I know I just said in my The Awakening review that I tend to avoid American literature. The only consistent exception to that is the slave narrative and slave-narrative inspired novels. I can't explain why. It's just another quirk like my love of horror musicals or appreciation of a fine trashy reality show on VH1.
For those who do not know, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson is not, in fact, an autobiography. Though the movements of the unnamed narrator mirrors many of Johnson's own experiences, the book is a work of fiction. And what a work of fiction it is.
This is a novel that deals with personal identification of race and culture. The narrator is raised by his white single mother to believe that he is a white child, only to discover that his father is black. This sends his life into a tailspin of disappointments broken by minor triumphs. If the narrator is not [identity], he is nothing. If he isn't rolling cigars in Florida, he is a meaningless drifter perfectly capable of moving to New York City and breaking into the gambling racket. If he isn't a perfect white child playing piano to everyone's endless amusement, he can drift around from style to style until he latches onto something else he likes. The narrator is only capable of success when he clearly identifies with some form of established racial or cultural norm.
The plot of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is not as important as the growth of the character. In the crests and troughs of his journey to a sustainable identity, the narrator casts light on greater issues surrounding the role of mixed-race persons in America. Writers influenced by the work of James Weldon Johnson, like Jean Toomer, still cast mixed-race characters as the other, something removed from society, fearful, or shameful. Here, because the narrator is light enough to pass as white, Johnson produces a character than can explore various roles in society. This exploration is full of struggle caused by the cultural role of a mixed-race person. If he pretends he is white, he believes he is hiding part of his identity and will be found out and punished; if he accepts his black heritage, he feels obligated to better his race through a brand new form of artistic exploration; and if he tries to straddle the line between the two, he doesn't really exist in his society.
Johnson combines the American myth of rags to riches with the slave narrative to produce a unique exploration of an ignored aspect of American society. Every time you expect a kindly gentleman or long lost relative to step forward and save the struggling narrator, the narrator is forced to undergo even harder circumstances than his initial problem provided. His achievements, like learning to read and write and moving away from home to be an independent person, are the new stepping stones he uses in a faltering attempt at respectability. No one is going to save him but himself.
The prose is a treat to read. Johnson has a strong narrative voice that really does feel like a pompous young man detailing his exploits as if he is the greatest man to ever live. The combination of Johnson's life experience coloring the text and the integration of established literary forms make the work feel authentic. It's no surprise that the work was presumed to be a genuine autobiography. Johnson intentionally produced a fictional narrative reflective of real life to open a greater dialogue in America than any novel ever could.