“’Passing’ as a Writer: James Weldon Johnson and the Identity of the Artist”

By: Lisa S. Icenogle

I attended several events at the 2017 Casper College Humanities Festival, but one of the keynotes that stuck with me the most was Dr. Arielle Zibrak’s presentation, “’Passing’ as a Writer: James Weldon Johnson and the Identity of the Artist.” It amazed me to learn about such a renowned figure in African American history whose name has clearly escaped the public’s common knowledge.

I learned that James Weldon Johnson lived during the Harlem Renaissance, and was deeply inspired by the African American arts that were beginning to emerge, including Ragtime, Jazz, and Class Act Routines. He believed that the art his race was creating could act as a vehicle for carrying the political messages of the African American people to the rest of America at the time. Johnson debated this idea with several of his fellow contemporary scholars including W.E.B. Dubois. Johnson claimed that his race benefited from creating art that spread positive images of black people, while at the same time attempting to conceal art that spread negative images of them. Johnson believed that doing this would be the best way to uplift the African American’s name, and that art would be more effective than confronting every political situation head on. He understood that by creating an artistic medium that appealed to the general public, they could slowly change the public’s perception of the African American race through more positive representations of themselves.

Debating political theory was not James Weldon Johnson’s only contribution to the history of the African American race, he also created works of art of his own. He observed the already present Slave Narratives that his race had created prior to him, and wrote his book “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” with these in mind. It is a story about a nameless protagonist who has both white and black blood in him. The character wants to create a new style of ragtime music, but once he witnesses a black lynching, he instead decides to live out his life “passing” as a white person. What made his book even more interesting was the fact that he published it anonymously, so the public received it in mixed ways. Some readers believed that Johnson’s story was a made up work of fiction, while others believed that it was the first hand true account of somebody’s life. This shocked the public because for the first time many of them realized how instable the racial binary truly was. There could be people living among the white community in plain sight who were actually African American, and just in disguise. For the first time, Johnson proposed the notion that anyone could actually be black, and physical appearance was not as nearly a divide as everyone believed.

Finally, Zibrak also explained how all of this is still noteworthy today. She pointed out that tons of “African American art” is immediately taken by the “white American” culture and used as our own. Among just a few of these are Jazz, Ragtime, and Hip-Hop music today. She pointed out that the most original art to ever come out of America usually comes from the African American culture, then is later adopted by the United States as a whole. This indicates that African American culture and American culture itself are not as different as one might think. In fact, African American culture is the very foundation of American culture, making them literally one and the same. Zibrak also pointed out that the reason African Americans often create better art is not due to a biological advantage, but rather because they have faced harsher societal constraints, making it harder for their art to flourish in a predominately white society.

The biggest takeaway for me was the concept that African American culture and American culture are not as separate as we think. If we observe African American art as a genre like other genres, instead of a method for learning about the history of a culture, then it opens the door for many more artistic opportunities. Johnson’s debate with his fellow scholars lives on to this day, but the art he created does as well. In the end, I was excited to learn about this.

Media contact: Lisa S. Icenogle

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