Because his very existence transgresses the American racial order that demands the strict social, emotional, and sexual separation of white and black people, the narrator’s life is largely defined by the secrets he keeps from the world, from the secret of his paternity to that of his blackness. The novel itself—with its anonymous narrator and author, initially assumed to be the same person—relies on a similar secrecy about the truth of identity. Both kinds of secrecy in turn depend on a paradoxical relationship to origins: racism insists that whiteness and blackness are “pure” biological categories but sidesteps the fact that nobody has “pure” origins by refusing to acknowledge people’s true ancestry; Western artistic values insist that the author must be the sole source of their work and therefore cannot acknowledge that art always depends on people’s lived experiences in addition to their imagination.
Because white Americans are bound to an ideology of racial purity, in which whiteness means exclusively white ancestry, relationships between white and black characters—and, indeed, most interaction between them—is always a closely-guarded secret in this book. Throughout the book, the narrator’s father remains a secret because miscegenation is a taboo. The narrator and his mother move North because of his father’s impending marriage to a white woman from another prominent Southern family. His mother then refuses to talk about his father for many years, until the narrator meets him again. When the narrator encounters him for the last time, years later in Paris, he cannot say anything because he risks exposing the secret of his existence to his half-sister. In turn, when the narrator becomes a father himself, he and his wife also keep his race a secret from his children; just as he was raised black despite his white father, his children are raised white despite their black father. Given the strong taboo against miscegenation, then, it is unsurprising that his wife initially disappears for a whole summer when he tells her he is black. In fact, intermixture between blacks and whites consistently occurs behind closed doors because it poses a threat to the racial order of strict segregation imposed formally in the South and informally in the North after the Civil War. The gambling bar and “Club” are both secret establishments; the narrator can only enter them because he knows the right people, mixed-race couples like the widow and her companion can only meet there, and their most transgressive elements—the game of dice that includes both black and white players, and the pianist’s ragtime performances—are in hidden back rooms. In turn, when he first performs at the millionaire’s apartment, the narrator plays classical music in front of the white guests and then moves to an adjacent room, out of sight, to play ragtime.
The novel’s narrative structure and public reception also depend on secrecy about its author’s origins. The narrator is careful to hide his identity, and none of the characters in this book have names, except for the two who would be otherwise forgotten by the world and erased from history: the pastor John Brown and the chorus leader “Singing Johnson.” The preface emphasizes that “passing” is a relatively common phenomenon, but unknown because it relies on secrecy; of course, the preface is attributed to “the publishers” but was actually written by Johnson. At the beginning of the first chapter, the narrator echoes this sentiment, explaining his fear that he will be discovered but insisting that his life has been “a practical joke on society.” Fearing for his own future as a diplomat, James Weldon Johnson insisted on publishing the book in secret, which also hid the fact that it was fiction: early readers believed it was a true story and, when he admitted his authorship, insisted that it must have been an accurate picture of his life (even though he could by no means “pass” for white).
By shrouding race and authorship in secrecy, Johnson shows how Western culture’s parallel demands for pure racial and authorial origins are self-undermining: because both are so central to concepts of proper social order and artistic value, people are more comfortable accepting convenient stories about both than confronting the fact that no racial order or work of art is “pure.” The narrator sees ragtime and slave songs as underappreciated because their origins are not identifiable—they cannot be traced back to single composers, even though “nothing great or enduring, especially in music, has ever sprung full-fledged and unprecedented from the brain of any master.” While his project collecting black music in the rural South follows from this rejection of pure genius, it is also an attempt to create a myth around authorship, which presumably could let white observers see slave hymns and ragtime as valuable cultural products—because they are works of artistic genius, and not merely because they are entertaining or musically noteworthy. When Johnson compiled his own Book of American Negro Spirituals, in contrast, he did not pretend to be their author but rather emphasized their anonymous and collective origins. While readers initially assumed the novel to be pure autobiography and later saw it as pure fiction, in fact it blurs the boundaries between the two: Johnson took settings and experiences from his life in order to create a character whose mindset and decisions are entirely opposite his own.
Because the racial order of twentieth-century America relied on the assumption that a person’s ancestry was legible on their skin, people like the narrator could “pass” by keeping their genetic origins secret, much like Johnson’s novel “passed” as genuine autobiography by insisting on its author’s anonymity. But anonymity can also be a valuable strategy for people who wish to expose the futility of organizing the world around origins—it allows people like Johnson (in terms of authorship) and his narrator (in terms of race) to speak the truth that nothing is “pure” while avoiding the social consequences of declaring that they and their work are hybrid products, possible only because of the mixture between different groups, on the one hand, and imagination and experience, on the other.
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins ThemeTracker
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Quotes in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
It is very likely that the Negroes of the United States have a fairly correct idea of what the white people of the country think of them, for that opinion has for a long time been and is still being constantly stated; but they are themselves more or less a sphinx to the whites.
I know that in writing the following pages I am divulging the great secret of my life, the secret which for some years I have guarded far more carefully than any of my earthly possessions; and it is a curious study to me to analyze the motives which prompt me to do it. I feel that I am led by the same impulse which forces the un-found-out criminal to take somebody into his confidence, although he knows that the act is likely, even almost certain, to lead to his undoing. I know that I am playing with fire, and I feel the thrill which accompanies that most fascinating pastime; and, back of it all, I think I find a sort of savage and diabolical desire to gather up all the little tragedies of my life, and turn them into a practical joke on society.
“Father, father,” that was the word which had been to me a source of doubt and perplexity ever since the interview with my mother on the subject. […] And here he stood before me, just the kind of looking father I had wishfully pictured him to be; but I made no advance toward him; I stood there feeling embarrassed and foolish, not knowing what to say or do. I am not sure but that he felt pretty much the same.
In none of her talks did she ever utter one word of complaint against my father. She always endeavored to impress upon me how good he had been and still was, and that he was all to us that custom and the law would allow. She loved him; more, she worshiped him, and she died firmly believing that he loved her more than any other woman in the world. Perhaps she was right. Who knows?
American musicians, instead of investigating ragtime, attempt to ignore it, or dismiss it with a contemptuous word. But that has always been the course of scholasticism in every branch of art. Whatever new thing the people like is pooh-poohed; whatever is popular is spoken of as not worth the while. The fact is, nothing great or enduring, especially in music, has ever sprung full-fledged and unprecedented from the brain of any master; the best that he gives to the world he gathers from the hearts of the people, and runs it through the alembic of his genius. In spite of the bans which musicians and music teachers have placed upon it, the people still demand and enjoy ragtime. One thing cannot be denied; it is music which possesses at least one strong element of greatness: it appeals universally.
I began to wonder what this man with such a lavish natural endowment would have done had he been trained. Perhaps he wouldn't have done anything at all; he might have become, at best, a mediocre imitator of the great masters in what they have already done to a finish, or one of the modern innovators who strive after originality by seeing how cleverly they can dodge about through the rules of harmony and at the same time avoid melody. It is certain that he would not have been so delightful as he was in ragtime.
My glance immediately turned into a stare. Yes, there he was, unmistakably, my father! looking hardly a day older than when I had seen him some ten years before. What a strange coincidence! What should I say to him? What would he say to me? Before I had recovered from my first surprise, there came another shock in the realization that the beautiful, tender girl at my side was my sister. Then all the springs of affection in my heart, stopped since my mother's death, burst out in fresh and terrible torrents, and I could have fallen at her feet and worshiped her. They were singing the second act, but I did not hear the music. Slowly the desolate loneliness of my position became clear to me.
He seated himself at the piano, and, taking the theme of my ragtime, played it through first in straight chords; then varied and developed it through every known musical form. I sat amazed. I had been turning classic music into ragtime, a comparatively easy task; and this man had taken ragtime and made it classic. The thought came across me like a flash—It can be done, why can't I do it? From that moment my mind was made up. I clearly saw the way of carrying out the ambition I had formed when a boy.
I finally made up my mind that I would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race; but that I would change my name, raise a mustache, and let the world take me for what it would; that it was not necessary for me to go about with a label of inferiority pasted across my forehead. All the while I understood that it was not discouragement or fear or search for a larger field of action and opportunity that was driving me out of the Negro race. I knew that it was shame, unbearable shame. Shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals. For certainly the law would restrain and punish the malicious burning alive of animals.
“I understand, understand even better than you, and so I suffer even more than you. But why should either of us suffer for what neither of us is to blame for? If there is any blame, it belongs to me and I can only make the old, yet strongest plea that can be offered, I love you; and I know that my love, my great love, infinitely overbalances that blame and blots it out. What is it that stands in the way of our happiness? It is not what you feel or what I feel; it is not what you are or what I am. It is what others feel and are. But, oh! is that a fair price? In all the endeavors and struggles of life, in all our strivings and longings, there is only one thing worth seeking, only one thing worth winning, and that is love. It is not always found; but when it is, there is nothing in all the world for which it can be profitably exchanged.”
It is difficult for me to analyze my feelings concerning my present position in the world. 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.
I am an ordinarily successful white man who has made a little money. They are men who are making history and a race. I, too, might have taken part in a work so glorious.
My love for my children makes me glad that I am what I am and keeps me from desiring to be otherwise; and yet, when I sometimes open a little box in which I still keep my fast yellowing manuscripts, the only tangible remnants of a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent, I cannot repress the thought that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.