New Perspectives on James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man ed. by Noelle Morrissette (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-02-26 02:18Z by Steven

New Perspectives on James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man ed. by Noelle Morrissette (review)

African American Review
Volume 51, Number 4, Winter 2018
pages 344-346
DOI: 10.1353/afa.2018.0049

Masami Sugimori, Associate Professor of American Literature
Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers, Florida

Ed. Noelle Morrissette. New Perspectives on James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2017. 272 pp. $59.95.

More than a century after its initial publication in 1912, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson continues to generate commentary. The narrator’s racial passing, along with the novel’s twist of genre through “passing” for an autobiography, has led much scholarship to address the issues of race and narrative. At the same time, with the advent and development of new critical and theoretical approaches, more and more topics (pertaining to the literary climate around Johnson’s composition, the novel’s intertextuality with other works both within and outside of the era, and the sociocultural contexts of the early twentieth-century U. S., to name just a few) have arisen and enriched our inquiry. Meanwhile, the novel itself has gone through numerous editions—including, but not limited to, those published by Alfred A. Knopf (1927), New American Library (1948), Vintage (1989), Penguin Books (1990), Library of America (2004), and recently, by W. W. Norton as a Critical Edition (2015)—which attest to its increasingly canonical status in American literature. New Perspectives on James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man—the first critical anthology devoted entirely to the novel—is a timely addition to this evolution of Johnson scholarship and readership, featuring both established and innovative strategies for analysis and interpretation.

Editor Noelle Morrissette’s Introduction defines New Perspectives as a product of the ongoing critical history of The Autobiography, on the one hand, and as an embodiment of the “futurity” that explicitly or implicitly informs the novel, on the other. While offering “new perspectives” in their respective ways, the essays in this collection attend productively to the accumulated scholarship that Morrissette surveys in terms of topical trends: Johnson’s authorial achievements and the novel’s documentary values (1960s and ’70s); its intertextuality with African American narratives (late 1970s and early ’80s); modernity, modernism, and racial identity (1990s); and transnationalism, performativity, music, and sound (since 2000). These essays also share an emphasis on the visions of the future Johnson embedded in the novel—not only as an extension of his careful assessment of the contemporary U. S., but also in his resistance to the nation’s racial regime, which denied blacks a legitimate history or a sense of teleological progression in time. Thus, Morrissette designs her anthology to conduct “a reassessment of the author’s writing and legacy and the racial futurity he called for, to which we continue to respond” (15).

These guiding principles also account for the section organization of New Perspectives, with its ten chapters and an Afterword assigned to four parts according to topical focuses. The three essays in part one, “Cultures of Reading, Cultures of Writing: Canons and Authenticity,” examine Johnson’s complex relationship with “cultural” parameters surrounding his composition: white mentor Brander Matthews’s theory of modern American fiction (Lawrence J. Oliver); the early twentieth-century African American literary scene (Michael Nowlin); and the novel’s “reliably unreliable” white readers (Jeff Karem 67). Each of these relationships consists of transactional negotiation rather than one-way influence. Through careful analysis of Johnson’s œuvre and correspondence, for example, Nowlin reveals that the author’s acute sense of African American literary destitution underlies the way he framed The Autobiography—both in its anonymous publication in 1912 and in the 1927 republication marketed as “a classic in Negro literature” (49)—which went in tandem with his strenuous promotion of other black writers to establish a legitimate and well-recognized African American literary tradition.

Part two, “Relational Tropes: Transnationalism, Futurity, and the Ex-Colored Man,” features three essays on the transnational and transhistorical potential of, and exploration in, The Autobiography. Diana Paulin compares the novel with Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood, and Daphne Lamothe does so with Teju Cole’s Open City, to reveal the “futurity” that Johnson’s work posits in the form, respectively, of…

Read or purchase the review here.

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“You Should’ve Seen My Grandmother; She Passed for White”: African American Women Writers, Genealogy, and the Passing Genre

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Women on 2018-08-22 04:27Z by Steven

“You Should’ve Seen My Grandmother; She Passed for White”: African American Women Writers, Genealogy, and the Passing Genre

University of Sheffield
October 2015

Janine Bradbury, Senior Lecturer in Literature; School Learning and Teaching Lead
School of Humanities, Religion & Philosophy
York St John University, York, United Kingdom

Ph.D. Dissertation

This thesis critiques the prevailing assumption that passing is passé in contemporary African American women’s literature.

By re-examining the work of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Dorothy West, Alice Walker, and Barbara Neely, I argue that these writers signify on canonical passing narratives – Brown’s Clotel (1853) and Clotelle (1867), Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), Larsen’s Passing (1929), and Hurst’s Imitation of Life (1933) – in order to confront and redress both the historical roots and contemporary contexts of colourism.

As well bridging this historiographic gap, I make a case for reading passing as a multivalent trope that facilitates this very process of cultural interrogation. Rather than focussing on literal episodes of passing, I consider moments of symbolic, textual, and narrative passing, as well as the genealogical and intertextual processes at play in each text which account for the spectral hauntings of the passing-for-white figure in post-civil rights literature.

In Chapter 1, I examine the relationship between passing and embodiments of beauty in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), Bambara’s “Christmas Eve at Johnson’s Drugs N Goods” (1974) and Neely’s Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (1994).

In Chapter 2, I discuss passing, class, and capital in Naylor’s Linden Hills (1985) and Dorothy West’s The Wedding (1995).

In Chapter 3, I suggest that Walker and Morrison revisit Larsen’s Passing in their short stories “Source” (1982) and “Recitatif” (1983).

Finally, I conclude this project with a discussion of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child (2015) in order to demonstrate the continued centrality of the passing trope for authors interested in colourism, genealogy, and black women’s experiences.

Embargoed here until October 2020.

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The Prisms of Passing: Reading beyond the Racial Binary in Twentieth-Century U.S. Passing Narratives

Posted in Dissertations, Latino Studies, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2018-04-30 00:40Z by Steven

The Prisms of Passing: Reading beyond the Racial Binary in Twentieth-Century U.S. Passing Narratives

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
2011
217 pages

Amanda M. Page

A dissertation submitted to the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of English and Comparative Literature.

In “The Prisms of Passing: Reading beyond the Racial Binary in Twentieth-Century U.S. Passing Narratives,” I examine a subset of racial passing narratives written between 1890 and 1930 by African American activist-authors, some directly affiliated with the NAACP, who use the form to challenge racial hierarchies through the figure of the mulatta/o and his or her interactions with other racial and ethnic groups. I position texts by Frances E.W. Harper, James Weldon Johnson, and Walter White in dialogue with racial classification laws of the period—including Supreme Court decisions, such as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), and immigration law, such as the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924—to show how these rulings and laws were designed to consolidate white identity while preventing coalition-building among African Americans and other subordinate groups.

In contrast to white-authored passing narratives of the time, I argue that these early African American passing narratives frequently gesture toward interracial solidarity with Native American, European immigrant, Latina/o, or Asian American characters as a means of
challenging white supremacy. Yet, these authors often sacrifice the potential for antiracist coalitions because of the limitations inherent in working within the dominant racial and nativist discourses. For example, in Iola Leroy (1892), Harper, despite her racially progressive intentions, strategically deploys white nativist discourse against Native Americans to demonstrate the “Americanness” of her mulatta heroine and demand recognition of African American assimilation. Though later African American passing narratives, such as Johnson‘s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) and White‘s Flight (1926), began to reflect a collaborative global approach to civil rights as the century progressed, these strategies of domestic antagonism and/or international solidarity with groups outside of the black-white binary ultimately worked in service to a specifically African American civil rights agenda.

This study concludes with an examination of a contemporary passing narrative by an Asian American author. Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son (2001) revises the form to challenge the continued marginalization of Latina/os and Asian Americans and thus suggests the need for a reconsideration of how we approach civil rights activism to accommodate new racial dynamics in the post-civil rights era.

Read the entire dissertation here.

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New Perspectives on James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Posted in Anthologies, Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-07-21 19:05Z by Steven

New Perspectives on James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

University of Georgia Press
2017-07-15
272 pages
Trim size: 6 x 9
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-8203-5097-4
Ebook ISBN: 978-0-8203-5096-7

Edited by

Noelle Morrissette, Associate Professor of English
University of North Carolina, Greensboro

James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) exemplified the ideal of the American public intellectual as a writer, educator, songwriter, diplomat, key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, and first African American executive of the NAACP. Originally published anonymously in 1912, Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is considered one of the foundational works of twentieth-century African American literature, and its themes and forms have been taken up by other writers, from Ralph Ellison to Teju Cole.

Johnson’s novel provocatively engages with political and cultural strains still prevalent in American discourse today, and it remains in print over a century after its initial publication. New Perspectives contains fresh essays that analyze the book’s reverberations, the contexts within which it was created and received, the aesthetic and intellectual developments of its author, and its continuing influence on American literature and global culture.

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Passing Before ‘Passing’: The Ambivalent Identity of the Narrator in Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-03-14 18:59Z by Steven

Passing Before ‘Passing’: The Ambivalent Identity of the Narrator in Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

European Scientific Journal
Volume 13, Number 5 (2017)
DOI: 10.19044/esj.2017.v13n5p1

Bassam M. Al-Shraah, Teaching Associate
School of Linguistics and Language Studies
Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is considered by many as an early seminal censure and commentary on the contested racial issue of African American in the United States of America. This paper argues that the ‘invisible’ protagonist of the Novel has passed for white as early as his childhood years. The narrator relinquishes his black identity for the conveniences and supremacy that the white identity entails. This paper brings to question the credibility of narrative in the novel; also, it proves that the narrator contradicts himself. The invisible narrator appears not to have a firm stance regarding the atrocities suffered by his own people—African Americans. People of color in the United States were caught between two cultures, identities, and lives. The un-named narrator has taken the least troubled road. He announces his passing for white at the end of the novel. This study contends that he has done so long time ago before he literally announces his passing.

Read the entire article here.

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“These narratives of racial passing have risen from the dead”

Posted in Dissertations, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-08-29 01:46Z by Steven

“These narratives of racial passing have risen from the dead”

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
May 2015
275 pages
DOI: 10.7282/T38G8NJG

Donavan L. Ramon

Ph.D. Dissertation

Instead of concurring with most critics that racial passing literature reached its apex during the Harlem Renaissance, this project highlights its persistence, as evidenced in the texts examined from 1900 to 2014. Using psychoanalysis, this dissertation recovers non-canonical and white-authored narratives that critics overlook, thus reconceptualizing the genre of passing literature to forge a new genealogy for this tradition. This new genealogy includes novels, life writings, and short stories. In arguing for the genre’s continued relevance and production, this project offers a rejoinder to critics who contend that racial passing literature is obsolete. Part one of this dissertation complicates the notion that characters pass only in response to witnessing a lynching or to improve their socioeconomic status, by asserting that racial passing begins in the classroom for male characters and at home for their female counterparts. It thus precedes the threat of violence or middle class aspirations. Whereas the first half of this project is preoccupied with the gendered beginnings of racial passing, the second half examines its effects, on both writing and death. This project explores racial passing in Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun (1929), Vera Caspary’s The White Girl (1929), Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s The Stones of the Village (1988), Danzy Senna’s Caucasia (1999), Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000), Bliss Broyard’s One Drop (2003) and Anita Reynolds’ American Cocktail (2014).

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Boutté play to explore questions of race and identity

Posted in Articles, Arts, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-04-06 01:13Z by Steven

Boutté play to explore questions of race and identity

Illinois State University
2015-03-25

Eric Jome, Director of Media Relations

When Duane Boutté, an assistant professor in the School of Theatre and Dance, read James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the story struck a familiar chord. It also served as further inspiration for Boutté to develop a play based loosely on his own family history.

Johnson was an author, songwriter, professor, lawyer, diplomat and civil rights leader in the early 20th century. The executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1920s, Johnson also composed the lyrics to Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, a song the NAACP promoted as a black national anthem.

The book’s plot revolves around the life of a man struggling with his own racial identity. The un-named main character leads an idyllic childhood in the American south, taking piano lessons and developing a love for the music of Chopin. His world is changed when he learns that his mother is of mixed race, even though she passes for white. He eventually comes to terms with his heritage, but ultimately decides to keep his true identity a secret, even from his children.

Boutté was immediately intrigued. Johnson’s novel explored themes of identity that resonate deeply with him. His family tree, rooted in Louisiana, includes black and white branches. “I have maternal and paternal grandparents of mixed race, but they always identified as black,” he said. “Throughout American history, mixed-race children were more often raised by the black branch and shunned by the white. My great-great-grandfather in Louisiana established his own family cemetery so that both black and white family members could be buried in the same area, but I’ve always been struck by stories about a few mixed-race relatives of ours who simply passed for white.”…

Read the entire article here.

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The Tragic Immigrant: Duality, Hybridity and the Discovery of Blackness in Mark Twain and James Weldon Johnson

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2015-03-20 20:13Z by Steven

The Tragic Immigrant: Duality, Hybridity and the Discovery of Blackness in Mark Twain and James Weldon Johnson

ELH
Volume 82, Number 1, Spring 2015
pages 211-249
DOI: 10.1353/elh.2015.0001

Richard Hardack

Around the turn of the twentieth-century, a number of American writers imagined that European culture could help them develop an external perspective with which to reinterpret racial double-consciousness in the United States. In Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, European culture winds affirmed the binaries of race in the American South; but in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, published eighteen years later, European culture helps foster ideas of cultural and racial hybridity, though they cannot be transferred entirely to America. I explore the “discovery” of blackness and final rejection of European identity common to Twain’s and Johnson’s novels. In Twain’s novel, the familiar figure of “the tragic mulatto” is juxtaposed with, and temporarily supplanted by, the more unexpected figure of the tragic immigrant, an outsider who can never become an assimilated American. Johnson then recalibrates Twain’s configuration of racial duality by turning the external conflict between African American mulatto and European immigrant twins into an internal struggle of double consciousness.

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The Theme of “Passing” in the Novels of James Weldon Johnson and Nella Larsen

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-05-05 17:57Z by Steven

The Theme of “Passing” in the Novels of James Weldon Johnson and Nella Larsen

International Journal of Interdisciplinary and Multidisciplinary Studies (IJIMS)
Volume 1, Number 4 (2014)
pages 53-58
ISSN: 2348-0343

Dinesh Babu. P.
Department of English
Ramanujan College (University of Delhi), Kalkaji, New Delhi, India

The depiction of the experience of a very fair-skinned person of some “coloured” background who successfully passes into white society was a recurrent theme in early African American writings. In this paper an attempt is made to look at, and compare and contrast, two African American novels, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912) and Passing (1929) which deal with the theme of passing, written by James Weldon Johnson and Nella Larsen, a Black man and a Black woman writer. This paper analyses how the two novels reject the rules of colour division, rules which demand that one accepts a position within a predetermined hierarchy.

Read the entire article here.

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English 4640G: Construction of Racial Identity in Post Civil War America

Posted in Course Offerings, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2014-01-16 15:29Z by Steven

English 4640G: Construction of Racial Identity in Post Civil War America

Huron University College at Western University
London, Ontario, Canada
Winter 2013

Neil Brooks, Associate Professor, English

Course Description: Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination argues that the canonical American literary tradition can only be understood after recognizing the presence of an often silenced, but almost ubiquitous Africanist persona. This persona served as a negative stereotype against which the dominant American identity could define itself. However, even Morrison’s groundbreaking work re-inscribes the binary between Black and White in America and fails to theorize adequately the ways in which bi-racial and multi-racial identity have complicated the ideologies she discusses. This course will begin with Morrison’s analysis and then look at several novels and stories which the explore the instability of any color line between Black and White in America.

Course Objectives: This course addresses the examination of how racial identity, particularly mixed race identity, is constructed in America through close engagement with selected literary works written by Americans since the end of the Civil War. By the end of the course students should have improved their critical reading and writing in ways which will enable their success in a wide variety of University courses. Further, students will have learned American historical background, feminist literary theory, patterns of racial construction, theories of performativity, and skills in analyzing artistic achievement within the works. Finally, the course aims to provide the framework for applying these skills and knowledge in engaging with the narratives students will encounter and create outside the classroom.

Course Material:

For more information, click here.

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