James Weldon Johnson has been somewhat of a controversial literary figure by virtue of the publication of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. From a twenty-first-century perspective, his most famous work appears to be naïve and humorous in spots. Understanding the author’s background is helpful when attempting to bridge the gap between Johnson’s vantage point and that of the modern reader.
Johnson was “born in a little town of Georgia a few years after the close of the Civil War.” He lived with his mother “in a little cottage.” At a very young age, he “could play by ear all of the hymns and songs that my mother knew.” As he grew, he divided his time between school, which he found very pleasant, and music, which remained his passion. It was in school that he experienced racial prejudice for the first time.
“Well, mother, am I white? Are you white?" She answered tremblingly: "No, I am not white, but you—your father is one of the greatest men in the country—the best blood of the South is in you—" This suddenly opened up in my heart a fresh chasm of misgiving and fear, and I almost fiercely demanded: "Who is my father? Where is he?" She stroked my hair and said: "I'll tell you about him some day." I sobbed: "I want to know now." She answered: "No, not now."
As he grew, Johnson surmised that he would always suffer the same prejudice borne by his black schoolmates, and he developed “a very strong aversion to being classed with them.” By the age of twelve, he still found “company in books, and greater pleasure in music.” In time, his skills as an organist and pianist were noticed in his community. The local newspapers referred to him as an "infant prodigy."
With college in his grasp, Johnson took a train trip through the South, and from the start, he experienced the “agonies” of discrimination on his way to Jacksonville. After returning to New York, he was “limited to ten blocks,” and he supported himself by making cigars and gambling at the "Club." On one occasion, he experienced the shooting of a widow and feared being associated with the killing. As he left the scene, he was approached by a rich benefactor who offered to take him to Europe as his valet. The trip changed his mindset. The pair “talked for some time on music and the race question,” and his friend tried to convince him to remain in Europe to further his career. Nevertheless, even after witnessing European high life, he returned to New York.
Johnson was an educated man with a light complexion. As he continued to travel, he found himself “sometimes amused on arriving at some little railroad-station town to be taken for and treated as a white man.” However, on one occasion, he witnessed the execution of a black man that was indelibly impressed into his memory:
Two horsemen rode abreast; between them, half dragged, the poor wretch made his way through the dust. His hands were tied behind him, and ropes around his body were fastened to the saddle horns of his double guard. The men who at midnight had been stern and silent were now emitting that terror-instilling sound known as the rebel yell. A space was quickly cleared in the crowd, and a rope placed about his neck, when from somewhere came the suggestion, "Burn him!" It ran like an electric current. Have you ever witnessed the transformation of human beings into savage beasts? Nothing can be more terrible.
Once back in New York, Johnson was distraught and depressed. He made up his mind to seek a better life than developing his musical talents would yield. He decided “to enter a business college.” From that point on, his focus turned to “money-making.”
Johnson married and enjoyed his life until the death of his wife. He was lonely and “gradually dropped out of social life.” He felt like “a coward, a deserter,” because he had not lived his life as a black man. He gave up his musical talents and dreams of becoming a composer. In an internal dialogue, he laments,
My love for my children makes me glad that I am what I am and keeps me from desiring to be otherwise; and yet, when I sometimes open a little box in which I still keep my fast yellowing manuscripts, the only tangible remnants of a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent, I cannot repress the thought that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.