The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

infobox Book |
name = The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
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author = James Weldon Johnson
illustrator =
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country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = African American Novel
publisher = Sherman, French, & Co.
release_date = 1912
english_release_date =
media_type =
pages =
isbn =
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"The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man" by James Weldon Johnson is the fictional telling of the story of a young biracial man, referred to only as the “Ex-Colored Man", living in post Reconstruction era America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Ex-Colored Man was forced to choose between embracing his black heritage and culture by expressing himself through the African-American musical genre ragtime, or by “passing” and living obscurely as a mediocre middle-class white man.


Johnson originally wrote "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man" anonymously in 1912, joining a small number of published African American writers of the time. Due to this concern, Johnson was not credited as the author when the book was first printed by the small New York publisher Sherman, French, and Company. The book's initial public reception was poor. [Andrews p.6] It was republished in 1927 by Alfred A. Knopf, an influential firm that published many Harlem Renaissance writers. This time Johnson was credited as the author. Though the title suggests otherwise, the book is not an autobiography but a fictional novel. However, the book is based on the lives of people Johnson knew and from events in his own life. Weldon's text is an example of a roman a clef.

Plot summary


The first sentence of the text reads: "I know that in writing the following pages I am divulging the great secret of my life, the secret which for some years I have guarded far more carefully than any of my earthly possessions... ["The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man", James Weldon Johnson, p 1] So begins the tale, and the narrator begins from childhood. As a child, the Ex-Colored Man grew up in the north with his light-skinned, black mother. His white father was a southern gentleman from a well-to-do family. His father genuinely loved his mother, but interracial marriage was unacceptable, so the white gentleman married a white woman and sent the Ex-Colored Man and his mother to live in the north. At one point his father visits, but this is the only time in the text that the two meet and speak: "He spoke some words of advice to me about being a good boy and taking care of my mother when I grew up, and added that he was going to send me something nice from New York. My mother called, and I said good-bye to him and went out. I saw him only once after that." ["The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man", James Weldon Johnson, p 24] The Ex-Colored Man spent his early childhood ignorant of his black ancestry and even mocked the darker skinned blacks he went to school with. One day the principal came into the classroom, and the teacher asked all the white children to stand. The Ex-Colored Man stood with the other white students. The teacher told him to sit down and rise with “the others.” That day he was mocked for being black. He went straight home to his mother and asked her, “Mother, mother, am I a nigger?” She said “No, my darling you are not a nigger. You are as good as anybody; if anyone calls you a nigger don’t notice them.” He then asked, “Well, mother, am I white? Are you white?” she answered, “No, I am not white…” This caused a great disturbance in the young boy to suddenly find he is between the races. All his white friends abandoned him and he spent his childhood as a loner. The Ex-Colored Man says later in the novel that he has never forgiven the teacher who first showed him he was black. The shock of how he learned that he was black, and the terrible way it was thrust on him may have caused a hatred, not for the teacher, but the part of himself the teacher showed him. A big accomplishment in the narrator's childhood was his mastery of music, as he learned to play the piano: "I began now to take lessons of the organist of the church which I attended with my mother; he was a good teacher and quite a thorough musician [...] I remember that when I was barely twelve years old I appeared on a program with a number of adults at an entertainment given for some charitable purpose, and carried off the honors. I did more, I brought upon myself through the local newspapers the handicapping title of "infant prodigy." ["The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man", James Weldon Johnson, p 18]

Early adulthood

After the death of The Ex-Colored Man's mother, he moved to the still racially segregated south to attend college at Atlanta University. Shortly after arriving in Atlanta, all his money was stolen so he left school and ended up working in a cigar factory in Jacksonville, Florida. The Ex-Colored man had never found himself in an all-black environment prior to attending Atlanta University. The Ex-Colored Man’s mother protected him as a child and teenager. Because of the money provided by his father, she had the means to raise him in a different environment than most other blacks. He was exposed to only upper-class blacks and mostly benevolent whites. After his mother’s death, his poor orphan status exposed him to a part of black life unknown to him while living a sheltered life with his mother. He adapted very well to life with lower-class blacks, and was able to move easily between the classes of black society. During this carefree period of his life, he was still able to teach music and attend church, where he came in contact with the upper class blacks. The Ex-Colored man living in an all black community discovered three classes of blacks; the desperate class, the domestic service class, and the independent workman. The Ex-Colored Man believed the desperate class consists of poor blacks that loathe the whites. The domestic worker class consists of blacks that work as servants to the whites. The third class consists of well-to-do blacks who had no interaction with the whites. Many white readers, who viewed all blacks as a stereotype of a single class, may have been unfamiliar to the narrator’s description of class distinctions among blacks. Johnson’s description of the black classes also serves to show that blacks and whites alike have the same human tendencies to seek social status.

Time with the Rich White Gentleman

While playing ragtime at one of the late night hot spots in New York, the Ex-Colored Man caught the attention of a rich white gentleman. The gentleman had a particular liking to the Ex-Colored Man's music which evolved into a particular liking of the Ex-Colored Man himself. The white gentleman hired him to play ragtime piano for guests at parties. Soon the Ex-Colored Man spent most of his time working for the white gentleman, who would have him play ragtime music for hours at a time. He would play until the white gentleman would say “that will do.” The Ex-Colored man would tire after the long hours, but would continue playing as he saw the joy and serenity he brought the white gentleman.

The white gentlemen frequently "loaned" the Ex-Colored Man out to other people to play at their parties. The gentlemen was not exactly “loaning” him out as a piece of property, but simply giving the narrator a broader pallet to display his talents. The Ex-Colored man saw how the rich lived; he was thrilled to live in this life style. The Rich White Gentleman absolutely influenced the Ex-Colored Man more than any one else he met. It was not only slave/master but also one of friendship. While he was with the white gentleman, the Ex-Colored Man decided he was somewhat tired of having other people control his actions and treat him like a subordinate. Even though life was pleasant, it was void of substance. The Ex-Colored Man showed devotion to the white gentleman, as the white gentleman treated him with kindness. They formed a friendship in the middle of their relationship in Paris. It was an exciting and exhilarating trip.

However, the Ex-Colored Man’s devotion to the white gentleman also portrays the relationship that some slaves had with their masters, showing devotion to the slave-owner. This shows that even though the Ex-Colored Man had “freedom”, he was still suffering from the effects of slavery. After playing for the white gentleman while touring Europe, the Ex-Colored Man decided to leave the white gentleman and go back to the South so that he could study Negro spirituals. He planned to use his knowledge of classical and ragtime music to create a new Black American musical genre. He wanted to “bring glory and honor to the Negro race”. He wanted to return to his heritage and make it a proud and self-righteous race.


The lynching

Just as the Ex-Colored Man began to work on his music, he witnessed the lynching of a black man. The crowd originally wanted to hang the man, but decided to burn him instead. The Ex-Colored Man narrates in detail of what he saw, “He squirmed, he withered, strained at his chains, then gave out cries and groans that I shall always hear." The incident at the town square opens his eyes to a racism he has never seen before. He continues, "The cries and groans were choked off by the fire and smoke; but his eyes, bulging from their sockets, rolled from side to side, appealing in vain for help." The scene that day stuck vividly in his mind. It burned a sour image in his brain. He finishes with, "Some of the crowd yelled and cheered, others seemed appalled at what they had done, and there were those who turned away sickened at the sight. I was fixed to the spot where I stood powerless to take my eyes from what I did not see.”

This scene describes the horror of lynching, and the power it had over the mob of people in the deep south. It should also be noted that many critics believe that James Weldon Johnson wrote this scene about the lynchings to dissuade people from lynchings. Michael Berube writes, "there is no question that Johnson wrote the book, in large part, to try to stem the tide of lynchings sweeping the nation." After witnessing this event, the Ex-Colored Man decided to “pass”as white. He gave up his dream of making music that would glorify his race. He stated that he did not want to be identified with a people that would let themselves be treated like that, or with a people who could treat other humans that way. He simply wishes to remain neutral. The Ex-Colored Man declares that he “would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race.”


The world accepted The Ex-Colored Man to be white. Our narrator is “passing” as a white man his whole life and never truly reveals himself as white to the world. This fact is what gives the narrative its title of “Ex-Colored Man”. He later married a white woman, had two children, and lived out his life a successful yet mediocre business man. The only true acceptance the Ex Colored Man experienced in his life was from his wife, who loved him and agreed to marry him after he revealed his secret to her. His wife dies during their second child's birth, leaving him alone to raise his two children. At the end of the book, the Ex-colored Man said, “My love for my children makes me glad that I am what I am, and keeps me from desiring to be otherwise; and yet, when I sometimes open a little box in which I still keep my fast yellowing manuscripts, the only tangible remnants of a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent, I cannot repress the thought, that after all I have chosen the lesser part that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.” “Passing” could be interpreted as a decision to avoid the black race. He states that he "regrets holding himself back." He may have been implying that if he had he embraced the Negro community and let the community embrace him, that he could have made a difference.

The Ex-Colored Man was one of the few people who was not held back by being black. He had a strong education, smart wits, and light colored skin. The masses all assumed he was white. However, his talent was in black music. Because of his fear of being a Negro, he threw away his talent as a musician to "become" a white man. This act depicts how society was during the 1920s and how terrible it was of this society to force him between his love of music and the safety and convenience of being white. The white gentlemen accepted the Ex-Colored Man for who he was, but most people were not like that. He did not go back and play his music for the world after his wife died because of his children. He could not have his white children grow up on the black side of a segregated world. He wanted to give them every advantage he could.

Criticism, interpretation


External links

* [ "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man"] (full text)

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