The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

by James Weldon Johnson
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Discuss the narrator’s second trip to the South. Analyze his discussion of the revival that he witnesses. What is his relationship to this revival? Why do you think that this scene is in the narrative?

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Our narrator begins his tale at his childhood home in Georgia. The story then follows him from the American South to his relocations in Connecticut, Florida, and eventually New York City, where he lands work as a piano player and meets “the Millionaire”—a white man who becomes his patron, taking him all over Europe as his musical protégé.

Upon hearing a German classical pianist improvise on a ragtime song, he becomes inspired to return to the American South to immerse himself in “authentic” black music, study its traditions, and put his talents to use as a composer of classical ragtime, while researching black folk music.

Witnessing the lynching of a black man leaves the narrator in a state of trauma, however, and he soon leaves the South for New York, where he will use his light complexion to "pass" as a white man:

I had made up my mind that since I was not going to be a Negro, I would avail myself of every opportunity to make a white man’s success.

Many scholars who have written on the history of racial passing agree that the "freedom" granted in passing was always met with the specter of segregation—the fear of being found out. David Brunsma notes that “the lynching of blacks peaked from 1885 to 1909, and the peak of passing [publications] also occurred during this period."


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