The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

by kathleenljackson


In my previous blog I stated The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man  by James Weldon Johnson was easily the most insightful novel on the “negro problem” I have ever read, and I stand by this. For me Ex-Colored Man has created a deeper understand of life in the era of Jim Crow and the racism confronted by even Northerners as a result of the “one-drop” rule. It also showcases different types of ‘passing’; for example, as a child the main character, unaware of his heritage, unconsciously passed for white until asked to remain with the ‘color children’ instead of the white children.

Consequently, this also means the main character is able to develop a split understanding of race relations in America – though his preference for his black culture is always clear. Unlike many ‘passing’ novels, I feel this creates a more multiracial voice rather than the strict ‘white/black’ dichotomy.

Through the main character’s story were are able to gain insight into a biracial child’s life in the Northern states, a young, colored man’s attempt to gain an education, living, and social life in the South (and eventually New York City) before contrasting his life in the US with his travels through Europe –- especially France.

Although he chooses to return to the US to develop American music (e.g. ragtime) into classical forms of music as a black man, he does end up passing for white permanently. This decision came after he witnessed the brutal lynching of a black man in Georgia. He explain his decision, and I am yet to see an explanation to ‘pass’ that is quite so striking:

 I argued that to forsake one’s race to better one’s condition was no less worthy an action than to forsake one’s country for the same purpose. I finally made up my mind that I would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race; but that I would change my name, raise a mustache, and let the world take me for what it would; that it was not necessary for me to go about with a label of inferiority pasted across my forehead. All the while, I understood that it was not discouragement, or fear, or search for a larger field of action and opportunity, that was driving me out of the Negro race. I knew that it was shame, unbearable shame. Shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals. For certainly the law would restrain and punish the malicious burning alive of animals.

So often an explanation for passing is found in the financial and political advancements that belonged almost solely to white society but this statement… demonstrates that there is something far deeper there, something that requires significantly more historical context than it is currently given. But I digress… I think the reason I liked The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man more than novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin is because it provides an amazing sampler of life (both race and class) during ‘nadir’ in America. It also shows a level of awareness of the state of race relations in the late 19th/ early 20th century (and its future) that I, foolishly, didn’t think existed.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man can be read or listened to online.