The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

by James Weldon Johnson
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Why doesn't James Weldon Johnson give his narrator a name in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man?

The narrator doesn’t have a name because he is not interested in being one thing or the other, whether it is white or black. When he passes for white, trying to shed his “colored” status, it leads him to discover that passing for white ultimately means passing for nothing. It is the freedom of having no identity at all that the narrator ultimately discovers and decides to embrace. The story continues past this point until the end when the narrator decides not to choose a racial identity, but rather live between black and white with no identity.

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James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (published anonymously in 1912, then under his name in 1927) features a passing biracial man who, upon learning of the false promises of passing, as well as the literal and metaphoric “dead end” of his racial position, decides he will live not white, black, or both, but ambivalently ex-colored.

To understand why the main character has no real name—why he is referred to merely by the designation of "ex-colored"—we need to consider the cultural and legal framework of racial passing against the context of the Harlem Renaissance. Racial passing was in part an effect of the uneasy exchange between blacks and whites relative to changing spatial configurations of black populations during the Great Migration. Given the backdrop of state legislation that outlawed miscegenation in several states, passing was ultimately less about constructing black consciousness anew than responding to segregation. The emphasis was not on being black, which was synonymous at the time with “lesser opportunity,” but being more than black.

For Johnson, travel as a physical journey and desire for social (and geographical) mobility doubles as the search for a new community of black people interested in literal movement—and moving up the ladders of society. The recounted journeys of the unnamed narrator through Europe and the US as a musician who shares an ambiguous relationship to his “colored” self emphasizes the variant meaning attributed to racial subjectivity that was a goal of many of the Harlem writers: passing was a plausible ticket to social mobility.

Our ex-colored narrator is the "New Negro" personified; the fact that we only know him as little else but "ex-colored" (we do know him as a boy born of a union between a wealthy white man and “colored” woman) indicates that it is not really his color that matters the most but that he is identified as someone who is capable of reinventing himself as a multidimensional man who is always on the move.

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James Weldon Johnson does not give his narrator a name because the narrator writes the book to explain what he calls the greatest secret of his life--that he is an African-American man trying to pass as white. The narrator states in Chapter 1 that he was born in Georgia, but he does not name the town because "there are people still living there who could be connected with this narrative." The narrator, living in the years after the Civil War, fears that his true identity will be discovered, so, to continue living as a white man, he resists giving his name and remains anonymous.

In a larger sense, by making his narrator anonymous, the author is also suggesting that the narrator has had to give up much of his identity to pass as white. At the end of the book, the narrator says, "I cannot repress the thought, that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage." In other words, the narrator feels that he has given up his identity and his talents for something--a white identity--that is not worth very much in the end. His anonymity underscores this loss of identity. 

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The narrator does not reveal his name supposedly to protect the innocent, but really to create an effect of the novel being a real autobiography.

The narrator is a black man who is “passing” as white.  Therefore if he writes an autobiography revealing the color of his skin his wife and children will face retaliation.

As my outlook on the world grew brighter, I began to mingle in the social circles of the men with whom I came in contact; and gradually, by a process of elimination, I reached a grade of society of no small degree of culture. (ch 11, p. 92)

The narrator comments that his situation appeals to his sense of humor.  He is popular among his white friends, but if they knew that he was black they would not feel the same way about him.  Not knowing his name increases the distance between the reader and who he really is, enhancing the persona of the narrator instead.

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