Author: James Weldon Johnson
The unnamed narrator, the offspring of a black mother and a white father, tells of his coming-of-age at the beginning of the 20th century. Light-skinned enough to pass for white but emotionally tied to his mother's heritage, he ends up a failure in his own eyes after he chooses to follow the easier path after witnessing a white mob set fire to a black man.
This is a great book. I highlighted many passages and I really enjoyed reading it. It's a fictional autobiography where the protagonist observes and relates his experience as a bi-racial individual from youth to adulthood. The following lines are imprinted in my head throughout the entire reading:
I feel that I am led by the same impulse which forces the un-found-out criminal to take somebody into his confidence, although he knows that the act is likely, even almost certain, to lead to his undoing. I think I find a sort of savage and diabolical desire to gather up all the little tragedies of my life, and turn them into a practical joke on society[Loc. 17-21]
Is the book a tragedy? --somewhat. Is it satire? --negative. In my view, the narrator has conducted a social experiment on the question of race, where he is both the scientist and the specimen. The social experiment of "passing", shifting one's racial identity for acceptance in society is very complex and detailed by the narrator to be a morally controversial one. In the novel, the narrator traverses the East Coast from North to South, leaves for Europe and then returns to the United States to traverse the coast once again from North to South, only to return to New York. As he travels he develops his own theories and philosophies, and categorizes all classes and castes of both white and black people. These theories and categorizations form a discourse on race in American society at the turn of the 20th century after the era of reconstruction and during the Harlem Renaissance.
As we already know, the discourse on the question of race in America is complex. The narrative does not ignore the fact that Black culture has been disenfranchised and made one-dimensional and the narrator's existence dispels the stereotype of what Black culture is supposed to be. His education, talent as a musician and capacity to speak several languages refutes the argument that Black people will never be equal to White people, intellectually. It suggests the opposite; Black people have made leaps and bounds of progress and they are a civilized people... I have to acknowledge that the narrator had a very fortunate upbringing. Even after the death of his mother, he seemed to possess a great amount of luck with work and the acquaintances he made. His sophistication and skill as a musician helped him no doubt, but his fair complexion had a great influence as well. Had he been a darker mulatto...well, he couldn't have passed.
When the narrator is on a train to the South, he overhears a heated debate between a Texan farmer and a professor from Ohio. The professor implies that not a single original or fundamental intellectual achievement that has raised man in the scale of civilization, can be credited to the Anglo-Saxon; the only contribution being what they have done in steam and electricity and making war more deadly. Interesting. Regardless of whose ideology dominates the race question, I think the following quote says a lot about the attitudes on all sides.
I once heard a colored man sum it up in these words: 'It's no disgrace to be black , but its often very inconvenient.[Loc. 1372-73]
In the end, no matter how great of Black man the narrator was, life as white man would be easier. Watching a Black man get burned alive by a mob of angry white people made that choice all the more clear...I wonder if I would have done the same?...I don't know.
I was relieved to know that he felt some guilt and shame after he made the decision to live as a white man, but I still can't say that he was 100 percent wrong to do it.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 our 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. [Loc 1695-97]
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man