Autobiography Of An Ex Colored Man Summary

James Weldon Johnson

Autobiography Of An Ex Colored Man

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Autobiography Of An Ex Colored Man Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson.

James Weldon Johnson, a well-known black lawyer and social reformer, wrote The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man; it was published anonymously in 1912 because Johnson feared for his diplomatic career. In 1927, it was re-released during the Harlem Renaissance under Johnson’s name and to critical praise.

Despite the use of “autobiography” in the title, the events are fictitious though influenced in part by Johnson’s personal experience. The novel follows an unnamed narrator of mixed ancestry through a racist, US society. The work critiques the US’s class system and probes the psychological reality and sociological impact of passing for white—one of the first works in US literature to do so. The narrator is never named and only refers to himself as the “ex-colored man,” which lends to themes of unfair social mobility, the psychological toll of racism, and guilt.

The book begins by the narrator admitting that he will reveal the one, enormous secret of his life. But first, he relates his childhood in a small town in Georgia after the Civil War. He was raised by a single mother, a seamstress, and an absent father. One day, the narrator and his mother move to Connecticut. The father, a white man, has paid for a cottage in New England and will send monthly checks to support his son.

The narrator is extremely gifted: musically, linguistically, and emotionally. His mother enrolls him in a private school until he is nine. His ambivalent skin color and inherent talent let him sail through school without issue.

Then he enrolls in a public school. He soon befriends older kids, including one white boy he nicknames Red. The narrator observes how other explicitly black children are taunted. He’s especially fascinated by one bright and strong-willed boy who goes by the nickname Shiny.

One typical school day, the principal stops by the class. He asks all the white children to stand. When the narrator rises, the principle asks him to retake his seat. The narrator is shaken to his core. He asks his mother later that day if he is white. Reluctantly, she tells him that she is “colored” so he is not considered white, even though his father is a wealthy white man.

From that moment on, the narrator asks how race affects every facet of American life. He does not feel comfortable with black or white Americans, and retreats to music and literature, becoming very skilled in each field.

He meets his father for the second time in his life. The narrator admires the man’s calm temperament and fair skin. The meeting is awkward. His father leaves early, though he attempts to show his love by buying him a piano.

The narrator asks his mother why she does not protest his father’s action: he has never publically acknowledged that he is the narrator’s father. In fact, he leads an entirely different life with a white woman.

During grammar school graduation, the narrator is floored by the impassioned speech made by Shiny. The narrator redoubles his efforts so that he can enter college.

Sadly, his mother dies unexpectedly, and he chooses to attend the local Atlanta University rather than an Ivy League.

Atlanta proves to be uninspiring for the young man, and he does not try to stay there after all of his money is stolen.

He moves to Jacksonville, Florida, and finds a job reading newspapers to the Spanish-speaking workers at a cigar factory. At the factory, the narrator theorizes that there are three types of “colored people”: the wretched, maids and doormen, and the educated. The narrator wants to prove that he is part of the educated class.

The cigar factory closes, and the narrator moves to New York. He is introduced to gambling and ragtime music. He admires the racial diversity of New York. The narrator becomes addicted to gambling. He spends most of his time at clubs and quickly masters ragtime music. One day, a seemingly white millionaire employees him as a personal musician.

One night, the narrator flirts with a rich, white widow. His friend, a quick tempered black man, is intensely jealous. The man shoots the widow to death. Panicked, the narrator flees. He goes to the millionaire for advice; the man says the two should leave for Europe.

They land in Paris. The narrator is enamoured of the city. He also falls in love with London, Amsterdam, and Berlin. When a German musician plays ragtime in a classical style, the narrator realizes he needs to go back to the US. Specifically, he will return to the land of his birth in the south.

The millionaire is puzzled why the narrator would want to return to the US where he would not be considered white. He says the narrator will be much happier in Europe without habitual racism. While the narrator sees his point, he believes he has to return South to draw inspiration from the culture to make the music he really desires to make.

The narrator lands in D.C. He sees the city as representative of the very best and the very worst of black people in the US. He hangs out with friends and a doctor he met on the ship back from Europe.

He travels to Macon, Georgia. The journey helps him see the difference in how white people from the north and south view black people. In Georgia, he watches a massive religious revival featuring the preacher John Brown and the spirited man known as Singing Johnson. The narrator is agnostic, but he still finds himself moved by the community.

One night, the narrator watches a group of white men burn a black man alive. The horrific event makes the narrator decide that he will return to New York and pass for white.

The narrator enrolls in a business school. His knowledge of Spanish helps him move up quickly in his job as a clerk. He is determined to accumulate great wealth through real estate.

Race, for the narrator, seems to no longer exist until he falls in love with a white woman. He confesses that he has black ancestry, and the woman leaves him without a word. Yet, the woman eventually marries him. Unfortunately, she dies during the birth of their second child.

The narrator continues to pass as white. Considering his children, he says that he is pleased with his decision, though he remains haunted: was denying his social heritage worth the social mobility?