James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a fictional autobiography of a man born from a mixed race family trying to find his racial identity but never fully committing to one. At first, he is unaware of his origins and believes that he is a white boy, but after a bullying incident at school, his mother reveals that she is black and his father is white to a complete shock of the main character.
This begins his journey, throughout which he explores the question of race from different perspectives while “passing” for a white man or immersing himself in the black culture with various results. An argument on a train reveals that he feels uncomfortable when “passing” but after witnessing a lynching, he decides to continue his life as a white man, for his own safety. In the end, he reveals the truth to his beloved, and they get married, but he still feels like he could have done more with his life, and his that by abandoning his dreams he squandered the potential that he had. This is a story of self-discovery and how at times a person is defined by the society, while in other instances they may define themselves.
The ambivalence of the story is used to explore the question of racial identity from unique and varied perspectives, from the perspective of the main character, as well as the perspectives of the people that he meets on his journey.
Perhaps the first scene that shows that the main character’s identity is deterministic is when his mother reveals his origin to him, because it not only begins his doubts about himself and how the world sees him but also shows that no matter which identity he chooses, he would always have a part of both. The main character is completely unaware of his racial identity for the first half of his childhood. His earliest experiences do not involve a lot of social interactions, and he never considers himself to be anything but white.
While he does not realize it, he, in fact, is “passing” as a white boy at an early age. He even gets involved in bullying black students and using racial comments against them. This event is the first clear case of his race being shown as intractable. Though the first time he becomes unsure of his racial identity is when all the white children are asked to stand, he is asked to sit, the reality is it does not actually concern him until his mother intervenes in his bullying (Johnson 24).
His mother explains to him that she is black and that his father is a white man and this begins his journey of self-discovery. The ambiguity of early portions of the chapter makes the character’s shock at the reveal much more effective because it is easy to assume that he understands that he is not white. However, it also serves to foreshadow how the character would act in later chapters and even the end of the book.
These moments of the determinism of his racial identity are present both at the beginning and the end of the book, and serve to confirm that some parts of his identity cannot be changed, even when he is able to convincingly “pass” for a white man. The main character experiences the intractability of his racial identity for the last time near the end of the book. After becoming involved with a white woman while “passing” as a white man, he begins to feel that keeping his true identity from her would not be fair to their relationship.
Therefore he shares with her his true racial identity. For her, it is a shock, and initially, she seems to have mixed feelings about this situation (Johnson 280). She even leaves town in the summer, making the main character sad and feeling rejected. Eventually, however, she accepts him for who he is a person, and they are married. By choosing to be honest with his beloved, he at least partially redeems himself for his earlier misdeeds.
They have multiple children, and he is overall happy for both himself and the future of his children but is still unable to let go of the feelings of guilt. His dreams of becoming a great ragtime player who would make the world at large appreciate the black race and its accomplishments had to be abandoned, and he is likely never to feel completely fulfilled in his life because of it. While it is left ambivalent whether he ever tries again to become a ragtime player, the main character clearly states that his children will grow up as white people.
The smoking-room scene is one of the most creative uses of ambivalence in the book because it distracts the reader from the possible “whites only” status of the room, as well as shows the emotional difficulty of the main character to “pass” for a white man. The scene involves a group of men discussing the “race question” that Johnson frequently covers in the book. In this section, the two primary characters are the Northern veteran of the Civil War and a Southern man.
The Northern man is knowledgeable and able to provide strong points and counterpoints to support his opinions for equality. On the other hand, the Southern man is ignorant, and even when his points are countered, he still sticks to them, ending the argument by stating that there is nothing that could change his mind. The Northern man, however, is not as advanced and open-minded as the points that he makes in his arguments for equality.
When asked if he would let his daughter marry a black man, he says that he would not (Johnson 229). While the racial views these two characters are interesting, the most important part of the scene is in the main character’s reaction and his malleable identity. Despite disagreeing with the Southern man, he finds his honesty and self-confidence admirable. This scene shows not only the different perspectives on black people that were present in the north and the south of the country but also the insecurity of the main character. He is so uncomfortable when “passing” that he almost praises the southern man’s self-confidence, despite his ignorant worldview.
A scene towards the end of the book shows the malleability of the main character’s racial identity because when he becomes scared for his life, he is able to completely assume a white man’s persona full time. The main character is visiting his old friend Shiny, but during the visit, he witnesses a horrible event. One day, a man is lynched in the street, and after seeing this act, the main character significantly changes his life. He describes the scene from memory which means his feelings have already been managed so the description comes across as less shocking than it would have been when the event occurred.
The description of the event is also rather detailed as he describes the various reactions of the crowd. He shares images of the crowd as being remorseful for the man lynched and those participating in the lynching as being driven by pure hatred. The main character is not in danger during the lynching, but he begins to experience a strong feeling of fear for his life. He leaves the town without saying goodbye to Shiny and decides to start “passing” as a white man on a regular basis (Johnson 259).
He justifies his decision by saying that the disadvantages found in being black may be too great for him. However, he knows that his actions were motivated by cowardice. He leaves Shiny in possible danger, because lynching often did not stop after the first person’s death. Moreover, he feels like there is no way for him to be a black man, even in the safety of the north.
James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man uses the technique of ambivalence to show how people from different racial backgrounds can view themselves and people around them. Ambivalence is used in a variety of ways. The first is the author deliberately downplaying the racial identity of the character to show how he feels in any given situation. For example, in his childhood, there is no mention of the character’s race until it becomes an issue for him.
Other people’s races are deliberately highlighted too, which makes the reader think that the main character is aware of his background. This makes his bullying behavior more shocking and makes the reader understand how the main character sees himself. A similar situation is presented in the train scene. All of the races of the characters are described, but no attention is given to the “whites only” designation of the room. However, in this scene, the character is completely aware of his choice to “pass” for a white man, and he tries to avoid talking about it despite his feelings of discomfort. In other cases, the ambivalence is present only for the character.
For example, when he chooses to live as a white man, the audience is aware that this he will not feel fully comfortable, but the character is either unaware or unwilling to admit that it is not his definitive racial identity. Each situation presents a new perspective and changes the way the story can be seen. By looking at it as an exploration of race, the story becomes highly educational in these scenes.
This approach to the story allows the reader to better understand the thought process of people from white and black communities. The story is filled with different perspectives on race from both the main character and his surroundings. From children’s inability to fully understand the way that their friends may feel, to the horror of witnessing an act of inhuman cruelty to members of a different race, the book becomes a window into the racial experiences and attitudes that were present in 1900s America. I believe that the most important lesson of the book if it is viewed from this perspective, is that there is not a universal opinion on race.
While it is clear that racism and its ideas are indisputably wrong and hateful, the non-racist opinions and perspectives may warry in many ways. A white person may be supportive of equality, but still be prejudice against black people. A black person may be extremely critical of their own race but still fight for their rights because people deserve equal treatment, and they should not judge people by the worst examples of their racial behavior.
The world is a complex interconnection of people, society, and ideas and it is impossible to choose one. Nevertheless, people should not assume that the color of a person’s skin defines their ideas, behavior or identity. While this should be self-evident, people often fall for the simplified view of the world and make mistakes when thinking about others. Hopefully, these mistakes would not lead to people accidentally hurting others.
Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Duke Classics, 2012.