Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Black History Month

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man ~ by James Weldon Johnson, 1912 (this edition 2004), fiction with biographical introduction, 118 pages

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is James Weldon's Johnson fictional account of a light-skinned mulatto** who can pass for white.  The anonymous narrator is the son of a black mother and a white father living in the early part of the 20th century in the rural south, in the urban north, and in Europe.  The novel explores the complexity of race relations between whites and blacks in America and the search for racial identity by one of mixed ethnicity.

S. Weathersby left a 5-star comment on Amazon on February 28, 2016:

James Weldon Johnson first published this book anonymously in 1912, to avoid any controversy that might endanger his diplomatic career.  And it is actually not an autobiography, but rather historical fiction.  As he wrote this book anonymously, he created characters who were also anonymous.  Of all the dozens of characters in the story there were only about four who had names, some of them nick-names. Even the young man who tells his story has no name.  Much of the story draws from Johnson's personal life as a Civil Rights activist.  But unlike Johnson who attended Atlanta University, the protagonist in the story spent many years in a variety of jobs where he learned various trades and several foreign languages.  Not until the "ex-colored man" returns to the South knowing he could pass for white, did he begin to deal with the "race problem."  But rather than involve himself in the issues of racism, Jim Crow, and the rights of black people, he spent much of his time learning the music and vernacular of the early 20th century.  It is an easy book to read, probably more-so due to the anonymous characterizations which would not point to the identity of the author.

I decided, since it's Black History Month, that I'd download and read the book at the top of this post.  Click to enlarge this photo of stamps — plus the stamp honoring James Weldon Johnson — and see if you know or can figure out why each of these was being honored.  James Weldon Johnson, as you can see by the words and music on his stamp, wrote the words for "Lift Every Voice and Sing."  Here are the lyrics:

Lift every voice and sing,
’Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers died.
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
’Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

** Footnote added after reading the book:  The author used the word "mulatto," now considered outdated and offensive, three times in this book (my Kindle search shows).


Helen's Book Blog said...

Sounds like an interesting person! I don't know why, but it feels to me that getting honored on a stamp is a big deal and I appreciate it. Those stamps go out across the country (and sometimes the world) and make a statement about who/what we value.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I plan to celebrate by reading Native Son and The Parable of the Sower.