Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and
Other Writings. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2007.
Summary of Work
The unnamed narrator of this novel starts out discussing his life from early childhood. Raised by a single mother in Georgia, they soon move to Connecticut and he starts going to public school there. He shows talent as a piano prodigy, and enjoys time with his white friend “Red.” He finds himself fascinated with the black students in his school, particularly “Shiny,” the very dark black boy who is the smartest kid in the class. While in school one day, the principal comes into the classroom and asks the white students to stand. When he stands, he is asked to sit down, and this is how he discovers that he is, in fact, an African American. He confronts his mother about it, who tells him that she is African American and that his father is a white man of acclaim. He does get to see his father one more time (he had occasionally visited them in Georgia), and the meeting is awkward. He sends his son a piano, and then never visits again. The narrator devotes himself to learning music and reading, and has a short crush on a violinist.
The narrator still struggles with race, and he and his mother have a long talk about it, and she will never criticize his father even though he left her, married a white woman, and won’t acknowledge his son. Still confused about how he should feel, he continues school, graduates, and then starts thinking about college, Shiny’s graduation speech still fresh on his mind. He raises money for college through his music, and is thinking about going to an Ivy League school when his mother unexpectedly dies, and he decides to return to Georgia and enroll in Atlanta University. However, when he gets to Atlanta, he has all of his money stolen and rather than go to the Dean to talk about it, he decides not to enter college and find work all around the South. He starts working in hotels in Florida and then ends up working as a cigar maker and a reader (a person who reads books and newspapers aloud to the cigar-workers). While there, he starts thinking of the different types of black people, and decides that there are the very poor and desperate black people, the middle class of domestic servants, and the educated.
He decides that he is of the educated class, and so when the cigar factory shuts down, he heads to NYC with some other men. They go to a gambling house, and the narrator becomes addicted to it. He is also introduced to ragtime music, which he ends up learning to play in order to make ends meet because he needs employment and he feels he might as well be employed at the club. His playing catches the attention of a rich white man, who starts inviting him to play for dinner parties at his house. Soon he is employed by the white man full time, and he finds himself with more free time. He meets a rich white widow, and he starts flirting with her, but her black companion gets upset and jealous and ends up shooting the woman in the head, killing her. The narrator worries he will be implicated in the death, and he tells his employer, who offers him the opportunity to escape with him to Europe.
He takes the offer, and their first stop is Paris. The narrator takes time to learn the language through reading newspapers and he falls in love with the city. Then, they head to London, which he finds charming as well, and then they head to Germany to visit two cities. In Berlin, he hears ragtime turned into a classical concert piece, and he desires to head back to America and start composing music. The white man tries to talk him out of it, saying that he could be a successful man in Europe and pass as white, whereas he will find all sorts of problems waiting for him in America if he goes back and claims his black blood and heritage. But the narrator does not listen to the white man, and goes back to the South to look for inspiration from the black community.
He spends time in churches, talking to doctors, teachers, and others in the black communities in Georgia, thinking upon the differences between Northerners and Southerners as well as what black people spend their time ruminating on or obsessing or passionate about, particularly when that topic is race. Then, one evening in Macon he witnesses a lynching and burning of a black man, and it scares him so badly that he determines that since he can pass as white, he will in order to avoid the same fate. He goes back to NYC and after some time unemployed, manages to find work at a business college, where his Spanish speaking skills come in handy and help him move up into a better career position. He builds a fortune through real estate, and life seems to be going perfectly for him, until he falls in love with a white woman, and he is forced to confront the issue of his race again.
The narrator determines that he wants to marry this woman, but also decides that he must tell her about his race first so that he is entering the situation honestly and so she can make her own decision. When he tells her, it breaks her heart, and she doesn’t answer his proposal and leaves NYC for the summer. He remains in agony over not knowing how the situation will end or what she will say to others or what she will do, but she comes back in the Fall and accepts his marriage proposal. They start a family, and they all live happily because both him and the kids pass as white. However, tragedy strikes when his wife dies in childbirth during the birth of their second child. Raising the kids alone, he determines that he is happy for the most part that he chose to pass as white, especially to help his children. But still, he wonders if he didn’t sell his birthright for something worthless or of less worth in the end.
Discussion of Work
The main, and obvious, exploration in this work is that of passing. What does it say about race that people can pass as white? It brings to light the fact that we tend to stereotype race as one specific skin color or look, when in fact skin color within cultural groups is quite diverse; it also, much like in Nella Larsen’s Passing, reveals just how much race is a social construct that works against specific minority groups in order to allow for the power structures of white supremacy to rule. Themes of identity are also very important to this novel, as it is the realization that his constructed identity in childhood was not reality that drives the struggle he has with his biracial identity; he belongs in neither space fully, because he identifies with neither culture fully. The theme of identity allows readers to explore the nature of decision-making processes about identity and race as well: many of the narrator’s actions stem from his belief (founded in the reality of a society that believes if a person has any African American blood, they are black and cannot be anything else) that he can only accept one portion of his family heritage. He struggles to choose between his mother’s heritage and his father’s, fully recognizing that socioeconomic privilege comes from one, where oppression and lack of opportunity comes with the other because of the racism in the USA.
Outside of his own community, he can pass as white, but he struggles with a moral question whenever he considers taking that privilege: is it right to lie to people about my heritage in order to gain economic and social privilege, and if I do, am I betraying the black race? In a society that often robbed black people of economic freedom by denying them jobs, paying them unfair wages, and by forcing them into poorer neighborhoods which were not kept to health and safety codes and had higher crime rates, being black became a social status that severely limited economic prosperity. For black people who had light enough skin to pass as white, there was real incentive to deny their heritage in favor of the privileges inherent in whiteness: while black people were limited in the colleges they could attend, the professions they could enter, and the places they could live, white people could enter any college, take any job they were qualified for, and live where they could afford.
Such disadvantages and privileges based on race weren’t simply apparent to the black people in the US, but also to the white people. Johnson’s narrator describes the way white people discuss the Negro Problem as not just a passing conversational topic, but an obsession, a dangerous subject that if unaddressed, would lead to intermixing of the races and destruction of white superiority and purity. It was economically and socially essential for white people to find solutions to this racial problem, to create racial separation and barriers in order to keep the white political patriarchy in power. Allowing blacks the same privileges as white people would introduce more competition into the markets, both economic and social, and potentially reverse the political, social, and economic hierarchy that whites had enjoyed sitting at the top of for centuries in America.
The narrator highlights this hierarchy and the efforts to maintain it as he interacts with a variety of people from different races, culminating in the philosophy of the Millionaire: there is no helping an entire race, only individual people, and that if a black man looks white enough, he should do what’s best for him, and assume whiteness rather than struggle his whole life to inevitably fail in the quest for equal rights for his race. The Millionaire, basing his belief in economic and social class knowledge, highlights what is possibly the most important discussion that needs to be had about race in America: how economics and social class influences the way marginalized groups are seen and treated, how they are limited in their ability to prosper economically and socially because they are seen as a threat to the majority race. The shame the narrator feels about his defection to the white race in order to gain social and economic prosperity should make readers consider that whiteness is privilege, both economic and social, and that turning our backs less privileged groups will not make the problem disappear.