The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby
James Weldon Johnson's 'The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man' is one of the jewels of the Harlem Renaissance. Learn more about this novel, which details the identity struggle of an African American man in early 20th-century America.

Identity Crisis, Party of One

Have you ever had a secret so large that it was all you could think about? What if this secret impacted the rest of your life? What if it meant you and your family would be judged, scorned, and maybe even killed?

When we meet the narrator of James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man, he's stressing out about his big secret. From the title, you've probably guessed it: he's an African American man who is 'passing' in American society as white. While this might not be a big deal today, the book was set at the turn of the 20th century, when racial inequality was an issue facing many Americans.

When the book was first published in 1912, James Weldon Johnson didn't put his name on it, instead publishing it anonymously. He feared that it would negatively impact his diplomatic career. When it was republished at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, in 1927, Johnson was well known as the leader of the NAACP. For this printing, his name was put on the book, and sales skyrocketed.

It's a common misconception that this is Johnson's actual autobiography. Instead, it's his feelings put forth as a roman a clef, a novel that takes on the real emotions and ideas of a time period or event.

James Weldon Johnson at the beginning of his career

Who's Your Daddy?

At the start of the book, the narrator details his life in Georgia. His father is absent much of the time, and he lives with his mother. He and his mother then move to Connecticut, where the narrator discovers his love for learning and, more specifically, for music. He attends school, making new friends. He observes the African American children in his class and never suspects he is one of them.

An incident in class where the white children are singled out, and the narrator is told he is not white, makes him question his entire existence. When asking his mother about this, she reluctantly admits that she is African American and that his father is a wealthy white man from the South. He begins to view his surroundings differently and focuses more closely on his music and books. The narrator has a brief meeting with his father, where he is given a piano, and he starts to plan for an Ivy League college. Sadly, his mother dies as he is graduating high school, and it forces him to change his plans.

When he arrives in Atlanta for college, the narrator's money is stolen, and he is forced to find work to support himself. He goes to Florida and works in a cigar factory, developing many of his 'classist' ideas while there. The narrator then moves to New York City, where he hears and falls in love with ragtime music and gambles to make ends meet. Following a violent incident that he observes firsthand, the narrator goes to Europe with his friend, a white young millionaire, who goes with the narrator to great cities, playing and learning more music.

While in Europe, the narrator decides he wants to go back to America to compose music; specifically, he wants to go to the South to draw inspiration from Negro spirituals. When he confides this plan to his friend the millionaire, he is met with shock that he would want to go back to America as an African American, when he could stay in Europe and 'pass' as white. The narrator finds it important to go back and follow his musical passion. He makes it to Macon, Georgia, where he witnesses a lynching and the burning of another African American man. As a result, he abandons his plan of writing music and moves back to New York City to 'pass' as a white man.

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