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Complacent like me? Read ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-coloured Man’

After reading James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 book, Margherita Concina gives her thoughts on race and politics

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Have you ever had an epiphany?

I think I’ve just had one, and it has made me realize that I need more. Badly. This week’s reading for my 20th-Century African American Literature module deals with parody in James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel: ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man’. You may have heard of it, but I hadn’t before it ended up on my reading list.

The nameless protagonist is the son of a former slave and her former master, who can “pass” as white due to his Caucasian skin tone and features. He’s a cigar roller at a factory, then a pianist in New York, then he travels to Europe and back. The book is amazingly well-written, engrossing, even exciting.

As I sat down to do my work, I vaguely tried to pinpoint what was being parodied. Was it the nameless narrator’s delusion of artistry? His self-satisfaction? The hypocrisy of the supposedly egalitarian North in the 19th- and 20th-century United States? Turns out, it was all of the above, and more.

It is the main character’s whiteness which is the main source of parody: his complete unawareness of his own prejudice, his brushing off of the tragedies he witnesses without really feeling any sympathy for the victims. And his rationalisation of all of this. There are plenty of demonstrations of his obliviousness, like when he casually accepts a drink from a self-proclaimed white supremacist or fantasies about creating a classical (i.e. white) masterpiece from ragtime music.

And I’d missed most of them. I suddenly felt like the butt of the joke I was supposed to be a part of. How could this be? I live in a time and place where equality is supposedly the norm, and which at any rate is very different from segregated America. I’m all for equality, obviously. My social circle has people from all walks of life.

Oh.

It hit me. I’d missed the irony, because I sympathised with the character’s motivations. I have internalised the same complacent tendencies he displays. When I see a homeless person, I feel justified in looking away. Reading newspapers depresses me, so I don’t. There was a recent election in my country, and I haven’t given it a second thought, because politics is just a sham and nothing ever changes anyway. But things have changed, and more needs changing. If I’m not careful, I could end up like the main character, with a vague sense of dissatisfaction hinting at a deeply-rooted selfishness – and missing the latter. I may have had an epiphany, but now I need to get to work on myself.

I know that if you’re reading this, chances are you voted Jeremy Corbyn, are politically aware, and are not unsympathetic to the tragedies of the world. But it’s not like I was a white supremacist myself when I picked up the book. So if you like to challenge yourself and your perspective, do the same. If you feel like you challenge yourself enough already, pick up the book all the same, simply because it’s amazingly well-written.

Just for me: I’m selfish because I willingly distance my self from caring, because I justify continuing to punish my parents for my anxiety although I know it’s unfair, for concentrating on my melodramatic insecurities instead of the faults and choices that impact my ethical perspective. I too have artistic fantasies that I never have the balls to act upon, and often pretend to care about people and causes more than I do.