Both The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson and “Night Walker” by Brent Staples deal with racial identity and the expectations and difficulties that come with being anything other than white in America. Both the nameless narrator of Autobiography and Staples are presented with the opportunity to change their power dynamic and place in society at the price of personal sacrifices, and they both do so with varying degrees of success. In both Johnson’s and Staples’ works, it becomes clear that the only way to escape the binary of the powerful versus the powerless is to reverse and displace the entire understanding it is based on.
The anthology, Deconstruction: A Reader by Martin McQuillan, presents the idea that to dismantle binary systems, they must first be reversed before they can be gotten rid of entirely. Deconstruction attempts to explain binary systems, the way they come about, and what kind of impact they have on society. “The task of reconstruction is to identify and undo the binary oppositions upon which logocentrism is predicated… First, the binary must be reversed… having reversed the binary it is necessary to then displace the whole system of binary thinking” (McQuillan 12).
These binaries cannot exist without each other, as without the powerless the powerful have no one to control, and the powerless cannot exist on their own as there must be a group that has more power. In The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the narrator reverses the binary by giving up his powerless life as a black man in favor of having the power of a white man.
In “Night Walker”, Staples reverses his binary by instead of choosing to be powerless against the judgment of white people, he chooses to change their perceptions of him. However, after successfully reversing the binary, both of these stories fail to displace binary thinking at all, which ultimately means that nothing has changed because there is still one group benefitting from the binary, and one group suffering as a result. It just so happens that the characters in these stories were able to reverse the binary in their favor.
The binary of those who have power and those who don’t can be reversed but is unable to be displaced because once people are presented with the opportunity for power, they won’t let it go. Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man shows the narrator in a constant struggle with his identity as a white-passing black man. He is allowed to travel to Europe and employed as a piano player for a rich white man. The narrator is given power by the millionaire that he never had growing up. As a child, his life was significantly influenced by his black identity, and he struggled immensely not being able to fit into any one group. Later in life, he is given the power to choose if he wants to live a secure life as a white man or as a black man and pursue his dreams of doing ragtime music. “I began to analyze my motives, and found that they, too, were very largely mixed with selfishness. Was it more a desire to help those I considered my people, or more a desire to distinguish myself,” (Johnson 69). So despite having experienced discrimination based on his race, and despite having been not made to feel proud of his race, he still decided not to pursue a career in ragtime music and bring honor and recognition to a culture of powerless Americans. Instead of lifting black Americans so that they might one day be on an equal playing field, he decides to forgo all of that so he can maintain his power as a white man, and he does not attempt to displace any binary.
Any attempt to undermine the binary of the powerful versus the powerless is useless because inevitably, as Brent Staples shows in his piece, the power dynamics that already exist are not able to be overturned. In “Night Walker”, the author relays his experiences as a black man in society, and how he is perceived by others based on his race. His experiences walking late at night due to his insomnia were often characterized by white people running away from him or crossing the street to avoid him. By whistling classical music while walking at night, he can assuage many people’s fears that he is a violent criminal. “Even steely New Yorkers hunching towards nighttime destinations seem to relax, and occasionally they even join in the tune” (Staples). Staples is in a position of power in the sense that he can change people’s opinions of himself just by whistling. Because he has the knowledge that classical music will make him appear nonthreatening, he has the power to change people’s perceptions. However, that power is reversed by the fact that he has to do this at all. The fact that he has to whistle classical music or be labeled a criminal shows he has no actual power to change anything, and he is still at the mercy of white people and their judgment.
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and “Night Walker” both offer similar understandings of society and how it treats those who have been marginalized. They demonstrate that there is always a desire present to escape or otherwise change for the better the binary they have been placed into. This desire, unfortunately, can at times come at the cost of one’s culture as seen in Autobiography, or one’s free will as seen in “Night Walker”. This reality is an unfortunate one, as it truly brings to light the suffering of marginalized people, that who feel to live a better life they must act “white”. This is a binary that has yet to be broken in society, and as can be seen from these pieces the only way to dismantle them is to not stop and simply be content in reversing them for yourself alone, but to continue to make an effort to completely dismantle the system of inequality.