim. (8)
Throughout Souls, Du Bois warns against subscription to "the gospel of Work and Money." Instead, he asserts, "to make men, we must have ideals broad, pure, and inspiring not sordid money-getting, not apples of gold" (61). If we argue, then, that Johnson's narrator is confronted with two routes--"self-sacrifice" and "self-interest"--because he opts for the latter, the white Father signifies the "self-interested" position. The white Father, then, represents the mythic American dream, the dream akin to the flawed gold piece (a gift from his father) that the narrator wears around his neck: "I have worn that gold piece around my neck the greater part of my life, and still possess it, but more than once I have wished that some other way had been found of attaching it to me besides putting a hole in it" (3). The reality is that the gold piece can never be more than fool's gold, beautiful to look at, but ultimately useless. As a consequence, the narrator fails, for he has chosen the Father whose law cannot signify. And the law of the Mother is not an option. For the narrator's own mother symbolically stunts his emergence as a racialized and gendered subject. While the narrator dreams momentarily of embracing the public/symbolic realm of racial responsibility, he ultimately rejects the law of Race after witnessing the brutal lynching of a black man in the regions of the "desperate class." Literal self-sacrifice, death, is too high a price to pay for the embrace of the racial law. Having decided to pass, the narrator remarks: "I had made up my mind that since I was not going to be a Negro, I would avail myself of every opportunity to make a white man's success, and that, if it can be summed up in any one word, means 'money'" (141). The ex-colored man self-consciously, therefore, chooses "sordid money-getting," and, hence, can never in the race-gender economies of his era lay claim to true "manhood rights."
Despite the articulation of conflicting desires throughout the pivotal "money-making" passage of Johnson's text, the narrator only vaguely regrets his final choice: "My love for my children makes me glad that I am what I am" (154). Significantly, the narrator does not, perhaps cannot, name what he is. He can claim no unitary identity, even though he erroneously suggests he can when he states: "I am an ordinary white man who has made a little money" (154). (9) As Valerie Smith asserts: "The ex-colored man appears to assume responsibility for articulating the meaning of his identity by undertaking the autobiographical enterprise. But the narrative's circumlocutions-which are, along with the ex-colored man's anonymity, its most salient features--undercut the process of self-individuation that characterizes the writing of autobiography" (45). The Autobiography's "narrative circumlocutions" are indeed significant, for they represent the intriguing formal tension between the narrator's ideological position and the author's creative ability to assume unequivocally a narrative voice and axiology at odds with his own philosophies.
Authorial anonymity notwithstanding, Johnson's own racialized male self is at stake. While the narrator opts for self-interest, Johnson apparently writes out of communal duty, out of self-sacrifice. Through writing, he explicates issues of racial identity and exposes the inequities and injustices rife within American life. His aim as a writer is social transformation. The principal actor, the narrator, the eye through which we witness the unveiling of black life and the representation of black manhood is, by necessity, unreliable. And yet it is through the charting of the narrator's story that Johnson's readers are to be "moved" to advocate for African American enfranchisement. Johnson is faced with a monumental dilemma, one in which form and content stand in dialectical relationship to one another. Throughout the text, therefore, these "narrative circumlocutions," along with numerous moments of expository didacticism, reveal the discontinuity between the self-absorbed, economically driven, self-interested narrator and the author.
Dialectics of Form and Content
The obvious danger in characterizing an "anti-hero" is that he will be viewed as representative. His misplaced and ill-informed analyses will be read as "accurate" and "authentic." After all, the preface to Johnson's Autobiography promises that the story will draw aside the "veil" and give readers a bird's-eye view into "conditions as they actually exist" (xxxiii). Andrews reminds us that early African American novelists (like Johnson) were "burdened by a sense of obligation to speak for black America" (xviii). Hence, Johnson must inject social commentary into a text that thematically breaks with black male discursive practice by appropriating various "voices" in expository, frequently lackluster moments of critical commentary about African American culture and American race relations. Such discursive instrusions insert what I call Johnson's own social authorial voice.
The tension between Johnson's fictional representation and his own historical circumstance accounts for an African American literary critical tradition that takes issue with the absence of unity both in the narrator's characterization and in the structure of the Autobiography itself. Bell acknowledges this discordance when he points out that "the ironic distance between implied author and narrator-hero is neither intellectual nor social; it is moral" (89). In other words, despite Johnson's use of the autobiographical form, at some textual moments the authorial posture is not only radically distinct from the first-person narrator, but, more saliently, ideologically dissonant. In a comparative analysis of Johnson's Autobiography and Abraham Cahan's Autobiography of an American Jew, Werner Sollors classifies both texts as "fictional autobiographies." Sollors notes: "The protagonists purport to be narrating their stories, using the first person confessional. Yet throughout their narratives we feel the intrusion of another, ironic voice, which subverts this basic communicative pattern" (171). The "authorial intrusion" identified by Sollors and Bell marks Johnson's attempt to fulfill what he views as his mandate--to utilize literary representation to advance the cause of racial justice and social equality. As a consequence, he is obligated to include in his narrative, insightful and relevant information concerning social, political, and historical factors that help to frame African American subjectivity and its literary representation. The result is a black formal cornucopia: self-writing, confession, fiction, and social polemic commingle in hauntingly captivating ways. They constitute an "informal unity" that mirrors the actual phantasmagoria of, precisely, race in the United States.
There are at least four moments when authorial intrusions occur and the "intrusive" authorial posture is clearly discernible. The first occurs in that dazzling moment of racial self-awareness in which the narrator reflects upon the change that his newfound racial status has brought to his life. We recognize two distinct voices inhabiting the narrative. The ex-colored man reflects: "And this is the dwarfing, warping, distorting influence of every colored man in the United States. He 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" (Johnson 14). Robert Stepto cogently notes that in this moment "the Ex-Colored Man radically reduces" the Du Boisian concept of twoness "to a nearly grotesque oneness: the viewpoint of a colored man" (113). Yet, Johnson's qualifying social authorial voice clearly dominates the subsequent paragraph on the powerful inscrutability of blackness:
It is a difficult thing for a white man to learn what a colored man really thinks; and his thoughts are often influenced by considerations so delicate and subtle that it would be impossible for him to confess or explain them to one of the opposite race. This gives to every colored man, in proportion to his intellectuality, a sort of dual personality; there is one phase of him, which is disclosed only in the freemasonry of his own race. I have often watched with interest and sometimes amazement even ignorant colored men under cover of broad grins and minstrel antics maintain this dualism in the presence of white men. (14)
While certainly the "observation" of the subsequent paragraph could be seen as a narratological strategy designed to bolster the preface's claim that this narrative will "draw" the "veil" "aside," the reference to the "dual personality" of the "colored man" indisputably and ideologically reflects Du Bois's theory of double consciousness. Furthermore, the notion that there are "inexpressable aspects" of African American identity distinct from white American identity invokes the very sense of fragmentation implicit in Du Bois's fabled "unreconcilable strivings" of African America. Finally, the narrator's recognition of minstrels' "wearing the mask," in other words, "black folks signifying," positions the narrator decisively within the veil as an observer who, at the very least, is an astute cultural sharer--a characterization antithetical to the general literary critical depiction of the main protagonist.
The tension between Johnson's characterization (literally, his novelistic creation of "character") and his desire to utilize his textual prerogatives as a vehicle for raising social awareness creates the proverbial double-edged sword. If he does not include "responsible" social criticism, he runs the ironic risk of his anti-hero spreading "propaganda" that will readily be imbibed by unsympathetic white readers. Yet, if he has his narrator speak perceptively about racial social issues, he robs his effort of precisely the ironic phantasmagoria of genre that makes it narratively intriguing and socially "relevant." So, in the second instance that I want to discuss, Johnson resorts to a further novelistic strategy. He utilizes another character's voice to extend his own ideological position.
After the narrator decides to return to America from Europe to contribute to "the race" through his musical talents, "his millionaire" patron tries to convince him that such idealism is futile because of the vexed racial landscape to which he will return: "This idea you have of making a Negro out of yourself is nothing more than a sentiment .... I can imagine no more dissatisfied human being than an educated, cultured, and refined colored man in the United States" (106). Here the patron proclaims race merely a construct; that is, that racial identity can be "made," "acted out" and "performed" like one of the narrator's virtuoso piano performances for primarily white onlookers. This perspective on race reifies the patron's endorsement of consumer capitalism. Why relinquish monied performance in the arcane black folk province of "race"?
However, the patron subsequently delivers an impassioned speech on the ignobility of human nature and the dispossession of blacks caused by the institution of slavery. His speech is a clear thematic departure, particularly because up until this point in the narrative, the reader has not heard him comment on racial politics at all. In fact, he speaks very little. Yet at the critical juncture in question he is grandiloquent:
We light upon one evil and hit it with all the might of our civilization, but only succeed in scattering it into a dozen other forms. We hit slavery through a great civil war. Did we destroy it? No, we changed it into hatred between sections of the country ... the degradation of the blacks through peonage, unjust laws, unfair and cruel treatment; and the degradation of the whites by resorting to these practices, the paralyzation of the public conscience, and the ever over-hanging dread of what the future might bring. (106)
This fervent discussion of the evils wrought by enslavement and racism enables Johnson to write his text into "black [male] heroic liberational discourse."
The patron's reference to the "paralyzation of the public conscience" proffers profound social commentary and characterizes him as a learned and skilled rhetoritician; the reader wonders why we have not heard him speak--and certainly speak so urgently before. The discussion between the narrator and "his millionaire" marks a narrative instance in which Johnson attempts to negotiate the dichotomy between representing a character who cannot persuasively (in terms of character integrity) claim such critically conscious views and the necessity of vehemently denouncing the current American social arrangement. Hence, intratextual and intertextual demands clash, conspiring to destabilize narrative unity. The patron, in effect, becomes not only a "second" character, but falls "out of character" and speaks ironically on behalf of "the race."
Johnson's social authorial voice also intrudes in the section depicting the segregated Jim Crow railway car, designated for white passengers. The car is a potent metaphor, for in Along This Way, Johnson describes his protest against having to sit in a segregated car; he views the Jim Crow car as an affront to his manhood. The railway car is, of course, also a motif used by Du Bois in Souls. Stepto has argued that Du Bois figures the car as a "ritual vehicle," a site in which he steps within the "veil" as he "immerses" himself literally and figuratively into the Black Belt of America. Hence for Du Bois, the railway car provides a space for a positive affirmation of racial identity. (10) Fo Johnson, the Jim Crow car is symbolic of institutionalized racism. Neither conceptualization works for the narrator of The Autobiography, however; in accordance with his prototypical selfishness he "passes" in the "white only" car, not as an act of subversion (as does Johnson), but in the interest of his own comfort while traveling. Narrative unity is intact.
During the narrator's journey into the Black Belt, a discussion between a white southern planter, a white northern former Union soldier, and a Jewish man discomfits him. He describes at length the conversation about "the race question" that takes place between these men. Johnson characterizes the southern planter as a racist who is entirely averse to integration. The Jewish man vacillates between the southern and northern perspectives. But the northerner makes the most telling statements. After having asserted that the Civil War was fought to preserve the Union, a response that seems conventionally "Northern," the soldier launches into an extended discussion about the contributions that peoples of African descent have made to the development of civilization. Once again, Johnson's social authorial voice intervenes in the discourse.
The soldier seems remarkably learned (and characterologically equivalent to the patron) as he offers profound witness. When the planter implicitly invokes Social Darwinism to suggest that black inferiority is the "law of nature," the soldier counters by observing whites' shortcomings:
Can you name a single one of the great fundamental and original intellectual achievements which have raised man in the scale of civilization that may be credited to the Anglo-Saxon? The art of letters, of poetry, of music, of sculpture, or painting, of the drama, of architecture; the science of mathematics, of astronomy, of philosophy, of logic, of physics, of chemistry, the use of metals, and the principles of mechanics, were all invented or discovered by what we now call inferior races and nations.... Why we didn't even originate the religion we use. (119)
Johnson's appropriation of the northern soldier's voice provides a means of satisfying his conspicuous desire to "speak on behalf of the race." Unable to have his main character speak the soldier's treatise on the origins of civilization, religion, science, and art, Johnson invents a "persona" within the ritual vehicle of the railway car unequivocally to refute the prevailing discourse framing black subjectivity and its ascribed racial "inferiority."
The propensity of The Autobiography to proselytize is persistent, relentless, and subtly brilliant as strategy. In one of the most frequently remarked upon sections of The Autobiography, the narrator analyzes African American class stratification in Jacksonville, Florida. He divides blacks into three social groups. The first he calls the "desperate class," the second, "the servant class," and the third, "the independent merchant class" (55-58). Characterizing the "desperate class," he proclaims: "Happily, this class represents the black people of the South far below their normal physical and moral condition, but in its increase lies the possibility of grave dangers" (56). (11) While the tone here is in keeping with the ex-colored man's claims to aristocracy and attendant disdain for poverty, a detached authorial voice hastily expands the characterization: "And it is not a hopeless class; for these men are the creatures of conditions, as so much so as the slum and criminal elements of all the great cities in the world are creatures of condition" (56). This contextualization of the working class's plight, anticipates the potentially negative repercussions of the narrator's pejorative portrait of the "desperate class," and in turn, seeks to define their condition as a function of economic disenfranchisement rather than innate or intrinsic inferiority.
Most striking is the narrator's description of the "independent merchant class," the "independent workmen and tradesmen ... the well-to-do and educated colored people," for it is largely in keeping with Johnson's own, oftentimes elitist views (Autobiography 57). Positioning them "as far removed from whites as the members of the first class I mentioned," he concludes that any progress they achieve further "widen[s] the gulf between themselves and their white neighbors" (58). Moreover,
It seems that the whites have not yet been able to realize that these people in striving to better their physical and social surroundings in accordance with their financial and intellectual progress are simply obeying art impulse which is common to human nature the world over.... This latter class ... is well-disposed towards the whites.... They, however, feel keenly any injustice or gross discrimination, and generally show their resentment ... they object to the humiliation of being forced to ride in a particular car ... odd as it may sound, refined colored people get no more pleasure out of riding with offensive Negroes than anybody else would get. (58-59)
Levy, Johnson's biographer, maintains that Johnson's impetus in writing The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was in part to demonstrate that white and black people of "equal" station "shared the same social and cultural standards" (135). As reflected in this passage, Johnson apparently believed there could be civil interracial relations, but only if blacks were treated with dignity and respect, particularly if they were blacks of the educated class (135).
This "class division" section of the narrative has frequently been noted. Bell has remarked that the narrator's characterization stands as an "Honest but nevertheless tragically reactionary expression of class prejudice, compounded by informative but intrusively didactic speeches on race relations and gratuitous remarks on black culture [that] weakens the integrity of the narrator and the novel's structure" (89, italics added). Although there is less incongruity and consequently less intratextual friction between Johnson's views and those of the narrator's represented here, once again Johnson's social authorial voice must advocate on behalf of his constituency. In all four instances I have described, Johnson privileges moral integrity over structural integrity. The dialectical pull between form and content engendered by Johnson's keen recognition of the stakes involved in black male public discursive practice is, to my mind, one of the text's most salient features.
To Tell a Free Story (12)
In his critique of Johnson's Autobiography, Bell refers to the "weakened integrity of the narrator and the novel's structure"--a criticism emanating from the tension between the intrinsic, formalistic, and narratological expectations imposed upon the genre of black male autobiography, and the extrinsic, ideological, political expectations that frame the black male autobiographical enterprise (89). The expectation imposed upon Johnson's narrative is that the text should maintain structural and thematic coherence and unity of a prescribed order. Absent from Bell's analysis is the recognition that Johnson's departure from such narratological convention occurs precisely because of the authorial "race man's" group and self-imposed mandate to raise, interrogate, and negotiate issues governing "race relations" and "black culture." However elitist his perspective, Johnson was analytically at home with black majority concerns. His sustained depiction of the antihero engaged in the act of confession is clearly filtered, as he himself might have put it, through the alembic genius of his larger responsibility to situate his writing within the larger black male discursive (and arguably liberatory) project.
Johnson famously maintained the view that black expressive culture should be recognized as signal among original American art forms. Central to his literary project in writing The Autobiography was the creation of a public discourse that unequivocally demonstrated and affirmed the unique contributions of African Americans to American culture. Therefore, the narrator in The Autobiography, in yet another didactic and expository moment, suggests that the cakewalk, ragtime music, Uncle Remus stories, and Jubilee songs adamantly refute black inferiority (63). The section on the Big Meeting continues Johnson's project of explicating the oratorial, rhetorical, and spiritual gifts within African American religious ritual. Johnson returns to this project in The Book of Negro American Spirituals (1925) and God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1926). Here again, competing discourses--that of the narrator's autobiographical journey towards self-actualization (inverted though it may be) and the infusion of Johnson's sociopolitical agenda situated within the black male discursive project--disrupt a traditional, conventional narrative unity.
In his discussion of The Autobiography, in From Folklore to Fiction: A Study of Folk Heroes and Rituals in the Black American Novel Nigel Thomas reiterates Bell's critique that the narrative includes "intrusively didactic speeches and gratuitous remarks on black culture," and argues that "because the protagonist presents the 'Big Meeting' in terms of theories determined beforehand, the presentation is overwhelmingly expository ... so expository are these passages that many of them are repeated verbatim or in only slightly altered phrasing in the preface to God's Trombones and in Johnson's own Along This Way" (Thomas 113, 114). Thomas further suggests that only the first paragraph in this section on the Big Meeting is "acceptable for fiction; the rest is essayistic writing, information, which, to be successful fiction, should be implicit in the interaction of the characters ... because he [Johnson] chose reportage by way of fictive autobiography to convey the events of the novel the drama of the work is severely muted" (114, 116).
While I agree with Thomas insofar as he identifies Johnson's obvious authorial intrusion presenting "theories" that are "determined beforehand," I disagree with his position that character interaction is an inescapable necessity inherent for "successful fiction." Although The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is fictional in content--and hence might be called "a novel," and expected to conform to a particular standard--it is critical to recognize that the narrative purposely appropriates the autobiographical form. As such, the detached observational mode to which Thomas and Bell refer (endemic of Johnson's antedating literary productions and influences) must be read, on the one hand, as "narrative strategy." On the other hand, this mode must also be seen as providing a framework where Johnson diffuses, historicizes, and problematizes the volatile racial subject matter taken up by the text. (13) In other words, what makes The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man subject to adverse generic criticism are the very aspects of the work that make it successful in its fulfillment of "racial mission" and in the valorization of black male subjectivity.
We might then revise Thomas's contention that "the drama of the narrative is severely muted" because Johnson "chose reportage by way of fictive autobiography." Rather, we might assert that because Johnson "chose fictive autobiography" to dramatize the psychological journey of an ex-colored-ex-man, "reportage" served as his ritual vehicle to infuse the "truths" of his historical moment, even at the expense of "truths" (Thomas's "muted drama," Bell's "weakened integrity") that one might anticipate from the fountain through which the confessional ushers forth.
Along "His" Way
One might argue that the "authorial anonymity" of Johnson's classic work challenges my attribution to the author of "noble intentions." However, perhaps critics can agree that in 1912, any politically savvy African American who chose to take up the pen recognized the risks and rewards of engaging in the act of representing black subjects for public consumption. After all, the enduring legacies of racist misrepresentation, stereotyping, and dehumanization of African Americans in print, media, folklore, and on the stage were firmly entrenched and everywhere in performance. Every black image available for public consumption bore an incredible burden. Johnson knew this. It is only in reading The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man against the incumbencies of the black male discursive project that any ascribed "aberrations" become properly contextualized and understood.
In To Tell a Free Story, Andrews invokes Bahktinian theory to capture the dialectics of form and content that frame the autobiographical enterprise. Andrews's discussions are germane to a framing of Johnson's literary project. "When genres undergo novelization: 'they become more free and flexible, their language renews itself by incorporating extraliterary heteroglossia and novelistic layers of literary language ... the novel inserts into these other genres an indeterminacy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contract with unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality'" (Andrews 272, italics added). It is precisely this notion of "indeterminacy" that most disconcerts us as critics. It is indeterminacy, however, that Andrews terms "the price of the renewal" (272).
The dichotomy between "self-interest" and "self-sacrifice," between the individual and the collective, between the self and its society, runs of course, from Socrates to Fanon, an age-old ethical and philosophical ground for meditation and query. That Johnson and other leading figures engaged in imagining a new national identity for black people in early 20th-century US would intellectually engage the fluid, complex, and indeterminate parameters governing how best to secure citizenship rights in a land that denied black agency is not surprising. For, in the end, although the ex-colored man chooses the white Father's Law, Johnson, the author--the crafting hand bent on "renewal"--chooses the law of Race. In so doing Johnson legitimately laid claim to "manhood rights" championed by the great "race men" of his culture. The price of renewal, then, a renewal attuned to the weight of black subjectivity and its representation, begins and ends with the freedom and flexibility that seem aberrations only to those who have not realized that the only truly engendering and fruitful craftsmanship "along" the black way chosen by Johnson is that of a non-risk aversive "semantic openendedness'--the innovations of, as it were, broken form.
Andrews, William L. Introduction. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. By James Weldon Johnson. 1912. New York: Penguin, 1990. vii-xxviii.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Turning South Again: Re-Thinking Modernism/Re-Reading Booker T. Durham: Duke UP, 2001.
Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1987. Carby, Hazel. Race Men. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.
Clarke, Cheryl. "Race, Homosocial Desire and 'Mammon' in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man." Professions of Desire: Lesbian and Gay Studies in Literature. Eds. George E. Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman. New York: MLA, 1995. 84-97.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. 1845. The Classic Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Signet, 2002.
Du Bois. W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Bantam, 1989.
Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom. 3e. New York: Knopf, 1967.
Gibson, Donald B. =Christianity and Individualism, (Re)Creation and Reality in Frederick Douglass's Representation of Self." African American Review 26 (1992): 591-603.
Harper, Phillip Brian. Are We Not Men? Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of African American Identity. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.
Johnson, James Weldon. Along This Way. 1933. New York: Viking, 1968.
--. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. 1912. Andrews, ed. 1990.
Levy, Eugene. James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1973.
Lionett, Francoise. "The Politics and Aesthetics of Metissage." Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender and Self-Portraiture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991.
Sheehy, John. "The Mirror and the Veil: The Passing Novel and the Quest for American Racial Identity." African American Review (33) (1999): 401-15.
Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narratives. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.
Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
Somerville, Siobhan B. Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.
Spillers, Hortense. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book." Diacritics Summer (1987): 65-81.
Stepto, Robert. From Behind The Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979.
Tate, Claudia. "Allegories of Black Female Desire." Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women. Ed. Cheryl Wall. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989. 100-07.
Thomas, Nigel. From Folklore to Fiction: A Study of Folk Heroes and Rituals in the Black American Novel. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1988.
(1.) I borrow the term metissage from Lionett, who inscribes it within the context of a movement for achieving political, social, and linguistic agency.
(2.) See Tate for a discussion of the discourse around the "black [male] heroic liberationar project in relation to black women's participation in acts of liberation that reimagine and reconstitute acts of subversion in black feminist terms.
(3.) I italicize the term =framing" to emphasize Baker's usage in Turning South Again, as a reminder of the "always already" and firmly entrenched social arrangements that mark the landscape into which black male writers engage in acts of representation and production.
(4.) See Gibson for a fascinating discussion of this moment in Douglass's text.
(5.) It is at this point in The Souls that Du Bois invokes Douglass, his example set over and against Washington's counsel. Interestingly, Washington's rise to fame after the Atlanta Exposition in the year of Douglass's death and his succession of Douglass as the leading spokesperson for the race no doubt fueled Du Bois's decision to use Douglass to proffer his critique of Washington's political stance.
(6.) Other critics have made this point. See Clarke, Sheehy, Somerville 111-30, and Harper. All of the aforementioned treat the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in The Autobiography.
(7.) I recognize that this formulation does not take into account =working class" African American values that oft-times problematized and queried the dominant discourse espoused by black leaders like Alain Locke, Du Bois, et al., particularly in relation to the "talented tenth" myth. Still, the public influence in letters on representing "the race man" and his merits, is, I think, a foregone conclusion.
(8.) Somerville cogently argues, "In The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man the representation of the mulatto body is mediated by the iconography of gender inversion ... the narrator is... distinctly feminized recalling descriptions of the highly eroticized mulatta of nineteenth century fiction" (11213). This gender inversion operates in terms of material setting as well, for Johnson places the protagonist squarely and comfortably within the domestic sphere; the women's flattery takes place while he is in the home as his mother sews. In addition, the narrator is extremely uncomfortable in the company of boys and describes in a negative manner his first experience in public school, where he is "thrown among a crowd of boys of all sizes and kinds" who seem to him =like savages" (6).
(9.) Critic Bernard Bell argues that =this achievement of personal wholeness is at best an ambiguous Pyrrhic victory" (90).
(10.) For further discussion of this concept, see Stepto.
(11.) The language in this section recalls DuBois's construction of class among blacks in Chapter Nine of Souls. For example, when Du Bois describes the masses as "partially underdeveloped," his tone is extremely detached, sociological, as is the narrator's in The Autobiography.
(12.) I borrow this section title from Andrews's critical work of the same name.
(13.) Even Levy's biography asserts that "those who have discussed the work in the sixty years since its publication usually call it a novel; yet The Autobiography rests uneasily in that genre" (128). This notion of "unease" with the many-faceted acts of representation embedded within the narrative is reflected in the critical debate that seeks to affix a singular meaning to Johnson's work.
Heather Russell Andrade is Assistant Professor of English and African New World Studies at Florida International University, where she specializes in African American and Caribbean literatures. Her work has appeared in Contours: A Journal of the African Diaspora, The Massachusetts Review, and is forthcoming in a collection of essays on novelist John Edgar Wideman. Her research concerns the relationship between constructions of race, genre, African philosophy and national identity.
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|Author:||Andrade, Heather Russell|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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