The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was published anonymously in 1912. Its title can be confusing, since the book is a work of fiction, based heavily upon the personal experience of its author, James Weldon Johnson. If you haven’t, please read the novel someday.
Like any great piece of literature, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is timeless. Its depiction of the rise of rag-time music, life on the streets of New York in the early twentieth century, the feckless culture of wealthy American ex-patriates, and African American society in the deep South are beautifully and powerfully written.
I started work on this essay earlier, set on making it an upbeat celebration of Johnson’s work, citing passages from his book. But a news item appeared on the internet today that narrowed my selection to a single passage from the Autobiography.
Late in the book, when traveling in Georgia to do research on Negro music and culture, the narrator witnesses a black man being captured by white vigilantes for an unnamed crime. The crowd sets a railroad tie in the ground, chains the black man to it, and burns him alive.
“I walked a short distance away and sat down in order to clear my dazed mind,” the narrator recounts. “A great wave of humiliation and shame swept over me. Shame that I belonged to a race that could be so dealt with; and shame for my country, that it, the great example of democracy to the world, should be the only civilized, if not the only state on earth, where a human being would be burned alive.”
The news item today? “Guards Cooked This Inmate to Death, Then the Evidence Was Burned.” The story’s details are grisly and truly disheartening.
So I return to the words of James Weldon Johnson, who a century ago witnessed some of humanity’s worst, yet produced some its best. Here is the second verse of his poem, “Prayer at Sunrise”:
“O greater Maker of this Thy great sun,
Give me the strength this one day’s race to run,
Fill me with light, fill me with sun-like strength,
Fill me with joy to rob the day its length.
Light from within, light that will outward shine,
Strength to make strong some weaker heart than mine,
Joy to make glad each soul that feels its touch;
Great Father of the sun, I ask this much.”
May his prayer be answered. For all of us.