The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

by James Weldon Johnson

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1970

Cynthia Bily

Bily teaches English at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. In this essay, Bily examines the narrator’s sexual ambiguity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.

      Most readers in the twenty-first century will see something in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man that James Weldon Johnson, the novel’s author, could not: A solution to the narrator’s struggles with his divided self could be in his simple refusal to be divided. In other words, if he were alive today he would not need to choose between being a “coloured man” and a “white man.” He could recognize, as we do today, that our concepts of race have no basis in biology, that our concept of race is socially, not biologically, constructed. According to this way of thinking, most people are not simply “white” or “black” or “Asian,” but exist somewhere along a spectrum of racial identity. The truth about racial identity in the United States, three hundred years after the first slaves were brought to this country, is that a large percentage of Americans could call themselves “multi-racial,” or “bi-racial” or “mixed.” This does not change the fact that in his own time Johnson’s narrator does not have “mixed” available to him as a category to slip into. Although terms such as “mulatto” and “octaroon” were used to describe certain persons of mixed heritage, people with these labels were not accepted into “white” society, and that is where the power was. As the Texan in the smoking car crudely explains it, “it’s a question of white man or nigger, no middle ground.” The fact that we read the narrator’s situation differently than he did—that we can envision a middle ground that did not exist a hundred years ago—is one of the joys of reading novels from earlier times.

      Just as we see matters of race differently than people did a hundred years ago, so has our thinking about sex and gender undergone a transformation. Most people today are not as comfortable as people once were with traditional notions of men and women having natural differences in abilities, responsibilities, talents, needs and strengths. Rather than seeing “male” and “female” as distinct categories, some critics called “feminist critics” or “gender critics” have explored the idea that masculinity and femininity are points along a spectrum. Science again shapes our re-thinking, as those studying human genetics tell us that two sexes are not enough to account for all the biological varieties of humans. Sociologists point out that matters of sexual attraction and sexual behavior vary from culture to culture. So while most people will fit somewhat comfortably into the sexual category to which their society assigns them, others will seek a “middle ground” that may or may not be available to them.

      In his dealings with women, the narrator seems confused, blocked. Consistently, he feels physical attraction only for women he cannot have. His first love, when he is eleven, is a seventeen-year-old white girl, a violinist from church whom he will accompany in a recital. On reflection, the narrator realizes it was not her playing that aroused his interest, but something having to do with “her eyes almost closing, the escaping strands of her dark hair wildly framing her pale face, and her slender body swaying to the tones.” The attraction is physical, sexual, and yet he feels it for someone he can never really have a relationship with, because of the differences in their ages and because the young woman is white. He directs the energy of his passion into such safe outlets as playing the piano and writing poetry, but keeps his love a secret. Looking back on this experience years later, having lost his wife, the narrator describes his love of the violist in passionate terms: “at no time of life is love so pure, so delicious, so poetic, so romantic, as it is in boyhood.”

      The next woman the narrator is physically attracted to is also unavailable to him. She is the rich widow in the “Club” in New York, “an exceedingly beautiful woman of perhaps thirty-five; she had glistening copper-colored hair, very white skin . . .” This woman is an unsuitable match for the narrator, not only because she is white (and he himself never becomes comfortable with the sight of a white woman escorted by a black man), but also because she is already in a relationship with someone else. The narrator is perceptive enough to see that the widow lavishes attention on him only to make her lover jealous, and yet he continues to spend time with her, rather than seeking out some of the other women in the “Club” who make “no secret of the fact that they admired me as much as they did my playing.” Of course, this ends badly, with the widow being murdered and the narrator being forced to flee New York under the protection and guidance of the millionaire.

      Only once more does the narrator fall under the spell of a woman’s beauty. At the opera in Paris he finds himself sitting next to a young woman “so young, so fair, so ethereal, that I felt to stare at her would be a violation.” He strains to hear her every word. He glances at her secretly, and each time his “heart leaped into [his] throat.” Again, it is not to be—the young woman is his sister. Again he experiences a physical attraction for a woman who can not return it.

      Surprisingly, the narrator does not devote much attention to women who might be thought of as suitable matches. After the violinist, the narrator does not mention any other flirtations during his high school years, Perhaps he is too involved with his music, and with his ailing mother, to be interested in a girlfriend. When he gets to Atlanta and meets his future classmates at the University for the first time, he seems more interested in the men than in the women. His description of the girls, many so light-skinned they seemed to be white, is noticeably tepid: “many of the girls, with black eyes and wavy dark hair, were decidedly pretty.” He uses much stronger language in admiration of the men: “many of the blackest were fine specimens of young manhood, tall, straight, and muscular, with magnificent heads. . . .” During three years in Jacksonville, he attends dances and parties on the weekends, and presumably meets young women there, but none strike him as worth mentioning until he meets a young schoolteacher and begins “to have dreams of matrimonial bliss.” The young woman’s appearance is never described, and the narrator betrays no special feelings for her. When the cigar factory where he works is shut down suddenly, even though he “was beginning to plan about marrying the young school-teacher,” he chooses to leave for New York. Thinking about New York, “all at once a desire like a fever” strikes the narrator—a feeling stronger than any he has apparently felt for his intended bride. He does not ask her to accompany him.

      In New York, he meets many women at the night clubs and dinner parties he attends, but shows no interest in any of them (with the exception of the widow). In Paris, he meets “good-looking, well-dressed young women,” but he wants nothing from them except language lessons. On his travels through the South he stays with different families, but does not even mention any women, except for those at the revival meeting, where he notices women “immaculate in starched stiff white dresses adorned with ribbons.” The word “immaculate” is revealing, meaning “flawless” or “without sin”—hardly a term one uses to describe the object of one’s desires.

      In the language of gender critics, the narrator bears some of the markers of a “male-identified male.” This does not mean that he desires sexual intimacy with men, but rather that most of his emotional energy is directed toward other men; he seeks out male companionship rather than female; he feels more comfortable with men than with women. In Jacksonville, he mentions that “several of the men at the factory were my intimate friends. . . .” In New York he spends his evenings gambling and smoking with groups of men, and women are incidental to these excursions. Parting from the millionaire, the narrator remembers him fondly as “the man who was . . . the best friend I ever had, except my mother, the man who exerted the greatest influence ever brought into my life, except that exerted by my mother.”

      It is fair to question whether these attractions are really significant. After all, many people feel their first love as the strongest. The narrator cannot know in advance that the women who catch his eye will be unattainable. However, it is important to remember that these events are not being narrated in real time, but as memories. The narrator has lived his life, and is telling his story looking back. The words he chooses to describe people, then, are not the spontaneous words of an instant. Reflecting on his life, the narrator sees some old images more clearly than others, and the women whose physical attractions are the most vivid for him are those women he could never have.

      In New York again, the narrator finally finds the woman he will marry, and all of his issues over women and attraction come together in one person. She is undeniably beautiful, “almost tall and quite slender, with lustrous yellow hair and eyes so blue as to appear almost black. . . . Indeed she seemed to me the most dazzlingly white thing I had ever seen.” But the narrator takes pains to explain that it is her voice, not her beauty, that attracts him; he does not even notice her until she began to sing. As a white woman, she is unattainable, even though the narrator’s new acquaintances assume he also is white. Although he is no longer a child, but a man who has traveled abroad, nearly married and held several important jobs, he can not approach her, but resorts to the feelings and mannerisms of “the bashful boy of fourteen.”

      The narrator comes to realize that if he is ever to escape the millionaire’s boredom and achieve something like a normal life, he will have to stop living in the “middle ground” that a black man “passing” as white inhabits, and reveal his secret. If he wishes to raise a family, he must step out of that “middle ground” of the male-identified male and commit to a woman. And so he does. But even attaining the unattainable does not make this man happy. During their brief marriage he lives in “constant fear that she would discover in me some shortcoming.” And then she dies, and the narrator withdraws from society. He has no wife, no male friends, no people of his own.

      Life in the early twentieth century was hard on people who did not fit well into their assigned roles. Multi-racial people, regardless of their intelligence or talent, faced limited opportunities in a white-dominated country. And men and women who did not fit neatly into their assigned gender roles also struggled to find ways to fit in. In the twenty-first century people in the United States have more choices, more acceptable roles and ways to contribute, regardless of their race, or gender, or faith, or ability, in no small part because of the work of those men the narrator admires, “who are publicly fighting the cause of their race.” It is important to read novels of days gone by, so that we can celebrate how far we have come and contemplate the work we still have to do.

Source: Cynthia Bily, Critical Essay on The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.


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Critical Overview