The Tragic Immigrant: Duality, Hybridity and the Discovery of Blackness in Mark Twain and James Weldon Johnson

Richard Hardack, Haverford College


Around the turn of the twentieth-century, a number of American writers imagined that European culture could help them develop an external perspective with which to reinterpret racial double-consciousness in the United States. In Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, European culture winds affirmed the binaries of race in the American South; but in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, published eighteen years later, European culture helps foster ideas of cultural and racial hybridity, though they cannot be transferred entirely to America. I explore the “discovery” of blackness and final rejection of European identity common to Twain’s and Johnson’s novels. In Twain’s novel, the familiar figure of “the tragic mulatto” is juxtaposed with, and temporarily supplanted by, the more unexpected figure of the tragic immigrant, an outsider who can never become an assimilated American. Johnson then recalibrates Twain’s configuration of racial duality by turning the external conflict between African American mulatto and European immigrant twins into an internal struggle of double consciousness.