Melissa Daniels-RauterkusNov 20, 2020
Melissa Daniels-Rauterkus on James Weldon Johnson's "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man"
Great Books Series
New Books Network 2020
Recalling the great confessional narratives from St. Augustine to Jean Jacques Rousseau, from Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass to Henry Adams, James Weldon Johnson's 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, relates the emotionally gripping tale of a mixed-race piano prodigy who can pass for white in turn-of-the-century America. Forced into impossible choices created by an unjust society, the narrator describes his experiences as he travels from Jacksonville to New York City, the rural South to Paris, London, and beyond. As the first first-person novel published by an African American author, Johnson’s powerfully unsentimental story examines the significance of chance and choice, the particularly American investment in self-invention, and the role of identities seized and forced upon us in shaping our lives. Its influence extends to Richard Wright, Ralph Waldo Ellison’s Invisible Man and even Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father.
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was an American writer, diplomat, musician, public intellectual, and civil rights leader. The first African American executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, he was known for his poetry, novels, anthologies, and editorial writings. With his brother James Rosamond Johnson, he wrote "Lift Every Voice and Sing," now known as the Black National Anthem (Beyoncé's 2018 Coachella rendition is here). From 1906 to 1913 he served as President Theodore Roosevelt’s U.S. consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua. In 1934 he became New York University’s first African American professor and in 1931 was appointed the Adam K. Spence Professor of Creative Literature at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He firmly believed that art and literature matter as much as laws, court victories, and social movements in fighting racial injustice and inequality. He died in an automobile accident in 1938.
I spoke with Professor Melissa Daniels-Rauterkus of the University of Southern California about Johnson's novel, and also about the post-Civil War era in African American literature, up to the Harlem Renaissance, when writers used the genre of the novel to imagine new forms of representation -- for themselves and for America. Daniels-Rauterkus's fantastic book, Afro-Realisms & the Romances of Race: Rethinking Blackness in the African American Novel (LSU Press, 2020), reveals that African Americans wrote works of literary realism, and that white realists made contributions to African American literature. We also talked about the haunting ending of Johnson's novel: "I cannot repress the thought that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of potage.”
Uli Baer teaches literature and photography as University Professor at New York University. A recipient of Guggenheim, Getty and Humboldt awards, in addition to hosting "Think About It” he hosts (with Caroline Weber) the podcast "The Proust Questionnaire” and is Editorial Director at Warbler Press. Email firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @UliBaer.