Let’s Discuss — The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson

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]

The reasoning behind the social phenomenon of “passing”* is very complex. It is also morally controversial. The narrator of this novel traverses the East Coast, visits Europe and returns to the States, all while trading** his racial identity. As he travels he develops philosophies about race and race relations as they pertain to black and white people. The entire narrative forms a discourse on race in American society at the turn of the 20th century.

Although said narrator is passing, he never attempts to ignore the facts: Black people and Black culture have been disenfranchised. In a way, the narrators’ 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 one antiquated argument*** ;intellectually, black people will never be equal to white people. On the contrary; he and many more black people have made leaps and bounds of progress.

I have to acknowledge the narrator had a very fortunate upbringing. Even after the death of his mother, he seemed to possess a great amount of luck. Without question his sophistication and skill as a musician helped him, 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. I do not doubt the possibility this may have been one of Johnson’s personal opinions about white people. Regardless, the following quote says a lot about attitudes on all sides:

I once heard a colored man sum it up in these words: ‘It’s no disgrace to be black, but it’s often very inconvenient [Loc. 1372-73]

In the end, no matter how great of black man the narrator was, life as white man would simply be easier. Watching a black man get burned alive by a mob of angry white people made that choice all the more clear.

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 out 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]

I was relieved to know he felt guilty after he made the decision to live as a white man, but considering the era, I still can’t say he was 100% wrong to do it.

* When a member of one racial group attempts to assimilate to another. In the United States this usually applied to African-Americans, or mixed race individuals with lighter complexions merging into a white majority.

** Hiding, denying, lying about may also apply. I tried to pick the most diplomatic and politically correct word.

*** Worldwide there has been a long standing history of scientific racism. Google it. Literally google “scientific racism”…people still believe this shit… I will not rant I promise.


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