The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

by James Weldon Johnson

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The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

The narrator is the only character that the author fully develops; the other characters seem to exist only to enhance his personality. He is essentially weak, vacillating, and ambivalent. His ambivalence is evident in the contradictions between his principles and his practices. These contradictions are apparent in his attitudes about race, about relationships, both casual and intimate, and about music. For example, during his school days, although he is callously reminded by his white teacher that he is black, and although he is rejected by his white classmates, he admittedly has “strong aversion” to being classed with the black children. Looking in the mirror at the “ivory whiteness” of his skin, he laments the fact that he could possibly be considered a “nigger.” Also, while playing in the club in New York, he is as disturbed at seeing a rich white widow in the presence of a black male companion as any white man of the time would be.

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This ambivalence extends also to the narrator’s personal relationships. He takes pride in the achievements of African Americans, and he expresses great admiration for the photographs of “every coloured man in America who had ’done anything’” that adorn the walls of the club where he works. He has few black friends, however, and those that he does have, in both the North and South, are of the upper classes. He is revolted by the appearance and actions of all African Americans except those he calls “the advanced element of the coloured race.” From his boyhood, moreover, he has a penchant for fair-skinned women; his first love is a young girl with brown eyes and a “pale face,” and the woman whom he eventually marries is white. Even where his children are concerned, it is his son, “the golden-haired god,” not his darker daughter, who occupies the “inner sanctuary” of his heart.

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Finally, this ambivalence extends to his music. Because he associates classical music with whites, he considers it superior to ragtime, which he associates with African Americans. Thus, he restricts his playing to the classics or to improvisations on the classics in the ragtime mode. Despite his discourse on ragtime as one of the great accomplishments of the black race, his actions belie his words. To him, ragtime music acquires status as a legitimate art form only when it is played in the classical mode by a German pianist for a group of wealthy whites.

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The other characters in the novel serve largely to set the personality of the narrator in relief. They provide the necessary background against which the ambiguities of the protagonist may be played out. Except for the millionaire, they are shadow people, with few discernible characteristics. In simply adjusting to any situations from which he does not flee, the ex-coloured man is the perfect accommodationist, and this array of nameless individuals—his schoolmates, his coworkers in Jacksonville, the clientele of the club in New York, even the millionaire benefactor—seem to exist only to people the environment to which he must adjust.

Characters Discussed

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The narrator

The narrator, a musician and composer who is not named in the novel. The son of a mulatto woman and a rich white father, the narrator moves from Georgia to Connecticut at an early age. He is extremely light-skinned, and the truth of his race is kept from him; his discovery that he is black is a traumatic one. Having been reared by his mother, he develops into an extremely sensitive adult. He is well read, has good manners, and exhibits considerable culture. He is, however, also naïve and somewhat cowardly. The latter trait is most clearly seen when, after witnessing the lynching and burning of another black man in the rural South, the narrator elects to pass for white. Even after he becomes moderately successful and comfortable, he sometimes regrets his decision to leave the black race but is much too afraid to live as a black man, based on the lynching experience.

The narrator’s mother

The narrator’s mother, a seamstress, a mulatto former servant who has a child by her white employer. He arranges for her and the child to move to Connecticut. She is well read and possesses considerable knowledge of black life and history, which she passes on to her son. She also barters her services as a seamstress to secure tutors and music teachers for him. She is the major force in his life. She dies shortly after his graduation from high school.

Shiny

Shiny, a boyhood friend of the narrator whose nickname derives from his extremely dark complexion. Shiny is the smartest person in the class and delivers the valedictory address on Toussaint-Louverture. This speech kindles in the narrator a love and appreciation for black history and culture. Shiny works his way through the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and goes on to become a professor at Fisk University. A chance meeting between Shiny and the narrator in New York leads the narrator to disclose his race to his white girlfriend.

Red

Red, a boyhood friend of the narrator, so called because of his red hair and freckles. Red is not disposed to become a scholar. The narrator helps him through school, and they become fast friends after Red comforts him following his discovery of his black heritage. After high school graduation, Red’s ambition is to work in a bank.

The millionaire

The millionaire, the narrator’s benefactor. The millionaire encounters the narrator while frequenting a club where the narrator plays ragtime. He hires the narrator to perform at his private parties and later takes him to Europe. When the narrator elects to return to the United States, the millionaire provides generously for his expenses.

The Cuban exile

The Cuban exile, a cigar factory worker. He befriends the narrator upon his arrival in Jacksonville. The narrator rooms with the Cuban and his wife, and the Cuban helps him get a job at the cigar factory. He also schools the narrator on the Cuban revolution, which broadens the narrator’s awareness of the plight of people of color throughout the world.

List of Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2177

The Ex-Coloured Man

The ex-coloured man is the novel’s narrator, who never reveals his name. At the novel’s beginning, he says that the story he is about to tell will reveal his deepest secret, and it is in the interest of protecting those who would be affected by the secret that he gives no names—neither his own nor the names of those who pass through his life. The secret, as the novel’s title hints, is that he is by the end of his story an African American man “passing” as a white man. In other words, his skin is light enough that no one who meets him suspects what he himself did not discover until he was nine years old: his mother is “colored” and his father is white. By the end of the novel, the narrator has married a white woman, fathered two children with her, and lived among white people who believe he is one of them. He maintains this secret for the sake of his children, although he has come to believe that giving up his heritage was a mistake, that he has sold his “birthright for a mess of pottage.”

Throughout the novel, the narrator tells the story of his life. As a child in Connecticut, he attends a public school where white and black children seem to mingle rather effortlessly. As a high school graduate in the South, he finds that segregation is a stronger force, and that as a black man he will always be limited in his opportunities for education and career, as well as his options for forming social bonds. Later, he travels to New York City, where music helps bring white and black people together, and then to Europe, where the divisions between the races seem almost non-existent. As he moves about, the narrator examines the African American people he meets, judging them harshly based on their education, their dialect, and their manners. He feels a strong preference for the “higher” classes of any race, and repulsion for rural and poor African Americans. When he falls in love with a white woman, who has assumed him to be a white man, he confesses his secret to her, marries her, and lives the rest of his life as a white man.

Father

The narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man never knows his father’s name. At the beginning of the book, when the boy and his mother are still living in Georgia, the father is just “a tall man with a small, dark moustache” who visits their small house a few evenings each week. He wears a gold watch and chain and has shiny black shoes. Normally, he gives the boy a coin but, on his last visit, gives him a ten-dollar gold piece to wear around his neck and hugs him. The next day, the boy and his mother move to Connecticut. When the boy is nine, he learns for the first time that his father is white and that his mother is not, but he does not yet know his father’s identity. Three years later, when the man comes to visit in Connecticut, he learns that the tall man is his father.

The narrator’s father is at this point about thirty-five years old. As the boy’s mother explains, she and the man had fallen in love when she was the sewing girl for a wealthy family and the man was a college student home for vacation. Because of the racial and class differences, their love had to remain a secret. In fact, the man had sent the boy and his mother to Connecticut because he was about to marry a white woman of his own class. He has been sending the boy’s mother money and a letter every month and has promised to help pay for the boy’s college education. He does not fulfill this promise, though he does send the boy a new piano shortly after his visit. He breaks off contact with the boy and his mother before she dies.

The narrator sees his father only once more. One night in Paris, he sees his father with his wife and daughter at the opera, but does not speak to them. His father does not recognize him.

The First Pullman-car Porter

The first Pullman-car porter is one of several men who give the narrator advice on his travels. This man makes the narrator’s acquaintance on the train on his first trip from Connecticut to Atlanta. Like the narrator, the porter is a student, working on the train between terms to pay for his tuition at a college in Nashville. He is the narrator’s first guide in Atlanta, showing him to a boarding house and taking him to inexpensive restaurants that serve African Americans. The porter is the first to suggest to the narrator that his skin is so light he would be able to “pass” for white and eat at any restaurant in the city.

The Girl

The girl is a young woman, “white as a lily,” whom the narrator meets in New York toward the end of his story, when his acquaintances assume him to be white. He is first attracted by her singing voice as she entertains at a party and then struck by her beauty. Mutual friends introduce them because of their shared interest in the music of Chopin, and he soon falls in love with her. When he decides to propose marriage, he realizes that he must tell her the truth about his race, but he is afraid. When they meet Shiny by chance and she betrays no hint of prejudice, he decides to tell her his secret. However, he does not get the reaction he had hoped for. She breaks down in tears and goes to visit relatives in New Hampshire for the summer, refusing to see him. In the fall, they meet again at a card party. The girl declares her love for him. They marry, move to Europe for a time, and settle into a happy married life. During the birth of the couple’s second child, however, the girl dies.

The Millionaire

The millionaire is one of the white “slummers” who visits the Club in New York City where the narrator plays piano. He is “clean-cut, slender, but athletic-looking,” graying at the temples, and with a clear aura of culture. He becomes the narrator’s employer, patron, and friend, hiring him first to play piano at a single dinner party and then to be available to play for him at any time of the day or night. The millionaire throws lavish parties, attended by wealthy and beautiful people, but he spends his time at the parties sitting on the sidelines, watching his guests with what looks like boredom. The narrator recalls that he “grew weary of everything, and was always searching for something new.”

The millionaire takes the narrator on a tour of Europe, in place of his valet. He intends to stay in Paris until he gets “tired of it,” and after a little more than a year, they move to London and then to Berlin. The millionaire asks little of his companion except that he play the piano when asked; in exchange, he provides luxurious housing, fashionable clothing, and spending money. Tiring of Europe, he announces a plan to leave the next day for Egypt and Japan, but the narrator decides to return home instead. The millionaire tries to change his mind, pointing out that a black man in the United States will never be able to realize his full potential, as a musician or as a man.

Some critics have suggested that the millionaire is so comfortable with the company of the narrator and so understanding of his doubts about race and identity because he himself is an African American man “passing” as white. There is nothing in the text to clearly lead to this conclusion, nor to rule it out.

Mother

The narrator’s mother, like the other characters in the novel, is never named. She earns her living as a seamstress and is so successful that she has to hire other women to help her keep up with demand. In the evenings, she plays the piano and sings hymns and old Southern songs. She teaches her son to play the piano, to read from her small library, and to do simple arithmetic. She does not seem to have friends but is cordial with the ladies who come to her home bringing sewing.

Mother is beautiful, at least in her son’s eyes, with skin that is “almost brown,” and hair that is “not as soft” as her son’s. Until his revelation at school, however, the boy does not realize that his mother is not white. She has no other children and has never married because the love of her life is the white son of her former employer, a wealthy woman in Georgia. Their love is forbidden, and the man has had the boy and his mother moved to Connecticut so he can marry a white woman of his social class. The boy’s mother looks forward to the man’s monthly letters and believes his promises to provide for the boy’s future. Remembering the day his father came to visit in Connecticut, the narrator comments “that was one of the happiest moments of her life.” When she dies shortly after the narrator’s graduation from high school, she has not heard from the boy’s father for some time but still believes that he loves her and his son deeply.

Red Head

Red Head is the nickname the narrator gives to his closest friend at school, an older, awkward boy with freckles and red hair. Red Head is a slow student and has been kept back several times, so he is four or five years older than the narrator and in the same grade. The boys become friends during a spelling competition soon after the narrator begins school. When Red Head is unable to spell his first word, the narrator whispers the answer to him. By secretly helping him, the boy pulls Red Head through the remaining years of school. On the day that the narrator learns he is “coloured,” Red Head walks him home and shyly demonstrates that he intends to remain his friend. When the boys graduate from high school, the narrator and Shiny plan to attend college, but Red Head declares his intention to get a job in a bank instead. When the narrator leaves Connecticut for Atlanta, he gives a few of his books to Red Head and never mentions him again.

The Second Pullman-Car Porter

The second Pullman-car porter is another man who helps the narrator in Atlanta. He is one of four men who share the narrator’s room at the boarding house—the room where the narrator’s money and some of his clothes are stolen from his trunk. When the narrator discovers his loss, the second porter comes to his aid. He hides the narrator in a closet on the twelve-hour train trip to Jacksonville, Florida, and lends him fifteen dollars to hold him over until he finds work. Months later, after the narrator has achieved a stable income, he sees the porter again and approaches him so he can return the fifteen dollars. He notices then that the porter is wearing the tie that was stolen along with his money. He was the thief al all along. The narrator does not accuse him of the theft but enjoys the “ironical humour of the situation.”

Shiny

Shiny is the casually racist name the narrator gives to a dark-skinned classmate whose “face was as black as night, but shone as though it were polished.” The boy calls his dark-skinned friend names like Shiny Face, Shiny Eyes, and Shiny Teeth, and soon all the children—both light- and dark-skinned—refer to the child simply as Shiny. Shiny is universally acknowledged to be the smartest child in the class, the best at spelling, reading, and handwriting, and the hardest worker, and this record continues through high school. He is even chosen to give the speech at graduation, a task he completes admirably. Still, the narrator observes that Shiny is treated with less respect than less talented white students. After the narrator learns that he is “coloured,” Shiny emerges as one of his only two close friends.

Toward the end of his story, the narrator and the white girl he will marry meet Shiny at a museum. Shiny is well-educated, cultured, and well-dressed and is a college professor on vacation in the North. As he and the narrator chat briefly, the narrator can tell that Shiny realizes that the girl at his side does not know that her escort is a black man, and Shiny says nothing to betray the secret. But seeing the woman’s apparent lack of prejudice in her conversation with Shiny gives the narrator confidence to tell her himself.

 

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