Ambiguity and the Ethics of Reading Race and Lynching in James W. Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)

Carmen Dexl

I. Introduction

The rise of Whites lynching Blacks in the post-Civil War years is not only highly symbolic in terms of a historically continuing appropriation of the black body but it also provides a lens through which to explore late nineteenth-century implications of African American male enfranchisement and citizenship. The commodification and disempowerment of the black male body through white mob violence reveals the prevalent assumptions about power relations and social hierarchies. In this context, fiction serves as a “playground for the imagination” (Morrison 38), that is, it does not simply mirror the reality of lynchings but represents a problem-oriented discourse that employs a variety of aesthetic forms and stylistic devices in order to creatively explore, negotiate, and rewrite prevailing narratives of lynching. James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) represents one early African American novel that stages the black male body in crisis at the same time that it challenges central myths and established assumptions regarding lynching – such as the myth of the black man as a rapist, of white superiority, of race as a biological and/or stable concept, and of racial purity. Featuring an unnamed mulatto as its autodiegetic narrator, the novel illustrates the consequences of racial discrimination and violence on the protagonist’s subjectivity and world view: Vacillating in his conflicting identifications with black and white culture, he eventually passes for white.

Many scholars (e.g. Stepto 1979, Andrews 1990, Fabi 2004) have praised the text, particularly its formal technique, as an innovative bridge between antebellum literary traditions and the New Negro Renaissance. The protagonist’s passing for white, however, was mostly received critically as an expression of racial disloyalty and thus as morally reprehensible. Michael Cooke, for example, concludes: “The Ex-Colored Man becomes essentially an escapist” (1984: 48). And William L. Andrews states in his 1990 introduction to the novel: “[…] his decision has ultimately led to a tragic self denial, a willed neglect of the best within himself” (xxvi). I take issue with such interpretations in two respects: Firstly, they conceive of the mulatto protagonist as being black rather than being “neither black nor white yet both”1 and, secondly, they neglect the constitutive interrelation of the novel’s form and its central theme, passing.

In contrast, I propose to read the novel’s aesthetic complexity – its play with notions of genre and blending of literary styles, its ambivalence and linguistic ambiguity, and the rhetoric of irony – in connection with its central theme. I argue that The Autobiography’s overall aesthetics of ambiguity conveys and reflects an ambivalence towards the concept of race, rather than “a tragic denial” (Andrews xxvi) or definite rejection of the protagonist’s African American heritage. Just as the aesthetic complexity of the novel resists easy classification, the central character himself, the Ex-Colored Man, defies easy racial categorization. To introduce and clarify this hypothesis, I will begin with a characterization of the novel’s structure and major concerns (II). The essay will centrally connect three instances in the novel to my guiding argument, focusing on the novel’s form and representation of “category crisis” (Garber 16-17) (III), the Ex-Colored Man’s liability to performing and masking (IV), and the text’s ambiguous revision of the lynching site (V). The conclusion will draw on theories of Geoffrey Galt Harpham and John Guillory in order to elaborate an ethics of reading race and lynching in Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (VI). I argue that The Autobiography’s aesthetics suggests an ethics of reading that allows to mediate between the levels of concrete social experience and its literary representation by way of aesthetic experience and ethical reflexion. This is not to say that reading the novel entails any actual social or political transformations; nor do I intend to extract any moral imperatives from the text. Defying easy moral evaluation, I think that The Autobiography’s ambiguity promotes complex and multiple perspectives on the social causes, conditions, and implications of passing as a social phenomenon of transgressing borders in a segregated society and on the “social fabrication” (Haney López) of (racial) identity in general.2

II. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Set in the early twentieth century, The Autobiography focuses on the subject position of a mulatto character under conditions of white male supremacy in an increasingly modern, mobile, innovative, and fast-moving world. At the time, the preservation of the social status quo, i.e. white male dominance, was based upon an ideology of racism, forms of racial discrimination manifested in the realities of segregation, racial inequality and injustice, and racially motivated violence such as lynching. Within this binary system of race, whiteness signified ‘normalcy’ and superiority, blackness signified deviation from the norm, otherness, and inferiority (cf. Wiegman 91, 96-97).

The figure of the Ex-Colored Man immediately confuses the established binary: Born to a white father, a Southern blue-blood, and a black mother, a former servant, the central character of The Autobiography is visibly white yet legally black.3 In the outlined racist scheme, the protagonist would be legally classified as ‘colored’ and thus socially and economically deemed unfit for positions of wealth and power. However, the protagonist resists the racist ascriptions and literally ‘cashes in’ on his white skin color. He assumes the “rôle of the white man” (145) in order to become financially successful in real estate and also to achieve cultural and social recognition: He becomes a ragtime player highly esteemed among white intellectuals, marries a white woman, and builds a family. Thus illustrating the protagonist’s transgression of the color line, The Autobiography challenges the dominant conceptions of fixed and diametrically opposed racial binaries. The text demonstrates the instability of the concept of race and hence its unreliability as a signifier of one’s character, intellect, and social, economic, and political status. Emphasizing the protagonist’s agency in his self-fashioning as a white man, the text also questions the convention of the tragic mulatto – a figure that was popularly employed in nineteenth-century American fiction. Despite the Caucasoid morphology, the figure of the mulatto was typically subjected to a tragic fate which served to exemplify the idea of the natural incompatibility of the races (cf. Fabi 39). In contrast to this plot model, the protagonist in The Autobiography succeeds in employing his mixed-race heritage to his own advantage.

The Ex-Colored Man’s primarily material success as a white man, however, does not involve a final reconciliation of his contradictory relations to black and white culture. Emotionally, the Ex-Colored Man is ambivalent towards his decision to pass. His inner turmoil is directly addressed in the novel’s very first and last paragraphs, in which the narrating I reflects on his intentions for revealing his secret of passing: The protagonist harbors “a sort of savage and diabolical desire to gather up all the little tragedies of [his] life, and turn them into a practical joke on society” (1). His cynicism is primarily directed towards white Americans whom he intends to confront with the social fabrication of blackness as well as whiteness and its implications for the distribution of power, wealth, or access to education. The Ex-Colored Man’s very sarcasm, however, coupled with his need for self-analysis – he states that “it is a curious study to me to analyze the motives which prompt me [to confess]” (1) – initially make it difficult for the reader to understand the narrator’s motivations. His reference to “a vague feeling of unsatisfaction, of regret, or almost remorse” (1-2) points to his use of writing as a means of self-therapy that aims at curing his guilty conscience or identity crisis. This idea is taken up at the end of the novel. Having revealed his transgression of the color line, the Ex-Colored Man still struggles:

Sometimes it seems to me that I have never really been a Negro, that I have been only a privileged spectator of their inner life; at other times I feel that I have been a coward, a deserter, and I am possessed by a strange longing for my mother’s people.
[…] [A]nd yet […] I sometimes […] cannot repress the thought that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright [his musical talent as a ragtime player and his creative ambition] for a mess of pottage (153-154).

Having passed for white, the Ex-Colored Man has not yet come to terms with his fragmented self. On the one hand, he relates to the black community, sensing “a strange longing” and a feeling of regret at having “deserted” them and at having abandoned his musical ambitions. On the other hand, the longing for his “mother’s people” is undermined by his need to distinguish himself from African American “people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals” (139). His dissociation from the black community consequently informs his self-critique as “only a privileged spectator” (153). His relation to white society is similarly problematic. On the one hand, he cynically enjoys his social status as a visibly white yet legally black man; on the other, he is ideologically and practically at odds with the binaries sustained by the dominant discourse on race. His conflicting identifications with both cultures and, at the same time, his lacking sense of belonging to either group locate him in an unstable in-between position. I therefore read the novel’s frame that is established by the first and final passages not as a simple rejection of blackness, but as an expression of the protagonist’s inner turmoil and ambivalence towards any racial classification. The following sections will illustrate in what respect the Ex-Colored Man’s critical experience of being neither black nor white does not only set the tone for his whole narrative but also represents a central theme of the novel.

III. The “Category Crisis” of Race

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is written from the first-person perspective of an unnamed man of unspecified, yet advanced age, who retrospectively comments upon the experiences of his younger self. The narrating I is identified as “an Ex-Colored Man”4 only in the title to the fictional autobiography which basically revolves around the narrator’s “great secret” (1), his passing for white. At a first glance, The Autobiography seems to be characterized by linearity and clarity: It renders the Ex-Colored Man’s life story chronologically in eleven chapters. Alluding to the conventions of the slave narrative, the Ex-Colored Man commences his narrative with some information about his birth-place in the American South and his childhood, which were characteristically marked by the absence of his white father and the overall presence of his black mother. The protagonist’s initiation into the social reality of racism occurs as a traumatic experience at the age of ten. He then relates at least three further decisive incidents of racial discrimination or violence in the central part of his narrative, and concludes his life story by revealing his passing for white as an attempt to find personal peace in the American North.

On closer examination, however, the novel’s aesthetic devices such as the rhetoric of irony, its linguistic ambivalence, or the blending of autobiographical and documentary narrative styles do not only complicate the formal classification of the text. The aesthetic complexity also enriches our reading of the narrative logic. It conveys and reflects the Ex-Colored Man’s ongoing inner turmoil and identity negotiation, i.e. his contradictory attitudes towards black and white cultures, his embrace and rejection of the African American/white way of life, and his ambivalence towards the ontology of racial categories – in short “the sort of disarray and ambivalence which passing evokes” (Pfeiffer 403). The novel’s overall ambiguity indicates that the Ex-Colored Man as a passing figure has not (yet) reconciled his contradictory attitudes towards himself and society, as the following examples illustrate:

Being visibly white yet legally black, the Ex-Colored Man explicitly relates his fragmented self to the particular social and cultural experience of African Americans under conditions of white supremacy that W. E. B. Du Bois conceptualized as “double consciousness” in The Souls of Black Folk (1903):

[…] the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with a second-sight […] It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings (3).

The protagonist discovers his legal blackness when unexpectedly discriminated against as a ten-year-old at school and he narratively frames the change in subjectivity and world view as a legally black yet visibly white man that result from this experience in terms of “double consciousness”: “From that time I looked out through other eyes, my thoughts were colored, my words dictated, my actions limited […]” (14). Pondering the deficiencies implied in the derogatory designation, he asks his mother, “‘am I a nigger’?” and for the first time “looked at her searching for defects”:

I could see that her skin was almost brown, that her hair was not so soft as mine and that she did differ in some way from the other ladies who came to the house; yet, even so, I could see that she was very beautiful, more beautiful than any of them (12, emphasis mine).

The child grapples with the socially established assumptions about black inferiority, otherness, and difference which originate merely in outward appearance and which for obvious reasons he remains reluctant to fully accept. Contrary to the supposed ‘norms’ or social standards he finds more beauty in his mother than in any of the lighter-skinned women – a paradox that he cannot suspend. The traumatic initiation into the Jim Crow reality of racial discrimination marks the starting point of the Ex-Colored Man’s “two-ness.” The story of his life is a story of the attempt at reconstructing the “wholesome dreams” (147) of his early childhood. But his ambivalence towards the ontology of racial categories, as the above cited paragraph suggests, points to the impossibility of achieving this wholeness through a racial self-definition.

Therefore, having described his initiation into African American “double consciousness,” the narrating I characteristically interrupts the autobiographic account with an explicit critique of racism in the United States:

And this is the dwarfing, warping, distorting influence which operates upon each and every colored man in the United States. He is forced to outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man, or even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man. It is wonderful to me that the race has progressed so broadly as it has, since most of its thought and all of its activity must run through the narrow neck of this one funnel (14).

In passages like this the narrative voice notably shifts from personal account towards general observations and opinions on the ideology of race, assuming an emotionally detached tone and claiming distance from any overt racial affiliations. According to F. Patton Walker, this narrative technique which he calls the “narrator’s editorialist voice” in The Autobiography allows to insert commentary on events beyond the actual plot of the narrative and to articulate social critique in an aesthetically complex first-person account (cf. Walker 75). Combining the literary forms of the autobiography and the socio-critical documentary, Johnson succeeded in appealing to a double, black and white, audience (cf. Walker 73). The fact that the narrator’s critical statements sometimes contradict each other underscores this claim to address a double audience. The narrative inconsistencies also convey the Ex-Colored Man’s contradictory attitudes towards the concept of race. While expressing his amazement about the progress of African Americans under racist conditions in the passage cited above, the narrating I pays equal attention to the progress of the white man:

The same thing [as about the influence of the ‘race question’ on African American life] may be said of the white man of the South; most of his mental efforts run through one narrow channel; his life as a man and a citizen, many of his financial activities, and all of his political activities are impassably limited by the ever present ‘Negro question.’ I am sure it would be safe to wager that no group of Southern white men could get together and talk sixty minutes without bringing up the ‘race question.’ If a Northern white man happened to be in the group, the time could be safely cut to thirty minutes. In this respect I consider the conditions of the whites more to be deplored than that of the blacks (55).

Although the narrating I fashions himself as a white man, this passage illustrates the Ex-Colored Man’s cynical attitude towards the white man’s time-consuming occupation with the “race question.” He retains the observational and emotionally detached narrative tone both in his comments on African Americans and on Whites. Being neither black nor white the Ex-Colored Man does neither wholly reject nor wholly embrace black/white subjectivity. In this context, the name of the narrating I from the novel’s title echoes ambiguously: The “Ex” in front of “Colored” not only relates to his self-fashioning as a white instead of ‘colored’ man but also signifies his ‘colorless-ness,’ his self-perception as a neither black nor white man. Occupying some indeterminate third space in-between categories and constantly vacillating between supposedly rigid constructions of whiteness and blackness, the Ex-Colored Man resists reduction to one racial classification. This corresponds to what Marjorie Garber terms “category crisis,” that is “a failure of definitional distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable […], a mechanism of displacement from one blurred boundary to the other” (16). Though Garber focuses on the ontological status of the transvestite and the blurring of binarisms like male/female, this/that, him/me, the body of the passing figure also generates “a space of possibility structuring and confounding culture: the disruptive element that intervenes, not just a category crisis of male and female [or: black and white], but the crisis of category itself” (17). Being of mixed-race heritage and blurring the black/white binary, the Ex-Colored Man as a passing figure personifies this “category crisis.” As the living proof of the instability – and hence unreliability – of the category race, the Ex-Colored Man is necessarily ambivalent towards the ontology of racial categories. Apart from his intention to remain anonymous, his and all the other characters’ namelessness throughout the novel further denote a “sense of rootlessness” (Andrews xix) in a constantly changing modern society that is paradoxically firmly rooted in exactly these unreliable conceptions of race. His moral dilemma and contradictory attitudes towards himself and society result from being at once an insider and beneficiary as well as an outsider and critical observer of that very social system. The narrator explains the specificity of his position as follows:

The anomaly of my social position often appealed strongly to my sense of humor. I frequently smiled inwardly at some remark not altogether complimentary to people of color; and more than once I felt like declaiming: ‘I am a colored man. Do I not disprove the theory that one drop of Negro blood renders a man unfit?’ (144)

On the one hand, the figure of the Ex-Colored Man is shown as a member of the social system he lives in. He holds a job, attends meetings, and has two children. And he also cynically enjoys having made money in real estate and thus having played a trick on society through the transgression of borders. On the other hand, as a ‘neither-black-nor-white’ man he not only lacks a positioning in a social system that operates prominently with the racial binary of black and white. The existence of a passing character also critically undermines the arbitrary ascription of racial characteristics.

IV. Performing and Masking

As a means of utilizing his in-between position the Ex-Colored Man has adopted strategies of masking and performing. His specific agency grounds in his ability to assume racial masks depending on the respective social context. He successfully manipulates his racial identity when he performs in accordance with the social expectations of what constitutes blackness and whiteness. That is, just like the performance of gender according to Judith Butler, the performance of race is based on the reiteration of supposed norms (cf. Butler 25).

In the first part of the narrative which is set in Atlanta, Jacksonville, and New York City respectively, the protagonist identifies as African American. Regardless of his black heritage he is accepted as “an American” (99) during his stay in Paris and London, which clearly locates the problem of the color line in the United States. After a period of traveling Europe with his wealthy patron, the protagonist makes up his mind to immerse himself once more into Southern Black culture and to contribute to ‘racial uplifting’ through his “new American music” (103), a blend of European classical compositions and old slave songs. This fusion of musical styles into a “new American” harmony corresponds to Johnson’s vision of the Ex-Colored Man as a ‘New American,’ the personification of racial integration and a new social harmony (cf. Ahlin 116). His white millionaire patron who engaged him as his personal performer of ragtime music disapproves of the protagonist’s return to the South, arguing that he is “by blood, by appearance, by education, and by tastes a white man” (105). His patron’s judgment attests to the protagonist’s skills of performing and role-playing. At the same time, his manipulation of race highlights the arbitrariness and social fabrication of the concept of race. Back in the South, the protagonist participates in a “big meeting,” a religious gathering of African Americans, and resolves, again, to uplift the race by becoming “a great man, a great colored man, to reflect credit on the race and gain fame for myself” (32). It takes the traumatic experience of witnessing a black man’s lynching to curb his newfound enthusiasm and to eventually decide to pass for white, which the Ex-Colored Man does not perceive as a rejection of his African American heritage but rather as another form of masking: “[…] I had assumed and played my rôle as a white man with a certain degree of nonchalance, a carelessness as to the outcome, which made the whole thing more amusing to me than serious” (145). That the Ex-Colored Man claims to be playing the role of a white man – rather than identifying as white – clearly contradicts the oft-cited idea that his blackness is eventually absorbed by whiteness. Taking the mask of whiteness does not only constitute a protective measure, given the existential threat posed by the lynching experience. It also enables the protagonist to gain economic independence from his patron as well as freedom from white dominance and oppression. Due to the text’s autodiegetic mode of narration and the narrator’s unreliability it remains unclear, however, in what respect and/or to what degree the protagonist does accept stereotypes and conform to white society rather than mimic and undermine it.

V. Lynching Revisited

The sections set in the South afford the narrating I the hindsight to repeatedly and critically assess his younger self’s observations on ‘the race’ and on the predicament of race relations:

I shall give the observations I made in Jacksonville as seen through the light of after years; and they apply generally to every Southern community. The colored people may be said to be roughly divided into three classes […]. There are those constituting what might be called the desperate class – the men who work in the lumber and turpentine camps, the ex-convicts, the barroom loafers […]. This class of blacks hate[s] everything covered by a white skin, and in return they are loathed by whites. […] The second class, as regards the relation between blacks and whites, comprises the servants, the washerwomen, the waiters, the cooks, the coachmen, and all who are connected with whites by domestic service. […] Between this class of the blacks and the whites there is little or no friction. The third class is composed of the independent workmen and tradesmen, and of the well-to-do and educated colored people; and, strange to say, for a directly opposite reason they are as far removed from the whites as the members of the first class I mentioned. (55-57)

Despite a pronounced awareness of the arbitrariness of classifications, the Ex-Colored Man positions himself as an ethnographer or sociologist reporting his observations in classificatory terms. In the passage cited above, he suggests that class, rather than race, constitutes the determining factor in race relations: There are no interracial tensions or violent conflicts as long as African Americans remain submissive to white dominance. In the Ex-Colored Man’s opinion this explains why the black working class, generally “simple, kind-hearted, and faithful” (57), is mostly spared violent oppression. Lower-class Blacks, however, are frustrated by their poor living conditions. In order to prevent them from revolting, white supremacists intimidate and discriminate against them violently. The black upper class and “the Talented Tenth” – i.e., according to Du Bois, the group of public intellectuals, promoters of social change, and future leaders – are also oppressed and threatened with violence for fear of economic and political competition.

The lynching scene is the climactic example of the novel’s perplexity. The reader does not learn anything about the black lynching victim’s social class, status, and personal background; rather does his complete anonymity make him an African American everyone. Since any reasons for the white mob violence against the black man are withheld, the text leaves it to the reader to imagine possible motivations for the lynching of African Americans. Potentially, this makes the reader complicit with the crime against an African American individual. Ideally, it stimulates a critical reexamination of the discourse of white supremacy, insinuating the practice’s underlying political, economic, and psychosexual dimensions: Racial violence, especially lynching, at that time represented a response to the social transformations since Emancipation and Reconstruction. The emancipated male slave not only entered the political arena but also established himself as patriarch and breadwinner of the African American family, conforming with the prevalent gender ideology. The black man’s potential for equality raised fears among white men concerning their supremacy and patriarchal privileges (cf. Wiegman 94-96). As a consequence of the African American’s “newly institutionalized masculinization” (Wiegman 96), the myth of the black man as a rapist who lusts after the white woman, the emblem of civilization, racial purity and virtue, was constructed and utilized as the justification for the lynching of African Americans. The blank concerning the very explanations for the black man’s lynching in The Autobiography indicates the practice’s arbitrariness. The text thus subverts the myth of the black rapist and suggests to conceive of lynching as a means of commodifying the black body and eventually maintaining white power. Protected by his visible whiteness, since “his identity as a colored man […] [has] not yet become known in town” (135), the protagonist stays among the predominantly white spectators at the lynching site and witnesses the brutal ritual of burning a human being at the stake – an experience that finally stirs his decision to pass. The lynching passage is paradigmatic of The Autobiography’s overall aesthetics in that it illustrates the blending of documentary and autobiographic literary styles, the blurring of narrating I and experiencing I, and the evocation of ambiguity:

Have you ever witnessed the transformation of human beings into savage beasts? Nothing can be more terrible. A railroad tie was sunk into the ground, the rope was removed, and a chain brought and securely coiled around the victim and the stake. There he stood, a man only in form and stature, every sign of degeneracy stamped upon his countenance. His eyes were dull and vacant, indicating not a single ray of thought. Evidently the realization of his fearful fate had robbed him of whatever reasoning power he had ever possessed. […] He squirmed, he writhed, strained at his chains, then gave out cries and groans that I shall always hear. […] Some of the crowd yelled and cheered, others seemed appalled at what they had done, and there were those who turned away sickened at the sight. I was fixed to the spot where I stood, powerless to take my eyes from what I did not want to see. (136)

In describing the black victim’s “degeneracy” in graphic detail, the narrating I reiterates and perpetuates the dehumanization and victimization of the black male body and becomes complicit in the strategies of objectifying and eventually Othering the black male subject.Probably due to his Anglo-Saxon education, he employs a vocabulary and imagery that is strongly informed by master narratives: The term “savage beast,” for example, derives from the stereotype of the slave as a brute unfit for civilization. Ironically, however, the question about the “transformation of human beings into savage beasts” remains ambiguous: It can relate either to the black lynching victim, “a man only in form and stature” giving out “cries and groans,” or to the white lynch mob, portrayed in animalistic terms as a “crowd yelling and cheering.” On the level of the narrated world, this ambivalence is represented in the inner turmoil of the experiencing I who has to negotiate a macabre fascination with and the profound shock about the appalling violence confronting the protagonist. He is also torn between his conflicting sympathies with the black male victim and the white dominating lynch mob: On the one hand, he is “fixed to the spot,” “powerless,” and thus subjected to the white violent mastery over the black body just like the lynching victim. On the other hand, he is himself a (passive) member of a largely white crowd, made complicit by sharing the dominating gaze on the victimized black body. The interruptive and shocking quality of the event is underlined by the freezing of time implied in the observation that the horrible incident was over before the protagonist realized “that time had elapsed” (136). The “scene of brutality and savagery” (137) leaves the protagonist with a “dazed mind” (137) as well as with the memory of the victim’s unforgettable “cries and groans.” Profoundly stunned and disturbed, the protagonist decides to leave the South for New York City. He justifies his decision to move with his feelings of “shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals” (139), thus disassociating himself from the victimized African American. Yet at the same time he asserts that he intended to “neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race; but that I would change my name, raise a mustache, and let the world take me for what it would” (139). When people take him for white, they ironically not only undermine basic assumptions about racial incompatibility and the stability of racial borders but also testify to the very social fabrication of race.

The protagonist eventually marries a white woman, has two children with her, and “makes a white man’s success” (141) in real estate. Considering the implications of lynching I outlined above, this gesture can be regarded as an act of revenge and (passive) protest against the brutal punishment of African Americans for gaining power since Reconstruction. The legally black protagonist literally infiltrates white society in economic, social, and physical terms, which the narrating I assesses cynically: “I laughed heartily over what struck me as the capital joke I was playing” (144). Eric J. Sundquist critically points to the downside of the protagonist’s decision, arguing that African Americans “could be lynched as well by those, like the Ex-Coloured man, who expunge their color and their history in a fantasia of whiteness” (47). Without doubt the Ex-Colored Man’s passing does nothing to end the exploitation of African Americans and may thus be conceived as a hypocritical joining of the oppressing group. It is important, however, to consider the causes and conditions of the protagonist’s decision: the recurring experience of discrimination, violence, and oppression inflicted upon African Americans. For the Ex-Colored Man passing, or rather masking as a white man, represents a means of gaining independence, wealth, and prestige at the same time that it intensifies his inner turmoil and ambivalence towards the concept of race. Conveying the very perplexity that racial categorization in general evokes, The Autobiography “reflect[s] and critique[s] the institutionalized racism of capitalist America” (Balter 68).

VI. Conclusion

Published anonymously in 1912, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was speculatively considered an authentic account. Among its originally small audience the book stimulated a heated debate about its potential author as well as the text’s implications concerning such issues as miscegenation and United States race politics (cf. Fleming 102-03). The novel, however, is neither an actual autobiography nor an actual documentary. It is probably best characterized as a fictional autobiography that – due to a more detached, critical reflection – occasionally adopts a documentary narrative style. Just as the aesthetic complexity of the novel resists easy classification, the Ex-Colored Man’s constant racial oscillation and blurring of the color line indicate ambivalence towards blackness and whiteness alike. That is, the interplay of the novel’s aesthetics and its central theme, passing, suggests to question clear-cut categorizations, most notably of literary form and of race, as reliable signifiers. With good reason, Gayle Wald has stressed the fact that the protagonist’s passing is still “based upon and governed by dominant conceptions of stable and diametrically opposed racial identities of black and white” (141). Though the protagonist’s secret passing does at a first glance confirm the tragic existence of the color line and reinforce dominant ideologies of race, class, and power, his transgression of racial and social borders without doubt blurs the color line and subverts power structures. The literary mulatto figure’s subversive potential lies in his/her very ability to “cross racial boundaries that were considered fixed, real, or even natural […]” (Sollors 245). In The Autobiography the autodiegetic narrator initially celebrates this subversion of supposedly fixed boundaries, regarding it as “a practical joke on society” (1). Despite his emotional and moral ambivalence towards passing, the novel’s ending suggests a sense of reconciliation, when the Ex-Colored Man argues contentedly: “My love for my children makes me glad that I am what I am and keeps me from desiring to be otherwise” (145). He remains specifically unclear about what exactly constitutes that self, but the statement indicates a potential resolution of his inner turmoil in the embrace of his mixed-race identity as the father of two (legally mixed-race) children.

The text encourages “multiple perspectives” of readings (Pfeiffer 409) and thus undermines ultimate evaluations of the protagonist’s morality or the moral correctness of his passing. I argue that The Autobiography’s aesthetics proposes a conception of ethics that does not demand or assign but rather explore and problematize normativity and morality with its categorical distinction between right and wrong. This relates to Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s conception of ethics as a problem-oriented discourse that “can never hope to resolve its internal difficulties and offer itself to the world as a guide to the perplexed. Articulating perplexity, rather than guiding, is what ethics is all about” (394-5). In articulating and maintaining this “perplexity” or ambiguity throughout the text, The Autobiography invites a reading that is not primarily concerned with extracting and internalizing a ‘moral’ of the text. Instead, the complex aesthetic representation of the Ex-Colored Man’s in-between position and identity crisis induces what John Guillory calls an “ethical practice” of reading (30). Guillory speaks of “a practice on the self” (39), i.e. an understanding of one’s own and others’ needs and choices, not through evaluating the literary character’s conduct in moral terms, but through aesthetic experience. The aesthetic experience connecting ethics and aesthetics is no moral experience. It is the experience of differentiated and organized ethical reflexion about one’s own and other’s options, needs, and choices stimulated through aesthetics (cf. Düwell 317). The Autobiography’s literary representation of the protagonist’s defiance of supposedly stable borders exposes the vagueness of race – of blackness and whiteness alike – and confronts us, the readers, with the very fabrication of (racial) identity in general. The text’s aesthetics of perplexity subscribes to the idea that identity formation is not subjected to solely personal decisions. It rather represents an ongoing, flexible process that involves constant social and individual, conscious and unconscious contestation and negotiation.


1 Cf. the study by Werner Sollors of the same title in which he explores interracial themes, e.g. the tragic mulatto/-a and passing, in literature (28-29).

2 This essay defines race as “an amalgamation of competing societal forces” (Haney López 28), involving firstly chance, i.e. one’s morphology and ancestry, secondly context, i.e. “the social setting in which races are recognized, constructed, and contested” (42), and thirdly choice, i.e. the self-fashioning of one’s racial identity out of personal intentions and/or social, environmental forces. The conception of race as a “social fabrication” emphasizes the significance of human interaction as a complex, meaning constituting process and evokes the category’s “plastic and inconstant character” (28). The same is true of other identity formative factors such as gender, class, or sexuality, to which race is always relationally constructed.

3 The ‘one-drop rule’ prevailing at the time held that any person with even one drop of non-white ancestry in his/her blood would be classified as ‘colored’ (cf. Davis 5).

4 The use of the indefinite article “an Ex-Colored Man” in the book’s title connotes the potential generalization of the represented individual experience and stages “the individual self as a reference point for a broadly based discourse on social, economic, and moral questions affecting the whole of America” (Andrews xviii).

Works Cited

Andrews, William L. Introduction. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. By James Weldon Johnson. 1912. New York: Penguin, 1990. vii-xxvii.

Balter, Ariel. “The Color of Money in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” Complicating Constructions: Race, Ethnicity, and Hybridity in American Texts. Ed. David S. Goldstein and Audrey B. Thacker. Seattle/London: U of Washington P, 2007. 48-73.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cooke, Michael. Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1984.

Davis, F. James. Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2001.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Norton, 1990.

Düwell, Marcus. Ästhetische Erfahrung und Moral: Zur Bedeutung des Ästhetischen für die Handlungsspielräume des Menschen. Freiburg: Alber, 1999.

Fabi, Giulia. “Reconstructing the Race: The Novel After Slavery.” The African American Novel. Ed. Maryemma Graham. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 34-49.

Fleming, Robert E. James Weldon Johnson. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Guillory, John. “The Ethical Practice of Modernity: The Example of Reading.” The Turn to Ethics. Ed. Marjorie Garber et al. New York: Routledge, 2000. 29-46.

Haney López, Ian F. “The Social Construction of Race: Some Observations on Illusion, Fabrication, and Choice.” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 29.1 (1994): 1-62.

Harpham, Geoffrey G. “Ethics.” Critical Terms for Literary Studies. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. 387-405.

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. 1912. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Morrison, Toni. Playing the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Pfeiffer, Kathleen. “Individualism, Success, and American Identity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” African American Review 30.3 (1996): 403-19.

Sollors, Werner. Neither Black nor White yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Stepto, Robert. “Lost in a Quest: James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979. 95-127.

Sundquist, Eric J., ed. The Hammers of Creation. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1992.

Wald, Gayle. “The Satire of Race in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” Cross-Addressing: Resistance Literature and Cultural Borders. Ed. John C. Hawley. Albany: State U of New York P, 1996. 139-155.

Walker, F. Patton. “The Editorialist Voice in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” CLA Journal 41.1 (1997): 70-92.

Wiegman, Robyn. American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995.

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