(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 756 words.)

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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.

After losing...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Born in Georgia a few years after the American Civil War, the narrator, in comparison with other blacks, lives in a comfortably furnished little house. Thinking her son superior to other children in his neighborhood, the narrator’s mother is particular about his dress and his associates. Later, the narrator remembers scenarios of familial bliss that centered on a “tall man with a small, dark moustache” who visited them in the evenings several times a week. Because he admires the man’s shiny boots and his gold watch and chain, the narrator develops a subconscious identification with the white man that helps give him a sense of freedom and self-confidence. He later learns that this man is his father. Whereas he identifies with the tall, white man, the narrator’s fondness for the black keys on the piano in his parlor represents his identification with that part of himself that is black. When he hears his mother playing old southern songs on the piano, the narrator feels happiest. By the time he is seven, he can play all the songs his mother knows.

Eventually, the narrator and his mother move from Georgia to Connecticut because the tall, white man is getting married and it would not be appropriate for his black mistress and his illegitimate son to live in the same town with his white wife. In Connecticut, the narrator learns that he is black and what that means. One day, the white students in his class are asked to stand. When he rises, his teacher asked him to wait and rise with the nonwhites. For the first time, the narrator recognizes differences between himself and his classmates. He also notices differences in the way he looks and the way his mother looks. He sees beauty in his features and defects in his mother’s darker features. The narrator’s heightened sense of difference forces him to adjust, temporarily, to the “dwarfing, warping, distorting influence” of America on the lives of blacks. After he becomes interested in reading the Bible and history books, the narrator’s vicarious identification with heroic men of action such as King David, Samson, and Robert the Bruce emphasizes the narrator’s early, intellectual separation from the masses of black people who are powerless in American society.

Despite his unassuming nature, the narrator is pleased with the applause he receives after playing the piano at his graduation. However, he wishes to receive the even greater enthusiasm aroused by the speech given by Shiny, a...

(The entire section is 1007 words.)

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The story is not what the title suggests, for James Weldon Johnson is not telling his own story. He is telling the story of a nameless man whose father is white and mother is black. Though the story does begin at the birth of the narrator, it ends shortly after the narrator makes a profound decision: to live as a white man, or to “pass.” The autobiography, then, is actually the story of the black part of the narrator’s life. Only in the last few pages of the novel does the reader learn about what happens after the narrator passes.

The narrator’s story begins with his birth in a small town in Georgia, shortly after the Civil War. The narrator’s earliest memories include a visitor to his house, a man who has status and wealth. The reader later learns that this gentleman is the narrator’s white father. The father sends money for his son’s support. He even visits frequently before the narrator and his mother migrate to the North. Up North, the narrator shows considerable talent for music and education. While in school, the narrator learns the word “nigger” and even uses it to insult black classmates. When one of his white friends looks at him and says, “Oh, you’re a nigger too,” the narrator discovers the complex nature of his heritage. His mother, crying about the fact that she is black, tells him, “your father is one of the greatest men in the country—the best blood of the South is in you—”

The narrator’s father buys him a piano. His mother dies just after he graduates from high school. With four hundred dollars cobbled together from his mother’s estate and a piano concert, the narrator heads south to attend college at Atlanta University. After a short time in the program, his money is stolen, and he is forced to make other plans. On the advice of a Pullman porter, the narrator heads to Jacksonville, Florida, to get a job. In Jacksonville,...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man Summary

Chapters 1–3

As The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man opens, a first-person narrator announces that he...

(The entire section is 1407 words.)