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In James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the narrator of a book, a young African-American whose skin is light enough so that he is often assumed to be white, is inspired by a speech made by a young black schoolmate. This schoolmate and others in his school know the narrator’s racial heritage, as does the narrator himself. Therefore (the narrator says), in response to his friend’s speech, he
began to form wild dreams of bringing glory and honor to the Negro race. For days I could talk of nothing else with my mother except my ambitions to be a great man, a great colored man, to reflect credit on the race and gain fame for myself. It was not until years after that I formulated a definite and feasible plan for realizing my dreams.
The plan the narrator here mentions is not mentioned again until much later in the novel. Having demonstrated a talent for music from a very young age, and having developed that talent through study and practice, the narrator later becomes a highly accomplished pianist. He is talented in playing both ragtime music and classical music, and indeed he often turns gives classical pieces a ragtime twist. One day, however, he meets a man who demonstrates how rag-time music can be turned into a kind of classical music. The narrator is astonished:
I had been turning classic music into ragtime, a comparatively easy task; and this man had taken ragtime and made it classic. The thought came across me like a flash. – It can be done, why can’t I do it? From that moment my mind was made up. I clearly saw the way of carrying out the ambition I had formed when a boy.
Determined to pursue this ambition to blend ragtime music and classical music, the narrator takes a number of practical decisions and steps, including the following:
- Even though he is traveling in Europe thanks to the assistance of a wealthy white patron, he decides to return immediately to the United States. He plans, when he arrives there, to move to the South in order to live among African Americans, who will be the source of his musical inspiration.
- He plans to draw that inspiration not only from ragtime but from old slave songs.
- He tells his patron of his plans and decides to proceed with the plans even though his patron tries whole-heartedly to discourage him.
- He then heads back to the United States, determined to proceed with his ambitions.
- Arriving in the United States, he soon heads south and attends black churches, especially appreciating the music sung there.
- However, having witnessed the lynching of a black man in the south, the narrator decides to head north, to New York City.
- Having arrived back in the north, the narrator continues with his musical performances and musical studies, focusing particularly on classical composers.
- Faced with disheartening racial prejudice in New York, however, he ultimately chooses a different path of life than his original ambitions had led him to pursue.
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