The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

by James Weldon Johnson

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In The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, chapter 5, what are the three classes of African Americans in the South, and how does the narrator relate to them?

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The narrator first identifies what he calls the desperate class, observing that "the men who work in the lumber and turpentine camps, the ex-convicts, the bar-room loafers are all in this class." Members of this class "cherish a sullen hatred for all white men" and are always spoiling for a fight. This appetite for violence gives prominence to the group, which dominates the general view of African Americans, even though very few of them belong to it.

The second class of people are domestic servants: "the washerwomen, the waiters, the cooks, the coachmen." The narrator says that they are generally kindhearted, faithful, and intensely religious. They tend to regard any white person who treats them kindly as "good" and are the principal link between the white and black communities.

The third class contains "the independent workmen and tradesmen, and... the well-to-do and educated colored people." The narrator says that these people live quite separately from the white community "in a little world of their own." He concludes that if a black man wishes to have nothing to do with his white neighbors, all he must do is acquire a little money.

Of these three classes, only the first is described in a disparaging manner, showing that the narrator does not share the hostility to towards white people that is one of the chief characteristics of this class. He regards these people as giving all African Americans a bad name. However, he is not critical of black people who work as domestic servants, apparently believing that this position is just as honorable as the independence of the third class.

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