The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man; By James Weldon Johnson

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The end of the civil war showed the abolishment of slavery but the Negro race was yet to be accepted as equals into the American society. To have an adequate understanding of the struggles and events that characterized the period, it is vital to read and analyze the literature by James Weldon Johnson, an excellent piece that depicts an accurate account of series of adversities that the black community faced. His novel, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” is a journey of a burdened mulatto who struggles to claim one race as his own. The unnamed male narrator whose light skin makes him pass for a white gives accounts of his life and the pilgrimage through America's color lines.

             The first glance at the narration shows a person who has a secret to tell, a secret he considers big and from the title of the novel, one can tell he is black (African-American) who passes in the American society as white. Therefore, the primary reference point in the novel is racial identity. Accordingly, this paper is a critical analysis of the novel based on the subject of racial identity and struggles and how it affects the people of color.

What the Author intends to Convey

The novel sets the view of racial inequality in the 20th century, a social issue that still affects the contemporary societies around the world. Given that when the novel was first published in 1912, James Weldon did not put his name as the author for fear that it would adversely impact his diplomatic career. Such a decision is an evidence of the magnitude of racial discrimination that existed in the then society as well as how difficult it was to talk about such vices. The author, through a confessional frame he self-consciously employs to authenticate the narrator’s storyline strategically gives his work an appearance of an autobiography. The author’s intention is to convey the hardships of race relations in American society and how one lucky black person could easily "pass"for a white man without facing racial discrimination. In this regard, passing as white means agreeing to be seen as a white and in return enjoy the white privileges. James Johnson’s work departs from conventional narrative of "passing"found in the novels written in the late 19th-century. The author thus conveys social issues that characterized a highly charged racial climate of the then American society.

              Like any other young Africa Americans, the narrator is unaware of the circumstances that surround his life. He is ignorant of his race and lives life comfortably, an indication that the issue of racial identity comes to affect people once the society starts telling one that you are not white or you are black. For instance, while in school, the narrator makes observations about Africa-American students but does not suspect he is one of them. However, an incident takes place in the class that changes his perception and makes him question his existence. Near the end of his second term, the school principal goes to their class and says, “I wish all of the white scholars to stand for a moment” (Johnson 42). He rises with others but told, "You sit down for the present, and rise with the others"(Johnson 42). When he is told he is not white, he asks his mother who reluctantly admits she is a Negro.

              The principal’s action to identify white and black students in class depicts how the society separates individuals on racial lines making them question their existence. On the other hand, the reluctance of the narrator’s mother to admit she is not white but rather African-American shows how the black race struggles with the issues of identity. Consequently, the narrator starts viewing his surrounding in a different way through “the lens of his race”.

Racial Identity and Struggles

Throughout the novel, the narrator’s struggles with racial identity are depicted in several instances or circumstances. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator remembers his life as a little boy and how the society perceived him as white. His decision to withhold the name of his little town of Georgia where he grew up as a son of a single mother because some people still live there and may reconnect his story shows that he does not want the society to know who he is, an Africa-American who passes as white and enjoys the white privileges. In many occasion, his mother’s friends comment on his beauty. The perception of being a white male is the lifestyle he knows and uses of the “privilege of whiteness” to take advantage of the opportunities that come his way and believes it is the only chance to live the American Dream.

                Besides, when the narrator proposes marriage to a white woman, she departs after he confesses his race and indication that it was difficult for blacks and whites to intermarry. The same can also be believed to be the reason his father… “One of the greatest men in the country--the best blood of the South”…did not marry his mother (Johnson 43).

            Furthermore, there is an indication of poverty and struggles among the Africa-Americans. For instance, the novel shows that meeting his father, who buys him a piano and hopes to join an Ivy League College. With the plans to join college underway, his mother passes on and decides to forgo Ivy League education. He goes back South and joins Atlanta University. When he arrives, his money is stolen and thus forced to look for a job to survive. As such, he goes to Florida where he gets work in a cigar factory and develops his “classist ideas”. The company shuts down making him to New York City where he develops an interest in ragtime music and gambles for his survival.

              Another instance in which the author depicts the magnitude of racial issues in the American society during this period is the lynching of the black man in Macon, Georgia. When the narrator sees the burning and lynching of a Black man, a person who belongs to his race, he becomes embarrassed of the race, “A great wave of humiliation and shame swept over me. Shame that I belonged to a race that could be so dealt with; and shame for my country, that it, the great example of democracy to the world, should be the only civilized, if not the only state on earth, where a human being would be burned alive” (Johnson 137).

              The end of the novel is another instance where the narrator presents himself as an outsider (both white and black). The author uses double consciousness in his writing to show that stance of the narrator as a person who gives up his birthright (his black identity) for white privileges. In consideration of all the challenges he underwent as an African-American and the observations he made, the author depicts the narrator as someone who is glad he made a decision to pass as white for the sake of his children at the expense of his sacrificed talent, vanished dream and dead ambition. Ideally, he sells his “birthright for a mess of pottage” (Johnson 151).

             The issues of race rose on many occasion including the ones outlined herein. Such events characterized social issues that affected racial minorities in the country. On the other hand, they show the impact of the white privilege on both races.  The lynching of blacks during the period indicates the social vices and division that existed and the beliefs that African-Americans were lesser beings.

The Relationship between the Narrator and other Africa-Americans

Even if the narrator decides to “pass” for a white and abandons his race after seeing the lynching of a black man, he shows a cordial relationship with Africa-Americans. The narrator believes that blacks can also be successful and make a lineage for their race. He idolizes renowned historians such as Booker Washington and wished to be like him and make a name as a “black” man. He envies such great black men and says, “Beside them, I feel small and selfish. I am an ordinarily successful white man who has made a little money. They are men who are making history and a race. I, too, might have taken part in a work so glorious” (Johnson 151)

             Besides, while in Europe and after traversing great cities, learning and playing music, he makes a decision to go back to American and inspire Negro spirituals with great dismay of his millionaire friend who wonders why he wants to go back to America to be considered African-American while he can pass as white.


Based on the critical analysis of the text, it is evident that the novel is effectively written and focus on an issue that continues to affect the contemporary society. The text uses a formal technique, an innovative bridge between the New Negro Renaissance and antebellum literary traditions. While the narrator’s decision to pass for white can be viewed as an act of racial disloyalty and as such, morally reprehensible, it is evident based on the author’s theme that the narrator does so because of his social experience and shows how it was difficult to be black. Ideally, the author’s goal was to convey the concept of race and not the aspect of narrator’s “tragic denial”.

Work Cited

Johnson, James W. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Auckland, N.Z.: Floating Press, 2009. Internet resource.

December 12, 2023

Literature Sociology


Race and Ethnicity

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