In considering fictions centered on characters of mixed Black-and-white parentage, critics tend to assimilate these stories into African American literary paradigms—in much the same way that, in real life, America considers biracial people as simply black. Working against this reductive reflex, this essay reads James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man as a serious exploration of biracial identity and experience. Specifically, the article argues that Johnson draws on early twentieth-century conceptions of femininity as a vehicle for rendering mainly three facets of the lives of many biracial men: (1) hypervisibility (in a world obsessed with skin color), (2) sexuality (when identification is distorted), and (3) self-determination (where a racial hierarchy appears to eliminate agency). In its conclusion, the article suggests that the prevailing tendencies among readers of the novel to condemn the ex-colored man stems from an investment in the trope of the “tragic mulatto”—a plot device that at once sentimentalizes the fates of biracial characters and links those fates inextricably to biology rather than ideology.
James Weldon Johnson’s Feminization of Biraciality
Rafael Walker is assistant professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York. His essays on American literature have appeared in a number of venues. At present, he is at work on two books—one on the American realist novel and the other, out of which this essay grows, on biraciality in American culture.
Rafael Walker; James Weldon Johnson’s Feminization of Biraciality. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 December 2021; 67 (4): 385–406. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X–9528800
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