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

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jmj616 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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"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."


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