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 (1912/1927) by James Weldon Johnson is the fictional account 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 centuries. He lives through a variety of experiences, including witnessing a lynching, that convince him to "pass" as white to secure his safety and advancement, but he feels as if he has given up his dream of "glorifying" the black race by composing ragtime music.


Johnson originally published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man anonymously in 1912 by the small New York publisher Sherman, French, and Company. He decided to publish it anonymously because he was uncertain how the potentially controversial book would affect his diplomatic career. He wrote openly about issues of race and discrimination that were not common then in literature.[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, and Johnson was credited as the author. Despite the title, the book is a novel. It is drawn from 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 an environment more middle-class than many blacks could enjoy at the time. After the boy's mother dies, he is a poor orphan and subject to harsh conditions.

He adapted very well to life with lower-class blacks, and was able to move easily among the classes of black society. During this carefree period, he taught music and attended church, where he came in contact with upper-class blacks. Living in an all black community, he discovers and describes three classes of blacks: the desperate, domestic service, and the independent workman or professional.

The Ex-Colored Man believed the desperate class consists of poor blacks who loathe the whites. The domestic worker class work as servants to whites. Artisans and skilled workers, as well as black professionals, had little interaction with the whites. Many white readers, who viewed all blacks as a stereotype of a single class, were unfamiliar with class distinctions described among blacks.

Time with the Rich White Gentleman[edit]

While playing ragtime at a late night hot spot in New York, the Ex-Colored Man caught the attention of a rich white gentleman. His liking for ragtime develops as liking for 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 paid him to 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 "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 influenced the Ex-Colored Man more than any one else he met. In his relationship toward the Rich White Man he was aware of aspects of the slave/master, 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.

The Ex-Colored Man’s devotion to the white gentleman expresses the relationship that some slaves had with their masters, showing devotion to the slave-owner. Johnson suggests that, although 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 him and return to the South to 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 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.[original research?]

James Weldon Johnson

The lynching[edit]

Just as the Ex-Colored Man began to work on his music in the South, he witnessed the lynching of a black man. The crowd wanted to hang the man, but burned him instead. The Ex-Colored Man narrates in detail what he saw, "He squirmed, he withered, strained at his chains, then gave out cries and groans that I shall always hear." He is horrified by the extent of this violent racism played out in the town square. 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".

Many critics believe that James Weldon Johnson wrote this scene to heighten awareness of and opposition to lynchings. The turn of the century was the peak of lynchings conducted against blacks, mostly in the South, in the period when southern states disfranchised blacks through new constitutions and practices such as poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and white primaries. 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."[citation needed]

After the lynching, the Ex-Colored Man decides to “pass” as white. He gave up his dream of making music to glorify his race. He thought 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".


Grace Nail Johnson, wife of the author, in Panama where he was posted as a diplomat

The world accepted the Ex-Colored Man as white. Our narrator is "passing" as a white man his whole life, giving the narrative its title of "Ex-Colored Man". He later married a white woman, had two children, and lived out his life as a successful yet mediocre business man. The Ex Colored Man felt his only true acceptance was from his white wife, as he had told her of his mixed heritage. She loved him and agreed to marry him anyway.

His wife dies during the birth of their second child, leaving him alone to raise their 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 is one portrayal of the social strains due to racial discrimination; he felt that society forced him to choose between his love of African-American music, and the safety and convenience of being white with the majority. The white gentleman fully accepted the Ex-Colored Man for who he was, but he feared that others would not. He decided to protect his mixed-race children by having them grow up "white". He wanted to give them every advantage he could.

Reception and later criticism[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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