The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man Additional Summary

James Weldon Johnson


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Born in Georgia a few years after the American Civil War, the narrator, in comparison with other blacks, lives in a comfortably furnished little house. Thinking her son superior to other children in his neighborhood, the narrator’s mother is particular about his dress and his associates. Later, the narrator remembers scenarios of familial bliss that centered on a “tall man with a small, dark moustache” who visited them in the evenings several times a week. Because he admires the man’s shiny boots and his gold watch and chain, the narrator develops a subconscious identification with the white man that helps give him a sense of freedom and self-confidence. He later learns that this man is his father. Whereas he identifies with the tall, white man, the narrator’s fondness for the black keys on the piano in his parlor represents his identification with that part of himself that is black. When he hears his mother playing old southern songs on the piano, the narrator feels happiest. By the time he is seven, he can play all the songs his mother knows.

Eventually, the narrator and his mother move from Georgia to Connecticut because the tall, white man is getting married and it would not be appropriate for his black mistress and his illegitimate son to live in the same town with his white wife. In Connecticut, the narrator learns that he is black and what that means. One day, the white students in his class are asked to stand. When he rises, his teacher asked him to wait and rise with the nonwhites. For the first time, the narrator recognizes differences between himself and his classmates. He also notices differences in the way he looks and the way his mother looks. He sees beauty in his features and defects in his mother’s darker features. The narrator’s heightened sense of difference forces him to adjust, temporarily, to the “dwarfing, warping, distorting influence” of America on the lives of blacks. After he becomes interested in reading the Bible and history books, the narrator’s vicarious identification with heroic men of action such as King David, Samson, and Robert the Bruce emphasizes the narrator’s early, intellectual separation from the masses of black people who are powerless in American society.

Despite his unassuming nature, the narrator is pleased with the applause he receives after playing the piano at his graduation. However, he wishes to receive the even greater enthusiasm aroused by the speech given by Shiny, a...

(The entire section is 1007 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The story is not what the title suggests, for James Weldon Johnson is not telling his own story. He is telling the story of a nameless man whose father is white and mother is black. Though the story does begin at the birth of the narrator, it ends shortly after the narrator makes a profound decision: to live as a white man, or to “pass.” The autobiography, then, is actually the story of the black part of the narrator’s life. Only in the last few pages of the novel does the reader learn about what happens after the narrator passes.

The narrator’s story begins with his birth in a small town in Georgia, shortly after the Civil War. The narrator’s earliest memories include a visitor to his house, a man who has status and wealth. The reader later learns that this gentleman is the narrator’s white father. The father sends money for his son’s support. He even visits frequently before the narrator and his mother migrate to the North. Up North, the narrator shows considerable talent for music and education. While in school, the narrator learns the word “nigger” and even uses it to insult black classmates. When one of his white friends looks at him and says, “Oh, you’re a nigger too,” the narrator discovers the complex nature of his heritage. His mother, crying about the fact that she is black, tells him, “your father is one of the greatest men in the country—the best blood of the South is in you—”

The narrator’s father buys him a piano. His mother dies just after he graduates from high school. With four hundred dollars cobbled together from his mother’s estate and a piano concert, the narrator heads south to attend college at Atlanta University. After a short time in the program, his money is stolen, and he is forced to make other plans. On the advice of a Pullman porter, the narrator heads to Jacksonville, Florida, to get a job. In Jacksonville,...

(The entire section is 776 words.)


(Novels for Students)

Chapters 1–3

As The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man opens, a first-person narrator announces that he...

(The entire section is 1407 words.)