The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

by James Weldon Johnson

Start Free Trial

In The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, why does the narrator repeatedly refer to the "freemasonry" of African American life?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Freemasons are a fraternal organization, still very much in existence, that used to be highly secretive about initiation rites and, in short, what went on at their meetings. This is why they have sometimes been implicated in conspiracy theories—there was even a national political party, the "Anti-Masons," that formed in the 19th century in opposition to their perceived influence. Johnson uses the word "freemasonry" to illustrate the inscrutable nature of African American culture and life to white America in the early 19th century.

It is in this sense analogous to the "veil" described by Johnson's contemporary W.E.B. DuBois. As Johnson writes, each African American man is

forced to take his outlook [. . .] not from the viewpoint from a citizen, or a man, nor even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man.

Hand-in-hand with this reality is the fact that there is much about the existence of African Americans that they cannot explain to white people. Thus, an African American person has "a sort of dual personality" (another concept very similar to the "double consciousness" described by DuBois). Much of African American life is visible and comprehensible only to other black men and women. Like "freemasonry," African American people were mysterious to those on the outside.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Freemasons are a fraternal organization that is generally believed to be cloaked in a degree of secrecy. The narrator of this book states in the Preface that while the African-Americans in the U.S. (or "Negroes," as the narrator refers to them) have a good idea of the way in which whites live, African-Americans "are themselves more or less a sphinx to the whites." That is, whites know very little of the ways in which African-American people live. One of the narrator's goals is to draw aside this "veil," as he refers to the way in which African-Americans live, and help whites become "initiated into the 'free-masonry,' as it were, of the race." The narrator implies that the lives of African-Americans are as cloaked in secrecy as the ways of the Freemasons are.

In Chapter 2, the narrator says that African-Americans live in a state of dualism in which they can't reveal themselves to whites. The narrator says of African-Americans, "there is one phase of him which is disclosed only in the freemasonry of his own race." African-Americans must restrict so much of themselves in white society that they wind up existing in a state of secrecy, as if their culture were a Freemasons' lodge. The narrator refers to this concept to underscore the idea that African-Americans must live behind a veil and only reveal a limited portion of themselves in white society. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man," by James Weldon Johnson, was originally published in 1912.  In the preface to the original edition, the publishers claim that by reading the book the reader "is initiated into the 'freemasonry'...of the [African-American] race."

The Freemasons are a fraternal society that dates back to the Middle Ages.  One of the most important features of Freemasonry is secrecy.  In order to be admitted to a Freemason meeting, one must perform certain hand signals and utter certain secret phrases; these signals and phrases are only revealed to those who have been accepted as Freemasons.

In Johnson's novel, a light-skinned man of African-American descent, who had grown up as a "white," begins to identify as a "Negro" and begins to live among his people.  Previously, he had "formulated a theory of what it was to be colored [African-American]"; now, he "was getting the practice."  He says:

 It was my initiation into what I have termed the freemasonry of the race.

In other words, he was beginning to discover the secrets of African-American culture and was also gaining "fuller comprehension of the tremendous struggle which is going on between the races in the South."

One thing the man discovers is that "every colored man [has] a sort of dual personality; there is one phase of him which is disclosed only in the freemasonry of his own race."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team