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The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man: A novel

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A Contemporary Classics hardcover edition of the groundbreaking classic novel of the Black experience in America that is still remarkably relevant more than a century later.

First published anonymously in 1912, this resolutely unsentimental novel gave many white readers their first glimpse of the double standards—and double consciousness—experienced by Black people in modern America. Republished in 1927, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, with an introduction by Carl Van Vechten, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man became a pioneering document of African-American culture and an eloquent model for later novelists ranging from Zora Neale Hurston to Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.

Narrated by a man whose light skin enables him to "pass" for white, the novel describes a journey through the strata of Black society at the turn of the century—from a cigar factory in Jacksonville to an elite gambling club in New York, from genteel aristocrats to the musicians who hammered out the rhythms of ragtime. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a complex and moving examination of the question of race and an unsparing look at what it meant to forge an identity as a man in a culture that recognized nothing but color.

Everyman's Library pursues the highest production standards, printing on acid-free cream-colored paper, with full-cloth cases with two-color foil stamping, decorative endpapers, silk ribbon markers, European-style half-round spines, and a full-color illustrated jacket. Contemporary Classics include an introduction, a select bibliography, and a chronology of the author's life and times.

ISBN-13: 9780593469606

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publication Date: 02-21-2023

Pages: 192

Product Dimensions: 5.22(w) x 7.95(h) x 0.49(d)

JAMES WELDON JOHNSON (1871–1938) was a novelist, poet, lawyer, editor, and ethnomusicologist, and coauthor of the hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which is unofficially known as the Black national anthem Born in Jacksonville, Florida, he was educated at Atlanta University and at Columbia University and was the first Black lawyer admitted to the Florida bar. He was also a songwriter in New York, American consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua, executive secretary of the NAACP, and professor of creative literature at Fisk University. His other books include an autobiography, Along This Way, and the poetry collection God's Trombones. ABOUT THE INTRODUCER: HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. An award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, he has authored or coauthored twenty-five books and created twenty-one documentary films, including Finding Your Roots. His PBS documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, earned an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, and an NAACP Image Award.

Read an Excerpt

from the Introduction by Gregory Pardlo

Reminiscent of Henry “Box” Brown’s world-famous 1849 escape from slavery by having himself mailed to freedom in a shipping crate, the unnamed narrator in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man spends twelve hours “doubled up” in a laundry basket on a train lumbering toward his own promised land. While Brown fled north from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia, the ex-colored man’s campaign of self-reclamation tracks southward, starting out from his hometown in Connecticut, then on to Atlanta where he hopes to enroll in the university there. Yet he has barely explored the campus before he gets robbed of all his savings and has to flee further south still, stowed away in the aforementioned laundry basket of a train porter who helps him reach Jacksonville, Florida where he expects to find work “in one of the big hotels there.” Symbolically, the narratives are flipped. The history of Black liberation is their line of symmetry.

Thus, we have an allusion to the historical account of an identifiably Black man’s flight to freedom haunting the fictional account of an ambiguously Black man’s expedition into America’s hard heart. Although they are not historical contemporaries, we might imagine them as strangers, barely noticing each other, passing on opposite escalators. The fact that these multiple contradictions can coexist within the concept of race in America should prove that concept’s infinite adaptability. Yet, Johnson improvises literary effects to capture that framework with dexterity if not the deceptive comfort of resolution. Before getting caught up in the fervor and magnitude of the story, we should take a step back to consider a broader view, a view that considers the imagination capable of taking these uniquely American hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies and rendering them sublime.

Home to cigar manufacturers and a sizable Cuban population, Jacksonville, Florida was welcoming to Black entrepreneurs, public servants and professionals when Johnson’s parents settled there from New York City – by way of the Bahamas – after the Civil War. Jacksonville, where Johnson was born and raised, had become less hospitable to Blacks by the time he reached adulthood. Unlike his fictional protagonist, Johnson graduated from Atlanta University in 1894. He turned down a scholarship to Harvard Medical School and returned home, despite conditions in Jacksonville, to serve as principal of Stanton School. Stanton was his alma mater in multiple senses of the term: he had been educated at home and at Stanton, where his mother was a teacher. “I have in my hands the administration of a public school,” he wrote of the experience, “with a thousand pupils and twenty-five teachers.” He was twenty-three years old. His father, a “simple and unostentatious” man, in Johnson’s words, was a respected businessman and community leader. Self-described, the older man was “not a preacher by trade,” yet he was also the only man of the cloth in town willing to minister to dying prostitutes.

His parents’ commitment to community, which Johnson inherited, may be what kept him in Jacksonville so long. Family, of course, was another touchstone in Johnson’s life. When he finally did leave Jacksonville – a move prompted by no less than a life-threatening encounter with a racist mob – he worked with his brother in New York, writing songs for Broadway. Patriotic and politically faithful, Johnson served as United States consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua. It would have been unthinkable for him to make life decisions, as the narrator does, based on fear and self-interest. This all contributes to making the novel the enigma that it is.

Comprising such a mélange of genres that it occupies a class of its own, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man comes to us, like its unnamed narrator, without a recognized lineage or pedigree. It’s not conventionally epistolary, although it is essentially an open letter. It’s not much of a confession, although we learn that the narrator is “divulging the great secret of [his] life.” It’s not a conventional frame story, although the narrative is bracketed within the narrator’s present moment. We could class it as picaresque, given that we follow the narrator through hair-raising escapades from his middle-class childhood to abject poverty as a young adult, and on to relative wealth and security in his advanced years. To some extent it is a roman à clef. In his introduction to the 1927 edition, writer and socialite Carl Van Vechten suggests the unnamed narrator is based on a close friend of Johnson’s, highlighting, among other things, one characteristic of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, upon which all productive readings of it will rely: the fact that it is fiction. This distinction is important because without it, we miss the world of subtext that Johnson’s careful architecture of the novel, consciously or not, animates.

A worthless coin tied around his neck, his piano surrendered to the tidewaters of another family’s generations, the proof of his paternity gone to the grave with his late mother, the unnamed narrator laments that, having traded the sense of belonging and purpose his mother’s people offered him for the monetary gains available to him as an American white man, he’d “sold [his] birthright for a mess of pottage.” But his secret remains safe. Even we, that is, the readers who know his secret, don’t discover his “true” identity. He remains anonymous. His children go on to enjoy their lives to full advantage, unencumbered by the privations of racial exclusion and any sense of bligation to dispel the myths that that exclusion is founded upon. In other words, on first read, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man might not seem to challenge the social order at all.

The publisher’s preface to the original 1912 edition (included in this edition in an appendix), its words taken almost verbatim from a letter Johnson wrote to that first publisher, promises the presumably uninitiated reader “a view of the inner life of the Negro in America” as well as an “initiat[ion] into the ‘freemasonry’ . . . of the race.” Johnson likens the race to a guild or a secret society in which its members are stewards of jealously guarded cultural information. The metaphor enacts an inversion, situating white readers as outsiders who hold in their hands (in the form of the novel) unprecedented access to an exclusive community. The social reality, however, was that Black people were a mystery to whites because white America did not need to concern itself with the experiences of people who occupied the periphery of public life as servants and laborers. What the reader stands to discover, the preface further suggests, is the “unsuspecting fact” that racial prejudice is driving white-presenting people of African descent “over into the white race,” a fact that would produce enough curiosity, if not anxiety, to capture the attention of white readers. It would be cynical, however, to suggest that Johnson intended to manipulate white anxieties for commercial gain.

In his actual autobiography Along This Way (1933), Johnson writes that he did not expect his novel’s title would give anyone pause. He was surprised to find that many people were perplexed by it. He shouldn’t have been. The dominant view at the time was that race was biological, fixed. According to that logic, one could no more be an ex-colored man than one could be an ex-giraffe. Within such a belief system, Johnson’s title had to have been confusing to some, no matter how notorious the practice of racial passing was among Black Americans.

Johnson must have at least intuited that the title he chose would be provocative. He had dismissed the one his brother suggested, “The Chameleon,” which hints of deception and disguise rather than the transformation of one’s social status. A chameleon changes its appearance to protect itself from predators. The chameleon metaphor had the potential to redeem racial passing as an act of self-defense as opposed to an act of betrayal and crass opportunism, but the metaphor would have characterized the narrator as an impostor circumventing fixed social boundaries, and would not have highlighted the challenge The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man posed to the overall logic of race. Note how, throughout the text, we find so few instances of the word “passing.” With its air of finality, whether through social advancement or mortal demise, the word suggests someone has moved conclusively out of reach. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man means to unsettle that essentialist notion to reveal the ways race is ideological rather than fixed.

Indeed, Johnson was aware that appearing white was not the only ticket across the color line. He was a young man in 1896 when the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson cleared the way for racial segregation to become the law of the land. Prior to this decision, there had been no need for Black people to presume that they would be denied services or access to resources in their daily lives. After Plessy, the social landscape, literally and symbolically, would alter radically. In Along This Way, Johnson describes an experience he had with a train conductor during the period of transition. Ricardo, a boy from Cuba with a “bronze complexion,” lived for some time as a ward in the Johnson household. Johnson’s parents oversaw Ricardo’s education and Ricardo introduced Johnson to the Spanish language. When Johnson decided to attend Atlanta University, Ricardo, making arrangements with his benefactors in Cuba, determined to join him. This was the year Florida began segregating train cars. Johnson’s father had purchased fi rst-class tickets for the two young men to travel from Jacksonville to Atlanta, but once they took their seats, the conductor on the train informed them that they would have to move to the newly-designated colored car. Johnson objected. Ricardo, who was not proficient in English, asked Johnson to explain what was happening. The conductor heard the young men speaking Spanish and, satisfied that the social order would be undisturbed, he allowed them to remain in the seats for which they had purchased tickets. Segregation was designed to prevent Black people from competing for resources. Johnson and Ricardo were not, in this case, chameleons attempting to deceive in order to protect themselves from a threat. They were the threat. Arguably, the conductor took the view that he did not need to duplicate an exclusion that the language barrier had already imposed.

Take for example, the process by which the ex-colored man’s ancestry is revealed. Early in his schooling as a child, he is subjected to a bizarre ritual of racial demarcation. The school principal enters the boy’s classroom and, “for some reason,” asks “all of the white scholars to stand for a moment.” When the narrator stands, he is told, without explanation, to sit back down. The ritual serves to initiate certain children into the freemasonry of whiteness, a freemasonry defined by what it excludes. All of this begs the question: why would a society use a concept like race, with its unstable and arbitrary logic, as a social and legal organizing principle if not to disadvantage some and privilege others?

The critique Johnson levels against society with The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man must be measured partly in the distance between his meticulously rendered fiction and the facts from which it is derived. It is important to note that years before he began work on the book, Johnson had apprenticed in a law firm and passed the Florida bar examination, making him one of the very few Black lawyers in Florida. He had developed a global consciousness of history and politics in the course of his diplomatic career after 1906. We can as well add certain general and specific experiences to help us broadly estimate Johnson’s disposition toward the racial politics of his time. For example, he had once narrowly escaped a uniformed militia and their hunting dogs dispatched to apprehend and, if he had resisted, lynch him for the crime of sitting with a white woman on a park bench. He was rescued, as it were, by an officer who claimed jurisdiction to make the arrest, and delivered to the provost martial, who, as fate would have it, was also a member of the Florida bar and an acquaintance of Johnson’s who gave him latitude to explain that the white woman whom he’d sat with on that park bench was, “according to the customs and, possibly, the laws of Florida,” Black. He’d been refused service by bank tellers, elevator operators, restaurant waiters and the like. He had seen Black men and women, his neighbors and friends, subjected to degrading acts of violence and lawlessness. By the time he sat down to write The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, he had developed sensitive and nuanced – which is not to say strident – views on the nature of race in America and the constraints on how one could and could not address racism publicly.

. . .

Table of Contents

Introduction Suggestions for Further Reading A Note on the Text Preface to the Original Edition of 1912


Explanatory Notes