The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

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The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

James Weldon Johnson


Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, by James Weldon Johnson, was published anonymously by a small New York publisher, Sherman, French and Company, in 1912. The work is a novel, but the author hoped that by remaining anonymous he could persuade readers that it was an actual autobiography. The novel, told in the first person, is the story of a man whose parents were a wealthy white Southern gentleman and the “coloured” seamstress employed by the gentleman’s family. The narrator travels around the United States and through Europe, observing how white and black people behave within separate enclaves and with each other. In the end, he decides to “pass,” or to live as a white man, and abandon his African American heritage. The story includes many short scenes and didactic digressions, told in a rather flat style with little description or dialogue. When the book was published, only two or three books by African Americans had attracted large audiences, and The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man did not sell many copies. Its publisher went out of business, and the book all but disappeared.

With the blooming of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Johnson became widely known as a writer and an intellectual. His book was re-issued by Knopf, an influential firm that published many of the Harlem Renaissance writers, and for the first time Johnson acknowledged that he was the author. This time, the book was widely sold and discussed, and it has remained in print ever since.

Author Biography

James William Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on June 17, 1871. His father was headwaiter at an expensive restaurant, and his mother was an elementary school teacher and a gifted pianist; neither had been slaves. They saw to it that their children received a good education and lived a secure middle-class life—relatively unusual for African Americans during the nineteenth century. As a teenager, Johnson worked as a secretary to a white physician who took him to New York City and Washington, D.C., tutored him in upper-class manners, gave him books to read, and encouraged him to write.

Johnson attended Atlanta University, created to provide African Americans an education based on the classics and on the idea of public service. Johnson took to heart the call to serve his community, as he demonstrated through a long and varied career in public life. After graduating in 1894, he returned to Florida, where he was principal for the state’s first high school for black students. In 1895, he began publishing the nation’s first black daily newspaper, the Jacksonville Daily American. The paper ran out of money after several months, and Johnson turned to the study of law, becoming the first African American admitted to the bar in Florida. Two years later, he embarked on a new career, writing songs for musical theater with his brother and another partner in New York City. One of their songs was “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which came to be known as the Negro National Anthem.

Johnson’s next career was in diplomacy. He served as United States consul to Venezuela and to Nicaragua between 1906 and 1913. It was while he was serving in Nicaragua that he wrote his only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912). Johnson published the novel anonymously through a small publisher, in part to help create the illusion that the book was an actual autobiography. At this time, he changed his middle name to “Weldon,” believing that a writer needed a more impressive name. Returning to New York in 1913, he became an editorial writer for the New York Age newspaper, a position he held for ten years. In 1916, Johnson joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), working as a field secretary before becoming executive secretary in 1920. During his ten years as executive secretary, the Harlem Renaissance brought exciting opportunities for African American artists and intellectuals. Johnson edited two volumes of American Negro Spirituals and The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), and published his most notable book of original poetry, God’s Trombones (1927). Also in 1927, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was reissued, this time by a major publisher and with the author’s name, and found the popularity that had eluded it previously.

During the 1930s, Johnson was a professor of creative writing at Fisk University and lectured widely on African American literature and culture. He was killed in a car accident in Wiscasset, Maine, on June 26, 1938.

Plot Summary

Chapters 1–3

As The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man opens, a first-person narrator announces that he is about to reveal “the great secret of my life,” a revelation that he hopes will ease his mind over a concern he will describe at the end of his story. He then begins the story of his life, from his birth in a small Georgia town a few years after the end of the Civil War.

As a young child, the narrator (who is never named) lives with his mother in a pleasant house, and they are visited often by a tall man with a moustache. One day, the boy and his mother abruptly move to Connecticut, where his mother supports herself by sewing and with money she receives every month in a letter. She teaches her son to play the piano and to read. When he is nine, he begins school, where he has friends for the first time: Red Head, an older boy with red hair and freckles, and Shiny, a dark-skinned boy who is the smartest child in the class.

When the boy is about eleven years old, a comment from the school principal forces him to realize for the first time that he is “coloured.” This knowledge changes his outlook. He has vaguely considered his non-white classmates to be inferior; now he feels that inferiority in himself. A year or so later, the man from Georgia comes for a visit and is revealed as the boy’s father. His mother explains that she was a young seamstress working for a wealthy white woman when she fell in love with the woman’s son, home from college. Although they could never marry, she continues to believe that she is the man’s one true love, but by the time the narrator graduates from high school, the man has stopped sending letters, and his mother dies soon after. The narrator performs a piano concert to raise money and boards a train south, to Atlanta University.

Chapter 4

When he arrives in Atlanta, a Pullman-car porter from the train helps him find a place to stay and shows him around the city. For the first time, the narrator encounters large groups of African Americans. The people he sees on the streets are of the lower socioeconomic classes, and he is repulsed by them. He also encounters segregation for the first time. As the two men share an unappetizing meal at a dirty restaurant, among the best that will serve “a coloured man,” the porter points out that the narrator’s skin color and features would enable him to go anywhere in town because no one would realize he was not white.

The next morning, the narrator hides his money in his trunk and sets out to find Atlanta University. There, he meets the president and several other new students, who seem more intelligent and desirable than the African Americans he saw in town. Eagerly, he returns to his room to fetch his trunk and begin college but finds his money has been stolen. He will not be able to pay his tuition. One of his roommates, another porter, suggests he head for Jacksonville, Florida, and find a job. He lends the narrator fifteen dollars, helps him get his trunk to the train station, and hides him in a closet for the twelve-hour ride.

Media Adaptations

  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was adapted in 1996 as a sound recording on two audiocassettes, read by Allen Gilmore and accompanied by John Popoulous playing Scott Joplin piano tunes. It is available from MasterBuy.

Chapter 5

In Jacksonville, the narrator goes to work in a cigar factory, where he quickly works his way up to a well-paying job and supplements his income by giving piano lessons. At a public dance, he meets the porter who helped him get to Jacksonville; seeing his missing tie around the porter’s neck, he realizes that it was the porter who stole his money in Atlanta. Characteristically, he does nothing about the situation other than observe its “ironical humour.” In a few pages, he tells of observing the dance called the cake-walk, meeting and almost marrying a young schoolteacher, losing his job when the factory closes down, and heading back for New York.

This chapter includes a lengthy explanation of what the narrator has observed about African Americans. He divides them into three classes—the desperate class, the working-class servants, and middle and upper classes—and describes their strengths and weaknesses in broad terms. He is clearly drawn to the “better” classes of people and looks down upon the lower.

Chapters 6–8

In New York City, the narrator finds a vibrant African American culture. He visits nightclubs where he learns to gamble and where he hears ragtime music for the first time. Fascinated by the music, he learns to play it and soon becomes the best ragtime pianist in New York. He plays in a club that attracts white patrons out for an evening of “slumming,” as well as black customers. One night, he meets a white millionaire, who becomes his friend and patron. The millionaire hires the narrator to play piano at his home, both for large crowds when he is entertaining and for the millionaire alone when he is simply bored and depressed. The narrator also makes the acquaintance of a wealthy white widow. Although she has a male friend, a well-to-do African American man, she flirts with the narrator. When her escort finds them chatting together at a club, he pulls out a handgun and kills her. The narrator flees the club and runs into the millionaire, who invites the narrator to accompany him on a trip to Europe the next day.

Chapter 9

The millionaire and the narrator spend several months in Paris and then in London and Berlin. Although the narrator travels as the millionaire’s employee, his duties are few beyond playing the piano on the millionaire’s whim. In exchange, he lives comfortably, is dressed in the latest fashions, and has plenty of pocket money to enjoy the clubs and theaters. Europe is remarkably free of racial prejudice, and the narrator is welcomed and treated as an equal wherever he goes. One day at the opera, he notices a young lady sitting next to him. Looking past her, he sees that the man accompanying her is his own father; this young girl must be his sister. He does not speak to them, but stumbles from the opera house, confused. He seeks solace in his music. The Europeans respond enthusiastically to ragtime, and the narrator gets the idea that he could make new arrangements of this and other African American musical forms to turn them into “higher” forms of art. When the millionaire tires of Berlin and is ready to move on, the narrator parts with him and boards a ship for New York.

Chapter 10

On the ship, the narrator spends several days discussing “the Negro question” with another passenger, a well-educated African American man. Back in the United States, the narrator continues the conversation with the Texan and the Northerners who share his train compartment. He concludes that opportunities for African Americans will not improve until whites change their attitudes. He embarks on a months-long trip through the rural South, where he meets African Americans of the poorer classes to learn their songs and “to catch the spirit of the Negro in his relatively primitive state.” He is continually discouraged by the people he meets on this trip, disdainful of their poverty and lack of education. He also witnesses a lynching, something he had only heard rumors about. Refusing to stay where he will always be considered inferior, he heads again for New York.

Chapter 11

The narrator takes a clerking job, saves his money, invests in real estate, and eventually is able to mingle with the better social classes. His new friends assume he is white, and he does not correct them. When he meets a young woman and falls in love with her, he realizes that he must tell her about his heritage. At a museum one day, the couple runs into the narrator’s old friend Shiny, who has become a college professor. Seeing the woman’s apparent lack of prejudice when speaking with Shiny, the narrator tells her that he loves her and that he is black. She breaks off all contact with him. Months later, they meet again, and marry. During the birth of their second child, the young wife dies, leaving the narrator grief-stricken and regretting the choice he made to “pass.” For the sake of his children, however, he will continue life as an ex-coloured man.


The Ex-Coloured Man

The ex-coloured man is the novel’s narrator, who never reveals his name. At the novel’s beginning, he says that the story he is about to tell will reveal his deepest secret, and it is in the interest of protecting those who would be affected by the secret that he gives no names—neither his own nor the names of those who pass through his life. The secret, as the novel’s title hints, is that he is by the end of his story an African American man “passing” as a white man. In other words, his skin is light enough that no one who meets him suspects what he himself did not discover until he was nine years old: his mother is “colored” and his father is white. By the end of the novel, the narrator has married a white woman, fathered two children with her, and lived among white people who believe he is one of them. He maintains this secret for the sake of his children, although he has come to believe that giving up his heritage was a mistake, that he has sold his “birthright for a mess of pottage.”

Throughout the novel, the narrator tells the story of his life. As a child in Connecticut, he attends a public school where white and black children seem to mingle rather effortlessly. As a high school graduate in the South, he finds that segregation is a stronger force, and that as a black man he will always be limited in his opportunities for education and career, as well as his options for forming social bonds. Later, he travels to New York City, where music helps bring white and black people together, and then to Europe, where the divisions between the races seem almost non-existent. As he moves about, the narrator examines the African American people he meets, judging them harshly based on their education, their dialect, and their manners. He feels a strong preference for the “higher” classes of any race, and repulsion for rural and poor African Americans. When he falls in love with a white woman, who has assumed him to be a white man, he confesses his secret to her, marries her, and lives the rest of his life as a white man.


The narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man never knows his father’s name. At the beginning of the book, when the boy and his mother are still living in Georgia, the father is just “a tall man with a small, dark moustache” who visits their small house a few evenings each week. He wears a gold watch and chain and has shiny black shoes. Normally, he gives the boy a coin but, on his last visit, gives him a ten-dollar gold piece to wear around his neck and hugs him. The next day, the boy and his mother move to Connecticut. When the boy is nine, he learns for the first time that his father is white and that his mother is not, but he does not yet know his father’s identity. Three years later, when the man comes to visit in Connecticut, he learns that the tall man is his father.

The narrator’s father is at this point about thirty-five years old. As the boy’s mother explains, she and the man had fallen in love when she was the sewing girl for a wealthy family and the man was a college student home for vacation. Because of the racial and class differences, their love had to remain a secret. In fact, the man had sent the boy and his mother to Connecticut because he was about to marry a white woman of his own class. He has been sending the boy’s mother money and a letter every month and has promised to help pay for the boy’s college education. He does not fulfill this promise, though he does send the boy a new piano shortly after his visit. He breaks off contact with the boy and his mother before she dies.

The narrator sees his father only once more. One night in Paris, he sees his father with his wife and daughter at the opera, but does not speak to them. His father does not recognize him.

The First Pullman-car Porter

The first Pullman-car porter is one of several men who give the narrator advice on his travels. This man makes the narrator’s acquaintance on the train on his first trip from Connecticut to Atlanta. Like the narrator, the porter is a student, working on the train between terms to pay for his tuition at a college in Nashville. He is the narrator’s first guide in Atlanta, showing him to a boarding house and taking him to inexpensive restaurants that serve African Americans. The porter is the first to suggest to the narrator that his skin is so light he would be able to “pass” for white and eat at any restaurant in the city.

The Girl

The girl is a young woman, “white as a lily,” whom the narrator meets in New York toward the end of his story, when his acquaintances assume him to be white. He is first attracted by her singing voice as she entertains at a party and then struck by her beauty. Mutual friends introduce them because of their shared interest in the music of Chopin, and he soon falls in love with her. When he decides to propose marriage, he realizes that he must tell her the truth about his race, but he is afraid. When they meet Shiny by chance and she betrays no hint of prejudice, he decides to tell her his secret. However, he does not get the reaction he had hoped for. She breaks down in tears and goes to visit relatives in New Hampshire for the summer, refusing to see him. In the fall, they meet again at a card party. The girl declares her love for him. They marry, move to Europe for a time, and settle into a happy married life. During the birth of the couple’s second child, however, the girl dies.

The Millionaire

The millionaire is one of the white “slummers” who visits the Club in New York City where the narrator plays piano. He is “clean-cut, slender, but athletic-looking,” graying at the temples, and with a clear aura of culture. He becomes the narrator’s employer, patron, and friend, hiring him first to play piano at a single dinner party and then to be available to play for him at any time of the day or night. The millionaire throws lavish parties, attended by wealthy and beautiful people, but he spends his time at the parties sitting on the sidelines, watching his guests with what looks like boredom. The narrator recalls that he “grew weary of everything, and was always searching for something new.”

The millionaire takes the narrator on a tour of Europe, in place of his valet. He intends to stay in Paris until he gets “tired of it,” and after a little more than a year, they move to London and then to Berlin. The millionaire asks little of his companion except that he play the piano when asked; in exchange, he provides luxurious housing, fashionable clothing, and spending money. Tiring of Europe, he announces a plan to leave the next day for Egypt and Japan, but the narrator decides to return home instead. The millionaire tries to change his mind, pointing out that a black man in the United States will never be able to realize his full potential, as a musician or as a man.

Some critics have suggested that the millionaire is so comfortable with the company of the narrator and so understanding of his doubts about race and identity because he himself is an African American man “passing” as white. There is nothing in the text to clearly lead to this conclusion, nor to rule it out.


The narrator’s mother, like the other characters in the novel, is never named. She earns her living as a seamstress and is so successful that she has to hire other women to help her keep up with demand. In the evenings, she plays the piano and sings hymns and old Southern songs. She teaches her son to play the piano, to read from her small library, and to do simple arithmetic. She does not seem to have friends but is cordial with the ladies who come to her home bringing sewing.

Mother is beautiful, at least in her son’s eyes, with skin that is “almost brown,” and hair that is “not as soft” as her son’s. Until his revelation at school, however, the boy does not realize that his mother is not white. She has no other children and has never married because the love of her life is the white son of her former employer, a wealthy woman in Georgia. Their love is forbidden, and the man has had the boy and his mother moved to Connecticut so he can marry a white woman of his social class. The boy’s mother looks forward to the man’s monthly letters and believes his promises to provide for the boy’s future. Remembering the day his father came to visit in Connecticut, the narrator comments “that was one of the happiest moments of her life.” When she dies shortly after the narrator’s graduation from high school, she has not heard from the boy’s father for some time but still believes that he loves her and his son deeply.

Red Head

Red Head is the nickname the narrator gives to his closest friend at school, an older, awkward boy with freckles and red hair. Red Head is a slow student and has been kept back several times, so he is four or five years older than the narrator and in the same grade. The boys become friends during a spelling competition soon after the narrator begins school. When Red Head is unable to spell his first word, the narrator whispers the answer to him. By secretly helping him, the boy pulls Red Head through the remaining years of school. On the day that the narrator learns he is “coloured,” Red Head walks him home and shyly demonstrates that he intends to remain his friend. When the boys graduate from high school, the narrator and Shiny plan to attend college, but Red Head declares his intention to get a job in a bank instead. When the narrator leaves Connecticut for Atlanta, he gives a few of his books to Red Head and never mentions him again.

The Second Pullman-Car Porter

The second Pullman-car porter is another man who helps the narrator in Atlanta. He is one of four men who share the narrator’s room at the boarding house—the room where the narrator’s money and some of his clothes are stolen from his trunk. When the narrator discovers his loss, the second porter comes to his aid. He hides the narrator in a closet on the twelve-hour train trip to Jacksonville, Florida, and lends him fifteen dollars to hold him over until he finds work. Months later, after the narrator has achieved a stable income, he sees the porter again and approaches him so he can return the fifteen dollars. He notices then that the porter is wearing the tie that was stolen along with his money. He was the thief al all along. The narrator does not accuse him of the theft but enjoys the “ironical humour of the situation.”


Shiny is the casually racist name the narrator gives to a dark-skinned classmate whose “face was as black as night, but shone as though it were polished.” The boy calls his dark-skinned friend names like Shiny Face, Shiny Eyes, and Shiny Teeth, and soon all the children—both light- and dark-skinned—refer to the child simply as Shiny. Shiny is universally acknowledged to be the smartest child in the class, the best at spelling, reading, and handwriting, and the hardest worker, and this record continues through high school. He is even chosen to give the speech at graduation, a task he completes admirably. Still, the narrator observes that Shiny is treated with less respect than less talented white students. After the narrator learns that he is “coloured,” Shiny emerges as one of his only two close friends.

Toward the end of his story, the narrator and the white girl he will marry meet Shiny at a museum. Shiny is well-educated, cultured, and well-dressed and is a college professor on vacation in the North. As he and the narrator chat briefly, the narrator can tell that Shiny realizes that the girl at his side does not know that her escort is a black man, and Shiny says nothing to betray the secret. But seeing the woman’s apparent lack of prejudice in her conversation with Shiny gives the narrator confidence to tell her himself.


Race Relations

The central theme of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and the main obsession of its title character is the question of race in the United States at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Specifically, the novel deals with the relationships between the white majority and the African American minority—no other racial or ethnic groups play important roles. The narrator is born shortly after the Civil War, which ended in 1865, and the country is newly in the process of deciding and discovering what the roles of African Americans (many of them recently freed from slavery) will be. As a man who lives part of his life in the white world and part of it in the “coloured,” and one who lives in the North, in the South, and in Europe, the narrator is uniquely qualified to observe the issues from a variety of perspectives.

Several times, the narrator abandons his narrative to digress for a few pages on matters of race. In these didactic passages the narrator acknowledges that “it is a difficult thing for a white man to learn what a coloured man really thinks …” “I believe it to be a fact,” he writes, “that the coloured people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them.” Therefore, the narrator, a coloured man who has been brought up mainly among whites, sets out to study his people and share his understanding with his readers.

In Chapter 5 he separates African Americans into three classes “in respect to their relations with the whites,” judging them with a cynical and detached eye. The lower classes, he points out, are desperate and angry and usually ignored; the “advanced element of the coloured race … carry the entire weight of the race question.” In Chapter 9, during a discussion of the future of race relations in the United States, the millionaire urges the narrator to remain in Europe, because he “can imagine no more dissatisfied human being than an educated, cultured, and refined coloured man in the United States.” And in Chapter 10, the narrator discusses race with an African American man on the ship to New York, and then in a train smoking car with a Jewish man, a Texan and an Ohio professor. Looking back on these conversations, the narrator concludes that racial problems “could be solved by the simple rules of justice.”

Topics for Further Study

  • Research recent organizations and activities of people whose parents are of different races. How do multi-racial or “mixed race” people today see themselves differently than similar people a century ago? How are they treated differently by others?
  • The narrator might have had a different sort of life if his parents had been permitted to marry, but Georgia society in the late nineteenth century could not accept white and black people marrying each other. How is their situation like and different from that of same-sex couples today who wish to marry?
  • Compare the white audiences’ fascination with ragtime music in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man with the ways in which white audiences today admire musical forms that have originated in African American culture.
  • Research the history of Atlanta University, and the role of “traditionally black colleges” today.
  • Research the history of the words “colored” and “Negro.” How have their denotations and connotations changed?

The narrator, however, does not have the patience to wait for that solution. Never a courageous or aggressive man, he decides in the end that rather than wait for justice—and rather than join “that small but gallant band of coloured men who are publicly fighting the cause of their race”—he will live a “small and selfish” life as a white man.


The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is, in some ways, the story of a man trying to discover who he is. As the narrator travels around restlessly, examining and evaluating other people’s lives, he is in search of something, though he does not realize what it is until the end of his story. He is looking for a consistent and holistic vision of himself. Sadly, his understandings come after he has made what he considers irrevocable decisions.

The world he lives in recognizes only two kinds of people—white and black—and has assigned him his role as a “coloured man” because his mother is “coloured.” However, as the child of a white father, and as a man with light skin that white society accepts unquestioningly, he has some claim to both races. In the beginning of the novel, he assumes he is white, and casually makes fun of the African American children in his school. When he discovers that he is “coloured,” he becomes a new person, or the same person in “another world,” and although he stops teasing the dark-skinned children he feels “a very strong aversion to being classed with them.” For the rest of the novel he will wrestle with his racial identity, resisting the label “coloured” and finding ways to distinguish himself from darker skinned, or more rural, or less well-off African Americans. In Paris, he can shed labels based on race, for in that city he is accepted simply for “the fact that I was an American.” But back in the United States, he is treated differently as he travels, depending on whether or not his “identity as a coloured man [has] yet become known in the town.” After witnessing the lynching, he decides to “neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race,” but to “let the world take me for what it would.” In the end, he is a man with no identity so far as race is concerned. He feels sometimes that he has “never really been a Negro,” and at other times that he has “sold [his] birthright for a mess of pottage.”

The narrator’s feelings are no less muddled in terms of his professional identity. His strongest passions, his most enjoyable moments, come from his music. Music provides his strongest bond to his late mother, to his millionaire friend, and to the woman he marries. From beginning to end, he recognizes, as others do, that playing music is his talent, his gift. Yet after the lynching, he plays music only at social events, and turns to real estate investment for his livelihood. In the end, he settles for money, leaving his musical career to become only “a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent.” If the ex-coloured man, now a successful businessman, plays for his own pleasure or is passing his love of music to his children, he does not think it important enough to mention.


Point of View

As would be expected from a book that calls itself an autobiography, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is told by a first-person narrator, or one who tells his own story from the “I” point of view. The first-person point of view is said to be “limited,” in that the narrator can describe only things he has seen himself, with minor exceptions including the story his mother tells him about how she came to be involved with his father. An “omniscient,” or all-seeing, narrator might reveal insights into actions of which the narrator is unaware; for example, an omniscient narrator looking at the story from the outside would know from the beginning where the narrator’s missing four hundred dollars has gone, and might provide clues to the identity of the thief. The first-person narrator, on the other hand, does not know what people are doing when he is not with them, unless they tell him—which, of course, the thieving Pullman-car porter does not. In addition, a first-person narrator is limited in his understanding of others’ feelings. Although the narrator of this novel believes that the day his father visited his mother in Connecticut “was one of the happiest moments of her life,” he has only her smiles to base his judgment upon. Because the only emotions that can be expressed are the narrator’s own, and because the narrator of this novel is particularly unemotional, critics have frequently commented on the remarkably flat tone of the narrator’s voice in this novel.

It is easy to forget that this is a work of fiction, not a real autobiography, and the first-person narrator of the novel is a fictional character, not a true author and subject. The narrator of this novel is not speaking for Johnson, but rather is a “persona,” a character created by Johnson. To increase potential sales, the novel was originally published anonymously, and most readers accepted it at face value, as a genuine autobiography. When Johnson acknowledged authorship fifteen years later, the first-person voice was so effective that readers still assumed the narrator was Johnson, describing his own life. To avoid being linked with his character, Johnson felt compelled to publish a real autobiography, Along This Way, in 1933.


Irony is broadly understood as a gap, or a “disconnect,” between what seems to be true and what actually is true. Critics have long accepted The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man as an example of dramatic irony, a situation in which the words given by a character—in this case, the narrator—carry a meaning that he does not perceive, but that the reader, looking over his shoulder, understands.

Most of the dramatic irony in the novel has to do with the narrator’s treatment of race. When he is just a child, for example, he joins in the teasing of the dark-skinned children at his school, not realizing that he himself is “coloured.” The reader has already guessed this truth, because of the novel’s title, so the reader perceives the teasing differently than the boy does. But the narrator’s ironic treatment of African Americans does not end when he discovers the truth about his own heritage. He is the one who gives Shiny his racist nickname, and he continues to use it to refer to his friend even when they are grown, successful men. Examples of the narrator’s blindness to his own racism abound: He analyzes and labels African Americans in the South according to their economic status; he looks down on the customs and manners of poor rural African Americans; he does not like to see white women in the company of African American men, though he himself marries a white woman; he declares African American women to be beautiful only if their skin is relatively light; he accepts the idea that European music is “art” while African American music is not. The fact that he recognizes American racism when it affects him directly, but perpetuates many of its myths and stereotypes himself without realizing it, is an illustration of dramatic irony.


Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the literary movement known as Realism emerged as a response to the Romanticism that had dominated the Victorian period. Novels of Realism aimed to capture life as it really is, rather than emphasizing fantasy and the imagination as the Romantics had done. The Realists believed in the value of the normal and the everyday, telling the stories of recognizable characters whose actions had predictable consequences. Politically, the Realists hoped to work toward democracy and equality, rather than flattering upper class or even royal characters.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is typical in many ways of the novels of Realism. Its central character is meant to be seen as a representation of a man of mixed race at the turn of the twentieth century. Although the choices he makes are his own, his experiences and the people he meets are believable and recognizable. There are no dramatic plot twists, passionate outbursts or mysteries, but only events that might happen in a normal life, and the natural consequences of those events. The conflicts faced by the narrator are mostly internal, dealing with moral choices. Realism works to bring people together through the experience of reading, and in fact the novel was heralded as a tool for white people to gain a better understanding of their African American neighbors. In 1912, the movement known as Realism gave Johnson a base from which to create one of the first realistic portraits of African American life for a wide white readership.

Historical Context

Slave Narratives

During the middle of the nineteenth century, a number of biographies and memoirs written by slaves who had won their freedom were published in the North as part of the Abolition movement, the effort to ban slavery in the United States. These were typically the stories of people who had been born into slavery in the South, and who managed to make their way to the Northern states and a new life. The very act of writing a book, and of stating an articulate case for the intelligence and strength of African Americans, was an important tool in the struggle to end slavery in the United States, because it showed that freed slaves had the mental capacity to function independently. Publishers knew that most readers of these narratives would be white, because they made up most of the literate and book-buying public, and so the narrative voices addressed themselves directly to a white audience. The most well-known of these narratives is A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, published in 1845. Most white readers in the North would have acquired their most vivid images of African Americans either from these slave narratives or from novels by white authors, including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).

Many of the slave narratives feature common structures and scenes that Johnson adapted in creating The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. For example, many begin with the main characters living in a state of relative calm and innocence until a startling event makes them realize their true condition. Learning to read, and then studying the Bible and other books, is an important part of their awakening. Poignant scenes describe separation from family, through death or another tragic event. Narrators address their readers directly, pointing out injustices and hypocrisies. Brief anecdotes describe other broad types of African Americans, and explain the conditions that lead to their successes and failures. Humorous scenes demonstrate how the slaves deceived and tricked their masters. Often, a sympathetic white character takes the narrator in hand, offering financial assistance and guiding him or her through the complexities of the world of freedom.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1910s: Only two books by African Americans—both autobiographies—have a wide readership among both white and black audiences.

    Today: Many of the United States’s bestselling authors are African American or members of other ethnic minorities.
  • 1910s: White and black people are forbidden by law from marrying each other in most states.

    Today: Since 1967, no state in the United States forbids interracial marriage.
  • 1910s: White and black people in large cities in the North come together to listen to ragtime music, a product of African American culture.

    Today: White and black people in most parts of the country share an appreciation for hip hop and rap music, products of African American culture.
  • 1910s: In what will be called the Great Migration, African Americans move from the rural South to the cities in the North. Between 1890 and 1930, more than two million make this move.

    Today: The Great Migration is reversing, especially among the middle class. African Americans with enough economic stability move in large numbers to cities in the South.

Johnson knew that his readers would be familiar with the slave narrative form, and with the successful 1901 autobiography by Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery. This, and the fact that there was no established market for novels by African Americans, led Johnson to present his novel in the form of an autobiography.

Racial Inequality and Mutual Ignorance

Although slavery had ended with the end of the Civil War in 1865, life for African Americans was still difficult more than fifty years later, when Johnson was writing The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Progress was slow, in large part because white and black people knew very little about each other beyond broad stereotypes. The hardships described in the novel are not fictional. African Americans could not eat or sleep in public accommodations throughout much of the United States; they could not attend most public schools or colleges; they were denied many jobs, and were paid less than white people for the work they did. Many black men were denied the vote (no women of any race could vote in national elections until 1919). As the novel demonstrates, there were differences between the North, where the narrator’s elementary school enrolls white and black children, and the South, where white and black people live essentially separate lives. But even in New York City, where whites might go “slumming” and visit African American clubs, African Americans did not enter white night clubs except as service workers and entertainers.

Johnson himself had lived a relatively comfortable middle-class life. His parents were never slaves, and held good jobs, and Johnson was a college graduate. He became part of a small black intellectual movement that worked in the early part of the twentieth century to gain equality for African Americans. Their leaders included Booker T. Washington, who believed that African Americans should achieve economic security independent of whites, and W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders in 1909 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who worked for African Americans to be accepted as equals alongside whites. As African Americans began migrating from rural areas of the South to the Northern cities, looking for better jobs and better housing, these intellectuals steered the national conversation in a direction that would ultimately focus on the needs of the new urban black population. A decade after Johnson published The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, the energetic New York City he described would burst into an exciting flame of creativity in the period known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Ragtime and the Cakewalk

One of the most popular new musical styles to emerge at the end of the nineteenth century was called ragtime. The name comes from the “ragged” or syncopated rhythms of the music, written in 2/4 time. In the 1890s, ragtime grew out of traditional rhythms out of Africa brought by people who came to the United States as slaves, and was shaped by minstrel shows, “coon songs,” and vaudeville. The first performers were itinerant African American piano players who traveled around the South. The Chicago World’s Fair featured a gathering of ragtime musicians, and ragtime attracted a large white following there and in New York City. The most important writer of original ragtime compositions was Scott Joplin, who worked in Chicago. The sheet music to his tune “Maple Leaf Rag” was the first American instrumental piece to sell one million copies. By 1917, when Joplin died, ragtime was losing its popularity, but its influences were felt in an emerging musical form—jazz.

The earliest ragtime compositions were written as dance music, to accompany an existing dance called the cakewalk. The cakewalk came from Florida plantations in the 1850s, when slaves there adapted steps they learned from Seminole Indians, and added movements they remembered from African dances. The cakewalk is performed by pairs of men and women, dressed in their finest, and imitating in a stylized manner a dignified promenade by high-society white couples. On some Southern plantations, owners would stage dancing contests between their slaves, and award a cake as a prize. Later, black minstrels or white performers in “black face” performed the cakewalk in concert halls. By the 1890s, the dance had become popular with white dancers also, the first dance step to make that transition.

Critical Overview

When first released in 1912, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was published by a small firm, and the market for books by and about African Americans was small; it did not sell well or attract much critical attention. Reviewers debated whether the book was fact or fiction and how realistic its story was. In 1913, Brander Matthews included The Autobiography in an analysis of “Three Books Which Depict the Actualities of Present-Day Life” for Munsey’s Magazine. Writing for a white audience, Matthews recommended the book for all “who want to understand our fellow citizens of darker hue.” He wondered whether the anonymous story should be considered fiction or “an actual record of fact,” and concluded that it “contains what is higher than actual fact, the essential truth.” The Nashville American, a daily newspaper, accepted the book as fiction, “unhampered by respect of the verities and excited by hate,” and called its treatment of white women “outrageous.”

Since the novel’s reissue in 1927, when Johnson claimed authorship and the work was accepted as fictional realism, it has never been out of print. The central critical question since then has been how one should approach the narrator: Is he a tragic figure, brought to an unhappy choice by an unjust world, or a weak one who makes poor choices because of his own character flaws? Robert A. Bone, in his 1958 study The Negro Novel in America, was one of the first to attribute the narrator’s ultimate choice to his own failings. Bone acknowledged that the narrator is “overpowered by life,” but refers to his “moral cowardice” and calls him “a symbol of man’s universal failure to fulfill his highest destiny.” Dickson D. Bruce Jr., on the other hand, finds in Black American Writing from the Nadir that the narrator’s attempts to find his identity among the African American communities he visits “are failures not because of his weakness or blindness but because they increase his sense of the separation of the races.”

Another issue for critics has been the unemotional and nondescriptive style of the narrator. Early critics, including Bone, tended to see this as a result of Johnson’s unsuccessful attempts to merge fiction with a political agenda. Howard Faulkner, writing in Black American Literature Forum in 1985, disagrees, arguing that the ex-coloured man’s “inability to feel deeply what is happening to him and to put those events in perspective” is not a failure of the author’s narrative skills, but a demonstration of what happens to a character who has been “destroyed from within.”

Criticism in the 1990s and beyond has focused on what the novel suggests about race itself, as suggested by the title of a 1996 Martin Japtok essay, “Between ‘Race’ as Construct and ‘Race’ as Essence: The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” Roxanna Pisiak, in Studies in American Fiction, explores Johnson’s themes of the ambiguity of the color line, and the ways in which language shapes our attitudes about race.


Cynthia Bily

Bily teaches English at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. In this essay, Bily examines the narrator’s sexual ambiguity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.

Most readers in the twenty-first century will see something in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man that James Weldon Johnson, the novel’s author, could not: A solution to the narrator’s struggles with his divided self could be in his simple refusal to be divided. In other words, if he were alive today he would not need to choose between being a “coloured man” and a “white man.” He could recognize, as we do today, that our concepts of race have no basis in biology, that our concept of race is socially, not biologically, constructed. According to this way of thinking, most people are not simply “white” or “black” or “Asian,” but exist somewhere along a spectrum of racial identity. The truth about racial identity in the United States, three hundred years after the first slaves were brought to this country, is that a large percentage of Americans could call themselves “multi-racial,” or “bi-racial” or “mixed.” This does not change the fact that in his own time Johnson’s narrator does not have “mixed” available to him as a category to slip into. Although terms such as “mulatto” and “octaroon” were used to describe certain persons of mixed heritage, people with these labels were not accepted into “white” society, and that is where the power was. As the Texan in the smoking car crudely explains it, “it’s a question of white man or nigger, no middle ground.” The fact that we read the narrator’s situation differently than he did—that we can envision a middle ground that did not exist a hundred years ago—is one of the joys of reading novels from earlier times.

Just as we see matters of race differently than people did a hundred years ago, so has our thinking about sex and gender undergone a transformation. Most people today are not as comfortable as people once were with traditional notions of men and women having natural differences in abilities, responsibilities, talents, needs and strengths. Rather than seeing “male” and “female” as distinct categories, some critics called “feminist critics” or “gender critics” have explored the idea that masculinity and femininity are points along a spectrum. Science again shapes our re-thinking, as those studying human genetics tell us that two sexes are not enough to account for all the biological varieties of humans. Sociologists point out that matters of sexual attraction and sexual behavior vary from culture to culture. So while most people will fit somewhat comfortably into the sexual category to which their society assigns them, others will seek a “middle ground” that may or may not be available to them.

In his dealings with women, the narrator seems confused, blocked. Consistently, he feels physical attraction only for women he cannot have. His first love, when he is eleven, is a seventeen-year-old white girl, a violinist from church whom he will accompany in a recital. On reflection, the narrator realizes it was not her playing that aroused his interest, but something having to do with “her eyes almost closing, the escaping strands of her dark hair wildly framing her pale face, and her slender body swaying to the tones.” The attraction is physical, sexual, and yet he feels it for someone he can never really have a relationship with, because of the differences in their ages and because the young woman is white. He directs the energy of his passion into such safe outlets as playing the piano and writing poetry, but keeps his love a secret. Looking back on this experience years later, having lost his wife, the narrator describes his love of the violist in passionate terms: “at no time of life is love so pure, so delicious, so poetic, so romantic, as it is in boyhood.”

The next woman the narrator is physically attracted to is also unavailable to him. She is the rich widow in the “Club” in New York, “an exceedingly beautiful woman of perhaps thirty-five; she had glistening copper-colored hair, very white skin …” This woman is an unsuitable match for the narrator, not only because she is white (and he himself never becomes comfortable with the sight of a white woman escorted by a black man), but also because she is already in a relationship with someone else. The narrator is perceptive enough to see that the widow lavishes attention on him only to make her lover jealous, and yet he continues to spend time with her, rather than seeking out some of the other women in the “Club” who make “no secret of the fact that they admired me as much as they did my playing.” Of course, this ends badly, with the widow being murdered and the narrator being forced to flee New York under the protection and guidance of the millionaire.

Only once more does the narrator fall under the spell of a woman’s beauty. At the opera in Paris he finds himself sitting next to a young woman “so young, so fair, so ethereal, that I felt to stare at her would be a violation.” He strains to hear her every word. He glances at her secretly, and each time his “heart leaped into [his] throat.” Again, it is not to be—the young woman is his sister. Again he experiences a physical attraction for a woman who can not return it.

Surprisingly, the narrator does not devote much attention to women who might be thought of as suitable matches. After the violinist, the narrator does not mention any other flirtations during his high school years, Perhaps he is too involved with his music, and with his ailing mother, to be interested in a girlfriend. When he gets to Atlanta and meets his future classmates at the University for the first time, he seems more interested in the men than in the women. His description of the girls, many so light-skinned they seemed to be white, is noticeably tepid: “many of the girls, with black eyes and wavy dark hair, were decidedly pretty.” He uses much stronger language in admiration of the men: “many of the blackest were fine specimens of young manhood, tall, straight, and muscular, with magnificent heads… .” During three years in Jacksonville, he attends dances and parties on the weekends, and presumably meets young women there, but none strike him as worth mentioning until he meets a young schoolteacher and begins “to have dreams of matrimonial bliss.” The young woman’s appearance is never described, and the narrator betrays no special feelings for her. When the cigar factory where he works is shut down suddenly, even though he “was beginning to plan about marrying the young school-teacher,” he chooses to leave for New York. Thinking about New York, “all at once a desire like a fever” strikes the narrator—a feeling stronger than any he has apparently felt for his intended bride. He does not ask her to accompany him.

In New York, he meets many women at the night clubs and dinner parties he attends, but shows no interest in any of them (with the exception of the widow). In Paris, he meets “good-looking, well-dressed young women,” but he wants nothing from them except language lessons. On his travels through the South he stays with different families, but does not even mention any women, except for those at the revival meeting, where he notices women “immaculate in starched stiff white dresses adorned with ribbons.” The word “immaculate” is revealing, meaning “flawless” or “without sin”—hardly a term one uses to describe the object of one’s desires.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Johnson’s most famous and most successful book is God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927). The poems in this volume, written in the dialect and rhythm of Southern African American preachers, deal with good and evil in a sinful world.
  • In 1933, Johnson published Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson, a reflective and detailed account of his fascinating and varied life. The volume includes nineteen photographs of Weldon and his family and friends.
  • Wallace Thurman’s novel The Blacker the Berry (1929) was the first novel to explore prejudice within the African American community against those of darker skin. Emma Lou Brown’s journey to New York City echoes the Ex-Coloured Man’s in her enjoyment of the night life but is different because her acceptance is affected by her dark skin.
  • Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth (2000) explores the life of a bi-racial woman in London. The novel, which treats serious themes with a great deal of humor, won Great Britain’s Whitbread Award for a first novel.
  • Jillian A. Sim’s essay “Fading to White,” originally published in American Heritage Magazine (1999), tells the story of the author’s discovery of a family secret: that her great-grandmother was an African American woman who spent most of her career after college “passing” as white.
  • In Who Is Black?: One Nation’s Definition (1991), F. James Davis examines the implications of the “one drop rule,” by which any person with the smallest amount of black ancestry is classified as black. As Davis explains, this rule applies only in the United States and only for African Americans—there is no similar rule for Asians, Latinos or other groups.

In the language of gender critics, the narrator bears some of the markers of a “male-identified male.” This does not mean that he desires sexual intimacy with men, but rather that most of his emotional energy is directed toward other men; he seeks out male companionship rather than female; he feels more comfortable with men than with women. In Jacksonville, he mentions that “several of the men at the factory were my intimate friends… .” In New York he spends his evenings gambling and smoking with groups of men, and women are incidental to these excursions. Parting from the millionaire, the narrator remembers him fondly as “the man who was … the best friend I ever had, except my mother, the man who exerted the greatest influence ever brought into my life, except that exerted by my mother.”

It is fair to question whether these attractions are really significant. After all, many people feel their first love as the strongest. The narrator cannot know in advance that the women who catch his eye will be unattainable. However, it is important to remember that these events are not being narrated in real time, but as memories. The narrator has lived his life, and is telling his story looking back. The words he chooses to describe people, then, are not the spontaneous words of an instant. Reflecting on his life, the narrator sees some old images more clearly than others, and the women whose physical attractions are the most vivid for him are those women he could never have.

In New York again, the narrator finally finds the woman he will marry, and all of his issues over women and attraction come together in one person. She is undeniably beautiful, “almost tall and quite slender, with lustrous yellow hair and eyes so blue as to appear almost black… . Indeed she seemed to me the most dazzlingly white thing I had ever seen.” But the narrator takes pains to explain that it is her voice, not her beauty, that attracts him; he does not even notice her until she began to sing. As a white woman, she is unattainable, even though the narrator’s new acquaintances assume he also is white. Although he is no longer a child, but a man who has traveled abroad, nearly married and held several important jobs, he can not approach her, but resorts to the feelings and mannerisms of “the bashful boy of fourteen.”

The narrator comes to realize that if he is ever to escape the millionaire’s boredom and achieve something like a normal life, he will have to stop living in the “middle ground” that a black man “passing” as white inhabits, and reveal his secret. If he wishes to raise a family, he must step out of that “middle ground” of the male-identified male and commit to a woman. And so he does. But even attaining the unattainable does not make this man happy. During their brief marriage he lives in “constant fear that she would discover in me some shortcoming.” And then she dies, and the narrator withdraws from society. He has no wife, no male friends, no people of his own.

Life in the early twentieth century was hard on people who did not fit well into their assigned roles. Multi-racial people, regardless of their intelligence or talent, faced limited opportunities in a white-dominated country. And men and women who did not fit neatly into their assigned gender roles also struggled to find ways to fit in. In the twenty-first century people in the United States have more choices, more acceptable roles and ways to contribute, regardless of their race, or gender, or faith, or ability, in no small part because of the work of those men the narrator admires, “who are publicly fighting the cause of their race.” It is important to read novels of days gone by, so that we can celebrate how far we have come and contemplate the work we still have to do.

Source: Cynthia Bily, Critical Essay on The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Alessandro Portelli

In the following essay excerpt, Portelli examines how Johnson both confirms and complicates the “color line” in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.


I laughed heartily over what struck me as the capital joke I was playing. —JAMES WELDON JOHNSON, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

In the beginning of James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, we are told that this is going to be the story of a joke. In summing up the motives that led him to write the story, the first-person narrator says, “I find a sort of savage and diabolical desire to gather up all the little tragedies of my life, and turn them into a practical joke on society.”

Let us start with a joke, then. The ex-colored man laughs because his success as a white man is enough to “disprove the theory that one drop of Negro blood renders a man unfit”; on the other hand, that drop still defines him to himself, an ex-ed colored man, a colored man under erasure whose identity is defined by the identity he thinks he has shaken off. So let us listen to another joke—a little folk tale about the unshakability of identity.

Two men walk down the street. One of them is a humpback. As they walk, they talk. Turning a corner, they find themselves in front of a synagogue.

One of them, the “straight” one, sighs deeply, turns to the humpback, and says, “You know, I once was a Jew.” The humpback sighs back, and says: “I know, I know. I, too, once was a humpback.”

W. E. B. DuBois had prophetically announced in 1903 that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Less than ten years later, James Weldon Johnson both confirmed and complicated that statement. On the one hand, by writing a novel about the color line, he confirmed its tragic importance; on the other hand—and this is where the joke lies—he made that line greatly problematic. In a complex game of hide-and-seek, Johnson in one motion drew the line and blurred (ex-ed) it to the point that, the harder one looks for it, the harder it is to locate. Yet, invisible and powerful, it’s there, like the invisible, tragic hump in the old Jewish joke: you can call yourself an ex-Colored Man, or an ex-Jew, but you can no more discard the burden of cultural identity than the cripple can discard the hump on his back.

In his recent revision of Sterling Brown’s image of the “Tragic Mulatto,” Werner Sollors points out that “in many cases literary Mulattos were able to cross racial boundaries that were considered fixed, real, or even natural. This ability is what made them such ideal questioners of the status quo.” This is precisely what Johnson’s formulation does: he downplays the tragedy (as in tragic Mulatto), and he foregrounds the ironic transgression (literally, boundary-crossing) in the form of the joke. Yet, he also reminds us that the mulatto’s ironic crossing would be meaningless without the shadow of the tragedy: just as the mulatto needs to evoke the line in order to cross it (to evoke his “colored” identity in order to erase it), likewise, to play his joke, Johnson needs to evoke and exorcise the tragedy.

This takes place a number of times in the text. For instance, a potentially typical tragic-Mulatto situation arises when the narrator, at a performance of Gounod’s Faust in Paris, finds himself sitting next to his unknowing white half-sister. “I felt,” he writes, “an almost uncontrollable impulse to rise up and scream to the audience: ‘Here, here in your very midst, is a tragedy, a real tragedy!’” (Autobiography). And yet, although his “feelings [are] divided,” he does nothing. While the tragic show goes on on the stage, the potentially tragic hero stumbles out of the theater and never mentions the episode again in his narrative.

The theatrical, and therefore implicitly contrived connotation of tragedy already visible in this scene is underlined by the author’s definition of himself as a “spectator.” This is in fact the role that he plays as he narrates, with an abundance of visual detail, the two most actually tragic episodes in the story: the killing of a widow by a jealous lover (in an interracial love story in which, however, race is ostensibly not a motive); and the lynching that scares him into finally passing for white. The word “tragic” is not used in the representation of either of these tragedies.

We find it, instead, again with theatrical connotations, in two passages in which it is linked to the comic. One is the story of the minstrel with the big mouth who carried in his heart a burning ambition to be a “tragedian.” His failure to make people take him seriously is so sad that, indeed, in real life “he did play a part in a tragedy.” This episode is so important that it later becomes a paradigm for the quandary of black intellectuals, including himself, and the black middle class as a whole. All black people, the narrator remarks, are fixed in comic stereotypes: “A novel dealing with coloured people who lived in respectable homes and amidst a fair degree of culture and who naturally acted ‘just like white folks’ would be taken in a comic-opera sense. In this respect the Negro is much in the position of a great comedian who gives up the lighter roles to play tragedy.”

In the next move, however, the narrator complicates the line he has just drawn between tragedy and comedy. “In the same respect,” he remarks, “the public is not too much to be blamed, for great comedians are far more scarce than mediocre tragedians; every amateur actor is a tragedian.” Once again, his feelings are as divided as his ancestry. While he resents black exclusion from the serious art of tragedy, he suggests that the seriousness of black culture may be couched in the joke.

The essential black practical joke and serious criticism of life is called, as we know, signifyin’. From the very first page, Johnson’s text plays a threefold game of signifying: on the racial discourse of racial boundaries; on the literary discourse of the tragic mulatto; on DuBois’s political discourse of the color line. Yet, there may be more: he may also be signifying on the values and texts of the dominant culture at large. In this sense, it might pay to read The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man not only in the context of DuBois and Frances Harper, but also in that of his contemporaries, Henry James or Edith Wharton.

The ex-colored man’s practical joke on society may or may not allude to Melville’s Ishmael’s sense that “this strange mixed [my italics] affair we call life” is nothing but “a vast practical joke.” Yet, there is a curious symmetry, a shared symbolic ground. Ishmael feels that life’s joke is upon him, while Johnson’s narrator is the perpetrator of the joke on society; but they both share a keen sense of existential absurdity (Ishmael ends his musings by drawing up his will; Johnson’s narrator ends his story by lamenting the loss of his heritage).

Again, one hears artfully distorted echoes of the literary canon when reading, “My mother and I lived together in a little cottage” in New England, where the outcast and unwed mother “was kept very busy with her sewing.” When we hear that once a month “she received a letter,” the impulse to capitalize that “A” is hard to resist—not because this may be the intention of the text, but because it is another way to remind us that what is going on in that cottage is, although apparently normal, potentially tragic.

These are one reader’s inferences. On the other hand, it is a fact that Johnson’s narrator is not unfamiliar with the white American canon, as shown by his reference to Mark Twain (another very serious comedian and the author of a comic novel called a “tragedy” on the color line: Pudd’nhead Wilson). That Johnson is bent on signifying on white discourse is also made clear by the scene in which the narrator, passing for white, listens unrecognized to the white conversation on race in the segregated parlor car. This is a classic motif in turn-of-the-century African-American literature, and its power lies in the fact that it can be seen not only as a figuration of the absurdity of segregation but also as a metaphor for the presence of the black reader in the white text. The fact that this white discourse is reported by the silent and invisible black narrator is also a figure for the ironic bent that the white discourse takes on when it is filtered by the black voice.

The joke, indeed, is already intimated by the title: Autobiography implies a pact of referential veracity with the reader, but then the book is a work of fiction. Or, as Philippe Lejeune suggests, the genre “autobiography” is predicated on the coincidence of the names of the author, the narrator, and the main character—who in this case have no names at all. Of course, the truly savage joke is in the rest of the title—Ex-Coloured Man. In a society of rigid biologic boundaries in black and white, how can a colored man become an ex? Once we establish this possibility, no one is safe, no identity is sure.

Let us then go back to that little New England cottage, a “place of purity and safety” created by a mother’s arms. This may very well be a late-Victorian clichè of the sanctity of maternal love and affection, and probably is—but what are we to make of the fact that this particular mother—like Hester Prynne—is unmarried and therefore, in the same Victorian cult of sainted motherhood, certainly not a paradigm of “purity”? Johnson’s text situates itself on the boundary of indecision generated by this ambivalence: not just between black and white but also between piety and transgression, between middle-class uplift and popular cultural defiance—between the generation of Frances Harper and that of Claude McKay.

Does this ironic image of purity resonate in the tradition of Harriet Jacobs’s statement that southern black women cannot be measured against the standards of conventional society, or does it suggest that there is a type of purity that has nothing to do with sexual mores—or does it mean that purity is itself a moot concept in a novel of mixing and passing?

All That Glitters

I have a dim recollection of several people who moved in and about this little house, but I have a distinct mental image of only two: one, my mother; and the other, a tall man with a small, dark moustache. I remember his shoes or boots were always shiny, and that he wore a gold chain and a great gold watch with which he was always willing to let me play. (Autobiography)

This passage, quite early in Johnson’s text, introduces the figure that is the cornerstone of tragic mulatto stories, the white father. Rather than as an obsession, however, the paternal image is only a dim recollection; a later encounter generates but little emotion. The meaning of this passage is to suggest one side of the double heritage that the narrator derives from his mixed descent. The black heritage, as we learn in the next page, is represented by his mother’s piano and by the talent that will make him a black musician (with a “particular fondness for the black keys”); the white side is represented by his father’s shoes, a metaphor of inheritance; by the gold that will make a successful white businessman; and by the “shine” that throws an ambiguous bridge between the inheritance of gold and the inheritance of blackness.

I will return later to the gold. First, I would like to follow the variations that Johnson plays on “shine” throughout the first chapter. “It became my appointed duty,” he goes on, “whenever he came to bring him a pair of slippers and to put the shiny shoes in a particular corner; he often gave me in turn for the service a bright coin… .” Shine, the eponymous hero of black toasts and signifying, is also a slangy synonym for African-Americans. This is the sense in which the word is picked up a few pages later, when the narrator describes his best friend, a bright black boy, exactly in the same terms as his father’s shoes.

His face was black as night, but shone as though it were polished [my italics]; he had sparkling eyes, and when he opened his mouth, he displayed glistening white teeth. It struck me at once to call him “Shiny Face,” or “Shiny Eyes,” or “Shiny Teeth,” and I spoke of him often by one of these names to the other boys. These terms were finally merged into “Shiny.”

Just in case we missed the implications, the author gives the reader the source of these images—ironically, a mocking racist rhyme sung by white children (including the narrator, who thinks he’s white) to their black schoolmates:

  Nigger, nigger, never die,
  Black face and shiny eye.

“My admiration,” he writes, “was almost equally divided between the watch chain and the shoes.” All that shines is not gold; indeed, the symbolic web is rather intricate and all its terms are “divided.” “Shiny” is both a racist slur and a term of endearment. The shoes are both a metaphor of his white father’s inheritance and a bright object of blackness—polished black skin, like Shiny’s face. Polishing blackness seems to be one of the narrator’s missions in life, culminating in his project of polishing black music into classical form. The inheritance of gold, finally, is both a possession and a “chain,” an essentially flawed gift that becomes a burden:

I remember how I sat upon his knee and watched him laboriously drill a hole through a ten-dollar gold piece, and then tie the coin around my neck with a string. I have worn that piece around my neck the greater part of my life, and still possess it, but more than once I have wished that some other way had been found of attaching it to me besides putting a hole through it.


The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is a double tale of immersion and emersion. Starting from New England, the hero immerses himself in the black world of the South, emerges into New York and Europe, then plunges back into the Deep South to do folklore research, and finally finds refuge from fear in wealth and whiteness. The text hinges on two dramatic passages from one race to another, two dramatic initiations to, and one flight from, blackness.

The first passage coincides with the sudden discovery of his own conventional and institutional blackness. “That day,” he writes, “was wrought the miracle of my transition from one world into another; for I did indeed pass into another world.” As Sollors points out, Johnson subverts the conventional use of passing, by designating a passage from white to black rather than vice-versa. Thus, while he does not belittle the brutal suddenness of the revelation and its impact on the narrator as a child, this episode is more in the vein of comedy than literary tragedy.

On one day near the end of my second term at school the principal came into our room and, after talking to the teacher, for some reason said: “I wish all the white scholars to stand for a moment.” I rose with the others. The teacher looked at me and, calling my name, said: “You sit down and rise with the others.” I did not quite understand her, and questioned: “Ma’am?” She repeated, with a softer tone in her voice: “You sit down, and rise with the others.” I sat down dazed. (Autobiography)

This anecdote is another of the many “jokes” included in the novel. It is part of a family of humorous narratives that circulate, orally and in writing, in different traditions, in which the humor derives more from the brazen suddenness of the revelation than from the racial contents. It is also a revision of the beginning of DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk. “In a wee wooden schoolhouse” in New England, DuBois recalls in the very first page of his book, he participated in a children’s game of exchanging visiting cards, “till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card—refused it peremptorily, with a glance.” In this way, DuBois tells his discovery of his own blackness and prefaces the memorable passage on double-consciousness and the veil—a passage to which the ex-colored man also refers when he describes the impact of the discovery on himself.

The episode inflicts also on Johnson’s narrator a wound “which was years in healing” (Autobiography). Rather than DuBois’s dark sense of being locked into place, walled-in in a “prison-house” of blackness, however, he experiences a loss of place, and is dazed. Johnson’s narrator is driven not to a philosophical revision of the meaning of blackness, but to a physical revision of his own mirror image (another topos in black literature, but not in DuBois). More importantly, while DuBois must face the discovery and its consequences by himself, the ex-colored man finds refuge and consolation in the arms of his mother. Even the tall white girl who spurns DuBois (there may be a suggestion of a sentimental rejection here, too) reappears in Johnson’s novel as the older (and implicitly taller) girl with “dark hair” and “pale face” with whom the boy falls in love and plays music while she “laughingly encouraged” him.

Though painful, this passage into blackness generates no overwhelming need for the narrator to confront his white father, nor does he pine for the white world as he lives his life as a black man. Racial identity is not a life-or-death concern to him, to the possibly mixed-blood Cubans with whom he associates in the cigar industry in Jackson, to the white sponsor who takes him to Europe, nor even to his fiancée. Unlike Rena in Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars, who is brought to death by her fiancé’s rejection after he discovers her racial identity, here the girl overcomes her initial shock and returns to marry him. All this implies that the barriers that made for tragedy in conventional imagination and literary formulae are not as all-important and as impassable as they are said to be.

The narrator’s plunge into blackness, indeed, is clinched less by the loss of identity than by the loss of his money, and is therefore as much a matter of class as it is of race. When his money is stolen in Atlanta, he begins his picaresque journey into the world of the black working class, black “society,” and the black underworld. In fact, the chapters that tell this story hinge upon a remarkable contradiction. As a character immersed in the black world, he spends and gambles his money freely; but as a narrator, who tells the story after he has already passed for white and contracted the “money fever,” he accounts for it carefully, dollar by dollar. On the one hand, he writes

I was a hail fellow well met with all the workmen at the factory, most of whom knew little and cared less about social distinctions. From their example I learned to be careless about money, and for that reason I constantly postponed and finally abandoned returning to Atlanta University. It seemed impossible for me to save as much as two hundred dollars.

On the other hand, accounting for money, his own and other people’s, occurs at almost every page: in New England, “the benefit yielded me a little more than two hundred dollars, thus raising my cash capital to about four hundred dollars”; in Atlanta, “When we finished [eating], we paid the waiter twenty cents each and went out”; in Jacksonville, “a regalia workman … earned from thirty-five to forty dollars a week. He generally worked a sixty-dollar job,” while “I was earning four dollars a week, and was soon able to pick up a couple more by teaching a few scholars at night,” and later “I was now earning about twenty-five dollars a week”; in Harlem, “In less than three minutes I had won more than two hundred dollars, a sum which afterwards cost me dearly”; later, “I had more than three hundred dollars, and New York had impressed me as a place where there was lots of money and not much difficulty in getting it.” Although he quickly adds that “I did not long hold this opinion,” the sense remains that money comes and goes easily: “Some days found me able to peel ten- and twenty-dollar bills from a roll, and others found me clad in a linen duster and carpet slippers.”

A great deal of money was spent here [at the “Club”], so many of the patrons were men who earned large sums. I remember one night a dapper little brown-skin fellow was pointed out to me and I was told that he was the most popular jockey of the day, and that he earned $12,000 a year. This latter statement I couldn’t doubt, for with my own eyes I saw him spending at about thirty times that rate.

The spending, then, is as important as the earning; and the earning is as easy as the spending. Thus, while class is very much on the narrator’s mind, money is not the only defining factor at this stage. He carefully draws class boundaries: the “desperate class,” the servants, the independent workmen and tradesmen, and “the educated and well-to-do” who form a “society as discriminating as the actual conditions will allow it to be.” Yet, he points out that discrimination is based as much on respectability and “distinction” as on money:

I know personally of one case in which money to the extent of thirty or forty thousand dollars and a fine house, not backed up by a good reputation, after several years of repeated effort, failed to gain entry for the possessor [into society]. These people have their dances and dinners and card parties, their musicals, and their literary societies. The women attend social affairs dressed in good taste, and the men in dress suits which they own… . I belonged to the literary society—at which we generally discussed the race question—and attended all the church festivals and other charitable entertainments.

When he is accepted in this “professional” class, he is still working at a manual job in a cigar factory, but also gains distinction as a piano teacher. His mother’s piano, always a symbol of uplift in black culture, is still more important than his father’s shoes and gold. There is an important symmetry between the remark that this class has evolved “a social life of which they need not be ashamed,” and the sense of “shame” that finally drives him into passing after he has witnessed a lynching (italics mine). This is an expression of what sociologist E. Franklin Frazier has described as “status without substance”: the attempt to comply with white standards of behavior without the corresponding material basis. In the absence of gold, polished manners as an outward sign of education and morals, or culture “in the limited sense of ‘refinement’ and ‘sophistication,’” as Leroi Jones put it, will have to do. An illuminating parallel defines this difference.

When he is preparing to enter Atlanta University, the narrator takes a pledge “to abstain from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and profane language” (Autobiography). When he passes for white in the end, he again renounces alcohol and tobacco (“as much as I enjoyed smoking, I limited myself to an occasional cigar… . Drinking I cut out altogether”), but makes no mention of profane language. The fact is that this time the pledge has less a moral than an economic significance: “I denied myself as much as possible in order to swell my savings.” Words, profane or not, cost nothing; and in an environment in which real money talks, respectable language is not as strictly required.

In between, there is the interlude with his “millionaire friend.” Here, music and money are held in temporary balance. The relationship starts with a nightly tip of five dollars for his piano playing and continues with their travels in Europe, during which he plays music and his sponsor “kept me supplied with money far beyond what ordinary wages would have amounted to.”

Johnson here treads the same ground as his contemporary Henry James—the international theme of Americans in Europe, always predicated on the opposition of European cultural pretense and American money: “the Londoner seems to think that Americans are people whose only claim to be classed as civilized is that they have money, and the regrettable thing about that is that the money is not English.” The difference between English money and American money, of course, is that the former is old and inherited, the latter is new and just made. In a number of these international narratives, in fact, American characters seem to share the embarrassment, not about money but about its sources: how exactly Christopher Newman and the sponsors of Lambert Strether amassed their wealth is always a bit uncertain. It is the making, not the having, of money that is morally suspect. James solves the problem by having his heroines inherit fortunes made by others; Johnson, by making his sponsor a millionaire whose money flows “like fairy godmother’s gifts.” In this way, Johnson’s millionaire and James’s heiresses can be as unconcerned about earning and spending money as the cigar makers of Jacksonville and the gamblers of Harlem.

The difference, of course, is that the protagonist is not the millionaire who already has money, but the piano player, who must get it. Thus, the ex-colored man entirely absorbs the near obsession with money of the moneyless in a money-making world that seems so immoral when Henry James’s characters strive to pass from poor to rich: “I had made up my mind that since I was not going to be a Negro, I would avail myself of every possible opportunity to make a white man’s success; and that, if it can be summed up in any one word, means ‘money’” (Autobiography).

What an interesting and absorbing game is moneymaking! After each deposit at my savings-bank I used to sit and figure out, all over again, my principal and interest, and make calculations on what the increase would be in such and such time. Out of this I derived a great deal of pleasure. I denied myself as much as possible in order to swell my savings… . The day on which I was able to figure up to a thousand dollars marked an epoch in my life.

It is an apt conclusion. As the autobiographical form requires, the narrated and the narrating selves finally join together, at the time when, on the threshold of one thousand dollars, the ex-colored man derives pleasure not from the spending but from the making of money. Gone are the days “when my conception of money was that it was made only to spend.” He has “earned [it] by days of honest and patient work,” has “carefully watched [it] grow from the first dollar.” And from this he derives “a pride and satisfaction which to me was an entirely new sensation.”

And yet—the ex-colored man has passed from the “status without substance” of the black middle class, to economic substance and unsubstantial identity as an infiltrator in the white bourgeoisie. Just like the hump on the back in the old Jewish story, his native blackness cannot be leveled out but only hidden from sight. “My appearance was always good, and my ability to play on the piano, especially ragtime, which was then at the height of its vogue, made me a welcome guest”; the fact is, however, that his “appearance” is to some extent a mask, and his familiarity with ragtime derives from his immersion in the black world. “The anomaly of my social position appealed strongly to my sense of humor”: just as in the parlor car, he is the invisible, and therefore threatening, black presence in the midst of confident whiteness. This is the “capital joke” he plays—but the joke may be on him, too. He smiles inwardly at the racial slurs he occasionally hears, but the humor is also a way of diffusing the frustration of being unable to speak out against them. The last page of the book is about the men who speak out for black people; the fact that he must keep silent makes him feel “a coward, a deserter,” “small and selfish,” and fills him with “a strange longing for my mother’s people.” The price he pays for the mask he wears as a “spy in the enemy’s country” is cultural silence: a man can pass for white, but the music can’t.

Source: Alessandro Portelli, “The Tragedy and the Joke: James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man,” in Temples for Tomorrow: Looking Back at the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Genevieve Fabre and Michel Feith, Indiana University Press, 2001, pp. 143–58.

Martin Japtok

In the following essay excerpt, Japtok explores how The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man presents a dual approach to the question of race being of natural essence or of social construction.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is the coming-of-age story of an African American who grows up believing he is “white,” learns in school that he is “coloured” and repeatedly switches from “white” to “black” identity in the years to follow, retaining throughout an awareness of his “colour.” After traveling and experiencing, or rather observing, various facets of African American life in the U.S. and of European American life both in the U.S. and in Europe, the Ex-Coloured Man decides ultimately to “pass for white,” being jolted into that decision by witnessing a lynching. He becomes a businessman, marries, has children, but then looks back at his life with feelings of regret.

Even this brief plot summary hints at one of the central problems of the novel—the question of identity. Indeed, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. sees the Ex-Coloured Man as an incarnation of DuBoisian double-consciousness (Introduction xvii). Once he knows he is “coloured” according to U.S. racial logic, he cannot be “white” again the same way. In other words, he accepts that logic, internalizes it, and acquires double-consciousness; he cannot simply be but is always conscious of being, seeing himself, through a DuBoisian “veil,” as “whites” might see him. To quote the famous passage from the Autobiography: “He [the African American] is forced to take his outlook on all things … from the point of view of a coloured man.”

What does that mean, though? Does it imply that societal forces alone constrain the Ex-Coloured Man to be a “coloured” man, or is there such a thing as a “coloured” point of view regardless of social constraints? Does the Autobiography posit “race” as something socially constructed or as something “natural”?

Answers to these questions have ranged over the entire spectrum of ethnic critical theory from “essentialism” (race as “natural” fact) to constructionism (“the position that differences are constructed, not innate” [Fuss xii]). Eugenia Collier sees the Ex-Coloured Man “on the verge of surrendering the part of him which is white and letting the black self emerge victorious”; the “black self” fails to win, however, so the protagonist ends up being “white on the outside as well as on the inside” (371). Collier thus emphasizes essential “blackness” and “whiteness,” both in psychological and physical terms. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., however, has no doubt that Johnson critiques essential racial identity: “Johnson’s decision to chart his mulatto pilgrim’s progress back and forth … between black and white racial identities, is intended to establish the fact that such identities are entirely socially constructed” (Introduction xvi). According to Eric J. Sundquist, it is the hybrid forms of “blackness” and “whiteness,” especially the musical ones, that the Autobiography delineates. However, while the Ex-Coloured Man may have “chosen an art [ragtime] emblematic of his racial hybridity” his lack of cultural connectedness does not allow his hybridity to “[produce] fruitful symbiosis” (16). While Sundquist sees the possibility of cultural amalgamation, hinted at and symbolized through biological hybridity, he describes how, instead, the Autobiography illustrates the obliteration of black culture through cultural and biological assimilation, as Johnson might have feared it. Sundquist’s analysis thus shows the Autobiography as adopting a position between essentialism and constructionism, linking culture to color.

While a variety of rhetorical positions on ethnicity in the novel have been convincingly explored, the duality in Johnson’s approach to the question of identity has not been emphasized as of yet. I believe that rather than adopting one specific position on race, the Autobiography goes both further and not as far as that: while it shows racial identity as socially constructed, it also insists that certain traits are inherent to “whiteness” or “blackness,” thus employing seemingly incompatible strategies. The novel “improves upon” the intent of much of the “mulatto” literature preceding it to point out the absurdity of the color scheme through enacting a kind of “reverse passing” in that its protagonist pretends to be black more than he pretends to be white. This strategy doubles complications by depicting not merely a character who, “knowing” he is black attempts to pass for white, but a character who thinks he is white, learns he is seen as black by whites, attempts to be black, does not succeed, decides to be white and now thinks of himself as somebody black passing for white. However, while highlighting the social construction of race, the protagonist’s life also serves as an indictment of the European American middle class value system as the novel constructs it through relying on the notion of inherent racial traits. In other words, the protagonist’s ethnicity is outlined both as something “made up” and arbitrary and as something “real.” The Autobiography thus partakes in a rhetoric of constructionism and in a rhetoric of essentialism. While the novel embraces some aspects of white society and critiques others of its black counterpart, the deployment of this double-rhetoric serves to establish as the overall tenor of the book a double critique of white middle class society while at the same time allowing Johnson to show African America’s moral (and artistic) superiority. Johnson himself tells us that he set out to do no less than that. He records in his autobiography Along This Way a conversation he had with H. L. Mencken on “Negro literature” and “Negro writers”:

“What they should do,” he said, “is to single out the strong points of the race and emphasize them over and over and over; asserting, at least on these points, that they are better than anybody else.” I called to his attention that I had attempted something of that sort in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. (305)

Thus, to rephrase Diane Fuss’s assessment of a conscious use of essentialism, essentialism and constructionism used side by side also prove to have “strategic or interventionary value.”

To understand how this happens, it is necessary to show how the novel delineates whiteness and blackness, how each of these come to be seen as a distinct quality, through the characterization of the protagonist, and how, as a result, the Ex-Coloured Man is indeed passing for black more than he is passing for white. How, then, does the Ex-Coloured Man acquire his whiteness and his middle class values? Usually, the blame has been put on his father, whom the narrator remembers by his gold chain and a gold watch. His mother has been accused of being “an adorer of white values” (Kinnamon 173) and has generally received little sympathy from critics. However, she is not only complicit in teaching her son materialism but is herself a victim of double-consciousness and instrumental in bequeathing it to her son. While she spanks him memorably for uprooting glass bottles stuck in the ground, which marks a violation of African (American) cultural customs, as Robert Stepto has explained (101), she also—in the very same paragraph—scrubs the narrator “until [his] skin ached” in an apparent (symbolic) attempts to make him more white (Fleming 86). It is his father who gives him coins, but it is his mother who “[teaches him] to promptly drop [them] in a little tin bank,” showing him the value of deferred gratification which will come in handy in his investment scheme. While she is more comfortable—“freer”—when playing “old Southern songs,” she is not assertive about her ethnicity when directly confronted by her son: “‘No, I am not white, but you—your father is one of the greatest men in the country.” Eugenia Collier has noted that she denies “his [and thus her] blackness but not his whiteness” by commenting only on her lack of whiteness while emphasizing her son’s white descent. Through her contradictory behavior, which foreshadows the narrator’s own ambiguity, the narrator’s mother reveals her own unresolved psychological tensions, her ambiguous acceptance and simultaneous rejection of her own ethnicity.

The way she initially rears the narrator seems to be geared toward avoiding the development of double-consciousness in him—at the expense of his African American cultural heritage. As the narrator says, “She was careful about my associates,” and one can assume that they are white: his mother surrounds herself exclusively with white women, and the narrator, throughout the novel, “gives no racial designation to white characters but labels instead the black ones” (Collier 366). She sews for “a great many ladies” and, in a punning transposition of color from the givers of money to the object given, makes a “fair income from her work.” Nor surprisingly, “the protagonist assumes that he is white” and, as a consequence, he “[absorbs] the racism of his schoolmates” (Kinnamon 173). His experience of racism as a racist turns out to be the ideal breeding ground for double-consciousness: “I had first learned what their status was, and now I learned that theirs was mine.” He understands only too well how European Americans see him—better than any of the other African American children in his class—because he himself evidently looked at African Americans pejoratively. In one of the few instances in which the narrator uses “we” with an ethnic association, he is chasing after African American classmates: “We ran after them pelting them with stones until they separated in several directions.” This persecution is the result of one African American boy’s striking back after having been taunted in a racist fashion by a European American crowd of children. What this demonstrates is that double-consciousness results from a racist construction of “whiteness” itself, which is defined in contradistinction to “blackness.” The narrator experiences a feeling of ethnic identity (of “we” ness) only when he can see himself as part of a group with an “enemy,” that is, when he defines “race” in essentialist terms. The former self-definition then turns itself against the narrator. Ironically, the mother’s attempt to protect the narrator from acquiring double-consciousness only ensures that it will be even more pronounced than hers. Through this strategy, then, and, through the portrayal of the narrator’s essentializing of race, the novel emphasizes the constructedness both of race and racism.

Given his white upbringing, it is fitting that it is by the pen of a European American author that he is initiated into the social significance of being “coloured”: “[Uncle Tom’s Cabin] opened my eyes as to who and what I was and what my country considered me; in fact, it gave me my bearing.” This kind of initiation, of course, is likely only to deepen his tendency to see blackness through white eyes. His initiation to his race through a book further highlights the constructedness of blackness. At the same time, his having read the book opens up the possibility of instruction by his mother on matters of ethnicity: “As a result, she was entirely freed from reserve, and often herself brought up the subject, talking of things directly touching her life and mine and of things which had come down to her through the ‘old folks.’” Although we never learn what those things from the “old folks” are, they do inspire him to become interested in the South, which marks the first time that he takes an affirmative attitude towards his new-found ethnicity.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin does leave its traces, though. For example, it strengthens his tendency towards middle class “gentility,” what he himself calls, in reference to his childhood days, being a “perfect little aristocrat.” This prejudice appears in Stowe’s novel in the form of condescension toward those characters speaking vernacular (who are usually dark-skinned) and a more equitable treatment, even admiration for those characters—such as Eliza and George—who are closest to Anglo- Saxon norms in speech patterns, values, education, and looks. The Ex-Coloured Man adopts both the class and color prejudice easily, having been predisposed at least to the former since his childhood. As a result, he becomes a class snob (Faulkner 150), and is alienated from the “darker, poorer members of his ethnic community” through “color and class prejudice” (Bell 90–91). Roger Rosenblatt has ascribed the narrator’s stance on class matters to his sense of audience: “The hero … shows contempt for dialect … [and] notes class distinctions among other blacks to demonstrate to the middle class white reader … that he fully shares his reader’s notion of what constitutes class superiority” (177). But the narrator goes even further than that: he does not condemn dialect per se but only its occurrence among African Americans, particularly those of a “better class.” This becomes apparent when he comments on Southern and Northern middle class African Americans, clearly preferring the latter:

I could not help being struck by the great difference between them [Bostonian African Americans] and the same class of coloured people in the South. In speech and thought they were genuine Yankees. The difference was especially noticeable in their speech. There was none of that heavy-tongued enunciation which characterizes even the best-educated coloured people of the South. (152–53, my emphasis)

The narrator does not object to a white Texan’s speech pattern when he overhears a conversation in a railroad car, even though one may assume that the Texan spoke with a type of Southern accent as well. This is the behavior and judgment of someone who is not merely appealing to a specific audience but identifies with it to the point that dialect in middle or upper class African Americans is something to be noted and censured while dialect in middle class European Americans escapes judgment because it is “natural” and therefore invisible—to someone who is white. This sense of identification explains why he does not “take greater issue [in his discussion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin] with his opponents’ charge that there never was a slaveholder as bad as Legree than with their claim that there never was a Negro as good as Tom” (Stepto 110). Much of the narrator’s foray into the South confirms that he is passing for black more than he is passing for white and establishes a strong link between the protagonist’s classism and racism.

Even before he departs for the South, signals for his reverse passing are loud and clear. When listening to “Shiny’s” graduation oration, he speculates on what Shiny’s feelings might be:

What were his thoughts when he stepped forward and looked into the crowd of faces, all white with the exception of a score or so that were lost to view? I do not know, but I fancy he felt his loneliness. I think there must have rushed over him a feeling akin to that of a gladiator… . (my emphasis)

The narrator empathizes with Shiny, but he also makes clear that he is making imaginative leaps. In the interpretation of the audience’s enthusiastic reaction, he does not take similar caution: “The sight of that boy gallantly waging with puny, black arms so unequal a battle touched the deep springs in the hearts of his audience, and they were swept by a wave of sympathy and admiration.” He can be more affirmative about the audience’s reaction because he seems to know the audience better than he does Shiny, and he admires its “love of fair play.” When the narrator departs for the South, then, he has already chosen sides.

Once in the South, it becomes clear that even though “the protagonist has apparently accepted his membership in the race he is describing, his attitude toward black people is curiously aloof” (Fleming 89). As a matter of fact his “first sight of black people en masse unnerves him” (Collier 367) and can be called racist as a function of his middle class sensitivities: “The unkempt appearance, the shambling, slouching gait and loud talk and laughter of these people aroused in me a feeling of almost repulsion” (55–56). His stance is essentialist in that he makes no distinction between race and class in this encounter which, significantly, has no counterpart in his sojourn in the white world. Even when he witnesses a lynching, he does not judge the crowd according to the standards he applies here. As Eugenia Collier has shown, his observations of African Americans are those of an outsider and in their orientation towards stereotypes—such as his description of an innkeeper as a kind of “Aunt Jemima,” his perception of mulatto women as prettier than darker women, and of African American men “as splendid physical specimen[s]”—they resemble the perspective of a patronizing white person (368). Even after having lived in Jacksonville for a while, and “though he begins to appreciate black music and dance … [he still] refers to black people as ‘they,’ not ‘we.’ He is still an observer rather than a participant” (Collier 368). In this context, his eventual choice of lodging proves to be symbolically significant. His landlady is a “rather fine-looking, stout, brown-skin woman” (67), but it is her interior decorating that appeals to him, as he describes in length the “cane-bottomed chairs, each of which was adorned with a white crocheted tidy … a white crocheted cover … and several trinkets, each of which was set upon a white crocheted mat” (67). Though the narrator conveys a sense of irony about such middle class tidiness, he does decide to settle in where he can be surrounded by so much whiteness.

Even his subsequent stay in New York with his enthusiastic participation in African American nightlife does not significantly diminish his cultural and emotional distance from African Americans. His reaction to a number of photographs on the wall of a night club reveals this distance:

… the walls were literally covered with photographs or lithographs of every colored man in America who had ever “done anything.” There were pictures of Frederick Douglass and of Peter Jackson… .The most of these photographs were autographed and, in a sense, made a really valuable collection. (my emphasis)

The use of relativizing or slightly ironic phrases betrays his unwillingness to commit himself fully to the cultural scene he describes. Significantly, he merely comments on the photographs’ collectability, “the value imputed to them more monetary than cultural” (Kinnamon 174). Even when he comments on ragtime music and its artistic value, his yardstick for assessing the music’s artistry is not the application of any African American intracultural standards but—in a parallel to his interest in the white audience’s reception of Shiny’s speech—the appreciation of a European (American) audience: “One thing cannot be denied; it is music which possesses at least one strong element of greatness: it appeals universally; not only the American, but the English, the French, and even [sic] the German people find delight in it.”

Though on the one hand, the narrator uses ragtime as proof for African Americans’ “originality and artistic conception,” he seems eager to pull the music out of its ethnic orbit and give it a “universal,” i.e. a non-ethnic and non-essentialist, cast. For the narrator, a true sign of ragtime’s success is that in “Paris they call it American music.” The same is true for all of the narrator’s list of African American accomplishments: they have to pass the test of a white American or European audience, so that essentialism in its eurocentric variety is introduced through the backdoor since white acceptance assumes the place of an absolute standard here. He relates with pride that “the newspapers have already told how the practice of intricate cakewalk steps has taken up the time of European royalty and nobility,” or that “the Fisk singers made the public and the skilled musicians of both America and Europe listen.” Why it is understandable that popularity abroad is taken as a sign of success and artistic greatness, the narrator’s tendency to enlist exclusively European (American) reception as the measure of that success is telling. Ethnicity, for him, carries the mark of inferiority (though, ultimately, the novel embraces the opposite view, as I will show), and African American art, according to that logic, can only disprove inferiority if it appeals to a white audience. Once ragtime, has lost some of its ethnic flavor through universal acceptance or through being “classicized” its greatness is assured. Clearly, the narrator’s wish to give ragtime a “higher form” tends to the same end. However, this wish, as well as his perception of Douglass’ portrait as valuable in the material sense, not only demonstrates his extreme assimilationism but indicates two of his character flaws which are inextricably connected with his alienation—and “essentially” connected to whiteness.

Character flaw number one is the Ex-Coloured Man’s materialism, flaw number two his selfishness. Both are related and intertwined. It has been shown above that the narrator acquires his materialism from his father and mother in early childhood. Here I will attempt to trace what this materialism means in his life. Eric Sundquist has aptly noted that the father’s gift, the “gold coin he hangs around his neck,” is “the chain of neoslavery” (18). This proves to be true in two ways: on the one hand, the coin is symbolic of “the property of whiteness” (Sundquist 18); on the other hand, it foreshadows the narrator’s enslavement to materialism (though the novel shows whiteness and materialism as closely related), the Ex-Coloured Man will stay true to this inheritance from his father for the rest of his life. One way in which this legacy becomes apparent is through his “[equation of] respectability with affluence” (Collier 369). Illustrations are manifold during his stay in the South but the attitude remains the same when he sojourns in New York, where he regrets not having

become acquainted with a single respectable family. I knew that there were several coloured men worth a hundred or so thousand dollars each, and some families who proudly dated their free ancestry back a half-dozen generations. I also learned that in Brooklyn there lived quite a large colony in comfortable homes which they owned; but at no point did my life come into contact with theirs.

Apparently even the narrator’s notion of respectability has a price tag.

But his materialism—and selfishness—may be demonstrated most clearly through his relationship to music. In the following the narrator enumerates advantages garnered by his ragtime playing:

By mastering ragtime I gained several things: first of all, I gained the title of professor… . Then, too, I gained the means of earning a rather fair livelihood… . And, finally, I secured a wedge which has opened to me more doors and made me a welcome guest than my playing of Beethoven and Chopin could ever have done.

All of his gains relate to either fame, money, connections, or all three. The doors that open for the narrator through his ragtime playing are the doors of his millionaire friend and of European high society. Ironically, then, his choice of an ethnic music (ragtime) over Beethoven and Chopin distances him further from the African American community, at least initially. Music is a “mine” for him, as he will say later when revisiting the South, and his relation to music is expressive both of his materialism and of the absence of any desire for connection with an ethnic community (Stepto 119).

Even when the narrator seems to connect the reasons are dubious. On board a ship bound for the South, the Ex-Coloured Man befriends an African American doctor whom he clearly admires: “He was the broadest-minded coloured man I have ever talked with on the Negro question.” The continuation of the passage reveals one of the reasons for his admiration: “He even went so far as to sympathize with and offer excuses for some white Southern points of view.” The doctor’s stance resembles the narrator’s own apologetic discussion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the Texan’s racist opinions. This passage marks another instance in which he uses “we” with an ethnic connotation; significantly, though, he only refers to having used the pronoun in the past rather than “actively” using it in the present, indicating his distanced stance at the time of his narration: “In referring to the race I used the personal pronoun ‘we.’” The doctor’s detachment seems to have the same foundation as the narrator’s: egocentrism. Racism becomes an issue to him only when he is concerned personally (Fleming 93): “‘I don’t object to anyone’s having prejudices so long as those prejudices don’t interfere with my personal liberty.”

Despite the protagonist’s self-constructedness between ethnic groups, his very character flaws highlight “organic” links between ethnicity and behavior. While “the conflict in the narrator can easily be seen as not only one of racial identity but also as one between materialism and spirituality” (Dickson 256), racial identity helps determine whether one chooses to be materialistic or spiritual in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, whether one resides in the Du Boisian “sole oasis of simple faith and reverence” or “in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness” (The Souls of Black Folk 8). In one of the few moments of discarding his distance—at the camp meeting—the narrator explains the importance of the role of the congregation’s lead singer, “Singing Johnson”:

It is indispensable to the success of the singing, when the congregation is a large one made up of people from different communities, to have someone with a strong voice who knows just what hymn to sing and when to sing it, who can pitch it in the right key, and who has all the leading lines committed to memory.

Lucinda MacKethan explains that here, “James Weldon Johnson gives us his own ideal of selfhood through a voice that is freed from the circle of white oppression by its ability to sing and to express its own heritage” (146). Indeed, the narrator seems to overcome his class prejudice for a moment, focusing on the integrative and communal power of the singing leader, whose “one-eyedness” might well be symbolic of having only one consciousness: an African American one. It is through music that African American spirituality and communalism are enacted here, and it seems that the narrator implies that “Black people … find their real spirituality only among themselves, outside the purview of whites” (Dickson 257). The Ex-Coloured Man’s intense double-consciousness, however, makes it impossible for him to ever be outside that “purview,” which explains why for him music is more interesting for what it can get him than for its tradition or communal value.

Nonetheless, his internal conflict is highlighted by the fact that “his gifts and powers and promise are all as a black man” (Cooke 52)—at least the novel outlines them in this essentialist manner. We are to understand that, in his youth, he is naturally drawn to music and particularly to the blue notes on the piano keyboard. To underscore the biologism of that inclination, the narrator, when talking about the African American originators of ragtime, affirms that they “were guided by natural musical instinct and talent” while not stressing the “geneticness” of such an instinct in the German musician later in the novel. The narrator does develop his musical talent but, in a “self-protecting disengagement from black rural culture,” he rejects the “cultural demands” (Sundquist 12–13) of music in the African American context, which are communalism and spirituality, as the camp-meeting shows. This rejection becomes utterly clear when, in courting his future wife, he ends “Chopin’s Thirteenth Nocturne on a major triad—not the minor it requires” as if he meant to “outwhite” Chopin, “thus silencing the minor key of his black life for good” (Sundquist 45).

What, then, leads to this rejection? Materialism, selfishness, and middle class values, and all are shown to be inextricably connected with whiteness. “In The Autobiography, Johnson pairs racial pride and the virtues of the middle class, though reconciling their sometimes conflicting implications occasionally proved difficult” (Levy 139). Indeed, such a position is demonstrated by the narrator’s attitude towards African Americans who are not middle class. Except for his “lapse” during the camp-meeting, the Ex-Coloured Man admires those African Americans most who have most successfully erased every sign of their ethnicity but their skin color, such as the doctor he meets on his ship passage to the South or Bostonian African Americans who “[i]n speech and thought … were genuine Yankees” (153). To become middle class, in terms of the novel, is to become more white, a fact that is best illustrated by the narrator’s wish to “classicize” African American folk music “to insure [its] recognition” (Baker 24). Recognition by whom? For the narrator, “black art is a pawn in the larger struggle for recognition from whites…, To aid in this endeavor the protagonist wishes to … merge the black and white cultural idiom into one” (Gayle 94), an endeavor of which the narrator’s ragging of the “Wedding March” is an apt expression.

It is the ragging of Mendelssohn’s music that makes the narrator’s fame and allows him to meet the millionaire who proves to be instrumental in the furthering of the protagonist’s materialism and selfishness, the former through exposing him to a life of leisure and wealth, the latter through attempting to convince him not to go back to the South “since evil is a force that cannot be annihilated [and] the best one can do is to seek such personal happiness as one can find” (Payne 34). Though the narrator rejects the millionaire’s advice at first, he follows it after having witnessed a lynching. The choice of studying music in Europe, not an irrational one if he wants to study classical music, can only be seen as selfish against the implied background of ideas of racial solidarity. Solidarity as an ideal thus comes to be associated with blackness. Significantly, the millionaire commits suicide later on, “as an ironic commentary on his own attempt to escape both personal misery and time” (Payne 34), so that one comes to understand that the wages of selfishness are physical death (for the millionaire) or spiritual death (for the narrator, as I will show). That such selfishness is symbolically linked to whiteness is shown not only through the millionaire but also through the narrator’s choice to become white after he sees a lynching, “to ally himself with the persecutors rather than the persecuted” (Fleming 95).

Such an avoidance of the call for personal commitment is facilitated by his middle class sensibilities which allow him to dehumanize the lynching victim as “a man only in form and stature, every sign of degeneracy stamped upon his countenance” (186). The narrator bases this dehumanization on the presupposition of the man’s absence of morality and refinement, middle class values which had already caused him to put the widest possible distance between himself and lower class African Americans in his first visit to the South. When deciding to become white, the narrator feels “as weak as a man who had lost blood” (190). In a way, he has left the realm of the living. And it is through rhetoric of this kind that blackness is repeatedly essentially connected to humaneness and forms of spirituality while whiteness represents materialism and a Faustian pact resulting in loss of humanity and spirituality… .

Source: Martin Japtok, “Between ‘Race’ as Construct and ‘Race’ as Essence: The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man,” in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 32–47.

Robert E. Fleming

In the following essay, Fleming examines the treatment of themes, including namelessness and racial self-hatred, in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man that contribute to its lasting significance.

A superficial view of the life of James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) may suggest that as an author, he must belong to a closed chapter of black literary history. A member of the establishment, Johnson taught and served as principal in a segregated Florida school, produced literature and song lyrics which were accepted by the white audiences of his day, served as a consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and worked for the NAACP, an organization with which today’s militant youth has little sympathy. However, Johnson’s only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), is still worth reading today, not just for its value as a cultural or literary artifact, but for the perspective it can give the reader of later fiction by black American authors. While society has changed and different specific problems have claimed the attention of later black novelists, certain basic themes have an enduring interest and are found in Autobiography as well as in the novels or more contemporary writers. Autobiography seems especially modern when it is compared with the rather dated novels of Johnson’s contemporaries; for example, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods (1902), Sutton Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio (1899) or Pointing the Way (1908), Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911).

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is the story of a quadroon who is light enough to pass for white. Throughout the story, the main character attempts to identify with the race of his mother, whom he loves more than he does his white father. Finally, horrified by the sight of a black man being burned alive by a Georgia mob, he makes the following decision: “I would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race; but … I would change my name, raise a moustache, and let the world take me for what it would… .” In the 1920’s passing became a popular theme for black novelists: Walter White’s Flight (1926), Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun (1928), and Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) all dealt with the same general problem. Although these three writers employ female protagonists, their treatment of the theme suggests that they were influenced by Johnson’s novel of the previous decade. However, the passing novel is now a dead piece of literary history, and Johnson’s book emerges as the one example of its type to endure. The Autobiography’s lasting significance is primarily due to its importance as a seminal book, one which contains many of the themes found in later black fiction. Four of these themes are namelessness, racial self-hatred, the black mother’s ambiguous role, and the characterization of the white patron/white liberal.

The theme of namelessness is ultimately derived from the loss of identity suffered by slaves who were stripped of their names along with their languages and patterns of culture. In place of their African names, slaves were given new names, frequently the family names of their owners; it is to reject these surnames and to symbolize the lost African name that the Nation of Islam has adopted the X, as in Malcolm X. In Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man the main character is nameless in a figurative sense because he is the bastard son of a wealthy white southerner and a mulatto servant; on the literal level, the narrator cannot reveal either his former name or his new name because he has crossed the color line years before. Johnson calls attention to the namelessness of his narrator by using the phrase “my name” and deliberately withholding the name itself at various key points in the story: first, when the main character learns that he is a “nigger” according to the standards of his white schoolmates; second, immediately after the shooting incident that causes him to flee the country; and finally, during the scene in which his future wife “forgives” him his black ancestry and agrees to marry him. The fact that the ex-coloured man is presented without a name underscores the major psychological problem of the novel; that is, in a very real sense the narrator doesn’t know who he is, and his autobiography records his futile search for an identity.

Later black authors have continued to employ the theme of namelessness, sometimes casually, as in the title of James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name (1961), and sometimes emphatically and systematically, as in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), which shares a number of characteristics with Johnson’s novel. Like Johnson’s nameless protagonist, Ellison’s invisible man engages in a book-length identity search. Not only does the reader never learn the name of the narrator, but he is reminded of the fact that he does not know it at key points in the novel. After the explosion in the paint factory, for example, the main character undergoes painful electric shock treatments while the doctor repeatedly asks him, “What is your name?” The importance of the question is emphasized when the narrator muses, “Perhaps … when I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” Later, in another key episode, the protagonist joins the Brotherhood and is given a new name in a passage that is reminiscent of the renaming of the slave: “‘That is your new name,’ Brother Jack said. ‘Start thinking of yourself by that name from this moment. Get it down so that even if you are called in the middle of the night you will respond… . You are to answer to no other, understand?’”

In their endings the two novels differ considerably. Johnson’s narrator, who is treated ironically throughout the novel, suffers from intermittent doubts over his decision to pass for white, and the novel ends with his statement, “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.” Ellison’s main character, on the other hand, seems to have learned to accept himself and has cast off his assumed names and identities.

Black self-hatred is another important theme employed by Johnson. Constantly told that he is a member of an inferior race, the black man may come to believe or fear that he really is inferior. The tragic mulatto of nineteenth century fiction, whether treated by Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Washington Cable, William Wells Brown, or Charles W. Chesnutt, succeeds only if the reader accepts the assumption that to be classified according to the black side of one’s ancestry inevitably leads to tragic consequences. Johnson’s protagonist foreshadows his rejection of his black heritage even before he knows that he is classified as “colored” by white society. As a small boy he joins white students in throwing stones and chanting rhymes at their black schoolmates. When he learns that he too is black, his first feeling is an aversion to being grouped with the black classmates he has persecuted. As he grows up, he observes that he is not alone in feeling shame for his mother’s race; in Washington, D. C., he notes the distinctions based on shades of darkness, and is told by his friend, a Negro doctor, that “‘those lazy, loafing, good-for-nothing darkies … are the ones who create impressions of the race for the casual observer… . A dozen loafing darkies make a bigger crowd and a worse impression in this country than fifty white men of the same class.’” Finally, after the protagonist tells the girl he loves that his mother was black, his thoughts reveal feelings of loathing for his Negro blood: “Under the strange light in her eyes I felt that I was growing black and thick-featured and crimp-haired.” He adds, “This was the only time in my life that I ever felt absolute regret at being coloured, that I cursed the drops of African blood in my veins and wished that I were really white.” However, because of Johnson’s skillful use of irony in the drawing of his main character, the reader has in fact seen the man’s racial self-hatred throughout the novel.

Although current black fiction more frequently expresses the attitude that “black is beautiful,” much that has been written since the publication of Autobiography reflects the assumption of racial inferiority. One thinks, for example, of the main character of Invisible Man, determined to deodorize his armpits carefully and to arrive on time for appointments in order to avoid the stereotypes that whites have of his race. In William Demby’s Beetlecreek (1950), however, the theme of racial self-hatred is an important one. Demby shows how Mary, a Negro domestic worker, feels when she leaves her own home for that of her employer; the white household is an escape from her own disordered home: “She longed for the dawn that permitted her to leave home and husband to go to the neat, dustless whitefolks’ house.” Mary’s social life is tied to a church missionary guild which is modeled on white women’s service clubs, and when Mary goes to the meetings—wearing second-hand clothes given to her by her employers—she likes to think of herself as being similar in appearance to the white women she sees at her employer’s bridge parties. The “inferior race” label is also implicitly accepted by a group of loafers at the black barber shop: they express surprise that a black sign-painter has the skill to work at such a trade; and they compare the spending habits of the races, saying, “‘[White folks are] thrifty and don’t throw their money away like our folks do.’” Although this crowd hates whites, not one of them doubts that the white race is superior. Even the black children in Beetlecreek reflect the values of an oppressive white society: Johnny Johnson echoes the white man’s “nigger” when he calls the Beetlecreek gang “down-home spooks,” and the gang itself, far from rebelling against southern institutions and customs, has formed a group known as the Nightriders, which ironically copies the ceremonies, garb, and activities of the KKK.

Another mid-century author who deals with the theme of racial self-hatred is James Baldwin. In Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) dirt is used as a symbol of Johnny’s blackness. From the surname of the family, Grimes, to the vivid account of Johnny’s sweeping the front room, enveloped in a cloud of dust, and even to the dust of the threshing floor where Johnny writhes as he undergoes conversion, Baldwin’s characters are as enveloped in filth as they are in their skin. Johnny’s aunt Florence expresses Baldwin’s theme without the aid of such subtle symbolism, berating her husband for his “nigger ways” as she rubs bleaching cream into her skin. Robert Bone has noted that Gabriel’s sermons contain the implicit acknowledgement of the black man’s inferiority so prevalent in the Negro church, with its emphasis on black as a color symbolizing evil, and its pleas for the sinner to be washed white as the snow.

Another major theme in twentieth century black novels is the important place of the mother in family life. For various reasons, black family life has developed into a matriarchal system: during slavery, when a family was separated by a sale, the children normally went with their mother; in modern times, fathers who are unable to support their families often leave them, either because of shame or because of the way the welfare system works. Black authors have always recognized the great importance of the mother in black life, but the attitude of the novelist toward this warm but dominant character has shifted during the course of the twentieth century. Johnson’s treatment of his protagonist’s mother points up the difference between the sympathetic depiction of a good, hardworking woman and the more critical, even bitter, analyses by later authors. While the protagonist’s absentee father is characterized by material symbols such as his shiny shoes, his gold watch and chain, and his occasional gifts, his mother is presented as a warm, tender, almost saintly individual—the source of all love. The reader sees her angry only once—when her son reports his participation in an attack on some of his “nigger” classmates. Though gentle and kindly, the mother unwittingly contributes to her son’s dilemma of straddling two cultures; she refuses to talk to him about race until he brings up the subject, and then she conveys her belief in the superiority of the white race: “‘Your father is one of the greatest men in the country—the best blood of the South is in you.’” While there is irony in this statement, it is directed not at the mother but at the father. Though she is fallible, the mother is viewed sympathetically.

Later writers, on the other hand, see two sides to the black mother. True, she is often placed in the position of having to raise her children alone, and she often lavishes all her love on her children, but more recent black authors have recognized that such love may be destructive. Perhaps no writer has shown this paradox as well as Richard Wright. In “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” (1937), Wright tells how his own mother reacted when he came home bleeding after a fight with white children:

“How come yuh didn’t hide?” she asked me. “How come yuh awways fightin’?”… . She grabbed a barrel stave, dragged me home, stripped me naked, and beat me till I had a fever of one hundred and two. She would smack my rump with the stave, and while the skin was still smarting, impart to me gems of Jim Crow wisdom… . I was never, never, under any conditions to fight white folks again… . Didn’t I know she was working hard every day in the hot kitchens of white folks to make money to take care of me?

In Black Boy (1945) Wright relates another such incident in which his mother, angry because neighborhood toughs had twice robbed Richard of grocery money, locked him out of the house until he single-handedly attached the gang and recovered the money. Although Bigger’s mother in Native Son (1940) is not so cruel as Wright’s own mother, she shows the hard side of her character in the opening pages of the novel as she scornfully tells Bigger, “‘We wouldn’t have to live in this garbage dump if you had any manhood in you.’”

The contrast between Johnson’s view of the admirable black mother and Wright’s depiction of a veritable harpy is great, but another writer of the forties bridges the gap by showing why the black mother behaves as she does. Ann Perry’s novel The Street (1946) is an unsuccessful work in many ways, but her representation of black motherhood is a complete and unbiased analysis of a complex problem. Lutie Johnson is forced to work to support her husband and child, but Jim, her husband, resents the fact that she must do so. To reinforce his feeling of manhood, Jim takes a mistress, and the marriage breaks up. Trying to raise her son Bub alone, Lutie is horrified to find him shining shoes on the street one night when she returns from work. Like the black women Wright depicts, Lutie first reacts by angrily slapping Bub and telling him, “‘I’m working to look after you and you out here in the street shining shoes just like the rest of these little niggers.’” However, Mrs. Petry goes on to analyze the complex nature of Lutie’s feelings. When they go into their apartment, Bub reminds Lutie that she has repeatedly told him they are short of money and explains that he was simply trying to help. Lutie feels a pang of guilt, “thinking of all the times she had told him no, no candy, for we can’t afford it. Or yes, it’s only twenty-five cents for the movies but that twenty-five cents will help pay for the new soles on your shoes… . Then when he tried to earn some of his own she berated him, slapped him.” Lutie explains to Bub that she is harsh only because she wants him to make something of himself, something more than white society will normally allow him to be. Altogether, The Street effectively shows both the tender side and the harsh side of the black mother and also probes the conditions which foster such a dual nature.

Finally, another important theme treated by Johnson is the relationship of black people to the self-styled white liberal, who, for reasons of his own, wishes to befriend the Negro. In black literature this type of character is often treated with suspicion, and not without reason. Historically, white people who have offered help to blacks have done so with strings attached. One example is William Lloyd Garrison, who withdrew his sponsorship of Frederick Douglass after Douglass began to differ with his onetime mentor on points of policy. From the black writer’s point of view, the white do-gooder always has selfish motives for his deeds; frequently he is trying to wash away his racial guilt by performing token acts of penance (normally not too unpleasant, dangerous, or expensive). Johnson presents a full range of characters who embody different aspects of the white liberal, from the main character’s own father to a millionaire who befriends him.

The narrator of Autobiography introduces his father as a man who visits his mother in the evening, apparently under cover of darkness. His monthly support checks and occasional gifts are clearly a substitute for the love and recognition which he is unwilling to extend to them. Yet he is equally unwilling to give up the sort of proprietary interest he seems to derive from the relationship. Thus, when he is about to ship them north so that his white fiancee won’t find out about his black mistress and bastard son, he drills a hole in a gold piece and ties it around his son’s neck. The narrator comments wryly, “More than once I have wished that some other way had been found of attaching it to me besides putting a hole through it.” This flawed gold piece serves as a fitting symbol for most gifts the white man has given to the black man. Much later in the novel, the main character attracts the attention of a New York millionaire who befriends him because he is impressed by his piano playing. The millionaire offers him a trip to Europe, but it is significant that he does so in a way that is unwittingly insulting: “‘I think I’ll take you along instead of Walter’ [the millionaire says]. Walter was his valet.” The narrator is exposed to other white liberals in the smoking car of a train in Tennessee. Since he appears white, the narrator is able to overhear a debate on the race question between a Texas bigot and three northerners: a young college professor, a Jewish businessman, and an old Union veteran of the Civil War. The Jew and the professor are both masters of fence-straddling, and although they theoretically believe in equality, both concede that the racial question is too complex for them to take a definite stand. The old soldier defends the political rights of black people, but he stops short of admitting them to social equality. The narrator ends his account of the debate with the observation that the bigot at least had complete confidence in his convictions, unlike the liberal northerners.

Later representations of the ineffectual liberal are numerous. In Native Son, for example, there are the elder Daltons, who give money to the NAACP, buy ping pong tables for the South Side Boy’s Club, and employ a token Negro as a chauffeur; but the Dalton fortune is derived from ghetto tenements. Their daughter is being self-consciously liberal when she asks Bigger Thomas to sit beside her in the car and when she eats chicken with him at Ernie’s Kitchen Shack. And finally there are Jan and Max, the white communists who are sure that they can save the world by convincing black and white to unite and fight, but who nevertheless fail to understand the real Bigger Thomas. An interesting variation on the white liberal theme appears in James Baldwin’s Another Country (1962), in which the liberal is a homosexual. While Baldwin does not satirize the white homosexual or present his relationship with his Negro lover as clearcut exploitation, a later novelist, John A. Williams, goes a step further in The Man Who Cried I Am (1967). Williams not only depicts Granville Bryant, a white homosexual, as an exploiter of black men, but also employs the homosexual relationship as a metaphor of America’s treatment of the black man.

In addition to these four themes which I have discussed in some detail, there are others that might be mentioned: for example, the flight to Europe as a means of liberation, especially for the black artist; the problem of militance versus accommodation as methods of dealing with white society; and the conflict between white standards of success, which are almost solely monetary, and black standards. Like the themes of namelessness, racial self-hatred, the black mother, and the white liberal, these motifs reappear in many recent works and provide additional evidence of the enduring significance of Johnson’s novel.

Thus, in spite of changes in the philosophy and techniques of the Negro American novelist over the past sixty years, James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is still a meaningful and relevant book for the reader who wishes to understand the traditions that underlie the twentieth century black novel. Unlike the work of his contemporaries, Johnson’s novel can hold its own when it is compared with later works, and many of the problems to which Johnson gave literary expression still concern black writers today.

Source: Robert E. Fleming, “Contemporary Themes in Johnson’s Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man,” in Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 4, No. 4, Winter 1970, pp. 120–24.

Richard Kostelanetz

In the following essay, now appearing as “James Weldon Johnson” in Politics in the African American Novel (Greenwood, 1991), Kostelanetz examines how Johnson renders the concept of “passing” and its consequences in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.

James Weldon Johnson’s sole novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), treats a subject recurrent in early Negro American writing, the experience of a very fair-skinned man of some colored background who successfully passes into white society. Indeed, the theme appears in the first novel attributed to an American Negro author, Clotel, or the President’s Daughter (London, 1853), by the expatriate abolitionist William Wells Brown. His mulatto protagonist, Clotel, is traced to Thomas Jefferson’s lecherous adventures in the original British edition; however, in the later American edition, as Robert A. Bone has observed, “An anonymous senator is substituted for Jefferson, and the plot is altered accordingly.” The point of Wells Brown’s novel is that once Clotel’s part-Negro origins are disclosed, she is still considered a slave and, thus, subject to recapture. Charles Chesnutt, perhaps the first major Negro fiction writer, portrayed in The House Behind the Cedars (1900) a young woman, Rena, the master’s daughter by a colored mistress, who decides to pass into white society. Upon the eve of her wedding to a white man, her background is revealed, and the marriage is cancelled. Heartbroken, she lets her life disintegrate. The moral of Chesnutt’s story holds that the major risk of “passing” is that discovery can ruin one’s life. The nineteen twenties witnessed a spate of novels about passing, including Jessie Fauset’s There is Confusion (1924) and Plum Bun (1929), Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) and Walter White’s Flight (1926).

Johnson’s novel, largely because it is thoroughly unsentimental, is a more complex and masterful exploration of the subject and a superior work of art, although it is aesthetically marred by numerous polemical digressions, sometimes of considerable perception, on the Negro Problem. Originally published anonymously by Sherman, French and Co. in 1912, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was restored to its author when Alfred A. Knopf republished it with Carl Van Vechten’s introduction in 1927 at the height of the Negro Renaissance. As a novelistic creation, the book is an achieved example of a totally fictional memoir whose first-person narrator is so intimate and honest with his readers that they would, unless warned otherwise, accept his words as an authentic autobiography; a later, equally successful model of autobiographical artifice is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In fact, The Autobiography, like Ellison’s novel, is not in the least autobiographical, except in the sense that certain events have their symbolic equivalents in Johnson’s own life. Johnson, who was actually quite dark, could sometimes “pass” as a Latin American; for by speaking Spanish with a white friend, he could often manage to stay in the first-class coaches on the Southern train. The effectiveness of the artifice is, of course, a basic measure of Johnson’s fictional artistry.

The novel’s theme is the ambiguities of passing; and its predominant action is the nameless narrator’s shifting sympathies for white or black identity. Born in Georgia, the son of a white man by his family’s favorite Negro servant, the narrator grows up with his mother in Connecticut, attending a racially mixed elementary school. He unwittingly identifies with the whites in the squabbles with “the niggers,” until a white teacher asks,

‘I wish all of the white scholars to stand for a moment.’

I rose with the others. The teacher looked at me and, calling my name, said: ‘You sit down for the present, and rise with the others.’ I did not quite understand her, and questioned: ‘Ma’m?’ She repeated, with a softer tone in her voice: ‘You sit down now, and rise with the others.’

However, as the community is not aggressively anti-Negro, the narrator remains only dimly aware of his colored origins until high school. There, a dark-colored friend, Shiny, instills in the narrator some awareness of his heritage as a Negro.

I read with studious interest everything I could find relating to coloured men who had gained prominence. My heroes had been King David, then Robert the Bruce; now Frederick Douglass was enshrined in the place of honor.

Thus, when forced to select a college from the two possible alternatives presented to him—his Father’s recommendation, Harvard; or his mother’s, Atlanta—he decides on the latter. Once he gets there, however, he finds himself unable to register because his “inheritance” (money from his father) is stolen. He thinks of explaining his predicament to the schools’ authorities; but as he approaches their offices, “I paused, undecided for a moment; then turned and slowly retraced my steps, and so changed the whole course of my life.” In traveling to Florida, he undergoes a symbolic dark night of suffering in a womb-like setting. “Twelve hours doubled up in a porter’s basket for soiled linen, not being able to straighten up. The air was hot and suffocating and the smell of damp towels and used linen was sickening.” He emerges reborn for a new existence in the Negro community of Jacksonville.

As a cigar-maker, he learns of both the impregnable structure of Southern discrimination and the exclusive habits of the Negro middle class. Finding himself doomed to remain an outsider in the South, unfulfilled in his ambitions, the narrator, like so many analogous characters in later Negro fiction, heads North to New York City. There he gravitates toward the major Negro bohemia of the early twentieth century, in the west twenties between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, first making his way as a successful gambler and then as a pianist of rag-time (Negro) music. The milieu he discovers is full of freedom of movement but little discernible stability—opportunistic drifters, white widows on the make, sports capable of sudden violence. An experience with the last element drives the narrator to befriend a millionaire white man who, out of admiration for his piano playing, offers to become his patron. At the novel’s turning point, the narrator and his benefactor go off to Europe; and the narrator, now posing as a white man, enters high-class international society.

Still, he does not claim his white identity at once. At a Paris theatre, he recognizes that the man two seats away is his father; but he refuses the temptation to announce his presence. Later becoming disillusioned with his master’s way of life—a constant quest for novelty to assuage the boredom of purposelessness—the narrator remembers his childhood ambition to become a Negro composer and collector of Negro folk materials. Despite the millionaire’s not-unperceptive warning that “the idea you have of making a Negro out of yourself is nothing more than a sentiment,” the narrator returns to America, to pursue his self-determined task. In each Southern town he visits, he is faced with choice of being white; but each time, he reaffirms blackness:

In thus travelling about through the country I was sometimes amused on arriving at some little railroad-station town to be taken for and treated as a white man, and six hours later, when it was learned that I was stopping at the house of the coloured preacher or school-teacher, to note the attitude of the whole town change.

Just as an earlier incident of violence propelled him out of Negro bohemia into his white patron’s beneficence, so his witnessing a Southern lynching initiates another collapse of personal purpose and integrity; and the narrator undergoes a second rebirth with a new vow: “I would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race; but … I would change my name, raise a moustache, and let the world take me for what it would.” His explanation is a patent rationalization for cowardice and self-interest—“Shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals.” However, it is still a credible outcome of his experience.

He returns to New York, takes a well-paying job, invests his money in real estate, strikes up a relationship with a Caucasian girl. The specter of his past identity confronts him when he and his fiancee accidentally meet his childhood friend “Shiny” in a museum; but in cutting short Shiny’s approach, the narrator rejects his last tie to the past. He marries the girl, she bears him a boy and a girl, only to die suddenly; and he assumes responsibility for his children. The book’s final passage conveys his ambivalence to “passing”:

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 [music] 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.

The price of “passing” is not only a loss of heritage and the sacrifice of one’s self-chosen mission but guilt over an opportunistic materialism equal to Esau’s who, in Genesis 25: 29–34, himself so famished from toiling in the fields, frivolously exchanged “his birthright” with his brother Jacob for “bread and pottage of lentils.”

Some of the book’s meaning stems from its relationship to Negro folk blues, that tightly organized lyric form in which the singer narrates the reasons for his sadness, usually attributed to his failure to attain the ideal role he conceives for himself; and in a successful blues, the singer makes his personal predicament a realized metaphor for the human condition. Here the subject of the “blues” is selling out one’s dreams for material reward. Johnson, of course, was aware of the folk blues tradition, not only from his experience writing show tunes with his brother Rosamund, but also from a desire to appropriate the heritage for literature. In his autobiograhy, Along the Way (1933), Johnson wrote of his early days: “I now began to grope toward a realization of the importance of the American Negro’s cultural background and his creative folk-art, and to speculate on the superstructure of conscious art that might be reared upon this.” The statement echoes what Johnson wrote in the introduction to The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922):

What the colored poet in the United States needs to do is something like Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without, such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and punctuation.

In the novel, then, Johnson’s narrator expresses a disenchantment of a special kind—the blues of being white but black. “Passing” produces the individual’s alienation from his natural milieu and feelings of the blues, expressed particularly as a guilty self-identification with Abraham’s least-favored grandson, Esau; so in the political sense, the novel suggests that passing—the Negro’s total assimilation into white culture—signifies opportunistic rejection of one’s heritage for the meagre “mess of pottage” of material contentment.

Source: Richard Kostelanetz, “The Politics of Passing: The Fiction of James Weldon Johnson,” in Negro American Literature Forum, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring 1969, pp. 22–25.


Bone, Robert A., The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, 1958, pp. 45–49.

Bruce, Dickson D., Jr., Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary Tradition, 1877–1915, Louisiana State University Press, 1989, p. 258.

Faulkner, Howard, “James Weldon Johnson’s Portrait of the Artist as Invisible Man,” in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1985, pp. 148, 151.

Japtok, Martin, “Between ‘Race’ as Construct and ‘Race’ as Essence,” in the Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 32–48.

Matthews, Brander, “American Character in American Fiction: Three Books Which Depict the Actualities of Present- Day Life,” in Munsey’s Magazine, Vol. 49, 1913, p. 798.

Pisiak, Roxanna, “Irony and Subversion in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring 1993, p. 83.

Review of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, in the Nashville American, June 23, 1912.

Further Reading

Bell, Bernard W., The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

In this history of African American novels from the antebellum period through the 1970s, Bell discusses Johnson as an “Old Guard” novelist along with W. E. B. Du Bois. His analysis of the The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man focuses on the novel as an example of psychological determinism.

Johnson, James Weldon, Black Manhattan, 1930, reprint, Atheneum, 1968.

Johnson traces the history of Harlem from the seventeenth century to the 1930s. His analysis of African American theater and music in the first decades of the twentieth century shed light both on his own career in musical theater and on the clubs frequented by the narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.

Levy, Eugene, James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice, University of Chicago Press, 1973.

This full-length biography, written with the cooperation and assistance of Johnson’s widow, is both scholarly and readable. It includes an extensive bibliography of Johnson’s major and minor publications as well as an extensive list of reviews and other secondary materials published through 1970.

Stepto, Robert B., From behind the Veil: A Study of Afro- American Narrative, University of Illinois Press, 1979.

This important history of African American literature was one of the first to trace a true literary tradition through the texts, in addition to simple chronology. Stepto’s analysis of slave narratives and their influence is particularly illuminating for understanding the structure of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.

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