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The Whitening of Souls: A Note on Shame, Internal Monologues, and White Hegemony
In James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the unnamed protagonist lives his life walking the line between white and black. He is a man who can choose to be a person of color, or can “pass” as a white man, and as is evident by the title, he chooses the life of a white man. But even while he is grappling with the idea of choosing a race, he is naturally inclined to elevate white people and subtly discriminate against black people. These events take place in his inner monologue despite him knowing internally that he himself is black. While this could be seen as betrayal of one’s race, the text substantiates the reality that the hegemony of the white population is so pervasive that it alters even the standards and feelings of the black community within themselves. The narrator’s feelings are only a refection of his world.
Even as a child, the narrator falls into patterns of discrimination against other black children. He recounts siding with the white children naturally in elementary school, and one event where he “ran after [the black children] pelting them with stones” (10). Finding out he himself is black is a moment of considerable distress for him, a realization that he clearly remembers for the rest of his life. Upon coming to this conclusion he knows he cannot continue to associate with the white cliques, but also refuses to associate with the black children at this time. He acquires a tendency to disassociate with people of color astonishingly early in life. Later in life too, he continues to put down people of color in more subtle ways. In the Club, the romantic interest of the white widow who frequents the location is referred to as the “bad man”, and a “surly, black despot” (89) without him being known personally.
When our narrator travels to the South, even the people that he grows fond of are described in a condescendingly patronizing manner, like the churchgoers and speakers he encounters during the multi-day religious event he stumbles upon. Finally, when he encounters the murder of a man through burning, his emotional response is not empathy or even horror. He describes instead a “great wave of humiliation and shame” (137). This life-altering event actually makes him feel embarrassed to be a black man, someone belonging to a race “that could be so dealt with” (137). For him to understand that a murder had just happened without consequence or reproach was for him to recognize a seeming inferiority in blackness, and it is at this point that he chooses to discard it.
Conversely, the narrator also elevates the white people he meets, perhaps subconsciously, and shows marked preference for them compared to people of his own race. The millionaire is a very prominent example and evidence of the narrator’s tremendous respect and love for him can be seen all over the midsection of the book. However, his exaltation takes its most articulate and poignant form in the way the narrator describes women. Chronologically, he sees first the woman in the theater, calling her “so young, so fair, so ethereal” (98), a description almost fitting for a goddess. When we realize her father is also the narrator’s father, and this girl is his half-sister, it is finally implied that this woman without doubt is white. The narrator’s penchant for glorifying the white woman does not stop there. When he meets his future wife, he enters a series of internal comments that deify her as well, and equate her whiteness to purity, loveliness, and goodness. He says of her, “She was as white as a lily, and she was dressed in white. Indeed, she seemed to me the most dazzlingly white thing I had ever seen” (144). These women are equated to celestial beings of benevolence with words like ‘ethereal’ and ‘dazzling’ in a way that no black woman is ever described in this work. In fact, no black woman is given a description in this work any more articulate than being defined as ‘rather pretty’ or ‘quite charming’. The effect his wife has on the narrator finalizes his prejudice. Her love is a “love which melted away [his] cynicism and whitened [his] sullied soul” (147). The positive ways this woman affects the narrator’s life being described as the symbolic whitening of his soul solidifies the fact that the narrator, even as a black man, sees people of color as inherently less ‘good’.
So, what does this all mean? As a person of color, the narrator lacks the power possessed by the white population that could turn his prejudice into discrimination. In fact, this piece presents a balance of cultural, economic and social power so tipped in favor of white people that the narrator’s prejudice could be attributed to white hegemony too. The narrator explains it quite clearly himself through the issue of marriage, and how people of color who are wealthy or well educated tend to marry people lighter in complexion to themselves. “The United States puts a greater premium on color, or, better, lack of color, than upon anything else in the world”, he writes, continuing “It is this tremendous pressure which the sentiment of the country exerts that is operating on the race” (113). Just like when W.E.B. Dubois’s double-consciousness, the narrator here can perceive that the way communities of people of color act are being forcibly molded under tremendous pressure by white power. In circumstances like in the world of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, it is predictable that people with darker complexions would be looked upon as lesser, and white people exalted, even by people of color. For people of color, the lighter the complexion of their partner, and therefore of their children, the higher a chance they have at economic, cultural and social success. The narrator’s complicated desire for whiteness and shame over being a person of color comes not from his own faults as a character but from the fact that he is up to his eyeballs in internalized white hegemony. He wants to feel human and to feel fulfilled, talented, and accepted, just like every other person does, but in his world these things are defined or augmented by one’s level of whiteness. Thus, the narrator’s feelings, though real and biased, are the result of immersive white power rather than actual independent prejudice.
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