Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756
The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is narrated by a nameless protagonist who is born shortly after the Civil War in a small town in Georgia, where the novel begins. Very early, however, the boy and his mother are moved to Connecticut and established in a comfortable cottage provided by the boy’s father, who sends monthly checks for their support but who visits only twice during the boy’s childhood.
As a boy, the narrator develops an interest in books and music, an interest that is encouraged by his mother. He leads a rather privileged existence for a young African American of this period. In his ninth year, however, he enters public school, and an incident occurs that brings him face to face with the reality that he is black and that this somehow makes him different from his white classmates. Seeking an explanation from his mother, he is merely assured that he is not a “nigger” and that his father is from “the best blood in the south.” This incident is pivotal, because it underlies the ambivalence that the narrator exhibits throughout the novel. Rejected by his white classmates and having no particular feeling of kinship with his black classmates, he turns inward, taking comfort in his world of books and music. He becomes an avid reader—delving into the classics, science, history, and theology—and spends many hours practicing the piano.
When his mother dies shortly after his graduation from high school, the narrator begins a quest that takes him to the South, back to the North, then to Europe, and back again to the United States—ever in search of something that continues to elude him. With four hundred dollars in his pockets—money from his mother’s estate and from a concert that he has played—he goes to Atlanta planning to enter Atlanta University, an all-black college. When his money is stolen shortly after he arrives in the city, he takes the advice of a railroad porter and decides to seek work in Jacksonville, Florida.
In Jacksonville, he finds work in a cigar factory. When the factory closes down, he does not, like some of the other workers, attempt to find work in the same area. Rather, he is “seized with a desire like a fever . . . to see the North again,” despite the fact that he has made friends in Jacksonville and has even become engaged to a local girl.
Arriving in New York, he is fascinated by the “lights, the excitement” and immediately embraces the bohemian lifestyle, spending his time in nightclubs and cabarets. Finally, abandoning even the appearance of seeking honest labor, he devotes his energies to gambling and playing piano at a club, learning to play ragtime music and experimenting with ragtime versions of classical works. It is at this club that he meets his millionaire benefactor.
The millionaire takes the narrator on a European tour, during which an incident occurs that seems, finally, to give a sense of direction to the narrator’s life. In Berlin, at a party given by the millionaire, one of the guests takes ragtime music and “develops it through every musical form.” The narrator then realizes that while he had been expending his energies turning classical music into ragtime, this man had “taken ragtime and made it classic.” At last, the narrator has found his life’s work: He will compose classical music based upon African American themes, using not only ragtime but also the “old slave songs.” In so doing, he will also be able to realize his boyhood dream of “bringing honor and glory to the Negro race.” Fired by this idea, he reluctantly leaves his millionaire friend in Europe and returns to the United States.
After traveling through Boston, Washington, Richmond, and Nashville, he finally settles in Macon, Georgia, determined to begin his research. He has been there only a short time, however, when he witnesses the lynching of an African American man. This incident almost immediately melts his resolve, and he renounces his African American heritage altogether and determines to live the rest of his life as a white man. This, he feels, is his only logical choice, one that will allow him to live his life in dignity. Thus, he moves back to the north, becomes a successful businessman, and marries a white woman, who dies in childbirth with their second child. At the end of the novel, looking back over his life, he ponders whether he has “sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”