Originally published anonymously in 1912, James Weldon Johnson's novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man advances the narrative of the “tragic mulatto” who passes for white beyond the constraints imposed by the form as it was practiced in nineteenth-century American literature. Though in some ways conforming to the conventional novel of passing in suggesting that a mixed racial heritage makes a person incapable of functioning in either the black or the white world, Johnson's novel turns this notion on its head by invoking double consciousness, as his narrator makes clear:
It is this, too, which makes the colored people of this country, in reality, a mystery to the whites. It is a difficult thing for a white man to learn what a colored man really thinks; because, generally, with the latter an additional and different light must be brought to bear on what he thinks…. This gives to every colored man, in proportion to his intellectuality, a sort of dual personality….
As this passage demonstrates, Johnson's novel is the first to give voice in fictional form to “the Veil,” W. E. B. Du Bois's construction of African American racial consciousness.
The novel's plot deals with the product of a clandestine love affair between a white Southerner and a fair-skinned African American woman. Compelled to relocate to the North, the unnamed narrator of the story is reared in a small town in Connecticut, where he displays a prodigious talent as a pianist. Learning from his teacher that he is not white, he decides to attend Atlanta University, a black school in the South. But after his funds are stolen, he takes a job in a cigar factory, where he mingles with blacks of different classes and hues while gaining exposure to African American culture. When the factory closes, the narrator moves to New York City and joins a bohemian world in which he works as a ragtime piano player. Attachment to a white patron enables the narrator to make a tour of Europe, where he decides to devote his talent to the development of vernacular African American music into classical musical forms. Returning to the roots of African American musical traditions in the South, the narrator is so shocked by a lynching that he rejects his new vocation and spurns identification with “a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals.” Cutting himself off from his cultural heritage, he returns to New York to pass for white, become a successful businessman, and marry and raise a family on the white side of the color line. Only at the end of the novel does he acknowledge the tragedy of having sold what he calls his “birthright” for “a mess of pottage.”
Though reviewers hailed the novel as a sociological study, especially after Johnson acknowledged his authorship in 1927, the greater importance of the book lies in its rejection of didacticism and overt propaganda in favor of a psychological realism that revealed the complex conflicting negotiations informing an African American's quest for identity as an artist, a person of color, and a modern American male.
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James Weldon Johnson (1871—1938)