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...
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The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was first published anonymously in 1912, but only became a success when republished in 1927 at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. The novel chronicles the coming-of-age of its unnamed protagonist, who switches back and forth between ethnic identities until he finally decides to pass as a European American. Its most striking feature might well be that it calls the notion of ethnic identity into question.
In order to explore ethnic identity, James Weldon Johnson has his protagonist experience both sides of the “color line,” to use the famous phrase by W. E. B. Du Bois. Growing up believing himself European American, as the white-looking child of a light-skinned African American mother and a European American father, the protagonist finds out in school that he is African American. Having harbored prejudice against African Americans, he now becomes an object of prejudice. Once over this initial shock, he resolves to become famous in the service of African Americans. In order to learn about his mother’s heritage, he leaves for the South, where he often finds himself an outsider to African American society. He knows little of African American folk customs, so at first he reacts to African Americans ambiguously. In this way, Johnson shows that the culture of one’s upbringing is a more important factor in determining one’s outlook on other cultures than ethnic bloodlines are.
(The entire section is 425 words.)