Sunday, June 13, 2021

Stranger Than Fiction

James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938)
From James Weldon Johnson: Writings

The songwriting team of Cole and Johnson Brothers: Bob Cole, James Weldon Johnson, and J. Rosamond Johnson, 1900, Schomburg Center, New York Public Library via Wikimedia Commons.
As the nineteenth century ended and the new century began, Jacksonville school principal James William Johnson (the “Weldon” would come later) underwent two dramatic experiences that would inform his writing and activism for the remainder of his life.

The first incident occurred in 1895, the year after he graduated with honors from Atlanta University and became the principal of the Stanton School, his own alma mater and the school where his mother had taught math. “I had an academic education, but had had no special training as a teacher,” he recalled in his memoir Along the Way. “It seemed that the first practical step for me to take would be to see how they did things at the white central grammar school and make a comparison with the way we did things at Stanton.” The superintendent of Jacksonville schools thought it a splendid idea and Johnson met with the school’s principal, who allowed him to watch how classes were conducted that day. “I spent the entire forenoon going from class to class observing and making mental notes. As I entered each room I introduced myself to the teacher as the principal of Stanton School. . . . My self-introductions were met with varying degrees of graciousness, politeness, embarrassment, and stiffness. Most of the pupils exhibited undisguised curiosity.”

Johnson thought that his trip went well—until the parents found out. A few days later he was surprised to learn that his quiet visit “had raised a hullabaloo” as objections were raised to the very presence of a Black man in the classrooms of their children. “The affair was fomented to such an extent that the board of education felt it necessary to hold a meeting to inquire into the matter and fix the responsibility for my action.” Both the superintendent and the school’s principal stood their ground, however, and the affair eventually blew over.

The second incident was far more terrifying. On May 3, 1901, The Great Fire tore through Jacksonville, destroying 150 city blocks and nearly 2,500 buildings. The governor declared martial law and dispatched militia units to the city. A young reporter from New York (“with eyes and hair so dark that they blanched the whiteness of her face”) happened to be visiting Jacksonville at the time of the fire, and she wrote an article on the disaster’s disproportionate damage to the city’s Black neighborhoods. By this time Johnson had become a relatively significant figure in the city; he was both the president of the Florida State Teachers Association (an organization for Black teachers) and a lawyer—the first African American in the county to pass the state bar exam. She sought Johnson’s help fact-checking the piece before she submitted it for publication. They arranged to meet in the city’s new Riverside Park, where they sat on a bench to review the article.

Suddenly they heard shouting and the barking of dogs, and they found themselves face to face “with eight or ten militiamen in khaki with rifles and bayonets” who had “rushed to the city with a maddening tale of a Negro and a white woman meeting in the woods.” Amid the growing crowd that surrounded him, tore his clothing, covered him with bruises, and screamed for his death, Johnson noticed a lieutenant among the militia members who seemed to emit “a quivering message from intelligence to intelligence” and who stepped in and loudly announced with authority that Johnson was his prisoner. The crowd followed the militiamen to a streetcar, which would take them with their captives to the provost marshal, who, as it happened, was a lawyer Johnson knew well. The lieutenant dismissed his comrades halfway to their destination and escorted the couple for the remainder of the trip to the provost headquarters.

“I was already anticipating the burlesque finale to this melodrama—melodrama that might have been tragedy,” Johnson wrote in his memoir. “Major B—— showed astonishment and some embarrassment when he recognized me.” The marshal quizzically stated the charge made against Johnson, who responded, “I know there is no use in discussing law or my rights on any such basis as, ‘Suppose the lady is white?’ so I tell you at once that according to the customs and, possibly, the laws of Florida, she is not white.” The matter was immediately dismissed and the marshal attempted to justify the actions of the militia, to which Johnson responded, “You know as well as I do, if I had turned my back once on that crowd or taken a single step in retreat, I’d now be a dead man.” For weeks and months after the ordeal, Johnson “would wake often in the night-time, after living through again those few frightful seconds, exhausted by the nightmare of a struggle with a band of murderous, bloodthirsty men in khaki, with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets.”

During the next four years Johnson moved between Jacksonville and New York. He and his brother Rosamond had united with songwriter Bob Cole to write popular songs, many of which found their way into Broadway musicals, two of which were written for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 presidential campaign, and one of which, “Under the Bamboo Tree,” became a huge national hit, with 400,000 copies of the sheet music sold in a year. (Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien made the song famous all over again in Meet Me in St. Louis.) In 1905, shortly after Johnson began working on a novel, Charles Anderson, a prominent Black politician and an official in the Roosevelt administration, urged him to apply for a consular position—a suggestion Johnson jokingly dismissed. The next year, however, he reconsidered and soon was appointed U. S. Consul in Venezuela (1906–1909) and then in war-torn Nicaragua (1909–1912).

While at both posts, he continued working on his novel. Shortly before his return to the United States, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was published anonymously to disappointing initial sales, but the first printing sold out three years later, after Johnson revealed himself as the author and then printed and distributed several thousand copies of a glowing review that had appeared in Munsey’s Magazine. It is during this period that he changed his name to James Weldon Johnson, “Jim Bill Johnson will not do for a man who pretends to write poetry or anything else,” he told a friend.

At the end of 1915, as sales continued to pick up, Johnson devoted one of his daily columns in The New York Age, where he had been editor for over a year, to a brief overview of the novel’s critical reception. His article, “Stranger Than Fiction,” reprinted below, was in part prompted by rumors (which, in the end, proved false) concerning the late Mrs. Frank Leslie, who had built a publishing empire from the debt-ridden magazine business run by her husband until his death in 1880. Mrs. Leslie left the bulk of her estate to support the cause of women’s suffrage. The will was challenged by, among others, the children of Frank Leslie’s sons from a previous marriage, who attempted to preempt claims from her side of the family by alleging that Mrs. Leslie’s birth mother in New Orleans was a slave and that, based on an antebellum law, her relatives had “no heritable blood.” Johnson connected this high-society gossip to the reactions that greeted his novel and its depiction of “passing.”

Note: One of the reviewers quoted by Johnson refers to the diary of Marie Bashkirtseff, a nineteenth-century Ukrainian-born painter who kept a voluminous diary from the age of 13 and who died in Paris at the age of 26.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below.

Stranger Than Fiction

A couple of years ago the writer of these columns wrote and published anonymously a novel entitled, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” The book aroused considerable comment and produced a wide difference of critical opinion between reviewers on Northern and Southern publications.

Northern reviewers generally accepted the book as a human document, while Southern reviewers pronounced the theme of the story utterly impossible. A few of the Northern reviewers were in doubt as to whether the book was fact or fiction.

Here are extracts from the reviews in three newspapers which illustrate the three sorts of opinion expressed by the critics:
Naturally the name of the writer of “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” can never be divulged by the publishers of this most remarkable human document. That it is not fiction we are prepared to believe from the sincerity and directness of the work as well as from the fact that it would be impossible for any one to portray such a character without making a hero of the subject if he were a colored man, and it is unthinkable and impossible that a white man could ever gain such an interior view of the life of a person of colored blood. As a dispassionate selfanalysis it would rank with the confessions of St. Augustine, and, as a human document, is far superior to the famous “Diary” of Marie Bashkirtseff which electrified the word some years ago.—Portland (Me.) Express.
Here is an extract from the review of one of the undecided critics:
It is a remarkable human document, being the story of a colored man who was sufficiently light in color to pass as a white man * * *. If the story be a true one, it is more remarkable than any piece of fiction ever written of the colored race * * *. That is just the puzzling thing about the book. It reads more like fiction than fact, yet there is a semblance of truth in it * * *. It is an X-ray portraiture of the soul of a Negro * * *. The most wonderful story of self-revelation, either in fact or fiction, that has been published in many years.—Springfield (Mass.) Union.
Here is a representative opinion of the Southern reviews, which pronounced the idea around which the story was built to be absurd and impossible:
The publishers’ note stating that the book gives “a glimpse behind the scenes of the race drama” is not borne out. The publishers’ assertion that the mistreatment of the Negroes by white persons in America is “actually and constantly forcing an unascertainable number of fair complexioned people over into the white race” is based upon ignorance of the fact that it is not by complexion alone that race is ascertainable. Only ignorance can see any possibility of a mixture of Anglo-Saxons to distinguish between a North American mixed blood and a white person.—Louisville Courier-Journal.
We reproduced the opinion from the Maine and Massachusetts papers only to throw into stronger relief the opinion from the Courier-Journal. Here is a writer calmly asserting that the slightest tinge of African blood is discernible, if not in the complexion, then in some trait or characteristic betraying inferiority. This is, of course, laughable. Seven-tenths of those who read these lines know of one or more persons of colored blood who are “passing.”

But the cause of our digging through our files of clippings about “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” was the recent news in the New York dailies concerning the sensational developments in the proceedings to break the will of Mrs. Frank Leslie, widow of Frank Leslie, the great magazine publisher, in which it was alleged that she was a daughter of Charles Follin, of Louisiana, and that her mother was a Negro slave.

Mrs. Leslie was one of the remarkable women of this city. On the death of her husband, the various Leslie publications were in a precarious condition. She took them in hand and, by energy and intelligence, placed them on a paying basis. When she died she left an estate of almost two million dollars.

If Mrs. Leslie was a colored woman, and there are reasons to believe the allegation to be true—a large sum was spent by those who make the allegation in an investigation of Mrs. Leslie’s history and pedigree; and in “Who’s Who” no mention is made of Mrs. Leslie’s mother—we say, if she was a colored woman, her case is stranger than any fiction.

Originally published in The New York Age, December 23, 1915.