The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is the work written by an African-American writer James Weldon Johnson in the early 20th century when racism was considered the norm in the New World. Despite the title, the author admitted that this novel was not autobiographical and mostly fictional. Nevertheless, the book has some nuances that Johnson derived from his personal experience.
Perhaps, that is why it was published anonymously, and the writer admitted his authorship only much later. He did it for security reasons because he feared that such a topic could adversely affect his career. The novel is a vivid reflection of the idea of the struggle for equality and the attempts of the African-American population of the 20th century to achieve complete freedom and recognition in the society. Probably, it was the observation of the behavior of many of his fellows that prompted Johnson to write this book, which gained great popularity and is in demand among readers and critics even today.
Peculiarities of the Novel’s Characters
The narration in the book is from the first person, and the main character is an African-American guy born in the state of Georgia after the Civil War. From the very beginning, the character tells readers that he is going to present a great mystery, saying: “I am divulging the great secret of my life” (Johnson 1). However, his desire to share his observations and experiences is stronger than fear; therefore, he decided to tell his story from the very beginning of his life.
The boy lived with his mother, but he did not have a father. The narrator remembered father’s image vaguely and kept the only thing that he had left the boy: a coin with a hole in the middle that the character wore around his neck throughout his life, saying that “I still possess it.” (Johnson 2). He admitted that he almost did not know his father; he saw him a few times as the father lived in New York, and all the times he was afraid of that not very familiar man who embarrassed the narrator. The man recalled his mother as a hard-working person who rarely visited other local women. However, he noted that “there were a great many ladies coming to our cottage” (Johnson 3).
The fact was that his mother was engaged in sewing, and local people often came to them for her services. The character remembered that his mother had dressed him neatly, looked after his manners, and brought him up following gentlemen’s norms. Perhaps, it is what influenced the fact that later this man grew up well-bred and educated enough to formulate his thoughts correctly. It was the mother who was his first teacher of music and instilled love for this art in him. She could play the piano, and the son, listening to her, tried to imitate her. It was his mother who convinced the boy that it was necessary to play music.
After he had studied for several years in a private school with an excellent teacher, his mother sent him to a public school where he met many people and realized his difference from many other students for the first time. There, he met another boy, whom he called “Red Head.” The narrator remembered that they immediately had become friends since they had “a simultaneous mutual attraction” (Johnson 5). The guy recalled that there had been a few more “colored” children in his class, and it was in a new school where he first learned about how some local boys and girls treated African-Americans.
Mother was the person who helped him to cope with troubles and explained what patience and inner strength meant. She was very upset when she knew that her son was bullied at school. The narrator always remembered his mother and what she taught him. This mother-son relationship may have helped a young man to become a thinking and well-mannered person. The love he felt for his mother is something that the narrator consistently emphasizes throughout the whole book. He saw his mother at the last minute of her life and was beside her when she passed away. He felt a terrible pain and did not know what he could do. Although his pain eventually subsided, he never forgot his dear mother.
Image of the Coin
The coin presented to the protagonist by his father during parting may not be just an ordinary talisman that people wear around their necks. Perhaps, the author wanted to emphasize the connection of the coin with the so-called slavish stigma, when captive people wore distinctive insignia. Since the narrator wore it throughout his life, the author might have associated this item with the bondage of slavery.
It is unlikely that Johnson would have paid much attention to this thing if it had no subtext. Therefore, the coin was perceived as a gift in childhood, but it brought the feeling of despair and the hopelessness of the man’s social position later.
Features of the Narrator’s Life Perception
Although the writer wanted readers to believe in the autobiographical basis of his novel, he just imitated this style of writing, using appropriate terms and techniques. Thus, for example, since the very childhood, the character did not consider him to be special; he lived in a society where he was not pressured. Sometime later, when he became a schoolboy, he began to feel inequality and was worried because of this discomfort. After graduating from the university and his mother’s death, the narrator convinced himself that everything was all right in his life, saying “I am fit for the first time with mother’s death” (Johnson 43).
Such joy was caused by the end of education and, accordingly, the completion of problems. Nevertheless, afterward, the man understood that the ideals that his mother had inspired in him had almost nothing in common with the world that surrounded him.
The protagonist saw that society was divided into classes, and it applied not only to skin color. In his opinion, there were those who hated others, and there were those who practically did not care. For instance, one of the classes of blacks, as the narrator noted, hated “everything covered by a white skin” (Johnson 56). However, there were people who did not hate others of a different race. The man considered them more educated and developed.
The first half of the story ended when the man decided to go to New York. The factory where he worked was closed, and it was one of the main reasons why the narrator decided to go to the North. He understood that it was hard for a black young man to earn trust, but he tried to do everything possible to prove his equality and ability to be a full member of society. It was impossible for black men to get high positions, and the main character saw the examples of such treatment many times. He knew that white people could not be trusted because they did not consider him and others like him ordinary members of their society. Therefore, the decision to leave for New York did not hurt the man but gave him hope.
Comparisons on Racial Grounds
The second half of the story started when the character came to New York. He admitted its fascination and could not deny its beauty and attraction. However, the narrator did not stop lamenting about his country and its structure. He had visited many places including Europe, but wherever the man tried to show his talent of the musician, he failed. Since the author was an African-American, who had spent his childhood and adult life in a difficult era, he knew about all the difficulties of “colored” people, as he called them. He understood that his race did not allow him to reveal his potential fully and to prove to society his right to be called a full-fledged citizen.
Even in the “Club”, where there were many colored people, he felt a biased attitude. The man enjoyed seeing the visitors of this place watch his piano playing and ask questions (Johnson 87). Nevertheless, the narrator regretted that the white person around him was scornful towards him and other people of his race. As he claimed, “even the sound of their names expresses a certain racial difference” (Johnson 99). Therefore, the topic of racial discrimination is the basis of the whole work; it completely reflects the picture of America of the early 20th century.
The narrator said that he was ashamed of living in such a society, and it was a pity that the country with a developed democracy could not do anything so that all its citizens might live equally (Johnson 137). This fact probably worried the author of the book, as he often raised the topic of false ideas and wrong values in his works. It is not a secret that many American classics adhered to this position; however, Johnson’s book is one of the most striking examples of expressing a common idea.
Concept of Happiness
The protagonist traveled to Europe, visited many European capitals, but he did not receive the recognition he wanted. His plans to become a famous American musician, who arrived in the Old World, failed (Johnson 101). The narrator returned to the USA where he continued to experience difficulties and inconvenience. When he was in love, he remembered what good and pleasant feelings he had. “I could never have believed that life held such happiness,” as he marked that period of his life (Johnson 146). Perhaps, the real happiness for the character would be the opportunity to gain recognition among people and the chance to behave and communicate on an equal footing, without experiencing any moral inconvenience.
At the end of the book, the narrator, is already an adult, said that it was not easy for him to understand who he was. “It is difficult for me to analyze my feelings concerning my present position in the world,” as the character said (Johnson 152). It was hard for him to conclude, but looking at his life, he realized that there was a lot of good in it. The character was no longer an active young man; nevertheless, the book ended with the narrator’s idea that he could not understand why he had such a role in his life.
Thus, the style of the author and his vision of the problem of African-Americans living in a society largely coincide with the ideas of his colleagues. The novel became one of the most vivid works about the thinking and emotions of a person with limited freedom in society. Many of the ideas in the book are symbolic and quite relevant, and readers can certainly learn a lot by reading it.
Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Penguin Books, 1990.