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  Perhaps best known for writing the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing ,
  James Weldon Johnson wrote one of the first novels to probe the ambiguities of race, the
  novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.  As a boy, the fictional title character is
  sent North with his Mother to be raised in Connecticut.  He does extremely well in school and
  is even something of a musical prodigy.

  But, he is stunned when one day in school a teacher asks the white students to stand, and scolds him
  when he joins them.  He confronts his fair skinned mother and she reveals that she is indeed black
  and his father is a white Southern gentleman.  His father later comes to visit, and even buys him a
  piano, but the child is unable to approach and deal with him.

  As a young man, the death of his mother & sale of their house leaves him with a small stake & he
 determines to attend college.  Though qualified, he rules out Harvard for financial reasons & heads
 back down South to attend Atlanta University.  However, his stake is stolen from his boarding house
 room before he can register & he ends up with a job in a cigar factory.

 When the factory closes, he heads North again, this time to New York City and discovers Ragtime
 music and shooting craps, excelling at the one & nearing ruin in the other.  A white gentleman who
 has heard him play enters into an exclusive agreement to have him play at parties & subsequently
 takes him along on a tour of Europe.

 Inevitably, he is drawn back to America and to music.  He tours the South collecting musical
 knowledge so that he will be able to compose a uniquely American and Black music.  But his idyll is
 shattered when he sees a white lynch mob burn a black man.  In the wake of this experience, he
 decides to "pass" for white--not due to fear or discouragement, but due to "Shame at being identified
 with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals."

 Abandoning his musical ambitions, he takes a job as a clerk, does well investing in real estate & meets
 a white woman who he wishes to marry.  After examining his conscience he decides to tell her that
 he is black.  After taking some time to confront this fact, she consents to marriage.

  As the novel closes, the "ex-colored man" tells us: "My love for my children makes me glad that I am
 what I am, and keeps me from desiring to be otherwise; and yet, when I sometimes open a little box
 in which I still keep my fast yellowing manuscripts, the only tangible remnants of a vanished dream,
 a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent, I cannot repress the thought, that, after all, I have chosen the
 lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage."

 And the reader can't help but feel profoundly ashamed of a system of racial oppression that forced a
 man to make these choices--a wonderful novel.


Grade: (B+)


James Johnson Links:
-ESSAY: James Weldon Johnson’s Ode to the “Deep River” of American History (New Republic, Mar. 2nd, 2021)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Academy of American Poets: Poetry Exhibits--James Weldon Johnson
    -E-text of Fifty Years and Other Poems
    -Poems by James Weldon Johnson
    -James Weldon Johnson Teachers Guide