Racial Credit, White Money, and the Novel of Assimilative Lament
ROUGHLY A DECADE AFTER THE SUCCESS OF WASHINGTON’S UP FROM Slavery, two purportedly “autobiographical” narratives appeared that made strikingly similar claims about their documentary authenticity in portraying racial types for a white audience. In 1912, the Boston firm of Sherman, French, and Company published an anonymous narrative, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, to little response. The preface of the book, signed by “The Publishers” but composed for the most part by the book’s unnamed author, James Weldon Johnson, promises a “vivid and startlingly new picture” of the conditions of the Negro, “a composite and proportionate presentation of the entire race, embracing all of its groups and elements,” that will “draw aside” the “veil” between white reader and black subject and “initiate” that reader “into the ‘freemasonry,’ as it were, of the race” (xxxiii-xxxiv). Though the book in truth has very few overtly autobiographical elements, publishing it without attribution allowed it to be taken, as Johnson intended, as the life story of its anonymous author. In recalling those intentions in his traditional autobiography, Along This Way, Johnson actually uses the more ambiguous term “human document” rather than “autobiography” to describe how Ex-Colored Man, to his gratification, was received. Without losing the ambiguity of his term, which could be used to describe a novel as well, it is clear that Johnson wants to emphasize its “documentary” nature by contrasting it in the following sentence with the “frank piece of fiction” that it would have been if his name had been “affixed” to it (Along 238). Of course the presence of both “frankness” and “fiction” in the latter phrase implies the entanglement of authority and irony that has been, despite the preface’s carnival-barker call of strict documentary authenticity, perhaps the element of Johnson’s narrative most discussed by its late-twentieth-century readers.