Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man - James Weldon Johnson (spoilers?)

Disclaimer: I can't discuss this book without describing some aspects of it that could be construed as spoilers, so I'm mentioning this up front in case you'd prefer to avoid them. 

Came across this book while I was looking for books for the Harlem Renaissance Challenge, and as I love stories about people who live secret or double lives, I found this irresistible, and got it from the library as soon as I could.

Despite the title, this book is a novel, about the life and times of a light-skinned man of mixed race (his father is white and his mother has African heritage). I found the writing to be wonderfully clear and descriptive. The narrator describes his life, education, work, social life, and travels as a boy through young adulthood. He includes some experiences studying foreign languages, and has some great advice for language learners that I heartily agree with. He also shares my love for Paris and France, as well as some views on American society that are sadly still true now, more than 100 years after this book was originally published (sigh). I really liked the narrator, and I could have read volumes about him and his life, as well as his views on society.

One thing that initially threw me was that this book was not so much about him living life as some who could "pass for white;" it was more about the process of the narrator deciding, after traveling abroad and around the U.S., and witnessing a real horror, to do so. But this did not dampen my enjoyment of this book - in fact, it enhanced my emotional reactions to some of the scenes (the scene at the theater in Paris, for one).

I did some research and found out that the author was an accomplished musician, poet, diplomat, teacher, and writer, who wrote the lyrics for "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" as well as co-writing many popular Broadway tunes of the day. He was also head of the NAACP. I am so happy to have discovered his writing, and I will have to seek more of it out. Highly recommended.

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