In The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, why does the narrator repeatedly refer to the "freemasonry" of African-American life?
"The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man," by James Weldon Johnson, was originally published in 1912. In the preface to the original edition, the publishers claim that by reading the book the reader "is initiated into the 'freemasonry'...of the [African-American] race."
The Freemasons are a fraternal society that dates back to the Middle Ages. One of the most important features of Freemasonry is secrecy. In order to be admitted to a Freemason meeting, one must perform certain hand signals and utter certain secret phrases; these signals and phrases are only revealed to those who have been accepted as Freemasons.
In Johnson's novel, a light-skinned man of African-American descent, who had grown up as a "white," begins to identify as a "Negro" and begins to live among his people. Previously, he had "formulated a theory of what it was to be colored [African-American]"; now, he "was getting the practice." He says:
It was my initiation into what I have termed the freemasonry of the race.
In other words, he was beginning to discover the secrets of African-American culture and was also gaining "fuller comprehension of the tremendous struggle which is going on between the races in the South."
One thing the man discovers is that "every colored man [has] a sort of dual personality; there is one phase of him which is disclosed only in the freemasonry of his own race."
The Freemasons are a fraternal organization that is generally believed to be cloaked in a degree of secrecy. The narrator of this book states in the Preface that while the African-Americans in the U.S. (or "Negroes," as the narrator refers to them) have a good idea of the way in which whites live, African-Americans "are themselves more or less a sphinx to the whites." That is, whites know very little of the ways in which African-American people live. One of the narrator's goals is to draw aside this "veil," as he refers to the way in which African-Americans live, and help whites become "initiated into the 'free-masonry,' as it were, of the race." The narrator implies that the lives of African-Americans are as cloaked in secrecy as the ways of the Freemasons are.
In Chapter 2, the narrator says that African-Americans live in a state of dualism in which they can't reveal themselves to whites. The narrator says of African-Americans, "there is one phase of him which is disclosed only in the freemasonry of his own race." African-Americans must restrict so much of themselves in white society that they wind up existing in a state of secrecy, as if their culture were a Freemasons' lodge. The narrator refers to this concept to underscore the idea that African-Americans must live behind a veil and only reveal a limited portion of themselves in white society.