Rhetoric of Fiction

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The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne Booth's revolutionary treatise on writing, notes that difficulty with ironic narrative, this literary style indicates that the existence or intention of the author to involve this element in the work are often concealed and invisible to the reader. Booth further notes that irony is in the mode of the writing and that a complicated relationship exists between the author and the ironic narrator. The recognition of these conflicts by the author and the use of those tensions evoke a sympathetic response to the narrator by the reader (324-5). The uncertain stance of James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is ascribed to its standing as the first “fictional” text written by an African Americanthat calculatingly camouflages its genre. The central character discovers his legal blackness when suddenly discriminated against as a ten-year-old at school and his using narrative frames the change in subjectivity and world view as a legally black yet visibly white man. The child grapples with the socially established suppositions about African American inferiority, otherness, and difference which initiate merely in outward appearance and which for obvious reasons he remains unwilling to fully acknowledge.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a thematic departure from its predecessors Booker T. Washington's 1901 autobiography Up from Slavery and W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk. (Andrade 25) In Washington's, Up From Slavery, he outlined his own struggle and uplift despite punishing racism and set the benchmark and program for all of the African literature after that followed. Washington wrote:

During the next half-century and more, my race must continue passing through the severe American crucible. We are to be tested in our patience, our forbearance, our perseverance, our power to endure wrong, to withstand temptations, to economize, to acquire and use skill; in our ability to compete, to succeed in commerce, to disregard the superficial for the real, the appearance for the substance, to be great and yet smile, learned and yet simple, high and yet the servant of all.

Washington had critics, principal among them was DuBois. Speaking directly against the Washingtonian strategies for social change, DuBois said: “If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men.” (qtd. Franklin 279) Although Washington's message of strident patience held resonance, in A Turn South, V.S. Naipaul commented that Washington appeared to be sending out two separate messages, one to African Americans readers and one to white readers. (196) Johnson deliberately plunged into these two separate worlds using a confessional frame as a pretext to authenticate the main character's story, strategically to give the text the appearance of an autobiography. From the beginning of the narrative, genres flow together, like the racially mixed narrator. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man required a substantial talent to not merely to recite his experiences but a profound level of literary craft to covertly weave in a powerful social critique that shaped this monumental work of literature steeped in an ironic narrative. Just as the artistic intricacy of the novel resists easy classification the Ex-Colored Man's persistent racial fluctuation and blurring of the color line indicate uncertainty towards blackness and whiteness alike. This suggests the reason for the primary rift between critics and scholars over the intention and involvement of Johnson, in the narrator's voice and ideology.

The novel, however, is not an actual autobiography or an actual documentary. Johnson wove a detached, critical reflection into the voice of the narrator that mimics a documentary narrative form. Because of Johnson's personal adventures and his rich life, much has been made of the connection and substitution between the two. The fictional narrator of the novel is often read as Johnson's voice. Despite Johnson's intentions, the initial reading by the New York Times on May 26, 1912 indicated that the sleight of hand and subterfuge by Johnson was perhaps too clever:

A curious and in some respects startling tale is this narration of the life of a colored man who forsook his own race and joined the white. Nevertheless it is necessary to consider the possibility that it may be the product of some whimsical imagination.

There are contemporary critics who echo the sentiments of the New York Times reviewer. Stephen Bronz and David Littlejohn believed that Johnson and the Ex-Colored man were one in the same voice. The narrator displays the attitudes of a post-Victorian reputable gentleman, which describes Johnson perfectly. (Bronz 123 and Littlejohn 89). Bronz and Littlejohn assert that the talented and sensitive musician, the Ex-Colored Man, who grappled with America's dual cultures and ingrained Jim Crow mindset, is a perfect front for Johnson, the talented and sensitive writer who grappled with those very same issues (Skerrett 541 ).

Kathleen Pfeiffer disagrees with the notion that the Ex-Colored Man and Johnson are one in the same. The Ex-Colored Man offers a series of contradictory motives at the outset of the novel. While the initial reading of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man in 1912 was intterpreted by readers as most likely a work of fiction, Johnson's narrator is all at once a watchful and deceiving character. The Ex-Colored Man defies easy categorization and allthough the narrative is confessional in tone, the narrator is to be regarded with suspicion. The Ex-Colored Man is a charlatan,who glides between the worlds of black and white America. (Pfeiffer 403-4) Johnson's narrator conjures up the myth of the heroic black male, echoing Washington's narrative and intent of Up From Slavery and then turns it upside down. Using the context of an already established African American male protest tradition that links the proud display of masculinity with the struggle for racial justice, Johnson's narrator invites criticism as a “failed” race man and a failed man, for he has chosen to “pass”. His choice symbolizes synonymous rejection of both social equalityand masculine pride. (Goodwyn-Jones 2)

Further, although Johnson and Booker T. Washington held each in high regard in Along This Way, Johnson vigorously critiques Washington's ideological position. Ruminating on Washington's infamous figure of a southern hand with five separate fingers, he writes:

It was this figure of speech, this stroke of consummate diplomacy that made the whole of his eloquent plea swallowable for Southern throats....Beyond the ineptitude of its implication that separate fingers (though separated only socially) can constitute an efficient hand, is the fact that it raises an illimitable question: of what do “things essential to mutual progress” consist? (312)

The momentum fueling Johnson's narrative experimentation seems clearer if the reader recalls the view the African American male authorial tradition prior to The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. In Along This Way, Johnson maintains that he expected that the title would immediately reveal the work's ironic inflections and contained relationship to prevailing dialogues on black male subjectivity. He writes: “When I chose the title, it was without the slightest doubt that its meaning would be perfectly clear to anyone” (Johnson 238).

Although Johnson's title skirts the edge of satire, the subversion is meaningless without a clear referenceto African American male literary projects upon which satire would draw from. The broad societal circumstances framing Johnson's act of writing, principally the struggle for black enfranchisement, plainly conflict with the narrator's depiction. Although conventions of form would look as if there is a personal connection between the author and the narrator, the narrative occasion of Johnson's mission is such that the views espoused by the narrator are often fundamentally differing from those of his maker.

Johnson is writing out of what Houston A. Baker, Jr., in his 2001 publication, Turning South Again has termed “a tight place”:

Tight places' are constituted by the necessity to articulate from a position that combines specters of abjection (slavery) multiple subjects and signifiers ... representational obligations of race in America (to speak ‘Negro').

Baker derived the term drawing on Booker T. Washington's remembrance of his apprehension about speaking to a group of white southerners and African Americans in a mixed audience at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition. A white Alabama farmer summed up Washington's angst by saying, “I am afraid that you have got into a tight place.” The source of Washington's anxiety is that, he will have to perform in a way that will alienate neither the African Americans nor the potentially hostile whites in crowd. (Goodwyn-Jones 5)

This image of the “tight place” has to demonstrate the ongoing condition of African Americans in various venues, from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (whose forefather is Johnson's Ex-Colored Man) to the Million Man March. For the cover art of Turning South Again restricts its black male subject, an elegantly dressed dark black man from a photograph into a very tight space: the figure is cropped top and bottom, so as to behead the man above the lips and cut him off below the waist. All that is left in the photo is a stylish set of clothing: white starched shirt and bow tie under a dark unsmiling jaw; a gray perfectly cut suit; the figure's left hand placed over the heart, grasping what appears like white fabric between the second and third long and graceful fingers. (Goodwyn-Jones 4) The Ex-Colored Man, at the end of his narrative, almost assuredly fits this description to a tee. This picture captures the “tight space” and is meant as a simultaneous demonstration both of African American advancement and the effort to restrict what that notion of advancement is.

The tension between Johnson's characterization of the Ex-Colored Man and his desire to employ his textual choice as an instrument to create social consciousness creates a twofold hazard. If he does not include sensible and palatable social criticism for the time, he runs the possibility of converting his ironic anti-hero into a propagandist in the eyes of indifferent white readers. Johnson was forced to tackle the journey of his narrator is an obfuscated and oblique way. Acclaimed Southern historian C. Vann Woodward wrote that, “To attack the ramparts of Southern historiography head-on would have been unwise. Especially so when its views commanded such universal popularity….” (Woodward 29) If the Ex-Colored Man spoke directly about racial social issues, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man would be robbed of precisely the skilled writing craft that makes it an absorbing narrative and socially pertinent. The balancing act was flawless. Johnson noted that even after he attached his name to the rereleased version in 1927, with the Carl Van Vechten introduction that “I continue to receive letters from persons who have read the book inquiring about this or that phase of my life as told in it (the book).” (Johnson 239)

Johnson's use of the autobiographical form, during moments the authorial position is not only fundamentally distinct from the first-person narrator, but, ideologically jarring. In an analysis of Johnson's Ex-Colored Man and Abraham Cahan's Autobiography of an American Jew, Werner Sollors classifies both texts as “fictional autobiographies.” Sollors notes:

The protagonists purport to be narrating their stories, using the first person confessional. Yet throughout their narratives we feel the intrusion of another, ironic voice, which subverts this basic communicative pattern. (171)

This “authorial intrusion” recognized by Sollors marks denotes Johnson's effort to employ literary representation to spread the foundations of racial justice and social equality. Johnson wove a tapestry of political, historical and moral analysis for black and white American into the haunting narrative of the Ex-Colored Man.

Noted Broadcaster and author Studs Terkel interviewed Dr. Martin Luther King in the hospital room of their ailing friend Mahalia Jackson in 1964, shortly after King was awarded was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Over the course of the interview, Terkel asked King about his feelings of the effects of segregation and racial hatred on children:

Terkel: I'm thinking, of course, of how this hurts the white child, as well as the black child. The hurt, the separation. The hurt is to both, really, is it not?

King: Yes, it certainly is. Segregation injures the soul or the mind of the segregated, as well as the segregator. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority, and it so often leaves the segregated with a false sense of inferiority. So it does scar the soul of both…. (Goodman)

James Weldon Johnson shone a light on the scarred soul of his narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man five decades before King's interview. Johnson knew first hand of the deep soul scars left by segregation on both the segregator and the segregated. The Ex-Colored Man spends his entire life drifting over the yawing chasm of the racial divide, forever in danger of plummeting. Johnson and the Ex-Colored Man occupy an important and evocative place in literary and civil rights history. Johnson's efforts to hold a mirror to the binary society of segregated America, given the constraints and expectations of his day, are evidence of his true genius.

Works Cited

"An Ex Colored Man; A Negro Who Passed as White Tells His Life Story." New York Times 26 May 1912: BR 14.

Andrade, Heather Russell. "Revising Critical Judgments of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man." African American Review (June 2006): 2-16.

Baker, Houston A. Turning South Again: Rethinking Modernism/ Rereading Booker T. Durham: Duke University Press, 1989.

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Bronz, Stephen. Roots of Negro Social Conciousness: The 1920's: Three Harlem Renaissance Writers. New York : Libra Books, 1964.

Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom. New York: Knopf, 1967.

Goodman, Amy. "Democracy Now: Tribute to Studs Terkel." 27 November 2009. Democracy Now. 5 December 2009 <http://www.democracynow.org/2009/11/27/studs_terkel_1912_2008_a_democracy>.

Johnson, James Weldon. Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. New York: Penguin , 1933: Reprint 1990.

Jones, Anne Goodwyn. "Houston Baker and the South: More Tight Spots." Sothern Literary Journal (June 2002): 145-170.

Joseph T Skerrett, Jr. "Restaging the Racial Contract: James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man." American Literature (March 2002): 34-60.

Liitlejohn, David. Black on White: Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes. New York: Viking Press, 1969.

Naipul, V.S. A Turn South. New York City: Knopf Publishing, 1989.

Sollors, Wetrner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. New York City, 1901.

Woodward, C. Vann. Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History. Baton Rouge: Louisianna State Press, 1986.