Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man: Centennial

Source: The Daily Beast,
Penguin Classics, $6.10
This year marks the centennial anniversary of the publication of James Weldon Johnson's novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. "Daily Beast" columnist Nathaniel Rich featured Johnson's novel recently in his series, American Dreams, which looks back at works of fiction that helped to define the last American century. Rich makes the point that The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was a pivotal work that took the bold artistic leap in 1912 to portray an African American man wrestling intellectually with his decision to cross the color line to pass as a white man. Through his character's reasoning about the impact of racial identification, Johnson depicts the ex-colored man, and by implication African Americans generally, as socially and psychologically complex. The novel, Rich says, influenced Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Claude McKay among others to write autobiographical fiction depicting realistic portraits of Black people. This move contrasted the simplistic caricatures of Blacks (such as the "happy darky") that were exported from 19th century sterotypes and that--without the assertion of realism in American fiction--threatened to dominate the lens through which African Americans would be seen for another hundred years.

Successful songwriter, poet, novelist and author of the personal narrative  (check out his autobiography, Along this Way), James Weldon Johnson was a renaissance man who not only penned lyrics that came to be embraced as the Negro national anthem but with The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man, signaled a trend to render the national character of African American people authentically, in all of our diversity and as our richly-layered selves.

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