A White Identity in “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” by Johnson

Subject: Literature
Pages: 12
Words: 3395
Reading time:
12 min
Study level: College

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a pure fictional story which is all about race acceptance as well as fitting in. Throughout the novel, the protagonist as well as narrator, who are both black and white, truly fight to determine his true identity. Despite the fact that the narrator is African American, he spends the majority of his time pretending to be a white man. The latter makes the book ironic and at the same time tragic since, while the protagonist spends practically his entire life pretending to be white, the book’s author, James Johnson, was a staunch warrior for black people’s rights. The ex-colored text, as one of the oldest publications created in the early nineteenth century, attempted to emphasize some of the difficulties that people of color faced at the time. The protagonist in the novel strives in the process of identifying his identity, and although though he is aware that he is a person of color, he does not inform anyone because white people viewed him as one of their own due of his light skin. The essay will explicitly analyze the experiences of light-skinned individuals who are black by law in midst of the whites. In addition, different themes for example theme of passing, which is evident in the novel wrote by James Weldon Johnson, theme of class as well as racial conflict among others, are also featured.

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The protagonist’s unwillingness to identify with black people allowed him to take advantage of possibilities that were exclusively available to whites and not to persons of color. This is because, despite the fact that slavery was abolished after the Civil War in 1865, people of color were still considered inferior to whites and hence were denied equal opportunities. Looking at literary texts from the time period can help one achieve a better understanding of the hardships that people of color faced at the time. From the ‘Ex-Colored Man’s Autobiography, ‘by James Weldon Johnson, is one of several works of literature from that era that accurately depicts the challenges that people of color experienced prior to the Civil Rights Movement’s fight to lessen racial inequity in America. As a result, this article will describe and analyze the individuals and factors that contributed to the protagonist in ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man’ adopting a white identity and passing for white.

To begin with, the narrator in this novel was an ex-colored guy, and during his narration, he covers all of his characters to protect them and expose his greatest secrecy. This secret, as revealed at the end of the story, is that the narrator was an African American guy who passed for white. The narrator’s skin was so light that no one could tell he was of color (Worrell 4). After her mother and he had moved to Connecticut, it took the narrator a total average time of nine years to understand that he was, in fact, an African American who was formerly known as white due to his light complexion. This occurred when he was being escorted to school and a teacher ordered him to sit down after instructing the white students to stand. Furthermore, as the protagonist relates at the start of the narrative, his father was white, whom he did not know until they relocated to Connecticut.

On the other hand, her mother was a black person, and this is what makes the narrator believe that he was an African American despite the fact that his color is white. This is seen throughout the novel as the protagonist narrates his life story. First, as a child of nine years in Connecticut, he attends a public school that had both blacks and whites (Worrell 12). The racial identity at the school did not play a significant role as both white and black children mingled effortlessly with each other.

However, after graduating from high school, he found that segregation was stronger out of school. Therefore, as a black man, he was going to find limited opportunities for career development, furthering his education as well as forming meaningful social bonds. After trying his luck to acquire more education, he finally gives up after his tuition fee was stolen when he arrived at Atlanta College (Bolton 100). He started venturing in music as he could play piano and travels to New York City, where he was able to bring together both whites and blacks through the music. Later, the narrator traveled to Europe, where racial segregation was almost non-existent, and therefore, he enjoys life in Europe because everyone was treated equally.

During his entire journey from New York City all the way to Europe and back, the narrator finally meets many African Americans who were not able to form any bond with him. This was as a result of the African Americans having low-level education, high levels of poverty as well as being in possession of bad manners (Pisarz-Ramirez 22). As a result, the narrator has a strong preference for upper classes of any race but does not like poor as well as rural African Americans. He finally falls in love with a white woman, and at first, he does not reveal to her until they met Shiny when the protagonist confesses to the white woman that he was an African American. This is after seeing that the white woman had no problem with the narrator talking to the black guy.

Throughout the novel, the aspect of racial relations at the start and end of the 19th century has been revealed. The narrator mainly concentrated on showing the relationship between the African Americans as the minority group with the whites who are the majority in this case. Although there were other groups of minorities in the United States of America during this era, the narrator did not consider them as he wanted to show the disparities that face black people during this period. The protagonist was born shortly after the civil war, which ended in 1865, and the nation was in the process of deciding the role that African Americans would play after most of them were freed from slavery. The narrator spent some of his life as an African American in the South and Europe, and others as a white guy. Therefore, he was able to observe the issues of racial segregation from both perspectives (Posmentier 896). During his narration, he severally abandoned his story to provide the reader with a few pages of racial issues.

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It is in these didactic pages that the protagonist explains as well as admits that white people were unable to figure out what the black man was thinking and, as a result, could not understand him. The narrator, on the other hand, believed that people of color understood white people better. “It is a difficult thing for a white man to learn what a colored man believes,” the narrator in his art work specifically wrote the piece. “I believe it is a truth that brown people in this nation know as well as keenly and closely understand white people better than white people know and comprehend them” (Pisarz-Ramirez 16). The narrator, who is African American but was raised primarily among whites, studies both races as well as shares his insight of how each lives and interacts with one another with the readers.

The protagonist separated the people of color into three classes depending on their relationship with the whites. The first class is of the African Americans in the lower rank, and he says that these are blacks who were living a desperate life, and were mostly ignored. In another instance, the narrator is advised by the millionaire to remain in Europe, where there were fewer racial disparities. The millionaire told the narrator, “can imagine no more dissatisfied human being than an educated, cultured, and refined colored man in the United States” (Worrell 33). In another instance, the narrator discusses the problem of racism with an African American in a ship on his way back to New York City from Europe.

The narrator and the protagonist of the fiction also discusses the topic of race with a Jewish man in a train smoking car. Through all these conversations, the narrator finally concludes that racial issues could only be addressed through “simple rules of justice.” However, the protagonist is not patient enough to wait for this solution as he is not courageous nor aggressive sufficient to join the few gallant African Americans who were fighting for racial equality in the country. Instead, he decides to embrace the white identity and live a small and selfish life as a white man (Spingarn 33). This makes him denounce his African American identity to enjoy the benefits and opportunities of the white man.

Throughout the novel, there are ambiguities of race representation by the protagonist (Spingarn 41). This is seen as the narrator continues to celebrate the accomplishments of African Americans and how they have contributed towards the American culture. The narrator has been trying to artistically integrate musical forms of the classical music of Europe composers and those African Americans throughout his artistic ambition. He did this intending to represent the white and black halves of his heritage. However, despite the narrator’s attempt to express both halves through his music, he leans and associates to the white society more than the African Americans because of the racism perspective that was explicitly on blacks.

As the author moves from New York to Europe, his judgments and observations on poor African Americans are almost the same as those of a typical racist white person. For instance, during the protagonist’s narration, he noted, slouching gait, unkempt appearance, the shambling, and loud talk as well as laughter” of the lower class blacks that he encounters more often (Zangrando 40). The narrator also says that he will never forgive the teacher, who made him realize that he was a black person. Before then, after being born to the world of two races-whites and blacks, he assumes to a white and makes of the African American children in the school. However, after they made him discover that he was a person of color, the narrator completely changes. However, although he stopped making fun of the African American children, the narrator does not want to be associated with them. This shows that the author despised his black heritage.

Another instance where we can see the narrator accepting the white heritage is in a train when taking part in a racism debate with five white guys. Throughout the discussion, the author seems to be most interested in the most racist man than the other four guys who were less racism. This shows that the narrator believed in the superiority of the whites, and therefore, they should never have the same opportunities as African Americans. Also, the narrator said that he did not enjoy the relationship of a white, rich window with her companion who was black, at a pub in the City of New York. This shows the narrator’s racism perception of a typical white that whites should never relate with African Americans because they were their inferiors (Bowles 391).

Finally, the most severe case that the protagonist was ready to use the top most racist attributes of the white is through his good and friendly relationship with the tycoon who paid him to play the piano whenever he wanted. The protagonist does not see the millionaire as a racist person, but instead, he sees him as a benefactor and a good friend. However, the tycoon granted a loan through the narrator to his friends and made him play the piano until he stood up from his seat and said, “That will do” (Posmentier 895). Although the narrator integrates both African Americans’ musical forms with Europe classical music in an attempt to represent both white and black heritage, he ends up accepting and embracing the white way of living. As the author tells the readers, the protagonist considers not being white to be tragic to him.

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Apart from the identity in terms of race, the narrator also struggles to find his professional identity. He is very good at playing the piano and also has a passion for music. It the music that connects him to his later mother, the millionaire, and finally to the woman he later married. From the beginning of his narration, he said playing music was his gift and talent, just like many musicians today and in the past (Posmentier 896). However, after some time, he starts playing music only at social events and later invests in real estate for his livelihood. This makes him leave his musical career later and only plays it for his pleasure, and to pass his love to his children. This makes his music career become a vanished dream, a sacrificed talent, and a dead ambition.

The mullato boy manipulated both his racial identity and professional identity so that he could enjoy the opportunities and privileges that African Americans could not enjoy. Although the narrator succeeds in his life due to passing to the white society, his actions seen to haunt him, and at the end of the novel, he accepts to have sold his birthrate for a mess of pottage (Zangrando 154). The decision of the narrator to pass as a white was mainly for the sake of his progenies. It is after he observed an African American man being burned while still alive by a gang of white assailants that he decided that the best way to avoid such treatment for his life, wife, and children was to pretend that he was a white man.

The white complexion is not a stumbling block to associate with black people, but black color is a stumbling block to interact with the white (Bowles 177). In the narrator’s discussion, if one is white, he or she can identify himself with any of the two races. However, if one is black, then he or she cannot associate with the white people. He or she can only associate and be accepted by the fellow blacks and has physical no space in the white society since a line has been drawn. However, since the narrator in this novel was white, the color alone was able to cover up his skin complexion of black blood as well as physically surpass the color line. This enables him to have access to public facilities, which were only allowed to be used by white people.

From the novel, there is no instance that the protagonist, who was the Ex-Colored Man, reveals his actual identity. Even in school, after the teacher makes him realize that he was an African American, he does not want to associate with other black children freely. It is from there that the Ex-Coloured man develops the tendency of not revealing his identity. This is because after his mother passed away, he knew that revealing his identity will not only affect his whole life, but it will also affect the life of his children (Sugimori 345). In Ex-Colored Man though, the narrator wishes to be identified as a black man, for him to be accepted and to achieve fame as an artist and racial leader. The Ex-Colored Man shares the magnitude of loss that any black person would get if he passes as white.

Moreover, even at the time narrator met his wife who was of a light complexion, he does not reveal his true identity as an Africa American, and he does so when he met Shiny and discovered that his wife had no problem with him speaking to the black man. Between the start and end of the 19th century, a black man was not allowed to marry a white woman, and therefore if the Ex-Coloured man had revealed his identity to the woman, there would be no contact at all at the first place (Sugimori 345). Thus, the narrator was able to marry a white woman despite having black blood as his white color enabled him to pass to the white.

Besides, the narrator did not want his children to go through the problems and miss some opportunities that the white people were enjoying. The whites were privileged to enjoy and access public services like education as well as better healthcare services freely unlike the people of black complexion. The latter resulted from high levels of racial discrimination which were in the United States of America and being a minority group was really a challenge to cope with life there. It is for his personal as well as children’s gains that the narrator devotes the rest of his life to being a white. However, the narrator is well aware that he is jeopardizing not just his own life and achievements, but also the future and chances of his children in America.

The narrator wrote, “My love for the children makes me glad that I am what I am and keeps me from desiring to be otherwise.” (Bolton 100). Through this quote, the author means it is yet not time for African Americans to aspire to have the same and equal opportunities and status in the American society that was mainly dominated by the white man. It is as a result of only white people being accepted in the white society that the protagonist as well as the narrator was able to pass to live as a light-skinned man. Otherwise, if he had a black color, then he could not have gotten the opportunity to enjoy some of the opportunities and status that he enjoyed as a white man like eating in white hotels, investing in the real estate investment plan, and even getting married to a woman of light complexion.

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In conclusion, the novel of James Weldon Johnson has explicitly explained how the protagonist was forced to assume the false identity of a white man to ensure the social survival of him and his children and the entire family at large. However, passing into white society has psychological effects such as racial-based traumatic stress, and from time to time, the narrator regrets selling his birthright. The novel has reminded that passing for white is a game that has been played in an attempt to avoid racial discrimination. The racial conditions in United States of America at that time prevents the protagonist from becoming a black artist who will make history by representing the race. Nonetheless, it pushes him to adopt and play the character of a reasonably successful white man.

There have been several attempts through which they depict the consequences of prevailing variances and inequalities amongst the Black faces in the US. This is evident in terms of job opportunities, protection by the law as well as social recognition. Additionally, positioning the author’s thoughts at the connection between the black as well as the white worlds is another major element. The Ex-Colored Man novel has persistently challenged the dualistic nature of ethnic ideologies.

Johnson Weldon’s work, Ex-Colored Man’s autobiography, embodies the dichotomy of color as well as race. This is to a very high level that they appear to be legally black but visibly white. For instance, in the Ex-Colored Man responses to the elements of racial differences defies the expectations of the audience. Georgia, the protagonist, has the belief that it is easier for the black person to aspire and even succeed easily in the American setting. He cites the case of Shiny, his classmate who is black, where he witnesses his opportunity for success, whereas he was passing for white.

The Ex-Colored Man appears as a person who value the element of individualism. The latter is totally distinctive, quite disobedient and even incline on improvisation which may not be called for in the attempt to become richer or sophisticated. He demonstrates an element of the ambivalence of whiteness and blackness where we would avail other complicated nuances in the novel. The Ex-Coloured Man seems to fully understand the measure of individualism. Ex-Colored Man is strangely American because he evokes the trait of self-reliance since he needs to succeed in manipulating his identity. Self-fashioning is argued as a portion of class, religion, level of intellect and family history that attracts a lot of hallmarks in celebrated ways. Ex-Colored Man desires to get equal opportunities, social movement and self-determination despite his unique identities which are not present amongst the black people.

Works Cited

Bolton, Philathia. “(En) gendering Complexities: A Look at Colorism in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.Women’s Lived Experiences of the Gender Gap. Springer, Singapore, 2021. 95-107. Web.

Pisarz-Ramirez, Gabriele. “Being Black in the archipelagic Americas: Racialized (im) mobilities in the autobiographies of James Weldon Johnson and Evelio Grillo.Atlantic Studies (2021): 1-22. Web.

Posmentier, Sonya. “The Social Imperative: Race, Close Reading, and Contemporary Literary Criticism Race and the Literary Encounter: Black Literature from James Weldon Johnson to Percival Everett.” (2017): 895-897. Web.

Halpern, Faye. “The Afterlife of Uncle Tom.” Resources for American Literary Study 41.1 (2019): 132-139. Web.

Sugimori, Masami. “New Perspectives on James Weldon Johnson’s the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man ed. by Noelle Morrissette.” African American Review 51.4 (2018): 344-346.

Worrell, Vincent K. Plurality and Synthesis in the Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man. Diss. University of Maryland, College Park, 2018. Web.

Zangrando, Robert L. “7. The” Organized Negro”.The Black Experience in America. University of Texas Press, 2021. 145-171. Web.