Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The major theme that runs throughout The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is that racism in American society has devastating effects on the psyche as well as the behavior of African Americans and does tremendous violence to their heritage. In the beginning of the narrative, for example, the narrator acknowledges that he feels like an “unfound-out criminal” and that he is “seeking relief” from his guilt feelings. At the end of the novel, however, it is revealed that the only “crime” he has committed is the concealment of his black heritage. The irony of this situation is that the narrator’s “passing” does not yield the desired results, for while it brings him some material success, it does not bring him peace of mind.

The narrator also experiences the double consciousness most notably explored by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Like many other African Americans, the narrator always operates on two levels of consciousness, a black one and a white one. Unlike most African Americans, however, the narrator is able to move between the black and white worlds at will; thus, he is especially deeply afflicted with this double consciousness. This helps explain the ambiguities in his personality that allow him to embrace black culture in principle—paying tribute to its heroes, writers, and artists—while rejecting it in practice.

James Weldon Johnson also shows that racism in American culture...

(The entire section is 466 words.)


(Novels for Students)

Race Relations

The central theme of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and the main obsession of its...

(The entire section is 961 words.)