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The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Topic: FreedomTopic: IdentityTopic: InstitutionsTopic: PoliticsTopic: Forward
Topic: Identity
Toolbox Overview: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Resource Menu: Identity
Text 1. Charles W. Chesnutt
Text 2. W.E.B. Du Bois
Text 3. Self Image
Text 4. Public Image
Text 5. Racial Identity
» Reading Guide
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Text 6. History
Text 7. Culture
Text 8. Africa
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Reading Guide
5.  Racial Identity
- James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, novel, 1912, excerpts on race
- Alice Dunbar-Nelson, "The Stones of the Village," short story, ca. 1905
   James Weldon JohnsonAlice Dunbar-Nelson

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line"—Du Bois's prescient declaration in 1903—defines the issue in these two readings. Not only the color line between white and black, but the color line dividing black people of differing pigmentation, drives the personal crises in these works. In both, the protagonist makes the moral choice to pass as white, with consequences, good and bad, for which they must answer to themselves.

Black writer and poet James Weldon Johnson published his fictional Autobiography anonymously in 1912, and later in 1927 under his name when he was executive secretary of the NAACP. The excerpts presented here include the protagonist's discovery that he is the "mulatto" son of a rich southern white man, his first experience with the color line in primary school, and later his adult's view of the color line and his self-judgment for passing as white. The second work is a short story by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, who was born in New Orleans to parents of black, white, and Native American ancestry (and who was briefly married to poet Paul Laurence Dunbar). Her protagonist, Victor, is a light-skinned black man who is mistaken for white when he takes his first job as a young boy. Circumstances allow him to maintain his façade for years, during which he becomes a successful attorney and politician, and marries into a prestigious white family. As in Weldon's novel, the story is driven by Victor's incessant self-questioning, and ends with his self-judgment. Poignant fiction that propels the reader, regardless of race, to self-scrutiny. 25 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. How does each character's choice of racial identity affect his sense of self? What is gained and lost?
  2. To what extent are these choices moral decisions, as presented by Johnson and Dunbar-Nelson? How do the authors judge their own protagonists?
  3. To what extent does each man lose his black identity? To what extent does each become a "white" racist?
  4. Consider the final self-judgments of the two characters. How are they similar? different?
  5. How does Johnson's protagonist echo the "double consciousness" defined by Du Bois?
  6. How does Dunbar-Nelson's protagonist exhibit the burden of the "Veil," as described by Du Bois and Dunbar?
  7. How is the color line a struggle for both blacks and whites, according to Johnson? Is this perspective reflected in Dunbar-Nelson's story?
  8. Why does Johnson think that African Americans should pursue passive rather than active resistance? Is this the same message as Booker T. Washington's?

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Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans create personal and group identity after emancipation?
  •  How did the challenge differ for those who were previously enslaved and those who were not?
  •  How is Christianity central to African Americans' search for identity in this period?
  •  How does a culturally disenfranchised group create a "usable past" that guards truth yet nourishes the future?

Toolbox: The Making of African American Identity: Volume II, 1865-1917
Freedom | Identity | Institutions | Politics | Forward

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