The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

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The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
Author James Weldon Johnson
Country United States
Language English
Genre African American Novel
Publisher Sherman, French, & Co.
Publication date

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson is the fictional telling of the story of a young biracial man, referred to only as the “Ex-Colored Man", living in post Reconstruction era America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Ex-Colored Man was forced to choose between embracing his black heritage and culture by expressing himself through the African-American musical genre ragtime, or by “passing” and living obscurely as a mediocre middle-class white man.


Johnson originally wrote The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man anonymously in 1912 by the small New York publisher Sherman, French, and Company. His decision to publish the novel anonymously stemmed in part from his sense that signing his name to a potentially controversial book might damage his diplomatic career.[1] The book's initial public reception was poor.[2] It was republished in 1927 by Alfred A. Knopf, an influential firm that published many Harlem Renaissance writers. This time Johnson was credited as the author. Though the title suggests otherwise, the book is not an autobiography but a novel. However, the book is based on the lives of people Johnson knew and from events in his own life. Johnson's text is an example of a roman à clef.

Plot summary[edit]

Early life[edit]

The Ex-Colored Man’s mother protected him as a child and teenager. Because of the money provided by his father, she had the means to raise him in a different environment than most other blacks. After his mother’s death, his poor orphan status exposed him to a part of black life unknown to him while living a sheltered life with his mother. He adapted very well to life with lower-class blacks, and was able to move easily between the classes of black society. During this carefree period of his life, he was still able to teach music and attend church, where he came in contact with the upper class blacks. The Ex-Colored man living in an all black community discovered three classes of blacks; the desperate class, the domestic service class, and the independent workman. The Ex-Colored Man believed the desperate class consists of poor blacks that loathe the whites. The domestic service, domestic worker class consists of blacks that work as servants to the whites. The third class consists of well-to-do blacks that had no interaction with the whites. Many white readers, who viewed all blacks as a stereotype of a single class, are unfamiliar with the narrator’s description of class distinctions among blacks.

Time with the Rich White Gentleman[edit]

While playing ragtime at one of the late night hot spots in New York, the Ex-Colored Man caught the attention of a rich white gentleman. The gentleman had a particular liking to the Ex-Colored Man's music which evolved into a particular liking of the Ex-Colored Man himself. The white gentleman hired him to play ragtime piano for guests at parties. Soon the Ex-Colored Man spent most of his time working for the white gentleman, who would have him play ragtime music for hours at a time. He would play until the white gentleman would say “that will do.” The Ex-Colored man would tire after the long hours, but would continue playing as he saw the joy and serenity he brought the white gentleman.

The white gentleman frequently "loaned" the Ex-Colored Man out to other people to play at their parties. The gentleman was not exactly “loaning” him out as a piece of property, but simply giving the narrator a broader palette to display his talents. The Ex-Colored man saw how the rich lived; he was thrilled to live in this life style. The Rich White Gentleman absolutely influenced the Ex-Colored Man more than any one else he met. The relationship towards the Rich White Man was not only on a slave/master basis, but also one of friendship. While he was with the white gentleman, the Ex-Colored Man decided he would use his skills to aid in Abolitionism. Even though life was pleasant, it was void of substance; using his music to aid impoverished African Americans he felt would be a better use of his talents. The Ex-Colored Man continued to show devotion to the white gentleman, as the white gentleman treated him with kindness, which eventually led to the forming of a friendship while in Paris.

However, the Ex-Colored Man’s devotion to the white gentleman also portrays the relationship that some slaves had with their masters, showing devotion to the slave-owner. This shows that even though the Ex-Colored Man had “freedom”, he was still suffering from the effects of slavery. After playing for the white gentleman while touring Europe, the Ex-Colored Man decided to leave the white gentleman and go back to the South so that he could study Negro spirituals. He planned to use his knowledge of classical and ragtime music to create a new Black American musical genre. He wanted to “bring glory and honor to the Negro race”. He wanted to return to his heritage and make it a proud and self-righteous race.

Many critics have suspected that the Rich White Gentleman may in fact not be white, but is passing as well. His love for ragtime music and his conviction that the Ex-Colored Man not embrace his blackness to pursue a career as a definitively black composer could be used to argue that he experienced inner turmoil with his racial identity similar to the experience of the Ex-Colored Man.

Johnson with the mustache he grew upon assuming the white identity

The lynching[edit]

Just as the Ex-Colored Man began to work on his music, he witnessed the lynching of a black man. The crowd originally wanted to hang the man, but decided to burn him instead. The Ex-Colored Man narrates in detail of what he saw, “He squirmed, he withered, strained at his chains, then gave out cries and groans that I shall always hear." The incident at the town square opens his eyes to a racism he has never seen before. He continues, "The cries and groans were choked off by the fire and smoke; but his eyes, bulging from their sockets, rolled from side to side, appealing in vain for help." The scene that day stuck vividly in his mind. It burned a sour image in his brain. He finishes with, "Some of the crowd yelled and cheered, others seemed appalled at what they had done, and there were those who turned away sickened at the sight. I was fixed to the spot where I stood powerless to take my eyes from what I did not want to see.”

This scene describes the horror of lynching, and the power it had over the mob of people in the deep south. It should also be noted that many critics believe that James Weldon Johnson wrote this scene about the lynchings to dissuade people from lynchings. Michael Berube writes, "there is no question that Johnson wrote the book, in large part, to try to stem the tide of lynchings sweeping the nation." After witnessing this event, the Ex-Colored Man decided to “pass” as white. He gave up his dream of making music that would glorify his race. He stated that he did not want to be "identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals," or with a people who could treat other humans that way. He simply wishes to remain neutral. The Ex-Colored Man declares that he “would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race.”


The wife of the author, Grace Nail Johnson in Panama

The world accepted The Ex-Colored Man to be white. Our narrator is “passing” as a white man his whole life and never truly reveals himself as black to the world. This fact is what gives the narrative its title of “Ex-Colored Man”. He later married a white woman, had two children, and lived out his life a successful yet mediocre business man. The only true acceptance the Ex Colored Man experienced in his life was from his wife, who loved him and agreed to marry him after he revealed his secret to her. His wife dies during their second child's birth, leaving him alone to raise his two children. At the end of the book, the Ex-colored Man said, “My love for my children makes me glad that I am what I am, and keeps me from desiring to be otherwise; and yet, when I sometimes open a little box in which I still keep my fast yellowing manuscripts, the only tangible remnants of a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent, I cannot repress the thought, that after all I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.” “Passing” could be interpreted as a decision to avoid the black race. He states that he "regrets holding himself back." He may have been implying that if he had he embraced the Negro community and let the community embrace him, that he could have made a difference.

The Ex-Colored Man was one of the few people who was not held back by being black. He had a strong education, smart wits, and light colored skin. The masses all assumed he was white. However, his talent was in black music. Because of his fear of being a Negro, he threw away his talent as a musician to "become" a white man. This act depicts how society was during the 1910s and how terrible it was of this society to force him between his love of music and the safety and convenience of being white. The white gentleman accepted the Ex-Colored Man for who he was, but most people were not like that. He did not go back and play his music for the world after his wife died because of his children. He could not have his white children grow up on the black side of a segregated world. He wanted to give them every advantage he could.

Criticism, interpretation[edit]

Knowing, as we do today, the multiple obstacles successfully surmounted by the black community it is hard to accept the premise that it is "most natural" to marry a lighter skinned person in order to advance one's position in society. At the same time it is hard to fault the desire to live a relatively happy, and by far safer, life as a "white man."

This scene is interesting not so much for the way the stereotypical attitudes of the Northerner and Southerner are depicted, but rather for what it fails to disclose and for the way the Jew and the narrator himself are positioned as the scene unfolds. What the narrator does not reveal is that the smoking-compartment is, undoubtedly, for whites only. This is, after all, a portrayal of the Deep South at the turn of the twentieth century. The narrator is clearly "passing." As a "black" man, he would be denied access to such a space, a (purportedly) all-white and all-male hegemonic site. It is only by virtue of his "light skin" and the assumption of whiteness that he is privy to the discussion at all.

The impetus fueling Johnson's narrative experiment seems clearer if one summons to view the African American male writerly tradition. In his own autobiography, Along This Way (1933), Johnson maintains that he expected that the title, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, would immediately reveal the work's ironic inflections and implicit relationship to prevailing discourses on black male subjectivity. He writes: "When I chose the title, it was without the slightest doubt that its meaning would be perfectly clear to anyone." (238). Although Johnson's ironic title borders on satire, the discursive subversion marked by satire is meaningless without a clear contextualization of the black male literary enterprise upon which satire would, as it were, "signify."


  1. ^ Roberts, Brian. Artistic Ambassadors. pp. 57–59. 
  2. ^ Andrews p.6

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