Johnson wrote poetry all his life. Despite that fact, his poems would be eclipsed by the work of later poets of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes. Toomer and Hughes might have been better poets than Johnson was, but they also had the advantage of being younger. Johnson came to poetry at a time when African Americans were interested in proving their competence as poets. Exploring the richness of the African American dialect was always tempered by the desire to demonstrate skill with traditional poetic form and traditional English. Johnson consciously chooses to use such forms in his poetry, stating in the preface to God’s Trombones that “Negro dialect in the United States has been set, to the fixing effects of long association with the Negro only as a happy-go-lucky or a forlorn figure.” Thus, he reasons, “negro dialect as a form for Aframerican poets is absolutely dead.” Hughes, Toomer, and others would prove him wrong.
Readers should not, however, assume that Johnson’s approach to verse signals any unwillingness to grapple with race in the United States or to appreciate the power of African American expression. “Creation,” from God’s Trombones, is a poem that pays homage to African American pulpit rhetoric at a time when few were noticing it. Johnson was exploring material that later writers, such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, would continue to explore. Ellison’s main character in his posthumous novel Juneteenth (1999) is a black preacher named Alonzo Hickman, but his nickname is “God’s Trombone,” suggesting some indebtedness to Johnson. Furthermore, in poems such as “Brothers” and “Fifty Years,” Johnson explores the complex ironies of race and culture that would divide the country for the rest of the twentieth century.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Johnson’s only novel, was in many respects everything that his poetry was not, for though it appears to be a conventional novel, it is, in many respects, revolutionary. It explores the taboo subject of passing in an unsettling fashion. “Passing” was the choice that light-skinned African Americans made to live on the white side of the color line. That Johnson writes a novel about such a matter brings this quietly kept subject into the open, but it also suggests that white might not be white.
A segregated society rests on the notion that white is white and black is black. The elaborate series of terms for the various amounts of African heritage one carried demonstrates this fact. A mulatto was one-half African. A quadroon carried one-fourth African heritage; an octoroon was one-eighth African. At the octoroon level, African heritage might hardly be visible. The narrator of Johnson’s novel, the son of a white man and a black woman, appears to be white. He marries a white woman, produces white children, and lives as a white man. Thus, in the view of those who would segregate society, the white race has been contaminated. One can only consider how revolutionary this notion might have been in 1912.
Still, Johnson’s novel is even more revolutionary on other levels. The narrator of the novel is sophisticated, articulate, bilingual, an accomplished musician, and a man who visits and understands European culture. Thus, Johnson argues implicitly that the entire edifice of segregation is erected upon a false premise. The whole notion of the savagery of African Americans, the foundation for slavery and for segregation, is a sham. As the narrator states, “I frequently smiled inwardly at some remark not altogether complimentary to people of color; and more than once I felt like declaiming, ’I am a colored man. Do I not disprove the theory that one drop of Negro blood renders a man unfit?’” This statement summarizes the theme of the novel.
Some sections of Johnson’s novel present debates on the “race question” from various perspectives. Upon discovering the narrator’s plan to go home and become an advocate for African American music, the narrator’s friend states, “My boy, you are by blood, by appearance, by education, and by tastes a white man. Now why do you want to throw your life away amidst the poverty and ignorance, in the hopeless struggle of the black people of the United States?” The narrator later explains that the millionaire is completely free from prejudice but that his philosophy of life is to be happy and make others happy. A life of struggle on behalf of equality would not bring about happiness.
The black doctor, whom the narrator meets on his voyage from Liverpool to Boston, explains that he does not object to prejudice so long as that prejudice does not limit his “personal liberty.” Then in a speech that the narrator describes as eloquent, the doctor states, “if there is a merciful but justice-loving God in heaven . . . we shall win; for we have right on our side.” The third discussion occurs on the train from Nashville to Atlanta among a diverse group of men, a veritable spectrum of American life. As the conversation narrows to the “Negro,” a Texan and an old Union soldier take sides. When the old soldier challenges the Texan’s assumption that African Americans are inferior, the Texan responds with an argument well known in Johnson’s day and later: “No race in the world has ever been able to stand competition with the Anglo-Saxon.” The soldier’s response once again allows Johnson to chip away at the edifice of racial prejudice. According to him, the Anglo-Saxon has done nothing original and attains his position simply by standing on the rubble of races that came before. “We are simply having our turn at the game, and we were a long time getting to it.”
The narrator chooses finally to be white, but his choice can only make sense in the context of the ideas dramatically embodied in the novel. It is much harder to be black than it is to be white. Nonetheless, as the narrator’s refinements and gifts make clear, a black man or a mixed-race man might be as intelligent and gifted as a white man. In a better world, a near-white man might choose to be black, as...
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