Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

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The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man gives a story of a Black American who passes as a white man. This allows him to live a life as a musician and a wealthy businessperson married to a white wife. His story tries to explore the complex lifestyles of both blacks and whites in America during the slave era (Khanna and Johnson 380). James Johnson helps in bringing out the level of racial prejudice in America, which favors the whites and despises the blacks. In addition, other issues such as class, education, and ethnicity are brought out in a story that describes the pain that Black Americans experienced. Although he would have joined other musicians and artists in fighting for the rights of the minority groups, he chose a life of happiness and wealth. Passing as a white helped him to overcome several challenges and engage in profitable businesses in America. Some people may argue that the ex-colored man was against the blacks but this is not the case. In fact, his actions demonstrate that the position of Africans is not fixed and they can rise from poverty, discrimination, and low living standards to success.

The decision of Ex-Colored man to pass as a white man helps in understanding the issue of racial prejudice in America during the time. Identity has been explored throughout the novel and the man does not know whether he is black or white. After all, he was born of a white father and black mother thus is free to adapt to either race. He has to make a choice between being responsible for his race and for himself. If he supports the blacks and identifies with them, he is likely to live in poverty and face more prejudice. His experience of lynching of the black man was painful and it is hard to decide where to belong. He feels that he cannot identify with the actions of the white that involves causing pain and suffering to the blacks. He finds himself between two worlds in which he lives as a colored man before deciding to associate himself with the whites. Passing as a white gives him more opportunities conquering the pre-established racial boundaries in America. Passing as white was a common thing in American and even today some people consider themselves white even if they know they have an African or Mexican ancestry (Sheehy 43). Life is very complicated when he is living as multi-faced person and the best thing for him is to select one identity. However, he cannot be a complete white man since some of the things such as music that he plays are black oriented. Although he finally decides to pass as white and live their lifestyle, the ex-colored man has attachment to the colored people“ Beside them, I feel small and selfish…. They are men who are making history and a race. I, too, might have taken part in a work so glorious” (Weldon 99). Passing as a white man helps him live a more decent life and avoid daily struggles that the colored people face. Sometimes it is wise for an individual to choose between self-interest and sacrifice in life. This may need perseverance, which enables one to fight for fundamental rights and freedoms in the society and live peacefully. The self-interest path entails pursuing material wealth and success in worldly things with lots of comfort. However, living as colored person requires one to live in the society that is full of racial inequalities and keep fighting for recognition as an African American. The narrator is oscillating between the blacks and whites throughout the novel until he decides to pass as white.  His admiration for his white father makes him dream of becoming a famous classical composer. However, the lynching incident causes him to pursue his self-interest and become wealthy just like the whites. Lynching of black Americans was rampant in the south especially if they committed a crime (Gibson). He gets married to a white woman and his children grow as the white kids without discrimination. This is a wise decision since her kids should not suffer because he has African blood. It is better to pursue self-interest than to sacrifice all comforts in the name of fighting for racial equality. If he chose to be black, his children would have suffered racial prejudice just like the other colored children. The welfare of his family is more important than fighting for equality and leaving his family to suffer. Ex-colored man is a representative of the learned Black Americans who later decide to have an identity of the whites and live a better life. The blacks could not engage in successful businesses and the only way he could prosper and become wealthy is to identify with the white community. This is a good idea since he belonged to the two races and was free to make choices.

Johnson's character as the ex-colored man portrays the Negros as very adaptive creatures who can speak other languages such as English and French perfectly. They can also adopt the new cultures quickly and behave like them showing that they have all capabilities just like the whites. If they are given opportunities, they can be very successful people and help in building the nation. The narrator belongs to both races and has a right to choose his preferred side to associate with and improve his lifestyle. He also grew being perceived as white by the classmates and used this privilege to grab opportunities in America. Some of the Black Americans would have benefited if they took advantage of their whiteness since some of them could be confused as whites. The narrator is visibly white but classified as black since his mother was of the African origin. He places himself in a safe living environment and opens himself to better opportunities that he could not access as a Black American. He is justified to pass as white since being a biracial enables him to make his best choice despite the issues he encounters. Sometimes he wonders whether he is a traitor but choosing a side that will facilitate prosperity is a better option. In fact, he can be considered more white than black since his father was a white American while the mother was an African-American. Not all whites were discriminative since the millionaire who discovered the narrator’s talent was very helpful. His advice to Johnson is very wise since he wants the best for him as a white man rather than black "Now, why do you want to throw …" (105). Although the statement sounds harsh it highlights the challenges Black Americans go through  every day such as poverty, poor education and health services, and many others. Some historians and scholars refer to him as an anti-hero but he was an advocate of racial equality throughout his life. Choosing to be a passing white does not mean that he was a racist since he had to make his life more meaningful. The millionaire is a capitalist and not a racist and the narrator follows his footsteps instead of concentrating on racial matters. Living without parents can be very difficult yet none of the Black Americans came to help especially in completing his education. The option to be a white American teaches any reader a lesson that one should never think as a whole community, rather how best to transform one's life for the better. The focus of the statement by the millionaire is on self-improvement, which he encourages the narrator to embark on instead on concentrating on racial matters. The idea of becoming white is to save him from any torture for being a biracial and defend his children from such predicament. This heroic action tends to reveal his pure autonomy besides facilitating his success. Although he regrets for the action he takes as the novel ends, the decision helps him become a better person in future and give his family quality life.

Passing as a white American gave the narrator a chance to live and make money in a society that is controlled by the white, and prosper. They do not even know whether he is not of their race and choosing to be a white man demonstrates his profound power and autonomy (Pfeiffer 403). He also protects his family since revealing his racial background would make the family to fall under the miscegenation category. His choice demonstrates wisdom since he selects a path that he believes is desirable and right for him and his family that he adores. Passing shows that someone is homogenous in terms of race showing that he is a wise man concerned about the welfare of his young family.   The children do not need to suffer because their father belongs to the minority race that is highly segregated. His namelessness state is a way of overcoming the societal barriers and gain material success. He is able to travel to several places in the US showing that the physical and psychological barriers that exist between the races are very complex and invisible. His character due to mixed race allows him to adapt well to various jobs and localities. The narrator does not allow the traditions to control him and creates his own identity. The dominant race has more advantages than the black race both politically, socially, economically, and emotionally and the narrator has the right to decide what he want with his life (Pais 38). His identity was ambiguous since he had a white appearance yet he had African-American blood running in his veins. Passing is a deception that helps him survive in a racially segregated nation and become a successful man in future. His children are also considered white and enjoy privileges just like the pure white ones. The struggles faced by the black Americans lead him to make his choice of being white and enjoy life rather than living in struggle forever. However, deep inside he knows that he is a biracial man but has to pass as a white man to escape the black disadvantage. Being an American of African origin means that one struggles to get a good job and live quality life. The ex-colored man had to give up his artistic and music skills to succeed in the discriminative society. This shows that he is independent-minded and racial categorization is irrelevant meaning that he can choose to be white or black. Resisting to be categorized, the narrator embraces biracial character and leaves it to the Americans to judge about who he is. He does not claim to be black neither does he pretend to be black but changes his name, keeps a moustache, and lives like a white man. This is the only way he rises up, becomes wealthy, and gives his family a hopeful future. His music reviews his biracial identity “It was I who first made ragtime transcriptions of familiar classic selections” (Weldon 53). This means that he could compose music that did not lean on any racial side enabling him improve his economic and social security. His passing as a white man does not mean that he rejects his black identity but can be considered as an embodiment of his biracial identity. He is able to maintain his internal biracial pride at the same time striving to achieve equal opportunities, unique identity, and social mobility (Eibach and Keegan 54). When he plays music for his girlfriend, he expresses his biracial self especially when he ends it. It symbolizes that the narrator does not deny any race or claim another. He is neutral and lets the others to judge and classify him as they wish.

Race is a major factor in determining the identity of people in America according to the novel. If one is biracial, it is hard to classify and define one's race as either white or black. The ex-colored man is justified to pass as a white man since it helps him to escape the social and economic disadvantages of being black and enjoy the advantages of being white. Racial categorization facilitates discrimination and the narrator has no choice but adopt the biracial status. This means he cannot claim to be white or black but decides to have a unique identity that allows him to prosper in life. He however, regrets his decision of leaving the blacks to fight for their equality to enable them enjoy social and economic benefits such as recognition, job opportunities, and live quality life. The ex-colored man is an example of people who weigh the benefits of making a particular decision before taking any sides. The most important thing is that his decision liberated him from the pain of facing racial prejudice as a black and enabled him to acquire social and economic success. The narrator's actions also help to expose the extent of racism and discrimination in America and the effects they had on the victims. For instance, he felt humiliated when the principal of the school he was attending told him to sit down when he requested the white students to stand up. By passing out as a white man, he could escape from such discrimination and embarrassments. 

Works Cited

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and White and Black Americans' Differing Assessments of Racial Progress." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90.3 (2006): 453-467. Ebscohost. Database. 20 Apr 2012. <http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.bu.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/[email protected]&vid=2&hid=15 >.

Gibson, Robert. "The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States,

1880-1950." Yale-New Haven Teachers Institue. Yale-New Haven Teachers

Institue, 2012. Web. 20 Apr 2012. <http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1979/2/79.02.04.x.html>.

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man. New York: Dover

Publications, INC., 1995. Print.

Khanna, Nikki, and Cathryn Johnson. "Passing as Black: Racial Identity Work among

Biracial Americans." Social Psychology Quarterly 73.4 (2012): 380-397. Sage Journals. Database. 20 Apr 2012. <http://spq.sagepub.com.ezproxy.bu.edu/content/73/4/380>.

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Pfeiffer, Kathleen. "Individualism, Success, and American Identity in the Autobiography

of an Ex-Colored Man." African American Review 30.3 (1996): 403-419. JSTOR. Database. 22 Apr 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3042533>.

Sheehy, John. "The Mirror and the Veil: The Passing Novel and the Quest for American

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