Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Tuesday, February 28, 2006
"Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man." Via Mitch Townsend in Chicago Boyz I found this astonishing story from close to a hundred years ago, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. My eyes slid past the part where Mitch Townsend said it was a piece of fiction, so at first I thought it was fact. It is not, but it is still a fascinating document. The author was James Weldon Johnson, a major figure in the Harlem Rennaissance.

Even before I reached the note at the end saying it was a work of fiction, I began to feel that too much happened to the narrator to be entirely plausible, and too much of it seemed illustrated to make political points - albeit political points that desperately needed to be made. James Weldon Johnson was field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and I assume that his work was written to advance that organisation's work. I don't know whether the Autobiography was initially presented as fact; but a great deal of fiction of that era was written in the first person and there would have been nothing unusual about something called "Autobiography of ..." being understood by all to be fiction.

Never mind. The Edwardian conventions (such as the treatment of the narrator's courtship, his marriage, and the eventual death of his wife) add to the interest. I found myself seeing the scenes described with three pairs of eyes, those of the narrator (a fair-skinned black man who could "pass" as white, at a time when almost imperceptible distinctions of skin colour regularly blighted lives), those of the author (an educated and politically aware black man writing at the nadir of black fortunes between the US Civil War and the Civil Rights movement) and my own.

While on the subject of that book, I would like to highlight a quote from it that is far from being the most important topic discussed, yet did grab my attention because of its prescience.

As yet, the Negroes themselves do not fully appreciate these old slave songs. The educated classes are rather ashamed of them, and prefer to sing hymns from books. This feeling is natural; they are still too close to the conditions under which the songs were produced; but the day will come when this slave music will be the most treasured heritage of the American Negro.
That was written in 1912.