Written by Francisca Goldsmith on Friday, June 17, 2016
Listening Group Guide: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EX-COLORED MAN
James Weldon Johnson's background as a highly educated and prominent American attorney, diplomat, and author at the start of the 20th century, is important to understanding why he wrote THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EX-COLORED MAN. Active at a time when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was becoming established in its civil rights leadership role, he eventually became the Executive Secretary of the organization and helped to shape its work against racism.
Johnson’s anonymously published novel explores one man’s biracial identity and his observations of how Americans (and Europeans of the time) differentiated in their attitudes toward others based on racial perceptions. While science demonstrates the lack of any verifiable genetic differences that can be used to classify “race,” Americans continue to assign attributes to something we call race when identifying ourselves and others according to this measure, rather than evaluating history, class, and the role of past beliefs about race we have brought into our personal, social, and civic fabric today.
Race-based history and contemporary structures ranging from education to justice to health are real, and this novel exposes how this history of labeling affects personal identity. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EX-COLORED MAN teases out related behaviors explicitly, showing us the very questions we need to ask: How is racial identity productive in my life? What do I mean when I use a racial identity term, both for myself and for someone about whom I know not even a name? What do others mean when they apply such terms to me? How could we address more directly the issues of history, privilege, and social health were we to identify what underlies the shorthanded way we use race as an identifier?
After listening to Johnson's book and gathering a small group of others you know who have also listened to it, you might consider discussing the following questions in reference to what you’ve heard:
- As you moved through this novel, what happened that surprised you? Be specific about the event, characters, and outcomes involved.
- The narrator is never named and changes his racial identity as we move along through this novel. What else makes us who we are if we don’t answer to a name and present ourselves with different histories in different interactions?
- How does Alan Bomar Jones’ reading affect how you picture the unnamed narrator in the novel? As the story moves along, what do you notice about Jones’ voice that helps or gets in the way of you imagining identity shifts?
James Weldon Johnson became an influence on writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Your group might want to listen to one of these audiobooks and then discuss the differences, both in the story and its aural delivery, with this first novel about American racial identity:
COMING OF AGE IN MISSISSIPPI, by Anne Moody and performed by Lisa Renee Pitts, for Tantor Media, 2013
ASTRAY, by Emma Donoghue and performed by Kristine Hvam, James Langton, Robert Petkoff, Suzanne Toren, Dion Graham, for Hachette Audio, 2013