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The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man [Book Review]

Summary

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson is the fictional account of a biracial man looking back over his life. The story is told in the first-person though the narrator remains unnamed and is never described physically. He tells of being born in the South and growing up in Connecticut where he learns that he is a very light-skinned biracial boy who some assume is White. As a young man he sets out on his own and travels to different parts of America and later Europe, recounting his experiences in Black and White society along the way.

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Show Notes

Before picking up The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man I had heard the title in passing but knew nothing at all about the book. I decided to read it after writing a Black History profile about Johnson. Sometimes not knowing what to expect when beginning a book can be positive because you don’t have any preconceived notions or heightened expectations. Though I was concerned that it might be a bit dry and boring. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the writing style as there’s quite a bit of wit and sarcasm.

The early part of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man where the narrator discusses his childhood was pretty sweet because it was a very innocent story about boyhood. Yet the story continues for quite some time with bits and pieces that are missing which left me with questions. At the beginning of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the narrator is living with his mother in a small town in the South.

A man comes about once a week or so to visit them and shows some degree of affection for him though it’s unclear who this man is. At first, I assumed that maybe this was his dad. Yet given how he was described I thought it might be some other male relative, like a grandfather or something along those lines. But those concerns fell to the wayside as he and his mother left their small town and began making their way north, stopping off in New York before settling in New England.

His mother works very hard to support them and their household. Until about the age of nine, he studies at home with his mom and then begins taking private lessons with two local women. One teaches him the basics like how to read while the other teaches him music. He doesn’t have any close relationships with anyone aside from his mother. When he begins attending school at nine years old he’s been not only sheltered but also somewhat isolated.

There’s the expected unease with being the new kid in school, especially because his classmates have been attending school together for several years. Initially, he feels a bit like the odd man out but makes friends with another boy, Red, who is also a bit of an outcast. Red is large and physically powerful compared to the other kids but he struggles academically until the narrator begins to help him. Now taking his first independent steps into the world and interacting with other kids it becomes clear that they’ve had different life experiences.

He notices that some children are Black or Brown but the school is predominantly White. At this point, it’s just an observation but doesn’t have any real significance for him. As time passes he falls in with some of the other kids who are White and assumes that he’s one of them because he’s been accepted into their group. He also develops a passing friendship with a Black student who the kids call “Shiny”, an incredibly smart dark-skinned boy in his class.

There is a bit of racism in the town or at least the children have already learned racism despite their young age. Walking home after school, they harass the Black kids by following and calling them the n-word and making up chants about their race. Not knowing any better the narrator goes home and tells his mom about it and she chastises him for using the word.

It just shows how sheltered he has been but also that these kids are quite young but already know this term and who to use it towards. He’s learning these new things, some of which are not particularly nice. It’s not until he’s attending class one day and the teacher groups him in with the Black students that he and the other kids realize that he is Black or more accurately biracial. Up to this point, he hasn’t provided his name or a physical description of himself. But it would seem that he’s very light in complexion and can pass for being White.

He comes to this dawning realization that he is also Colored like some of the other kids at the school. This puts him in an awkward position because now having this information he doesn’t feel as though he can just fall back into having the same relationship with his White classmates. But at the same time, he kind of feels an aversion towards his Black classmates.

After a period of having friends and being a part of the group, he’s back to being a bit of a social outcast. This isn’t because anyone has forced him out but rather because he doesn’t know what this means or how to navigate this situation. What makes him most comfortable is just being by himself. And so at school he self isolates from the other students, Black and White. But Red remains his friend and comforts him.

A question looms in the background. He’s here with his mom and there’s no explanation as to why exactly they left the South. Nor who the man was that used to come and visit. Was he his father? And if he wasn’t, who and where is his father? But when he tries to broach the topic of his race and parentage with his mother she declines to explain. Which just gave me more questions.

Finally, the man that used to visit returns and is introduced as the narrator’s father. His father is proud of his musical abilities and attempts to bond with the narrator. But a lot of time has passed since they last saw each other and even before then, they weren’t particularly close as the narrator didn’t know who this man was. The meeting is awkward as the narrator feels no connection to this man.

I listened to The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man as an audiobook. And as the story went on, the more I found myself getting into it. Some books from the past can be a bit stuffy and boring because the language and expressions are so different. But I liked how descriptive Johnson’s writing is and enjoyed the banter and sarcasm that was mixed in. Those little details made The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man a joy to read. The combination of the audiobook narrator’s voice and how he punctuates phrases made it enjoyable as the character moves through life going from boyhood into adolescence and then young adulthood.

In a sense, it’s a coming-of-age story and he experiences some triumphs and setbacks. But it’s not exactly your typical story. It’s set in the past but still felt relevant. Reading The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was like watching a cool movie as the text was so descriptive that I could envision all of this in my mind.

Having graduated from high school the narrator is out in the world on his own for the first time. It’s like the world has opened up to him. He leaves his small town and travels to various big cities which offers an interesting peek back into what life might have been like in the early 1900s for a Black young man moving about in the world.

He first visits Atlanta with plans to attend college. Having lived in Connecticut, he grew up in an environment that was predominantly White. Relocating to Atlanta, Georgia it seems to him like there is an endless amount of Black people which struck him as being unimaginable. In need of money, he finds work in Jacksonville, Florida, and spends his free time hanging out at the local resorts which is a thing during the time. The resorts held balls and he excitedly describes seeing the cakewalk for the first time.

As he moves through these different cities, he offers commentary on White versus Black society. But I was most intrigued by his portraits of Black life and culture in each city. Coming from a predominantly White town and environment, he hasn’t been around many Black people. Now being out in Atlanta and around Hispanic people in Florida he’s awestruck by the slang and language of each place.

Later arriving in New York, he finds his way to Harlem and it’s an exciting place well on its way to becoming the Black Mecca. He’s mesmerized by seeing and playing craps for the first time. Growing up in New York City, I’ve seen people shoot dice on the street and played once at a casino in Vegas. But as a kid, I always gave dice games wide berth as my mom warned me that they can be dangerous as sometimes people end up in fights.

Yet, while I’ve seen and played the game myself it was nowhere near as exciting as the way the game is described in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. He sets a whole scene by describing the gambling spot’s atmosphere and takes you through the highs and lows of playing in a manner that makes it feel like you’ve got stakes in this game. Imagine men being so desperate that not only do they gamble away their money but also their clothes and end up playing in smocks kept on hand for that purpose.

When you look at movies and media from the early 1900s Black people were rarely present. Or if they were it’s in the form of being of service to White people or minstrels show stereotypes. I don’t even think movies would have necessarily been a major thing in 1912 and they certainly weren’t regularly featuring realistic scenes from Black life.

I could just imagine a Black person living in some small Southern town picking up The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and reading about the narrator visiting these different cities around the country. Arriving in Atlanta it’s rough but there are Black people everywhere. But then he goes to Harlem and it’s just a vibe. New and interesting music, people are dressed to the nines, and people look like they have money. It would be like living vicariously through the narrator and hoping for the opportunity to visit these places.

It’s like when you read books or watch movies where someone from a small town arrives in the big city and steps off the bus or train. They look up and see skyscrapers for the first time. They go to Harlem and the people are just fancy on a different level. Keep in mind that this is just a few decades after the end of slavery.

I can’t begin to express just how much I enjoyed Johnson’s writing style. But, unfortunately, while he certainly had a knack for crafting stories this was his only work of fiction published. Reading The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, I was surprised that it wasn’t a major success upon its initial release. Maybe things went wrong with the book’s marketing and positioning? As I listened to the book I couldn’t help but think that I would go and see this if it was made into a movie.

The narrator gets back into playing music something from his childhood that had mostly fallen to the wayside as he pursued other interests and jobs. Through work and playing music, he had amassed a pretty tidy sum of money. The plan had been to return to school but he put aside that idea and dived fully into this life in Harlem. He’s like that small-town boy who has gone to the big city, gotten wrapped up in the lifestyle, and forgotten his earlier dreams and passions.

He had continued playing to maintain his skills but hadn’t given any concerts or done much of any studying. But hanging out at the clubs in Harlem and being around music creates a tremendous change in his life. Being exposed to ragtime music rekindled his passion for music and brought him into contact with different people and lifestyles.v

While playing music he meets a guy where it’s unclear what he does for a living but it’s obvious that he has money. And this man becomes the narrator’s benefactor/employer. At first, he simply plays at the benefactor’s private parties. But the benefactor for whatever reason asks him to not play at other parties and in spending time together they develop a weird kind of friendship.

Some events take place which result in him having the opportunity to travel abroad to Europe with his benefactor. They spend rather long periods in the major European cities. And the narrator is just living it up on his benefactor’s dime because he has money but wants company.

As he does with the cities in America, the narrator also offers some insight into the feel of each place. Each city has a vibe and distinct culture thus he delves into describing the people, their philosophy, and approach to life. It allows you not just to envision these cities in your mind but to also get a feel for the place and the people.

Music comes to the forefront again while he’s in Germany. He comes into contact with someone and they have an exchange that gives him a burning passion to return to America. To specifically return to the South where he plans to live amongst Black people and immerse himself in the culture.

Throughout The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, music is a transformative force in the narrator’s life. It takes him off course at times but also guides him through life. On the surface, it seems like he’s having fun while living in New York but he’s just drifting. He has the opportunity to possibly reconnect with a long-lost family member while in Paris but is unable to reconnect with them. That combined with his interaction with the other musician plays a part in his wanting to return home and reconnect to his roots and his people.

The benefactor tries to discourage the narrator as he doesn’t think America is a good place for Black people. The benefactor isn’t a mean or prejudiced person but he is rather selfish. He thinks that if the narrator can pass as White there is no reason for the narrator to make his life uncomfortable by living as a Black person.

Lonely and bored, the benefactor doesn’t have any deep relationships. He’s somewhat awkward and aloof keeping everything and everyone at a distance. As he has money and the things that he needs in life, he feels there is no need to take action and try to bring about change. Thus he doesn’t understand the narrator’s desire to return to America.

But the narrator’s reasons for returning aren’t as altruistic as he’s presenting them. He sees himself as returning to America to take Southern Black culture, especially in the form of music, and use it to bring Black people glory. But he’s more likely planning to pursue glory for himself.

At points in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, it’s implied that he has light skin and features that make him appear almost White. And to some degree because of the circles that he moves in, he’s able to somewhat live in White society. Especially once he connects with his benefactor. But the experiences that he has in Europe leave him feeling a bit empty and lights the spark within him to reconnect with Black people.

By this point his mother has passed away, he has no siblings, never had a real relationship with his father, and has no other family. Taking stock of his life makes him feel like he’s not doing enough with his life. He’s coasting and coming to this realization motivates him to change and pursue things that make his life more fulfilling.

As always he meets different people along the journey on his way back. One of these new acquaintances is a Black man who is a doctor and lives in Washington, D.C. This man was born into slavery and became a doctor after gaining his freedom. He has achieved a great deal of success and is living a comfortable life in Washington, D.C. Meeting this man offers the narrator an opportunity to go and spend a bit of time in DC where he observes once again the social situation of Black people in the city.

While looking through books I’ve found a few titles that discuss what I’m realizing was a relatively small but solid Black middle class dating back several decades. Possibly back to the early 1900s in Washington, DC. And so being acquainted with this doctor, the narrator can move about in these circles.

In this environment issues regarding race are still present but class is seemingly a larger issue. The doctor having achieved some success in life is not concerned with racism or at least is not bothered by prejudice as long as he is free to live as he chooses. Because he is successful, he is unconcerned with the hardships faced by poor Black people. He’s quite similar to the benefactor in the sense of not personally being in want of anything they don’t care about improving society or otherwise helping other people. He is an early representation of Black people who achieve a degree of success and then downplay the effects of racism blaming hardships experienced by Black people on their supposed laziness rather than inequality.

Some observations are made at this point regarding colorism within and between the Black social groups. He explains that some might assume that darker-skinned Black people tend to seek out lighter-skinned partners because society places a higher value on light skin. Or rather a person’s value becomes higher the closer their complexion is to White.

He argues that some people might regard this as buying into the concept of white supremacy. But instead, he views this as a matter of Black people realizing that the closer you get to Whiteness, the more advantages. And so with that, it’s more of an economic decision than it is self-hatred. It might offer some advantages, if not for the darker spouse, then for their children and offspring as it moves them closer to Whiteness by proxy.

There’s a bit of truth in this case but I still think it’s more likely a mix of both. Where to a degree it’s also a matter of buying into White beauty standards and the idea that anything White must be good or better. Yet, people are individuals and have their own logic. Things like that might vary but I didn’t fully buy into the argument that he presented on this topic. His perspective might be part of it but not the complete story.

Leaving Washington DC, the narrator begins traveling south by train. At first glance, his appearance makes it possible for him to be taken as being White. The ambiguity of his race means that people make assumptions about him based on the environment in which they meet and the clues he gives about his race. Here the narrator doesn’t take any steps to present himself as being Black or biracial.

Taking a seat in the smoking car he finds a group of men who are from different parts of the country with each one representing the perceived typical views of their region. There’s one man from Texas who takes the typical stereotypical racist views of the South. Another man from the North is a former Union soldier who represents a typical Northerner’s view. In between these seeming opposites is a man from Ohio and a Jewish man both of who represent the middle ground.

A debate begins mainly between the former Union soldier and the Texas cotton farmer. It’s a clever way of discussing White society’s various attitudes towards and views of Black people. You have the Texan who is arguing against any initiatives to better Black people due to his belief in white superiority. He believes it’s vitally important that Black people not be allowed to stand on any kind of an equal footing with White people. The former Union soldier believes that all that’s possible should be done to help Black people achieve progress. He sees it as a matter of humanity and fairness that everyone deserves a shot. He believes that Black people should be given every opportunity to progress and move forward in society. But it becomes clear that he has no great love for Black people.

The Texan presents various scenarios to the Union soldier. But the soldier continuously gives replies that indicate he refers to an individual’s character to determine whether or not he would socialize with them. Yet, despite how outrageous the Texan’s arguments might be, the Union soldier continues to entertain the conversation.

The narrator makes an astute point building on this argument between the group of men. The choice of words is a bit weird but I understood the explanation. He presents the idea that White people in the South “love” (his word not mine) Black people more than White people in the North love Black people. According to him, White people in the South love the individual Black people that they know versus the mass of Black people as a group. While in the North, White people are willing to help and care about Black people as a group but are not interested in Black people as individuals.

An example is presented that in the South you can have White people working against programs or any type of initiatives aimed at helping Black people progress and improve. But they’ll have Black people that they know and care for. They trust Black people to raise their children, take care of their homes, and live nearby. But then on the flip side of that, you have Northerners who believe in philanthropy, digging deep and giving money to help create schools to help Black people achieve progress. Yet, at the same time, they have less concern or care for Black people as individuals. Thus they live apart from and have very little to do with Black people on a one-to-one basis.

I wouldn’t use the word “love”, as I think it’s kind of paternalistic within the description of White people of the South. They might indeed be fond of Black people that they know personally. But I took notice of the situations presented as examples of instances in which White people trust or value Black people. Almost all of the examples are situations where the Black person would be in a position of service or subordinate to the White person.

He states his point but I felt didn’t go far enough in truly exploring the circumstances under which this love he refers to is extended. Southern White people are willing to live in proximity to and have some interactions with Black people. But that is as long as Black people remain at a level below or in service to them. Whereas White people in the North are willing to have Black people progress as long as they maintain distance from them.

The juxtaposition of these two relationships (for lack of a better term) reminded me of a concept I’d heard somewhere else. A Black person can live next to a Southern White person as long as they don’t get too big. And a Black person can get as big as they want in the North as long as White people don’t have to live next to them.

Continuing on his journey, the narrator attends a tent revival while there he meets and befriends a school teacher. He is invited to accompany the teacher back to his lodgings and share the space until he’s ready to move on to his next stop. The narrator has witnessed various aspects of the Black experience but ignores all of that to seek out (or more accurately exploit) the poorest and most downtrodden of Black people a group he has come to regard as most authentically Black. This plays into stereotypes about Black people as he conflates their condition with who they are as people.

During the night, he hears a noise outside and is curious to know what’s going on. The school teacher cautions him to remain inside as the noise is coming from a crowd of White people who have gathered. Because he can pass as White, the narrator joins the crowd and witnesses what turns out to be a lynching without fear of the crowd turning on him. This is while most of the local Black people are well aware of what’s taking place but have remained in their homes or tried to get as far away from the crowd as possible. Seeing the hunger for violence and brutality exhibited by the large crowd and watching the public murder of a human being disgusts and also changes him.

In the aftermath instead of feeling anger or even hurt towards the people who have committed this atrocity, he instead feels shame. Initially for America but then more deeply for Black people as a race. He now views his Blackness as a liability because it puts him at a greater risk of danger. And it also prevents him from achieving on the scale that White men might. He takes his place next to the doctor and the benefactor. The narrator chooses to pursue his success and comfort in the world as an individual and forget about trying to do anything to uplift Black people as a group.

Thus he becomes an ex-colored man and moves back to New York City where he previously lived a shallow and empty life but this time he’ll be living as a White man. He immediately realizes that he will have a very different experience. For starters, he gets a job that pays far better than his previous positions which affords him a certain lifestyle. It allows him to move in new circles and visit new places.

While this was an interesting plot twist, it felt like it came a bit too late in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. At the point at which he decides to live as a White man there wasn’t much of the book left, maybe less than a quarter of the book. And with that, it just felt a little bit unbalanced. Dramatic things happen to him as a White man which brings the story together.

In the decades (generations really) since the book’s release, other titles have been released with characters who are passing such as “The Vanishing Half”. I didn’t have an issue with the The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man taking that turn. I just wish that it had included the same level of detail and was equally immersive as the earlier part of the book. Up to that point, I thought The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was an incredible book and was chugging along. But then when it got to the point where he began living as a White Man it felt as though it lost some of its energy. It tried to replace some of that energy with drama. But it just didn’t have the same feel in comparison to the earlier part of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.

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