The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

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The indefinite status accorded James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) is, to a great extent, attributable to its standing as the first "fictional" text written by an African American that deliberately masks its genre. The confessional frame is a guise, self-consciously employed by Johnson to authenticate the main character's story, strategically to give the text the appearance of an autobiography. From the onset, the narrative co-mingles genres; like its racially hybrid narrator, the text itself is a kind of narrative message.

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 narrative line 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 socio-historical 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 humiliation (slavery), multiple subjects and signifiers, figurative obligations of race in America (to speak 'Negro' or for "Negroes”), and patent sex and gender implications.

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 defeat," the white public's "network of opinions and desires," and "the always undecided cultural compromises of occupancy and desire: Who moves? Who doesn't?"still, the early 20th-century textual black subject is also located within what Claudia Tate describes as a firmly entrenched "black male heroic liberation dialogue," 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...
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