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.


Let’s Discuss — Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

A man like Dewitt Albright didn’t die couldn’t die. It frightened me even to think of a world that could kill a man like that; what could a world like that do to me? (210)

Mosley creates an Ellisonian* figure named Easy Rawlins, to lead this hard-boiled crime story. Readers will tour the L.A underworld with Easy to find a woman named Daphne. Whether it’s a hole-in-the-wall bar, secret jazz club, local barbershop, sketchy apartment complex, or around-the-way brothel, Easy uses his social connections to extract the information he needs to find her. It’s through the connections and information that readers absorb his reality and race relations of the era. They add a layer to Easy’s persona. However, it’s not just blackness or whiteness, right and wrong. There’s a universal idea that regardless of background, money, fear and power can turn anyone.

There were a few things I could have done without, such as, the “voice”.** I thought it was kind of cheesy. Coretta and Daphne bothered me too. I didn’t have a problem with them seducing Easy, no, that was to be expected, but it’s unfortunate how they were simply objects of possession; easily used and discarded. I mean, after Coretta hooks up with Easy she’s murdered and that’s it. I don’t know, just seemed like a very masculine-fantasy way to go about things…I’m wondering if that’s just characteristic of this type of fiction.

Out of all the characters (and there are many), I hold a special dislike for Daphne. Not Albright, not Mouse, not Frankie Green–Daphne Monet. I hate that she was placed on a pedestal, although I understand why.  Her connection to a potentially large sum of money, the crimes she’s connected to, and the fact she was seemingly unavailable and unattainable, added to her enchantment. However, this doesn’t deter Easy one bit. He bends over backwards for this mysterious, white woman and puts himself in danger to help her, to be with her, to be her lover. But Daphne has her own secrets.

“She wanna be white. All them years people be tellin’ her how she light-skinned and beautiful but all the time she knows that she can’t have what white people have. So she pretend and then she lose it all. She can love a white man but all he can love is the white girl he think she is.”

What’s that got to do with me?”

“That’s just like you, Easy. you learn stuff and you be thinkin’ like white men be thinkin’. You be thinkin’ that what’s right fo’ them is right fo’ you. She look like she white and you think like you white. But brother you don’t know that you both poor niggers. And a nigger ain’t never gonna be happy ‘less he accept what he is. (209)

When Easy finds out the truth about Daphne, he’s devastated. He actually compares it to an earthquake and almost refuses to see her for what she is. A woman he lusted for, who caused him to search down in his soul, someone he could have died for had deceived him. On top of that, she was one of his own! …I love that Mosley was able to convince me to dislike a character so much.

In the end, we have an intriguing story of Easy Rawlins’ transition from war veteran and day laborer to private investigator in 1940s, Los Angeles.

* In the manner of Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man (fantastic book)

** The conscience that likes to pop up during high stress situations, and lead Easy to victory