Want to read me rant for a few pages about who gets to speak for whom? Good. So glad. Here is my paper on The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson. If you haven’t read it, it is a quick-read and an intriguing commentary on passing. Anywho. The paper is problematic for a number of reasons, but read it anyway? Tell me what you think? Here it be:
Passing Judgment: James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
White imperialist patriarchy has, for centuries, pondered the question of blood and parentage. How many drops of non-white blood does it take to make someone a person of color? In a long line of mixed-racial heritage, at what point does someone start being white? For white men, who have predominantly kept access to the privileges available in an imperialist patriarchal society among themselves, the question of who is white enough has proved more complex and perplexing than they have wished it to be. In an oligarchy, such as white imperialist patriarchy, power is maintained by making sure that access to such power is restricted to a specific group. In the United States, such a group has been predominantly white, well-educated, land-owning males. If only a few drops of non-white blood are required to make someone a person of color, then a greater number of people can be denied access to the benefits ascertained by belonging to the oligarchical class.
Inevitably, this question of blood and parentage has inspired many to toe the line of access to power by passing as white. Some may have been legally considered to be white without knowing such. Some may have not been of mixed heritage at all, but just have had light enough skin to pass as being white. Passing is a complicated phenomenon. For example, those who pass may cite safety as a primary reason for passing. In a world where much violence, administrative and otherwise, is exacted upon those who are not deemed white, it is understandable that those who can pass as belonging to the oligarchical class, would. Nevertheless, people of color who do or cannot pass may look on those who do pass with disdain. Is not choosing to identify as white, instead of as a person of color or as someone of mixed-heritage, the ultimate betrayal? How is change supposed to come about if people choose to pass and identify as white, instead of identifying as a person of color or someone of mixed-heritage and fighting for change?
Some may say that I have jumped too far, and that passing does not inherently lead to an abandonment of seeking for structural change—that choosing to pass and choosing to not lobby for an overhaul of the power structure are two separate and distinct choices. To this, my response is thus: imbued in the concept of passing is the requirement that one not draw attention to oneself. I know of no quicker way to draw attention to oneself than to join the ranks of those lobbying for structural change. Therefore, I argue that in choosing to pass, one also chooses to keep one’s mouth shut in regard to matters of structural overhaul.
Alongside people of color and people of mixed-heritage who choose to pass as white are those white people who choose to pass as not having contributed to miscegenation. As long as there has been white imperialist patriarchy, there have been white imperialist patriarchs taking advantage of the people over whom they assume authority. This includes people of color. Interracial marriage was illegal in most of the United States until the Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia, which deemed such marriage laws unconstitutional (Loving). Nevertheless, from Jamestown to the Vietnam War era, white men used their positions of power to take advantage of those they oppressed. And still, these same white men passed as best they could as having no knowledge of any such incidents. Some paid for the children they fathered in an effort to keep their existence a secret to the general public. Still others pursued no relationship and took no responsibility, financial or otherwise, for their “non-white” children.
Between these two distinct but also interrelated cultures of passing is where we find ourselves in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Autobiography contains the story of an unnamed Narrator: a person of mixed-parentage who chooses to live as a white man. Narrator provides us with a unique perspective on life as someone legally considered to be a person of color at the turn of the nineteenth century. However, Johnson states in the preface to the 1912 edition of Autobiography, “In these pages it is as though a veil had been drawn aside: the reader is given a view of the inner life of the Negro in America, is initiated into the “freemasonry,” as it were, of the race” (vii, emphasis mine). As previously stated, Narrator provides us with a unique perspective of “the Negro in America.” Nevertheless, it would be inappropriate to take the perspective of someone who lives as a white person as the perspective of people of color. If such a singular account does exist (it does not), it surely belongs to those who live their day-to-day lives as people of color. As such, Narrator’s account is tainted by access to white privilege to which the layperson of color has no access. His assertion that his lived experience is “the inner life of the Negro in America” is laughable at its most tame and the kiss of Judas at its worst.
In Narrator’s defense, Johnson’s 1912 preface provides a quick-but-intriguing commentary on the passing phenomenon. He states, “These pages also reveal the unsuspected fact that prejudice against the Negro is exerting a pressure, which, in New York and other large cities where the opportunity is open, is actually and constantly forcing an unascertainable number of fair-complexioned colored people over into the white race” (vii). It is from this commentary that we can draw forth on the idea that passing is motivated by concern for one’s safety. Even still, I hold that those who pass should be a voice unto themselves, rather than the voice of “the inner life of the Negro in America” (vii). Those who pass – and, in doing so, avoid much of the violence directed toward people of color – should not speak for those who are unable to pass and escape racially-motivated violence. That is not to say that the voices of those passing have no place. Narrator’s account is an important one to be had. But it is one account in a collection of accounts of people of color and of mixed-heritage whose identities and experiences are formulated on differing and complex relationships to white people, to the power structure, and to each other.
Narrator’s account of his own life, as a passing person, is the first narrative of passing with which Johnson presents us. The second is contained within Narrator’s account: that of Narrator’s father. Narrator recounts how a strange man showed up at his home when he was twelve—a stranger that his mother introduced by saying, “This is your father” (15). Narrator relays his response to us, following this meeting:
I could think of nothing but this new father, where he came from, where he had been, why he was here, and why he would not stay…I could not classify him. The thought did not cross my mind that he was different from me, and even if it had the mystery would not thereby have been explained; for…I had only a faint knowledge of prejudice and no idea at all how it ramified and affected the entire social organism. I felt, however, that there was something about the whole affair which had to be hid. (16)
Narrator is the child of one such previously-mentioned white man who took advantage of both his position of power and a person over whom he had assumed control. Even from this one meeting, Narrator is conscious of the fact that this strange Father person has arrived unexpectedly and cannot – will not, but also cannot – stay, because this situation needs to remain hidden and staying would arouse suspicion. Narrator’s so-called Father is also passing.
Narrator further complicates the father-son-passing narrative by elaborating on his mother’s feelings toward Father:
She spoke to me quite frankly about herself, my father and myself; she, the sewing girl of my father’s mother; he, an impetuous young man home from college; I, the child of this unsanctioned love…My father was about to be married to a young lady of another great Southern family…he intended to give me an education, and make a man of me. In none of her talks did she ever utter one word of complaint against my father. She always endeavored to impress upon me how good he had been and still was, and that he was all to us that custom and the law would allow. She loved him; more, she worshiped him, and she died firmly believing that he loved her more than any other woman in the world. Perhaps she was right. Who knows? (19)
Through this account, we are able to frame Father more clearly. Father was part of the power structure which told its members that people considered to be non-white could be used at the leisure of white men. Narrator’s mother was accessible to Father because of his position. Father was able to strengthen his position of power by marrying a rich white woman from another powerful family, the way that monarchs of various countries married off their children to form alliances with other kingdoms and strengthen their progeny’s stronghold. Father used his position to convince Narrator’s mother that an arrangement could be made in which Narrator’s education would be provided for, insofar as Narrator and his mother disappeared and allowed Father to carry on with his privileged life. Narrator’s mother obediently took her son and herself far away from her master/lover, and never raised a fuss because money was sent to care for Narrator. She spent her life devoted to a man who got to indulge himself in sleeping with whomever he pleased because of his status as a white male aristrocrat, while still maintaining his façade of well-behaved Southern gentility. Whether or not he loved Narrator’s mother does not matter. He gets to maintain his position by passing.
And yet, this is also Narrator’s heritage. Even though he is legally considered to be black, half of his genetic material belongs to someone of white Southern gentility. This complicates Narrator’s passing narrative even further. If a child was raised by a mother who loved to write, but had a father who preferred to sing, and the child decided to pursue a lifetime of vocal performance, would that be a betrayal? Would that simply be following in Father’s footsteps? Is the decision solely the child’s? The parents’? Society’s? Narrator assumes life as a white man, and marries a white woman. He says, “It is difficult for me to analyze my feelings concerning my present position in the world. Sometimes it seems to me that I have never really been a Negro, that I have been only a privileged spectator of their inner life; at other times I feel that I have been a coward, a deserter, and I am possessed by a strange longing for my mother’s people” (99). Even though Narrator is legally considered to be a person of color passing as a white man, is he culpable for betraying “his” race? Not legally but ethically speaking, who is his race? Who are his people? If he chooses to live as a white man, is Narrator not a member of the white race? Does he owe something to people of color; to his “mother’s people?”
Thus, James Weldon Johnson’s Narrator provides us with a fascinating and complicated perspective of the life of one man who, when presented with the choice of living as a person of color or as a white man, chooses to live as a member of the white race. Narrator’s questions of loyalty and heritage bring into focus the complexity and multifaceted nature of legislating race, of having mixed heritage, and of passing. Nevertheless, Narrator’s perspective is one with access to white privilege, and should not be considered “the inner life of the Negro in America” (vii, emphasis mine), circa the turn of the nineteenth century—contrary to Johnson’s statement in his preface. Narrator’s account, informative though it may be, is one of many voices that make up the chorus of racialized experience in the Modern American period.