The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is narrated by a nameless protagonist who is born shortly after the Civil War in a small town in Georgia, where the novel begins. Very early, however, the boy and his mother are moved to Connecticut and established in a comfortable cottage provided by the boy’s father, who sends monthly checks for their support but who visits only twice during the boy’s childhood.
As a boy, the narrator develops an interest in books and music, an interest that is encouraged by his mother. He leads a rather privileged existence for a young African American of this period. In his ninth year, however, he enters public school, and an incident occurs that brings him face to face with the reality that he is black and that this somehow makes him different from his white classmates. Seeking an explanation from his mother, he is merely assured that he is not a “nigger” and that his father is from “the best blood in the south.” This incident is pivotal, because it underlies the ambivalence that the narrator exhibits throughout the novel. Rejected by his white classmates and having no particular feeling of kinship with his black classmates, he turns inward, taking comfort in his world of books and music. He becomes an avid reader—delving into the classics, science, history, and theology—and spends many hours practicing the piano.
When his mother dies shortly after his graduation from high school, the narrator begins a quest that takes him to the South, back to the North, then to Europe, and back again to the United States—ever in search of something that continues to elude him. With four hundred dollars in his pockets—money from his mother’s estate and from a concert that he has played—he goes to Atlanta planning to enter Atlanta University, an all-black college. When his money is...
(The entire section is 756 words.)