Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Black and White In Johnson's Novel

          Reading James Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man for the first time really struck as me as being so laid back and informal that I didn’t really expect anything dramatic to happen like the gunshot in the “Club”; not to mention the protagonist’s ostracism when being asked to sit and “rise with the others”—it hadn’t even occurred to me then that the main character was black! Needless to say I had to reconstruct everything I’d read up to that point…
          For me one of the most intriguing facets of Johnson’s novel is that never once is any character given a proper name, and while at first it can be less engaging to read, the idea behind only giving nicknames allows for the reader to focus on something more salient: the idea that the white man’s perspective and way of life can be just as convoluted and pressuring as the black man’s own. Growing up as a child the main character acts as if he is white—even though it becomes clear this is false via the school staff separating him from the other white children— and yet he struggles with issues of trying to pass through life as a respectable boy: “I shall never forget the bewilderment, the pain, the heart-sickness, of that first day at school. I seemed to be the only stranger in the place” (Chp1, Johnson). Regardless of whether you’re white black, or blue, you’re still going to have to face the same problems that every person encounters growing up; and I think that theme, that everyone goes through life trying to overcome the same or similar situations, is what Johnson is trying to impress upon his readers: he doesn’t want them to fixate on a specific character or their behavior, so he simply cuts out their names and pastes in a quirky pet name.
Having done that, the reader’s mind floats past the people in the novel and instead focuses on the more detailed objects: such as the main character having a smart and loving African American mother while also having a wealthy and caring (so it seems up to this point) white American father. I think Johnson is trying to blend, perhaps even blur, the ideas of what it means to live life as a black or white American during the early twentieth century. Once that’s completed, the idea that someone’s skin color being different affects how they think/act will be seen as mute, and instead the ideology that every human being faces the same trials will become the salient virtue whenever someone brings up the race question. 

1 comment:

  1. That would be a great question to ask, Isaac: how would we read the first few chapters if we didn't know the title (and hence the race) of the narrator?