The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

by James Weldon Johnson

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Student Question

What are some instances of racism in James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man?

Quick answer:

In the autobiography, the narrator is a product of race and racism, and he recognizes that because of his color he is seen as inferior by White society. Despite this, Johnson's work also shows that we are all human despite our differences.

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Johnson's work features much in way of instances where race play a central role in the definition of one's character.  Consider early on in the autobiography how the comment from the principal changes the narrator's perception of the world.  This is a racial lens with which he views the world, one that differentiates him from White society.  The feelings of inferiority and a lack of self worth that this social bias possesses is what is internalized within the narrator.  He understands that the social setting in which he lives validates and authenticates the predicament of White America, and delegitimizes the experiences of American of color, in particular African- Americans.  When Johnson goes to Atlanta, he recognizes a solidarity iwht people of color because of their large numbers in the South.  In this instance, the issue of race again projects itself into the discourse because the narrator recognizes that race can also be a point of solidarity.  A reality that White America of the time has already understood is something that the narrator grasps when he arrives in Atlanta.  I think that another instance where race injects itself into the discussion concerns the principle of "slumming," when White patrons would partake in largely "Black" areas after hours, in the still of the night, and refer to it as being able to be "fashionable" while being racist at the same time.  For Johnson, the production of Black expressions of cultural art is perceived as something "chic" and simultaneously "lower class" by White society.  In this, the presence of race helps to define even moments where the narrator perceives White America and the America of color coming together.

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