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Callaloo 25.1 (2002) 233-256

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Of Black Bards, Known and Unknown
Music as Racial Metaphor in James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Salim Washington


After realizing that the anonymously published book was a work of fiction and not a real autobiography, many considered The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man to be an artistic failure. It was dismissed by some as being little more than a descriptive travelogue or glorified sociology, lacking the literary ambition befitting a novel. Even Carl Van Vechten, in his preface to the second edition published in 1927, admits to mining the novel for sociological data. While Van Vechten and others rightly praised the book for its unflinching and artfully drawn portraits of black life of various stripes throughout the South and North, the book in many ways was also quite a literary achievement. Not surprising, given that its author was already a student of literary theory, as well as a poet of merit, and went on to become a canonical critic of black culture. Since the novel's resurrection after the Harlem Renaissance, it is no longer possible to ignore the formal complexity and artistic worth of Johnson's novel, thanks to the work of scholars like Houston Baker, Robert Fleming, Eugenia Collier, Brent Edwards, and others. Thankfully, we can now look at aspects of the novel that are driven by concerns outside of the formal boundaries of the work itself, without implying that the novel doesn't function and succeed as a work of art quite apart from the sociological and cultural problems that it addresses.

The focus of this paper will be the ways in which the novel addresses concerns that Johnson himself had concerning the artistic nature and cultural meaning of black music. In this regard, Johnson struck a prophetic chord when he created the nameless protagonist of his novel. The ex-colored man aborted his attempt to answer a call to arms of black artists and musicians that had not yet been made formally in the real world. This call, both in the historic world of the Harlem Renaissance and in the fictional world created by Johnson in his novel, ostensibly looks like a black nationalist project designed to "bring glory to the race" or to at least "uplift" it from ignominy and neglect. As I read it, however, The Autobiography reveals a mulatto-centered, American nationalism, as much as it does a black nationalism. Rather than making a case for black liberation, ultimately the novel argues for a race blind America whose progressiveness and strength is to be measured by its success in blending the gifts of its various "races" into a democratic, national culture. [End Page 233]

The first section of the paper will therefore set a context for understanding the general outlines of Johnson's creative and critical project while considering the danger inherent in correlating the author's ideas with those of his fictional character. The second section of the paper will then examine in closer detail the ways in which The Autobiography does in fact address Johnson's concerns through the thematic treatment of music as a racial marker.


The many roles that James Weldon Johnson held in his tragically-shortened, but prolific life, educator, journalist, political activist, diplomat, creative writer, literary critic, musician, and composer, all inform his masterful text, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. He was a man both knowledgeable about and active in politics, in which he was engaged through a variety of roles. He campaigned in the electoral process, worked as government official on the one hand, and as organizer, agitator, and as protestor on the other. He was equally prolific as an intellectual and artist as he was as an explicitly political figure. A leader in the Harlem Renaissance, he was an accomplished poet and literary critic. His literary talents for a season were put to use as part of the highly successful team of writers of musical comedies, "Bob...


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