“I say it because I want it to happen…
I write it because I don’t want it to be true.”
I begin with the lost: I read The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man for the first time some four years ago, sitting on a bus to New York. The bus, which had smelled overwhelmingly of pee at the start but had soon gained that neutral quality marked by the acclimation of the nose to the stench of life, had stalled in New Haven—had been stalled for the past hour and a half while we waited for a replacement coach to arrive and take us that last stretch of the journey.
I say we; I exaggerate. By we I mean me.
As the sole passenger (how often I wished that this would be the case and yet, in that moment…), I became increasingly aware of two things: first, that the version of Ex-Colored Man I held in my hands was, in fact, absolutely and unequivocally trash, the worst kind of trash, who doesn’t edit for spelling errors and white space and formatting, Jesus H. Christ—
And second: that, at the rate we were going (that is to say, not at all) I would miss my friend’s funeral.
It is not hard to imagine which one of these realizations pissed me off the most.
Re-reading Ex-Colored Man, particularly one surrounded by archival ephemera, is a practice in the uncanny, very much in the Freudian sense. The question arises: what to do with all this stuff? How to even begin to conceptualize what the stuff even is? I struggled for a while with terminology—these were archival materials, yes, but they were reproductions estranged, not quite bastardized because we, after all, know the archive they came from (often the Beinecke) and the curator that collated them (Jacqueline Goldsby). But they were not quite true reproductions—faithful, sure—because they had gone through a process of tender violence. They had been changed. So what then? Were they transcriptions? Not quite.
What to do with these limbs that I have been presented with? I’m struck by how the poetics of the novel mutate and evolve when rested against these earlier versions, these drafts. For example, the same phrases are echoed time and again, stuck in the recursive, the cyclical, but somehow escaping replication. By this I mean the following: look at all the appearances of the phrase “After Lynching.” According to the notations made by Goldsby, the phrase appears in the verso of page 33, verso of page 34, P 31 a (113-114)—the list goes on. It reflects a kind of obsession, one that has ultimately devolved into what we can only call pathology. Here we are privy to the pathological mind of Johnson as repeated text reflects a physical manifestation of the (un)conscious. I write it because I don’t want it to be true…
But it is also a triggering moment. We are returned, with each iteration of the phrase, to the moment of trauma. That is to say, “After Lynching” refers at once to the lynching scene in the novel, but it also refers to the lynching—every lynching—that has been so cruelly scraped and knifed into the psyche of the black individual. “After Lynching” demands that the lynching happen first, and that we bear witness to this moment of lynching every time. There is nothing unequivocal about it. We are not allowed to turn our faces away.
After Lynching. After lynching. After Lynching.
After lynching there is only after lynching.
You, who are now reading these lines, do you not feel—
So, we have the pathology of the writer, who is forced, at all times, to relive the trauma of existence, of the worlds they create. (Though no one forces them to be complicit in the injustices they might perpetrate.) But now I move on—what the Norton edition offers us is a sampling of the major texts that might have (most likely) shaped the writing of the novel, shaped the conceptualization of the novel, shaped the silences of the novel. To name some: W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk; Edward Berlin’s Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History. It also offers us correspondences Johnson partook in with other figures of his time—but what I focus on here are the sixe images included in this text. Why?
First, because the ephemera we are proffered up in the critical edition are, after all, not reproductions of the archival material themselves. They are instead dark mirrors of those very texts that that have been tamed for ease of reading and indexing and consuming. (A necessary evil, one that is in fact much appreciated.) But there is something about these images that I find particularly striking, particularly resistant to the impulse to colonize. Perhaps it is the performance of it. We have an image of Johnson (266), an image of his writing desk (267), an image of a sales flyer for Ex-colored Man (268), and three images of different Ex-colored Man covers (269-271).
(Fun fact: because I borrowed this edition from the library, I did not even think to study the cover of the novel until encountering these images. What a cover—black crayon scribbled into a figure that might be a man’s faceless form (bisected, of course, at the bottom by clear Norton branding.))
One thing that stands out in the transition between the first cover and the most recent (the one currently in my hands) is the attachment of Johnson’s name to the narrative. When I first read Autobiography I was of the mistaken belief that the novel was in fact autobiographical testimony; that is, that it was a human document. Such a universally relatable narrative, after all, must have been engendered within the true experiences of a real person. However, with this critical edition, there is no doubt as to whom the author is—and, more importantly, who the curator is.
But now there is a face to go with the name: we are enticed by Johnson’s eyes, urged to make eye contact, though it eludes us. Eyes are again the focal point in the images of the two Ex-Colored covers used after the initial publication. We are confronted with eyes (or stylizations of eyes) that demand our presence in ways that the other archival ephemera might not. We are confronted with a body just out of reach.
Who has the body?
Who has the body?
In this instance, the answer is Jacqueline Goldsby or, more specifically, the scholarly tradition that has been advanced by Norton.
The main anxiety produced by the critical edition is the question of whose archive we are presented with. Is it an archive of Johnson’s life and work? Of the conception and execution of Ex-Colored Man? For sure, it’s all of these things but I think what this critical edition reveals to be no less true is that this collection is an archive of a set of institutional practices, practices that are concerned with knowledge formation. It is false to imagine that by somehow providing the reader with “totality,” there has not been a process of culling and curation. Furthermore, we must remember again that none of the information presented is the original—which is not required to always draw conclusions but nevertheless marks a space of transformation. This edition is an archive of our time: it is an archive of the kind of curatorial, archival, and intellectual practices of a scholar of Goldsby’s reckoning, and the demands of Norton itself. It is an archive of the archive.
But, let’s not forget: the literature itself is already an archive—of the times, of the obsessions of the author, of so much more.
I am again returned to that moment of mourning, of loss, of ephemerality.
What my friend’s funeral has to do with the novel is, at best, questionable, except, perhaps, that though the novel has been unaffected by her passing, I myself was. I was a creation of the moment, of numerous circumstances endlessly falling into place to place me where I was, when I was, doing what I us. And all I have left to show for it are the bus tickets.