The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

by James Weldon Johnson

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

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.

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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.

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James Weldon Johnson also shows that racism in American culture affects the African American psyche in other profound ways. Through the character of the narrator, he suggests that the stigma attached to being black in American society tends to inure African Americans to basic human feelings. When the narrator witnesses a horrendous lynching of an African American man in the South, for example, his most overwhelming emotion is not pity or sympathy but rather “shame” and “humiliation” for being associated with such a despised race.

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Finally, Johnson uses the narrator to indict the materialism of American society and the way in which success is measured within that society. As a child, the narrator is given a gold coin by his father, who hangs it around the boy’s neck with a string. Although the narrator wears it throughout his life, he always regrets that his father put a hole in the coin to “attach” it to him. This is an early indication of the way in which the materialism of the society will condition his thinking regarding wealth. As a black man, for example, he gladly accepts what seems at times a master-slave relationship with his rich white benefactor, because, as he says, “he paid me so liberally that I could forget much.” Later, as a “white” man, he admits to being fascinated by “the absorbing game of money-making” to such an extent that he completely abandons his artistic ambitions.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961

Race Relations

The central theme of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and the main obsession of its title character is the question of race in the United States at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Specifically, the novel deals with the relationships between the white majority and the African American minority—no other racial or ethnic groups play important roles. The narrator is born shortly after the Civil War, which ended in 1865, and the country is newly in the process of deciding and discovering what the roles of African Americans (many of them recently freed from slavery) will be. As a man who lives part of his life in the white world and part of it in the “coloured,” and one who lives in the North, in the South, and in Europe, the narrator is uniquely qualified to observe the issues from a variety of perspectives.

Several times, the narrator abandons his narrative to digress for a few pages on matters of race. In these didactic passages the narrator acknowledges that “it is a difficult thing for a white man to learn what a coloured man really thinks . . .” “I believe it to be a fact,” he writes, “that the coloured people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them.” Therefore, the narrator, a coloured man who has been brought up mainly among whites, sets out to study his people and share his understanding with his readers.

In Chapter 5 he separates African Americans into three classes “in respect to their relations with the whites,” judging them with a cynical and detached eye. The lower classes, he points out, are desperate and angry and usually ignored; the “advanced element of the coloured race . . . carry the entire weight of the race question.” In Chapter 9, during a discussion of the future of race relations in the United States, the millionaire urges the narrator to remain in Europe, because he “can imagine no more dissatisfied human being than an educated, cultured, and refined coloured man in the United States.” And in Chapter 10, the narrator discusses race with an African American man on the ship to New York, and then in a train smoking car with a Jewish man, a Texan and an Ohio professor. Looking back on these conversations, the narrator concludes that racial problems “could be solved by the simple rules of justice.”

The narrator, however, does not have the patience to wait for that solution. Never a courageous or aggressive man, he decides in the end that rather than wait for justice—and rather than join “that small but gallant band of coloured men who are publicly fighting the cause of their race”—he will live a “small and selfish” life as a white man.

Identity

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is, in some ways, the story of a man trying to discover who he is. As the narrator travels around restlessly, examining and evaluating other people’s lives, he is in search of something, though he does not realize what it is until the end of his story. He is looking for a consistent and holistic vision of himself. Sadly, his understandings come after he has made what he considers irrevocable decisions.

The world he lives in recognizes only two kinds of people—white and black—and has assigned him his role as a “coloured man” because his mother is “coloured.” However, as the child of a white father, and as a man with light skin that white society accepts unquestioningly, he has some claim to both races. In the beginning of the novel, he assumes he is white, and casually makes fun of the African American children in his school. When he discovers that he is “coloured,” he becomes a new person, or the same person in “another world,” and although he stops teasing the dark-skinned children he feels “a very strong aversion to being classed with them.” For the rest of the novel he will wrestle with his racial identity, resisting the label “coloured” and finding ways to distinguish himself from darker skinned, or more rural, or less well-off African Americans. In Paris, he can shed labels based on race, for in that city he is accepted simply for “the fact that I was an American.” But back in the United States, he is treated differently as he travels, depending on whether or not his “identity as a coloured man [has] yet become known in the town.” After witnessing the lynching, he decides to “neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race,” but to “let the world take me for what it would.” In the end, he is a man with no identity so far as race is concerned. He feels sometimes that he has “never really been a Negro,” and at other times that he has “sold [his] birthright for a mess of pottage.”

The narrator’s feelings are no less muddled in terms of his professional identity. His strongest passions, his most enjoyable moments, come from his music. Music provides his strongest bond to his late mother, to his millionaire friend, and to the woman he marries. From beginning to end, he recognizes, as others do, that playing music is his talent, his gift. Yet after the lynching, he plays music only at social events, and turns to real estate investment for his livelihood. In the end, he settles for money, leaving his musical career to become only “a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent.” If the ex-coloured man, now a successful businessman, plays for his own pleasure or is passing his love of music to his children, he does not think it important enough to mention.

 

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