Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

by James Weldon Johnson, 1912.

A powerful little novel, packs a lot of substantive issues into a tight and thoughtful narrative.

There are three main things this work tackles:

1] Exploration of racist conditions in early 20th century United States. Quiet but potent, such a scenario inevitably causes us to what's shifted from this account, and then what hasn't. For a portion of the book this issue seemed almost too light, too much a matter of verbal prejudice rather than more fundamental realities--but it came full force near the ending, with a vivid narration of a lynching.

2] Debate concerning such racism. Here the work is less succesful, and seems to a greater extent dated and less useful. The larger approach is credible enough but the exploration of racism as a component of southern pride and regional nationalism feels incomplete. The arguments analyzed here are major racist tenets, but they don't get at some of major overlapping motifs behind abhorrence. Even more deficient are the counter arguments against racist definitions of blacks and black culture. The intent is certainly laudable, but the actual speeches given--largely pointing to black music as a self-evident sign of accomplishment rather than degradation--miss a lot and close the book on assessment in a way I doubt was applicable even in the author's time.

3] Attempted opting out of this issue. This element is where the book shines, showing the systemically inhumane treatment of blacks, and the ambivalent and muddled human response to this. Faced with long odds and no prospects of racial equality, the protagonist chooses--as the title indicates--to pass as white and give up efforts for a wider struggle. Not an heroic choice, but eminently understandable, and puts a far more tangible face on the many characters real and fictional who did sacrifice deeply in a question for human justice.

This book reminded me of and was better than: Greenlee's The Spook Who Sat By the Door.

This book reminded me of and was worse than: Morrison's Sula.

No comments:

Post a Comment