The narrator explains that this writing gives away his greatest, most carefully maintained secret, much like a criminal who tells someone about his deeds, knowing that it may compromise him. The danger is thrilling, but the narrator wants to “gather up all the little tragedies of my life, and turn them into a practical joke on society.” He is also seeking to escape a lingering sense of remorse that he plans to explain in the book’s last paragraph.
The remorse in question here is the narrator’s disappointment that he chose an ordinary white life over the chance to shape black history. While his decision to live as white was a personal “tragedy” he now regrets but cannot take back, it is still a valuable story because it shows the contingency of race: by crossing the color line, he disproves racists’ insistence that there must be an inherent difference between whites and blacks.
The narrator was born just after the Civil War in a small Georgia town that he wants to keep anonymous—its residents might find him out. He can vaguely remember the town, a small house with flowers and glass bottles stuck into the ground—he once dug them up, which led to “a terrific spanking.” In the backyard, he remembers bathing in wooden tubs, adventuring in the vegetable garden, and feeding the cow in her enclosure.
Even though the rural Georgians he grew up around are unlikely to read his book, the narrator insists on hiding his identity. It is not even clear whether he grew up in a white or black community, or whether he interacted with anyone at all. His early childhood, defined by agriculture and a connection to the land, contrasts strongly with his coming years in Connecticut, where he becomes obsessed with books and music.
There were also various people in the house, but the narrator only remembers his mother and “a tall man with a small, dark mustache,” shiny shoes, and gold jewelry, which the narrator used to admire. The man (later revealed as the narrator’s father) would visit a few times a week and give the narrator a coin for putting his shoes away, and the last night they saw each other, his mother was crying, but the man drilled through a ten-dollar gold piece to make a necklace that the narrator still owns, and has worn “the greater part of [his] life.”
Even though the narrator grew up in rural Georgia, and the reader later finds out that he was living with his black mother on his white father’s family’s estate, race has still not entered the equation. By choosing not to mention race, the narrator shows how he had to actively learn about it.
After getting the coin, the narrator and his mother “started on what seemed to me like an endless journey”—by train to Savannah, then by steamer to New York and on to Connecticut, where they lived in a luxurious cottage. She began to dress him well—building in him the pride that goes with being well-dressed—and take care with his friends, turning him into the “perfect little aristocrat.”
The narrator’s comparatively extravagant life in the North serves as a metaphor the regional differences between the South and the North, which was not only wealthier, but provided many more opportunities for free blacks. Despite his race, the narrator seems to immediately achieve status, and his new clothes recall his father’s flashy outfits in Georgia.
His mother sewed endlessly, and sometimes women visited to help—she likely made a decent salary, for she got a letter with money every month. She taught the narrator to read and write, and played slow hymns on the piano every Sunday evening and, occasionally, Southern songs on other days, which she also sang. These “were the happiest hours of [the narrator’s] childhood”; he was enthusiastic like “a pampered pet dog” and sang along. He particularly liked the black keys. After playing the piano, every night his mother would hold him and sing a wordless melody, and he always remembers her gazing into the fire as he fell asleep.
From the start, music plays an important part in the narrator’s sense of identity and emotional belonging; his mother introduces the two competing genres that come to define his own musical career: Western music (hymns) and black vernacular music (Southern songs), which are combined in both the narrator’s take on ragtime and the black hymns he eventually encounters back in Georgia.
The narrator began teaching himself to play the piano and could play all his mother’s songs by age seven. Some of his mother’s sewing companions convinced her to send him to a music teacher, who always insisted on tying everything back to the notes, which frustrated the narrator. The woman’s daughter studied books with him—he would replace difficult words, or even whole sentences and paragraphs, with things he saw in the illustrations, and he often came up with hilarious twists to the stories. He spent two years focused on music and books, with no real friends.
Crucially, the narrator learns to play the piano by imitation first and formal training second. He originally understands music through immediate, embodied experience of performance rather than an abstracted, formal object of transcribed sheet music, a distinction that later becomes central to both the differences between white and black musical forms and the sentiment among critics that the latter, in which the composer and performer are necessarily the same, does not properly count as art.
At age nine, the narrator entered school and was surprised to be surrounded by boys of all sorts, including some “little savages.” He felt like a stranger, since everyone else seemed to already know one another. But he did know his teacher, who spoke straight to him, giving him “a certain sort of standing in the class” and making him more comfortable. He started making friends but was afraid around girls—he still is—and his first friend was “a big awkward boy with a face full of freckles and a head full of very red hair,” a few years older than the rest of the class because he was held back so often. “Red Head” was strong but dull, and the narrator weak but smart, so “there was a simultaneous mutual attraction.”
When he finds himself embedded in a community for the first time, the narrator has difficulty figuring out where to place himself, much as he has difficulty placing himself in a particular racial community throughout his life; he considers himself superior to the other students and looks to the teacher, not his peers, for validation and instinctively aligns himself with the class’s other misfit. This testifies to his peculiarly individualistic upbringing and racial ambiguity.
The teacher made the students line up and spell their places—“t-h-i-r-d, third,” said the narrator on his turn, feeling lucky that his word was so easy and “impressed with the unfairness” that the students in the back of the line would have to spell words like “twelfth” and “twentieth.” Red Head was next, but misspelled his place “forth.” Students around the room eagerly raised their hands, but the narrator just whispered “u” to his friend, who got a second chance. He began, “f-u,” and the hands went back up—before his third chance, the narrator spelled out the whole word, and Red Head finally got the answer.
The line of students, whose words get progressively more difficult, is a clear metaphor for social inequality; even though they all ostensibly have the same task, the narrator realizes that he has structural advantages compared to the other students, His willingness to help Red Head in exchange for protection begins his lifelong pattern of finding white patrons (like his music teacher and the “millionaire”).
The narrator recalls how many “black and brown boys and girls [were] in the school,” and especially one with skin “black as night” but a shining face, eyes, and teeth. The narrator took to calling him “Shiny,” and he was the best student in the class in every respect—he learned quickly but also studied tirelessly, and won prize after prize through high school. But the other kids looked down on him.
No matter how successful Shiny is in school, there is nothing he can do to make up for the other students’ prejudice against him. The narrator emphasizes the boy’s stereotyped black features so strongly that his “shininess” comes to stand in for his name and identity. However, this also recalls the narrator’s father’s shiny shoes: a sign of social status.
The other students looked down even more on the other black students and called them “niggers.” One day, they were singing a song—“Nigger, nigger, never die, / Black face and shiny eye”—and one of the black boys threw a slate, which hit a white boy and cut his lip. The narrator joined the white boys in throwing stones at the black boys while they ran. Later, he went home to tell his mother what “one of the ‘niggers’” had done. She told him never to use “that word,” and he was ashamed to receive the criticism.
Even in the integrated North, anti-black racism is rampant—even learned by children—but also, as the song shows, clearly nonsensical. It is also clear that the narrator sees himself as white precisely because he has not yet had to confront his blackness, unlike the other children who obviously look the part.
At school one day, the teacher asked “all of the white scholars to stand for a moment,” and the narrator stood with them. She told him to sit down; the white boys said, “Oh, you’re a nigger too,” and the black kids said they “knew he was colored.”
The narrator not only learns racism in school, he also only learns about his own race there, and suddenly his own status in relation to his classmates’ changes irreversibly.
When he got home, the narrator “became conscious of” his beauty for the first time, gazing at his eyes and hair in the mirror. He ran downstairs and asked his mother, “tell me, mother, am I a nigger?” Her eyes filled with tears, and the narrator “looked at her critically for the first time,” her “almost brown” skin and hair “not so soft as mine.” But “she was very beautiful,” more than any of the women who visited the house. She replied, “you are not a nigger […] you are as good as anybody; if anyone calls you a nigger don’t notice them.” He asked if he was white—she said he was not, but “your father is one of the greatest men in the country—the best blood of the South is in you—.” She said she would tell the narrator about his father “some day.” “Perhaps it had to be done,” concludes the narrator, but he has never forgiven her.
This passage is full of contradictions about race. The narrator not only realizes his and his mother’s blackness, but also their beauty, which suggests that he manages to avoid the strict racism of his classmates, but also depends on white beauty standards insofar as he values his own lighter skin and softer hair. Despite insisting that her son is no worse than anyone else, the narrator’s mother still calls his father’s prominent, slaveholding family “the best blood of the South” because of their status. Her insistence that he is neither black nor white shows that his identity as mixed-race escapes the conventional American system of racial classification, based on the “one drop rule” that any black ancestry makes someone black.