This review discusses the book, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man,” by James Weldon Johnson. In it, Johnson analyzes African American music and theater. He also discusses his discovery of his blackness, and the influence of music on his own journey.
James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a memoir written by James Weldon Johnson, a biracial man who lived during the post-Reconstruction era in the early twentieth century. His life is rich with historical and personal events, which shed light on the challenges of race and identity in post-Reconstruction America.
Johnson wrote the book in 1912 and published it anonymously via a small Boston publisher. He was worried that his book would affect his diplomatic career and so chose to keep it anonymous. Johnson’s work addressed race and discrimination issues in a straightforward way, despite his own fear that it would be read by whites. The book was later republished by Alfred A. Knopf, which was known for publishing other works by Harlem Renaissance writers.
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is an excellent memoir, and is worth reading. James Weldon Johnson’s writing style is rich and lyrical. The narrator is an unnamed man who tells his story in the first person. In the beginning, the narrator is forced to confront a secret about his life, revealing how difficult it is for him to live as a black man. His life is full of challenges, and he is forced to make hard decisions to make the right choice.
James Weldon Johnson’s analysis of African American theater and music
James Weldon Johnson was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. His work celebrated the contributions of black artists, musicians, and writers and aimed to increase awareness of their creativity in American society. In 1922, he published the landmark anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry. Later, he compiled and edited two volumes of American Negro Spirituals.
Among the authors who influenced Johnson are Kishimoto, Hisao, Levy, Eugene, and Noelle Morrissette. Several academic organizations have devoted their resources to Johnson. The University of South Carolina has an online profile of the writer, and the University Library has many rare books and special collections.
Johnson grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, when black Americans were just beginning to demand equal treatment under the law and civil rights. He was educated by a black mother and attended black grade schools. Later, he went to Atlanta University and Columbia University. His maternal grandfather was a citizen of the Bahamas and served in the Bahamas government for 30 years.
Narrator’s discovery of his own blackness
The novel starts with the narrator examining various African Americans, judging them based on their education, dialect, and manners. He is drawn to the “higher” classes of any race, but is unimpressed with rural African Americans. Eventually, he falls in love with a white woman, confesses his blackness to her, and begins to live like a white man.
Soon after, he moves to New York City and joins a Brotherhood, a group of people who fight for racial equality. The group offers money and a place to live, but the Brotherhood’s ideology negates the individuality of its members.
After arriving in New York, he works at a Liberty Paints plant. It achieves financial success by subverting blackness in favor of white. He becomes involved in the process of mixing paint tones and racial makeup in the workforce. However, the Liberty Paints company is adamant in denying that blacks have any dependence on the final product, and he becomes stifled.
Influence of music on Johnson
Music is an integral part of Johnson’s life and influenced him throughout his life. Born on a plantation in the late eighteenth century, Johnson was considered a prodigy in his early years, becoming well-known for his playing the fiddle, a popular instrument for dances. His owners hired him to perform for their parties and divided the earnings with him. He later became free. His autobiography mentions this as a key factor in his life.
While his life and music influenced his career, little is known of his early life. His biographical story is a bit confusing. One section of his autobiography claims that he transformed himself into a blues master in a year. Another part of his autobiography claims that he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads.
Music was also a part of his public life. Johnson studied at the Julliard School and the University of Southern California. He married Celeste Corpening in Athens, Georgia, in 1912.