Friday, January 20, 2012
Great Novellas: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
I find it very powerful when a protagonist is never named in the story. Immediately, I think of Inivisible Man by Ellison, but there are a handful of others who incorporate this in their stories. It subtly represents the identity struggle of the narrator, who is able to share his/her story and yet cannot establish a concrete identity. However, I do not want to overdo the "identity crisis" interpretation because I don't think that is the central component of his story. Instead, I think that the narrator is a keen observer of his environments and the people in them. The entire piece is a close observation of human interaction, cultural differences, and social impressions. Clearly, the narrator is highly intelligent and delivers some very interesting insights. In addition, he also makes countless allusions to literature, music, and history which were important in the time this was written.
One of his more notable observations is the class division among African-Americans. Before Johnson wrote this novella, people didn't usually distinguish between the various cultures within African-Americans but clumped them all in one category. Yet the narrator, who grew up in a wealthier environment, discusses the significant differences in the various cultures he experiences. In particular, he focuses on their various dialects and explores how their language affects their interactions. His observations are so astute that they are still very relevant 100 years later. The narrator is interested in language in general, taking time to learn Spanish and French as well, and I really like his linguistic analyses. This is something I didn't appreciate the first time I read the story, but it has lately intrigued me.
In the story, the narrator transitions from a wide variety of environments, including suburban life, warehouse work, New York jazz club, and world-traveling musician. Although he was impacted by each of these settings, he experiences two particular life-changing moments. The first one inspires him to dedicate himself to his African-American heritage and contribute to the betterment of those people. The second one reverses this decision and causes him to choose to deny that heritage for the rest of his life. I think you must read the book to really understand how this is possible, how he became an "Ex-Colored Man." His reasoning is sensible, but he cannot shake his guilt. Because we are aware of his intellectual capabilities, we understand that he wouldn't make a decision like this without a great deal of thought. But I think the story illustrates that the most significant decisions we make in our lives are rarely easy ones. Life is not clearly separated into black and white.
I reread this novella while I was preparing to write about it in this blog post, and I was reminded all over again why I had such a good impression of it. I really think it is a gem, and though it is small, it contains vast insight. There are a number of ways to interpret the story, and yet it doesn't offer clear answers. This perfectly illustrates the purpose of focusing on novellas, because it shows that authors do not necessarily need length in order to portray fascinating stories with thoughtful messages. So I really want to encourage you to read it, and it won't even take you very long!