James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man challenges the status of race relations in the United States in the early 1900s. Written on the heels of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision which legally established segregation in the United States, the novel depicts the life of a mixed-race narrator in an effort to argue that racial divisions are a contrived concept. Early in the novel, the narrator, then twelve years old, meets his father for the first time. In the passage describing the meeting, Johnson uses a dark writing style reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe, juxtaposes the emotions of the narrator and his mother, and symbolizes white America through the father to underscore the discrimination faced by multiracial individuals.
Johnson begins the passage immediately with a dark tone as the narrator reflects on what the word “father” has meant to him, calling it a “source of doubt and perplexity.” This is reflective of the romantic writings of Edgar Allen Poe, who believed in a deeper noumenal world filled with chaos and evil. His sublime worldview often came forward in themes of confusion in his works, much like Johnson’s focus on confusion in this passage. Johnson, in fact, frequently imitates Poe when referring to race relations in the United States.
At the beginning of Chapter 2, Johnson describes being called a racial slur for the first time as a “transition from one world into another,” of “dwarfing, warping, distorting influence.” Here, Johnson again makes use of the idea of a chaotic, noumenal world beneath our own. Johnson continues to reflect Poe’s writing as the narrator explains that he feels ominously as if there is something he is not being told about his father, but that he is probably happier that he does not know what it is. The suggestion of a hidden aspect to his father also parallels the hidden nature of the noumena in our phenomenal world. Readers at the time would have been familiar with the works of Poe, and would have known to associate his writing style with ideas of darkness and evil. By frequently invoking Poe’s writing style when discussing the narrator’s relationship with white Americans, Johnson is suggesting that institutional segregation was evil and must be looked at critically by all Americans.
As the passage progresses, Johnson juxtaposes the reactions of the narrator and his mother to the arrival of the father. Johnson clearly explains that the mother was overjoyed for her son to meet his father. The narrator believes the day “was one of the happiest moments of [his mother’s] life,” and that she romantically hoped to see her son run into his father’s arms. The narrator, however, felt apathetic, feeling no “need for a father.” The mother sees the occasion as joyful because she sees it as an elevation of status for her son. His father’s status of having “the best blood of the South,” elevated her son, in her eyes, to a white social status.
The son is apathetic, however, because his father’s white bloodline is in fact powerless to elevate him out of the discrimination he faces. This juxtaposition is reflective of the plight of the mixed race man – he is accepted by neither the black or white communities. He has been forced to either reject the paternity of one of his parents or find no acceptance from any racial community; the narrator will eventually choose the former. This predicament is designed to seem absurd to the reader. If race were not a trivial human concept, the narrator could find acceptance in both groups. The narrator’s rejection again calls into question whether there is truly a grounds for separation of different races.
The narrator’s father is used in a symbolic sense in this passage to represent the majority of white Americans at the time. When the father first speaks to the narrator, he means to be friendly and welcoming, but “could not have had a worse effect” on the narrator. At the time when the novel takes place, the United States was filled with well-meaning white men like the father, who despite being generally good people did nothing to fight against discrimination and segregation. The narrator’s father is one of these well-meaning men. He seems to bear no prejudice against his son, and sends money to make sure he is cared for. Yet by not taking a firm stand against the discrimination his son faces, the narrator’s father is unable to give him the thing he needs most – freedom from an oppressive system.
Just like the father, many excused themselves from fighting against racial segregation because they believed they were not as prejudiced as others, and thus were not at fault for it. Although they meant well, they were in fact instrumental in the establishment of segregation because they remained silent. Johnson uses the narrator’s father to challenge those of all races who believe themselves to be good people to take a stand against segregation, pointing out that their well-meaning silence has actually only made things worse for the black community.
Johnson’s establishment of the suffering of a mixed-race man in this passage helps to set up the entire structure of the passing novel. The idea of the narrator abandoning his identity in order to find a better life is a powerful challenge to segregation. In order to be successful, however, Johnson must first establish how much he suffered as an African American and the contrived nature of that discrimination. Johnson employs literary techniques reflective of Edgar Allen Poe, juxtaposes the narrator and his mother, and uses the narrator’s father as a symbol to establish a foundation for his passing novel, ultimately creating a powerful critique of segregation and race relations in the United States.