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In James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, the narrator presents the story of his life as a black man passing as white, and the different stages he progresses through while doing so. In both his life and the lives of many black Americans during the time of our narrator’s life, and to the present day, music plays an integral part in defining identity and culture. The narrator’s personal experience with music reflects a greater cultural experience shared by the black American community, and is sometimes the central element of his own life. By understanding the narrator’s experience with music, we can connect it to a broader experience of culture and status that Johnson comments on via the narrator.
Early in his life, the narrator discovers he has a proficiency in music, playing the piano in his home and joining various groups and ensembles early in his life (25-27). His musicianship also allowed him venues socially to spend time with people he may not have otherwise, beginning with his love interest in grade school. He remarks on his youthful love, saying “Perhaps the reader has already guessed why I was so willing and anxious to play the accompaniment to this violin solo; if not – the violinist was a girl of seventeen or eighteen… and who had moved me to a degree which now I can hardly think as possible” (29). As a medium to accompany the girl both musically and physically in person, the narrator’s talents and interests in music early on establish him as someone who may have the potential to make connections unavailable to others, which will prove momentous in guiding his life in due time.
Given that the narrator’s talents are unique enough to distinguish him from the rest of the general population, he is able to eventually find a place playing the piano in establishments that are understood to be similar to modern day bars. In fact, the narrator becomes acclaimed as something of a legend in New York City, having earned the reputation of “the best rag-time-player in New York” (115). He says, “By mastering rag-time I gained the title of professor. I was known as ‘the professor’ as long as I remained in that world. Then, too I gained the means of earning a rather fair livelihood” (115) [emphasis mine]. In saying he has earned a fair livelihood, as well as the dignified title of “professor,” the narrator equates playing music – particularly ragtime music – as something sophisticated, intelligent, and respectable, as opposed to a job like cigar making.
The narrator’s experience playing music in bars is clearly something positive, given the title he has earned and the respect he is given. Johnson’s portrayal of the black musician is that of someone in an honorable profession working to support him/herself. He contrasts this sharply with the nature of other men in these establishments who seem to do little more than bum around and gamble with money they do not have (94-96). Our narrator has just come off of a gambling binge, spending some amount of time as a full-time craps player. By transitioning to music as his primary mode of income, he is not only abandoning chance in his pursuit for money, but also personally channeling his talents and interests toward something society can see as respectable. That the music is ragtime – something seen as a great form of music during this time – only elevates him further and establishes the black musician, or the black player of ragtime, as a great man. The ragtime music itself bears great importance, as it deviates from old-school classical music and demonstrates a newfound originality that the black community claims as its own. Thus, its masters are revered, as explained, for having provided this phenomenon to the community.
It is interesting, then, to comment on what happens next in the narrator’s life. Following the request of a white millionaire to play at a function, the narrator becomes something of a personal pianist for him, playing in his own home and at various functions for a long period of time. He even travels with the millionaire to Europe at one point for many months. This raises a question: If the narrator is so respected in his own racial community for having played so well, why does he choose to play privately for a rich white man and eventually flee the continent (and his music) with him? As Johnson depicts in the shooting scene, there is actually little the narrator can do but leave, and eventually, pass as white. The violence in that moment is indicative of the very lifestyle our narrator is not involved in – he is not a violent, sexually-charged, or otherwise indecent man. These events manifest themselves as a “horrible nightmare” (124) for the narrator. In leaving New York and his public music career behind, the narrator makes a conscious decision to abandon his status and lifestyle to re-evaluate his own goals, perhaps investigating them anew in Europe.
What does happen eventually, after months in Europe and moments away from a second major international excursion, is the decision the narrator makes to return to the United States as an ambassador to his race – that is, the black race. He says, “But I must own that I also felt stirred by an unselfish desire to voice all the joys and sorrows, the hopes and ambitions, of the American Negro, in classical music form” (148). The narrator means he wishes to play again, this time as a declared representative of his black race. In doing so he establishes that he will return to the United States to use music as a medium to communicate significant ideas about black American culture. The millionaire at one point offers him the opportunity to remain in Europe and study under some of the greatest teachers in the world (144), which would make more sense if the narrator was focused solely on music. Yet, he is not: he is, and has been, focused on music as something more than just music itself.
Ultimately, though, he cannot follow through with this. When the narrator has a chilling firsthand experience with lynching, he has to make the decision to pass as white for the rest of his life, which he later contemplates on in the conclusion of the novel, saying “sometimes it seems to me that I have never really been a Negro, that I have been only a privileged spectator of their inner life; at other times I feel that I have been a coward, a deserter, and I am possessed by a strange longing for my mother’s people” (210). All of these sentiments the narrator expresses can be directly connected to an experience he had with music earlier in his life. He may feel like a deserter for having literally deserted New York for Europe in the face of the violent incident, leaving his music (and position as “professor”) behind. He may only feel like a spectator because while in these bars and clubs, playing for the black community, he could never truly connect with it like others – he did not look the part or play the part and grew up “white,” only to have “black”-ness and its perils apparently thrust upon him. Throughout his life, music acted as a portal for the narrator into the black community, to hold the position of the “privileged spectator” perhaps, and to involve himself in situations he otherwise would have never encountered.
The role of music in the narrator’s life mirrors the role of music as a social tool for the black community in general as evidenced by the events in the novel. The narrator’s music playing in clubs, as well as the music-centric cakewalk he encounters, are events that literally bring people together in a positive atmosphere. His intention in Europe is to return to the United States and use his talents to speak on behalf of the “black man” and to do great things on behalf of his race because he understands that there is a social bonding mechanism that music contains, particularly with ragtime, as it is a style “owned” by the African American community. Johnson’s commentary is then that music can be a social tool for change, of course evidenced by his real-life authoring of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” At every opportunity, he paints music and its performers in a positive light, and as performing an important task, as evidenced by the narrator’s comments. It does not matter if it is for a rich millionaire or a club; the musician, particularly the black musician performing ragtime, demonstrates a particular air of importance and meaning (as evidenced by the narrator’s admiration from his peers and the millionaire alike).
Although music for the narrator ultimately does not become his life’s work, its role is particularly important in guiding him through some of the most important stages of his life, particularly in his youth and in the time leading up to the millionaire and his decision to return to the United States. Beyond its role as an important factor in the narrator’s life, its position in the novel is realistic and acts as a commentary that Johnson makes on the importance of music in the community as a tool for unification and as an object of inspiration at times as well. It does not matter if the narrator is merely a “privileged spectator;” his involvement and performance throughout his life open paths for him he would otherwise have not had, and this would be true for any person. It is particularly “color blind” in this case, or even black-oriented, as the position the narrator holds as a black-identified (not passing) performer of ragtime only bolsters his credibility amongst his peers, playing culturally significant music. This performance and, although unfulfilled, his desire to return and use the music to tell the story of the struggle of African Americans, display the immense importance of music to enact social change and to play a role both societally and individually for those involved.
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