What does the line, "The ability to laugh heartily is, in part, the salvation of the American Negro; it does much to keep him from going the way of the Indian" mean in the novel The Autobiography of the ex-Coloured Man?
The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, by James Weldon Johnson, is the story of an African-American man; that is, his father is a wealthy white Southern American, and his mother is a woman of African descent, who had worked as a seamstress for the gentleman's family.
As a young child, the narrator of the story does not even know that his light-skinned mother, and himself, are "Negroes." Ironically, it is only when he goes to school in a Northern community that he is identified as Negro and discriminated against.
It is only as a young man on his way to college in Atlanta, Georgia that the narrator comes into close contact with large numbers of African-Americans. At first, he is repulsed by their "unkempt appearance, [their] shambling, slouching gait and loud talk and laughter." He is, however, intrigued by their colorful dialect, including phrases such as: "Lawd a mussy" (Lord of mercy), and "Look heah, chile" (Look here, child).
Another thing that attracts the narrator is the African-Americans' "ability to laugh heartily." He comments:
I have since learned that this ability to laugh heartily is, in part, the salvation of the American Negro; it does much to keep him from going the way of the Indian.
The narrator is saying that the ability to laugh at life's troubles has helped the "Negros" to survive the many difficulties of slavery, segregation and discrimination. By contrast, the "Indian," or Native American, was nearly annhilated by the Eurpoeans who conquered the American continent. The narrator feels that the Indians may have fared better if they had the ability to make light of their troubles.
To be honest, I do not know enough about Native American culture to verify the narrator's claim. I also doubt whether a sense of humor would have helped the Native Americans survive the wars that were waged against them with superior weapons, or the diseases that were introduced to their environment by the European conquerors. I do agree, though, that humor is a great protection against the world's troubles.