How “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” reminded me of “The Great Gatsby,” and why I prefer it

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A couple months more than a year ago I went to my first high school curriculum night as a parent. The English Dept. had their plan laid out for my elder son’s four years. Impressive, engaging, informed, passionate – I liked the teachers. But I was disappointed by one of the books on the list.

Why teach F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby when you could teach James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man instead?

I didn’t suggest it. But I want to now.

I had read Johnson’s 1912 novel for the first time only a couple of years before. It reminded me of Fitzgerald’s 1925 book right away – except it’s better. The basic theme of the transformation of identity, and the overlapping milieu of the New York underworld of gambling and music, but 30 years apart (most of The Autobiography appears to take place in the 1890s), made the books siblings for me. With one of the siblings older and considerably wiser.

Not that I don’t like Gatsby too. When I first read it 25 years ago, I’d been thrilled by the scene in which Gatsby points out “the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919.” The glamor of real-life major-league scandal! I also dug the musical references. I enjoyed the historical allusion in Gatsby commissioning a fictional Russian composer to debut “The Jazz History of the World” at his party. A few years before Fitzgerald’s book, the French composer Darius Milhaud had composed a symphonic piece called The Creation of the World, which incorporated jazz-influenced phrasing. Fitzgerald’s little joke amused me.

It might be a fun joke if you know Fitzgerald’s context – I enjoyed it when I first read it – though now it strikes me as condescending. Johnson’s discussion of music is measureless fathoms deeper, with profound, rich, and historically important descriptions and discussions of ragtime, classical music, and African American hymn singing at Southern revival meetings. Music history anthologies and textbooks quote Johnson’s novel. It provides some of the most detailed descriptions that we have of music that was never recorded or transcribed. Johnson’s musical expertise came from professional experience: 10 years before the novel came out, he wrote lyrics as a member of one of the most successful songwriting teams of the first decade of the twentieth century, and as a college student he had toured in a Jubilee quartet, singing and playing guitar to raise capital funds for Clark Atlanta University.

Johnson’s musical insight not only dug deeply into its moment: It predicted musical history that took decades to come to fruition. The Ex-Colored Man (Johnson doesn’t name any of the characters) has dreams of being a composer. His wealthy white friend and patron tells him that no orchestra or opera company would perform his works. Because of his race. When Johnson’s book came out, Scott Joplin was trying, and failing, to secure a production of his opera Treemonisha, which would not be produced in full until the 1970s, more than 50 years after its composer’s death. It wasn’t until 1931 that a major American orchestra performed a symphony by an African American composer, William Grant Still’s Symphony Number 1: Afro-American. (Poignantly, Still prefaced each movement of his score with a quote from the poetry of James Weldon Johnson’s friend Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had died in 1906.)

Johnson’s book is prophetic in other ways – including ways that might make it a tricky book to teach in high school. Johnson uses the “n” word. He does not use it casually. When it first appears, it’s a word that’s meant to hurt; the narrator is a child, and he learns from his mother what an awful word it is. When, as an adult, the narrator falls in with a New York underworld of gamblers and musicians, he is surprised by how he encounters the word again.

 

I noticed that among this class of colored men the word “n—-r” was freely used in about the same sense as the word “fellow,” and sometimes as a term of almost endearment; but I soon learned that its use was positively and absolutely prohibited to white men.

 

Johnson does not euphemize or censor the word in question – he spells it out in full – but I want to honor his prohibition.

Which would make it a tricky book to teach in high school.

An impossible book to teach? I honestly don’t know. It seems it shouldn’t be. A teacher would have to establish ground rules and enforce them. The benefit, to me, anyway, as a reader, outweighs the discomfort. I could imagine rich conversations on this topic, especially since the conversation about this word has scarcely changed in the 106 years since the book’s publication. Similarly, the Ex-Colored Man describes conversations about color prejudice within the African American community, and how some people prefer to marry someone with lighter-colored skin than themselves. Conversations much like these still take place today. Would these discussions be uncomfortable in high school? I have no doubt that they would. A teacher would have to be committed to letting their students of color lead the way, and to enforcing norms of respect and civility.

The Great Gatsby presents pedagogical challenges too, and it seems to me that they are not as potentially fruitful. I love Fitzgerald’s style – with a big caveat. Fitzgerald held ugly, stereotyped attitudes toward Black people and Jewish people. Gatsby’s one Jewish character, the man who fixed the World Series back in 1919, is not only a glamorous gangster, he’s also a “small-flat nosed Jew” who eats with “ferocious delicacy” and wears cuff links made of the “finest specimen of human molars.” In other words, he’s an animalistic gangster who wears human body parts as jewelry.

There are no Black characters in Gatsby, but the narrator (Nick Carraway) mentions Black people in passing. “A limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.” The Jew eats ferociously; black men are “bucks”; they all have ridiculous faces. Elsewhere in the book, Fitzgerald satirizes the pseudo-scientific racism of Gatsby’s beloved Daisy’s rich and boorish husband, Tom. The ugliness of Fitzgerald’s narrator’s observations requires no science, pseudo- or otherwise.

I don’t understand why it would be preferable to teach a book that embodies racist attitudes rather than a book that protests racism while using the blunt and offensive language of real life in its analysis and description. I can imagine that some people might be offended by the use of the “n” word in a public school, while others might exploit its presence as pseudo-license to use it nastily. I wouldn’t want to go against the wishes of people of color who wouldn’t want the book taught. But I would regret the lost opportunity.

Aside from its music history and social observation, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a moving story, beautifully written, with gorgeous cinematic touches and internal echoes. The Ex-Colored Man is not the only one who has to “pass” in the story. His white father does too – he has to “pass” as a respectable white man, which requires that he can’t publicly acknowledge his son. Characters with knowledge of another’s story must decide whether to go along with their deceit. The moment of decision comes up several times, in differing ways, always dramatically and movingly. The scenes play out in my visual imagination as though I’m watching a terrific movie; the novel could form the basis of one.

The book would present another difficult, historically important discussion for high school students. The Ex-Colored Man decides to transform his identity after witnessing a lynching. He takes advantage of his light skin color and “passes” as white. He observes that a gang of people who burned an animal to death might be subject to criminal penalty for cruelty, whereas members of a lynch mob were immune from the law, and he revolts against being a member of a class of people who can be treated worse than animals. The contrast with The Great Gatsby favors Johnson’s book here too. Gatsby changed his name and gave himself a fictitious family and class background in order to make himself marriageable to an upper-class woman he loved, Daisy. As the story makes clear, the transformation is pointless: he not only fails to win Daisy, he loses his life in a case of mistaken identity when someone whom Daisy’s wealthy husband has wronged mistakes Gatsby for the perpetrator and murders him in revenge. The story shows a deep, reactionary fatalism about class. Nothing will change, nothing can change, the story says; the upper class are immune from consequence, and nobody not born into their ranks can join them. Johnson’s vision is deeper and less pessimistic. His protagonist has changed his identity for morally complicated reasons, and with a real and genuine regret. He also succeeds in his deception.

Interestingly, the rich white friend of the Ex-Colored Man resembles Fitzgerald in his fatalism. Unlike Fitzgerald, though, the rich white friend is without racial prejudice. Like Fitzgerald, the upper-class white pessimist dies young and self-destructively. The author of The Great Gatsby died of a heart attack at age 44 after more than two decades of alcoholism; the Ex-Colored Man’s friend kills himself.

I devoted part of a chapter of This Land That I Love (which came out in November 2013) to James Weldon Johnson and a song for which he wrote the lyrics (his brother Rosamond wrote the music), “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as The Negro National Anthem. I knew that Johnson had lived a remarkable life and had several historic careers, but I didn’t read his one novel until after I finished my book. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man amazed me. Johnson’s careers – successful songwriter, important poet, great novelist, professional diplomat, influential literary editor, major civil rights leader – could make a whole course of study. It’s bonkers that he’s not as famous as Fitzgerald, or as Irving Berlin (whose work he also presaged), or as T. S. Eliot (who plagiarized and parodied him). Most of us who know about them learned of Fitzgerald and Eliot in school. I wish that I would have learned about Johnson in school too.

 

One Response to How “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” reminded me of “The Great Gatsby,” and why I prefer it

  1. Pingback: Gatsby and the Ex-Colored Man Considered Together | This Land That I Love

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