James Weldon Johnson, Stranger than fiction (#Review)

Several months ago, I bookmarked a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering – as I often do for later use – but, despite its being a very brief offering, I’ve only got to it now. It’s on James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), and was timed, 17 June 2021, to synchronise with the 150th anniversary of his birth.

American readers here may know Johnson, but many of the rest of us probably don’t. Wikipedia describes him as an American writer and civil rights activist, but that hides a wealth of accomplishments. LOA, lists his achievements in a news item. He

  • wrote one novel, The autobiography of an ex-colored man, “which is considered by many critics to be the first modern African American novel and a major inspiration for Harlem Renaissance writers”.
  • was a lawyer, the first African American from his county, or perhaps state, to pass the Florida bar exam.
  • was an educator, and president of the Florida State Teachers Association (for Black teachers).
  • was a songwriter who, with brother Rosamond and friend Bob Cole, wrote dozens of popular songs. Many ended up in Broadway musicals of the early 1900s. They also wrote two songs used for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 campaign. One of these, “Under the bamboo tree,” was a big national hit in 1902 and was later performed by Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis). He and his brother wrote and composed the hymn “Lift every voice and sing,” also known as the “Black national anthem”.
  • was a diplomat, U. S. Consul in Venezuela (1906–1909) and in war-torn Nicaragua (1909–1912).
  • was a journalist at The New York Age, supervising its editorial page and writing a daily column for over ten years.
  • was an activist with the NAACP, who, in his role as field secretary, significantly increased the number of branches and the size of the membership.

LOA’s Story of the Week includes some biographical information that inspired his novel, and the text of his 1915 New York Age editorial which discussed the critical reaction to the novel.

“Stranger than fiction”

When I saw the title of this offering, I expected an essay, perhaps an entertaining one, on that old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction”, but I didn’t the author then. What I got was something far more interesting.

LOA prefaces the essay, as usual, with some explanatory material. In this case, they start with two “dramatic experiences that would inform his writing and activism for the remainder of his life”. One occurred in 1895, when, as an enterprising new teacher (a black man, remember) he asked to visit a white school to see and compare practices. He did so, but apparently a few days later he learnt that his visit “had raised a hullabaloo”. Parents had objected to the presence of a “Black man” in their children’s classrooms. Johnson wrote that “The affair was fomented to such an extent that the board of education felt it necessary to hold a meeting to inquire into the matter and fix the responsibility for my action.” To their credit, the superintendent and the school’s principal stood their ground, and it all blew over.

The second involved his meeting a journalist in a park in 1901, at her request. She wanted to fact-check an article she was writing on the disproportionate damage done to Jacksonville’s Black neighbourhoods by the Great Fire. They were confronted by “eight or ten militiamen in khaki with rifles and bayonets” who had “rushed to the city with a maddening tale of a Negro and a white woman meeting in the woods”. Again, it was resolved, but the ordeal left its mark.

Johnson’s novel, The autobiography of an ex-colored man (1912), which was inspired by experiences like these, has been described as the first fictional memoir by a black person. Set in late nineteenth to early twentieth century America, its protagonist is a young biracial man, known only as the “Ex-Colored Man”. Because of such experiences as witnessing a lynching, he decides to “pass” as white for safety and advancement reasons. The book chronicles his experiences and ambivalent feelings about his decision.

The book did not sell well initially, but sold very well three years later, after, says LOA, Johnson revealed himself as the author and “distributed several thousand copies of a glowing review that had appeared in Munsey’s Magazine“. This brings us, finally, to the essay, “Stranger than fiction”, which was published in 1915 in his daily column in The New York Age, where he was editor.

His aim was to give “a brief overview of the novel’s critical reception” but it was partly inspired, says LOA, by rumours that the estate of a wealthy woman publisher, Miriam (Frank) Leslie, was being contested by her late husband’s relatives on the grounds that she was the daughter of an enslaved women and therefore ‘her relatives had “no heritable blood”‘.

Johnson states at the beginning of his essay, that his book (novel)

produced a wide difference of critical opinion between reviewers on Northern and Southern publications.

Northern reviewers generally accepted the book as a human document, while Southern reviewers pronounced the theme of the story utterly impossible. A few of the Northern reviewers were in doubt as to whether the book was fact or fiction.

For many Northern reviewers, in other words, the work was so “real” they could barely believe it was fiction. (It doesn’t sound that, like Helen Garner’s critics, this bothered them.) Southern critics, on the other hand, asserted that the work was unbelievable because, writes Johnson,

the slightest tinge of African blood is discernible, if not in the complexion, then in some trait or characteristic betraying inferiority. This is, of course, laughable. Seven-tenths of those who read these lines know of one or more persons of colored blood who are “passing.”

As it turned out the Miriam Leslie rumours were unfounded, but Johnson at the time, believed it could have been true, and, if so, was “stranger than any fiction”. Which, ironically, just goes to prove the adage, whether the story was true or not!

Meanwhile, I was interested, though not surprised given how things are still playing out, in the disparity between Northern and Southern critical responses some 50 years or so after Abolition. Not strange at all, unfortunately.

James Weldon Johnson
“Stranger than fiction”
First published: New York Age, 1915
Available: Online at the Library of America

10 thoughts on “James Weldon Johnson, Stranger than fiction (#Review)

  1. I’m aware of this novel but have not yet read it. There is another novel, a work of satire, called Black No More by George S. Schuyler in which Black folks get a treatment done that turns them white — so white than no Black features remain, according to the story. Thus, almost every Black person in the U.S. gets the treatment, which baffles and confounds and flabbergasts White racists, who not can’t trust their “instincts” about who is Black/passing. Your quite here reminded me of Schuyler’s novel.

  2. I’m glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t get to following up on her own “do later, online” notes until many months later. This one is certainly one you would be glad not to have missed!

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