Born in Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon Johnson is today perhaps best remembered as the first black executive secretary of the NAACP and the author of what remained his single novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, published in 1912. While nothing in Johnson’s own life suggests that he himself was gay, he is included in this encyclopedia because of the rich suggestiveness of his novel. Though a fictional work, the book’s autobiographical mode allows Johnson to tell the story through the voice of a deeply complex and often contradictory protagonist. The protagonist, son of a prominent Southern white man and his well-kept mistress, is never named and finally crosses the color line and passes for white. His clearly ambiguous racial identity is complicated by an attendant, though never directly explicit, equally ambivalent sexual identity suggested both in his feminized descriptions of himself and in his relationship with a white millionaire who becomes his patron. Johnson’s treatment of sexual identity is important because it may have influenced later writers of the Harlem
Renaissance in whose work such themes enjoyed frank and open treatment, and because it raises important questions about the complicated interrelationship between racial and sexual identity.