The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

by James Weldon Johnson

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

*Connecticut

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*Connecticut. New England state to which the unnamed Georgia-born narrator moves as a small child. There he is reared by his mulatto mother with the financial support of his father, a prominent white southerner. Johnson had considered titling the novel The Chameleon, and he shows his protagonist, who is kept unaware of his racial ancestry, adapting his own protective cultural “coloring” as he adopts the mores of the white culture that match his skin color. He identifies with the white students at the integrated school he attends and joins them in tormenting the black students. When his own African American ancestry is unexpectedly revealed, he, too, is ridiculed and ostracized by his white classmates. However, by then he has already internalized their prejudices to a degree that will prove inescapable.

*Atlanta

*Atlanta. Georgia city to which the narrator goes to attend college when his mother dies, shortly after he graduates from high school. In Atlanta he encounters lower-class black people in large numbers for the first time and is appalled and repelled by their dialect, manners, and appearance. Johnson’s viewpoint is different from that of his unreliable narrator; his purpose is to demonstrate the dwarfing and distorting influence of racial discrimination on his protagonist and, by implication, on all Americans. Johnson also takes advantage of the narrative opportunity of his narrator’s train ride to Atlanta to document the work of Pullman railroad car porters—an occupation that offered cultural as well as geographical mobility to several generations of young black men.

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*Jacksonville

*Jacksonville. Northeastern Florida city in which the narrator works in a cigar factory—a trade in which no color-line is drawn. Johnson extends his analysis of minority cultures in America to the Cuban American community that the narrator encounters in Florida. There the narrator also begins giving music lessons to the children of the emergent African American bourgeois class, “the best class of colored people,” giving Johnson the opportunity to analyze their mores and the social and economic threat they pose to the middle-class whites who attempt to undermine their success.

*New York City

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Latest answer posted March 29, 2013, 2:22 pm (UTC)

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*New York City. City in which the narrator associates with black entertainers, athletes, and gamblers and experiences another completely different range of black culture. Johnson continues the narrator’s ascent up the social scale indirectly, not by showing large numbers of upper-class black characters—a virtual impossibility in a realistic novel of the time—but by depicting the upper-class white patrons—primarily women—who make up the primary audience for the black artists and musicians.

*Europe

*Europe. Continent to which the narrator travels as the companion of a white American millionaire. In Europe he himself is accepted as white, and his experiences there allow Johnson to contrast the more liberal and enlightened racial views of Europeans with the generally narrower views of white Americans.

Ocean liner

Ocean liner. Ship on which the narrator returns home from Europe. Aboard the ship, he meets an educated and well-to-do black doctor, who introduces him to other highly cultivated black men. As elsewhere in the book, Johnson’s protagonist shows himself to be as bigoted as many white Americans in his acceptance of only those upper-class African Americans who are the most thoroughly acculturated to white standards of behavior. His experiences among white Americans have caused him to become white himself in many ways, particularly in accepting and internalizing white stereotypes about race.

*Deep South

*Deep South. After returning to America from Europe, the narrator tours the Deep South to study African American spirituals and ragtime music with a view toward commercializing them for a large white audience. The traumatic experience of witnessing a lynch mob burn a black man alive prompts him to return to New York City to spend the rest of his life “passing” as a white man.

Historical Context

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Slave Narratives

During the middle of the nineteenth century, a number of biographies and memoirs written by slaves who had won their freedom were published in the North as part of the Abolition movement, the effort to ban slavery in the United States. These were typically the stories of people who had been born into slavery in the South, and who managed to make their way to the Northern states and a new life. The very act of writing a book, and of stating an articulate case for the intelligence and strength of African Americans, was an important tool in the struggle to end slavery in the United States, because it showed that freed slaves had the mental capacity to function independently. Publishers knew that most readers of these narratives would be white, because they made up most of the literate and book-buying public, and so the narrative voices addressed themselves directly to a white audience. The most well-known of these narratives is A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, published in 1845. Most white readers in the North would have acquired their most vivid images of African Americans either from these slave narratives or from novels by white authors, including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).

Many of the slave narratives feature common structures and scenes that Johnson adapted in creating The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. For example, many begin with the main characters living in a state of relative calm and innocence until a startling event makes them realize their true condition. Learning to read, and then studying the Bible and other books, is an important part of their awakening. Poignant scenes describe separation from family, through death or another tragic event. Narrators address their readers directly, pointing out injustices and hypocrisies. Brief anecdotes describe other broad types of African Americans, and explain the conditions that lead to their successes and failures. Humorous scenes demonstrate how the slaves deceived and tricked their masters. Often, a sympathetic white character takes the narrator in hand, offering financial assistance and guiding him or her through the complexities of the world of freedom.

Johnson knew that his readers would be familiar with the slave narrative form, and with the successful 1901 autobiography by Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery. This, and the fact that there was no established market for novels by African Americans, led Johnson to present his novel in the form of an autobiography.

Racial Inequality and Mutual Ignorance

Although slavery had ended with the end of the Civil War in 1865, life for African Americans was still difficult more than fifty years later, when Johnson was writing The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Progress was slow, in large part because white and black people knew very little about each other beyond broad stereotypes. The hardships described in the novel are not fictional. African Americans could not eat or sleep in public accommodations throughout much of the United States; they could not attend most public schools or colleges; they were denied many jobs, and were paid less than white people for the work they did. Many black men were denied the vote (no women of any race could vote in national elections until 1919). As the novel demonstrates, there were differences between the North, where the narrator’s elementary school enrolls white and black children, and the South, where white and black people live essentially separate lives. But even in New York City, where whites might go “slumming” and visit African American clubs, African Americans did not enter white night clubs except as service workers and entertainers.

Johnson himself had lived a relatively comfortable middle-class life. His parents were never slaves, and held good jobs, and Johnson was a college graduate. He became part of a small black intellectual movement that worked in the early part of the twentieth century to gain equality for African Americans. Their leaders included Booker T. Washington, who believed that African Americans should achieve economic security independent of whites, and W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the founders in 1909 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who worked for African Americans to be accepted as equals alongside whites. As African Americans began migrating from rural areas of the South to the Northern cities, looking for better jobs and better housing, these intellectuals steered the national conversation in a direction that would ultimately focus on the needs of the new urban black population. A decade after Johnson published The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, the energetic New York City he described would burst into an exciting flame of creativity in the period known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Ragtime and the Cakewalk

One of the most popular new musical styles to emerge at the end of the nineteenth century was called ragtime. The name comes from the “ragged” or syncopated rhythms of the music, written in 2/4 time. In the 1890s, ragtime grew out of traditional rhythms out of Africa brought by people who came to the United States as slaves, and was shaped by minstrel shows, “coon songs,” and vaudeville. The first performers were itinerant African American piano players who traveled around the South. The Chicago World’s Fair featured a gathering of ragtime musicians, and ragtime attracted a large white following there and in New York City. The most important writer of original ragtime compositions was Scott Joplin, who worked in Chicago. The sheet music to his tune “Maple Leaf Rag” was the first American instrumental piece to sell one million copies. By 1917, when Joplin died, ragtime was losing its popularity, but its influences were felt in an emerging musical form—jazz.

The earliest ragtime compositions were written as dance music, to accompany an existing dance called the cakewalk. The cakewalk came from Florida plantations in the 1850s, when slaves there adapted steps they learned from Seminole Indians, and added movements they remembered from African dances. The cakewalk is performed by pairs of men and women, dressed in their finest, and imitating in a stylized manner a dignified promenade by high-society white couples. On some Southern plantations, owners would stage dancing contests between their slaves, and award a cake as a prize. Later, black minstrels or white performers in “black face” performed the cakewalk in concert halls. By the 1890s, the dance had become popular with white dancers also, the first dance step to make that transition.

 

Literary Style

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Point of View

As would be expected from a book that calls itself an autobiography, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is told by a first-person narrator, or one who tells his own story from the “I” point of view. The first-person point of view is said to be “limited,” in that the narrator can describe only things he has seen himself, with minor exceptions including the story his mother tells him about how she came to be involved with his father. An “omniscient,” or all-seeing, narrator might reveal insights into actions of which the narrator is unaware; for example, an omniscient narrator looking at the story from the outside would know from the beginning where the narrator’s missing four hundred dollars has gone, and might provide clues to the identity of the thief. The first-person narrator, on the other hand, does not know what people are doing when he is not with them, unless they tell him—which, of course, the thieving Pullman-car porter does not. In addition, a first-person narrator is limited in his understanding of others’ feelings. Although the narrator of this novel believes that the day his father visited his mother in Connecticut “was one of the happiest moments of her life,” he has only her smiles to base his judgment upon. Because the only emotions that can be expressed are the narrator’s own, and because the narrator of this novel is particularly unemotional, critics have frequently commented on the remarkably flat tone of the narrator’s voice in this novel.

It is easy to forget that this is a work of fiction, not a real autobiography, and the first-person narrator of the novel is a fictional character, not a true author and subject. The narrator of this novel is not speaking for Johnson, but rather is a “persona,” a character created by Johnson. To increase potential sales, the novel was originally published anonymously, and most readers accepted it at face value, as a genuine autobiography. When Johnson acknowledged authorship fifteen years later, the first-person voice was so effective that readers still assumed the narrator was Johnson, describing his own life. To avoid being linked with his character, Johnson felt compelled to publish a real autobiography, Along This Way, in 1933.

Irony

Irony is broadly understood as a gap, or a “disconnect,” between what seems to be true and what actually is true. Critics have long accepted The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man as an example of dramatic irony, a situation in which the words given by a character—in this case, the narrator—carry a meaning that he does not perceive, but that the reader, looking over his shoulder, understands.

Most of the dramatic irony in the novel has to do with the narrator’s treatment of race. When he is just a child, for example, he joins in the teasing of the dark-skinned children at his school, not realizing that he himself is “coloured.” The reader has already guessed this truth, because of the novel’s title, so the reader perceives the teasing differently than the boy does. But the narrator’s ironic treatment of African Americans does not end when he discovers the truth about his own heritage. He is the one who gives Shiny his racist nickname, and he continues to use it to refer to his friend even when they are grown, successful men. Examples of the narrator’s blindness to his own racism abound: He analyzes and labels African Americans in the South according to their economic status; he looks down on the customs and manners of poor rural African Americans; he does not like to see white women in the company of African American men, though he himself marries a white woman; he declares African American women to be beautiful only if their skin is relatively light; he accepts the idea that European music is “art” while African American music is not. The fact that he recognizes American racism when it affects him directly, but perpetuates many of its myths and stereotypes himself without realizing it, is an illustration of dramatic irony.

Realism

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the literary movement known as Realism emerged as a response to the Romanticism that had dominated the Victorian period. Novels of Realism aimed to capture life as it really is, rather than emphasizing fantasy and the imagination as the Romantics had done. The Realists believed in the value of the normal and the everyday, telling the stories of recognizable characters whose actions had predictable consequences. Politically, the Realists hoped to work toward democracy and equality, rather than flattering upper class or even royal characters.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is typical in many ways of the novels of Realism. Its central character is meant to be seen as a representation of a man of mixed race at the turn of the twentieth century. Although the choices he makes are his own, his experiences and the people he meets are believable and recognizable. There are no dramatic plot twists, passionate outbursts or mysteries, but only events that might happen in a normal life, and the natural consequences of those events. The conflicts faced by the narrator are mostly internal, dealing with moral choices. Realism works to bring people together through the experience of reading, and in fact the novel was heralded as a tool for white people to gain a better understanding of their African American neighbors. In 1912, the movement known as Realism gave Johnson a base from which to create one of the first realistic portraits of African American life for a wide white readership.

 

Compare and Contrast

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1910s: Only two books by African Americans—both autobiographies—have a wide readership among both white and black audiences.

Today: Many of the United States’s bestselling authors are African American or members of other ethnic minorities.

1910s: White and black people are forbidden by law from marrying each other in most states.

Today: Since 1967, no state in the United States forbids interracial marriage.

1910s: White and black people in large cities in the North come together to listen to ragtime music, a product of African American culture.

Today: White and black people in most parts of the country share an appreciation for hip hop and rap music, products of African American culture.

1910s: In what will be called the Great Migration, African Americans move from the rural South to the cities in the North. Between 1890 and 1930, more than two million make this move.

Today: The Great Migration is reversing, especially among the middle class. African Americans with enough economic stability move in large numbers to cities in the South.

 

Media Adaptations

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The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was adapted in 1996 as a sound recording on two audiocassettes, read by Allen Gilmore and accompanied by John Popoulous playing Scott Joplin piano tunes. It is available from MasterBuy.

 

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES

Bone, Robert A., The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, 1958, pp. 45–49.

Bruce, Dickson D., Jr., Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary Tradition, 1877–1915, Louisiana State University Press, 1989, p. 258.

Faulkner, Howard, “James Weldon Johnson’s Portrait of the Artist as Invisible Man,” in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1985, pp. 148, 151.

Japtok, Martin, “Between ‘Race’ as Construct and ‘Race’ as Essence,” in the Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 32–48.

Matthews, Brander, “American Character in American Fiction: Three Books Which Depict the Actualities of Present-Day Life,” in Munsey’s Magazine, Vol. 49, 1913, p. 798.

Pisiak, Roxanna, “Irony and Subversion in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring 1993, p. 83.

Review of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, in the Nashville American, June 23, 1912.

 

FURTHER READING

Bell, Bernard W., The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

In this history of African American novels from the antebellum period through the 1970s, Bell discusses Johnson as an “Old Guard” novelist along with W. E. B. Du Bois. His analysis of the The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man focuses on the novel as an example of psychological determinism.

Johnson, James Weldon, Black Manhattan, 1930, reprint, Atheneum, 1968.

Johnson traces the history of Harlem from the seventeenth century to the 1930s. His analysis of African American theater and music in the first decades of the twentieth century shed light both on his own career in musical theater and on the clubs frequented by the narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.

Levy, Eugene, James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice, University of Chicago Press, 1973.

This full-length biography, written with the cooperation and assistance of Johnson’s widow, is both scholarly and readable. It includes an extensive bibliography of Johnson’s major and minor publications as well as an extensive list of reviews and other secondary materials published through 1970.

Stepto, Robert B., From behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative, University of Illinois Press, 1979.

This important history of African American literature was one of the first to trace a true literary tradition through the texts, in addition to simple chronology. Stepto’s analysis of slave narratives and their influence is particularly illuminating for understanding the structure of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.

 

Bibliography

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Alin, Lena. The “New Negro” in the Old World: Culture and Performance in James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, and Nella Larsen. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2006. Reads The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man as a crucial Harlem Renaissance text and compares its representation of American and European culture to those of two other African American authors.

Bell, Bernard W. “James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938).” The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. The psychological impact of color and class has turned the mulatto narrator from the majority of black Americans and toward an identity with white Americans that subverts his self-worth.

Canady, Nicholas. “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and the Tradition of Black Autobiography.” Obsidian 6 (Spring/Summer, 1980): 76-80. Examination of Johnson’s novel in the context of the autobiographical form. Focuses upon the ways in which Johnson’s handling of that form is unique to African American fiction of the period.

Davis, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900-1960. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1981. Contains a chapter devoted to a general discussion of Johnson’s works. Pays some attention to character and theme in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, which the author sees as a departure from the norm in African American fiction.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Introduction to The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, by James Weldon Johnson. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Excellent discussion of Johnson’s life and work. Centers on the elements of structure and theme that make The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man a signal accomplishment in African American fiction.

O’Sullivan, Maurice J. “Of Souls and Pottage: James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” CLA Journal 23 (September, 1979): 60-70. Examines Johnson’s protagonist from a standpoint different from that of most critics. Contends that the book’s narrator is “richly complex,” not merely weak and vacillating, and that it is in the character’s ambivalence that this complexity is centered.

Pisiak, Roxanna. “Irony and Subversion in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” Studies in American Fiction 21 (Spring, 1993): 83-96. This bibliographic essay cites numerous articles whose criticisms have focused on irony, one of the most interesting approaches to take to the novel.

Price, Kenneth M., and Lawrence J. Oliver, eds. Critical Essays on James Weldon Johnson. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997. Collection of writings on Johnson, from contemporary reactions to late twentieth century reassessments.

Rosenblatt, Roger. “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” In Black Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. Argues that Johnson’s protagonist is yet another example of the “vanishing hero” in black fiction. Suggests that in trying to beat the system by accommodating to it, Johnson’s narrator disappears into that system, losing all sense of himself in the process.

Ross, Joseph T. “Audience and Irony in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” CLA Journal 118 (December, 1974): 198-210. Asserts that the ambivalence of Johnson’s protagonist is not so much a natural weakness of character but rather a studied attempt by the author to dramatize the effects of betrayal by a white upper-class value system from which the protagonist cannot escape.

Stepto, Robert. “Lost in a Guest: James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” In From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979. A thorough examination of Johnson’s novel within the context of other literary forms of the period, specifically the autobiography and the slave narrative. Concludes that although Johnson utilized many of the techniques of these forms, he produced something new and different.

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