Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

by

James Weldon Johnson

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Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man: Chapter 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator, now an ex-colored man, notes that this final chapter covers much time in brief and omits many details. Arriving in New York, he felt horribly lonely, thought about returning to Connecticut but decided against it, and resolved to first enjoy himself for some time by going to Coney Island, Broadway shows, and fine restaurants. Realizing that this was expensive and he did not know anyone in the city, he realized he could not teach music and decided to pursue “a white man’s success” (meaning money). Unable to find work through the newspaper, he joined a business college—but he soon ran out of money, started working as a clerk downtown and catching “the money fever,” and got promoted to a company starting a South American department.
As soon as he crosses over into the white world, it seems, the narrator suddenly has access to the entirety of New York City—but he also loses the entire community he had previously enjoyed. There is no possibility of a middle ground, living as black in some places and white in others; he does not merely use his ambiguous appearance to his advantage, as the terms of his decision in the previous chapter might have suggested. Rather, the very fabric of his social being has transformed.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
The narrator considered money-making “an interesting and absorbing game”—he loved calculating the interest on his savings and even quit smoking and drinking to save money. When he made 1,000 dollars for himself, he was proud and satisfied, but had no idea what to do with his money and decided to invest in “a rickety old tenement-house,” which he sold for double his original investment after six months. Over the next few years, he continued to pursue real estate and reached a position about which he “shall say nothing except that it pays extremely well.” He began to move in “a grade of society of no small degree of culture,” especially since he could play ragtime—he often wanted to reveal his “Negro blood” and frequently laughed about his “capital joke” on the world.
While money was always tight in his past and he was usually forced to live in boarding-houses, now he suddenly purchases his own home and can afford to continue living the lavish lifestyle he learned in Europe—but his newfound wealth, and the selfish obsession with accumulation that drives it, inhibits his lifestyle rather than facilitating it. While he was previously a black imitator of ragtime, here he becomes precisely one of the white imitators he criticized when he first mentioned ragtime in Jacksonville. The “capital joke” suggests that his “grade of society” only accepted ragtime when white musicians adopted it.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Related Quotes
One night, at a musical party, the narrator fell in love with a singer, “the most dazzlingly white thing I had ever seen.” He mainly loved her voice but was afraid to approach her—and then she remarked on his piano playing and insisted on meeting him. He fell “seriously in love” and, after some time, resolved to propose to her. He agonized about “whether to ask her to marry me under false colors or to tell her the whole truth,” for his fear of losing her eroded his moral courage. They played music together “like two innocent children with new toys” as he returned to “the wholesome dreams of my boyhood”; he even began writing new “Chopinesque” songs for her.
Yet again, music forms the backdrop and medium of the narrator’s emotional life. Here, it leads him to love, and the classical music that he returns to becomes the medium through which he expresses and, at least in the narrative structure, consummates that love. The Faustian character of his decision to “pass” becomes clear, and his relationship with the singer becomes shrouded in racial secrecy much like his own parents’ relationship.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
One day, they were visiting the Eden Musée together, and the narrator realized that Shiny was standing next to him. He was paralyzed, unsure what to do, but Shiny turned to greet him “and let drop no word that would have aroused suspicion as to the truth.” The singer joined in the chatter, and the ex-colored man “was surprised at the amount of interest a refined black man could arouse.” Indeed, he came to believe “that she herself knew very little about prejudice” and gained the “encouragement and confidence to cast the die of my fate.”
Recall that Shiny, now a successful professor, is too dark-skinned to ever “pass” for white. Not only does Shiny’s prominence point the narrator to the kind of achievement, at once personal and collective, that may have been open to him had he continued to live as black; Shiny’s entry into the same space as the “white” couple also suggests that he can circumvent New York’s informal segregation in at least an informal way, even if only because of his prominence or “refine[ment].” Despite his role as a character foil for the narrator, Shiny’s decision not to say anything reflects a tacit agreement between them: he seems to understand not only what the narrator is doing but also the obvious advantages to doing so. What is perhaps more surprising is that the narrator feels no shame or guilt at apparently abandoning his people when he sees Shiny.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
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As the narrator played Faure’s 13th Nocturne for the singer one night, he was overcome with “a wave of exaltation” and proclaimed his love for her; her eyes “glistening with tears,” he admitted that “there is something more” and spoke the truth. She looked back “with a wild, fixed stare as though I was some object she had never seen” and began weeping on the piano. He left, feeling much like he had after encountering his father at the Paris opera and feeling “absolute regret at being colored.” He tried to make sense of what had happened—he knew she loved him but not how his admission had affected her. He wrote her a letter proclaiming that he loved her and nothing else mattered; she wrote back after two days, saying she had gone to New Hampshire for the summer, and her mother confirmed this story when the narrator visited.
Although the singer clearly loves the narrator and her interest in Shiny suggests that she is not a racist, unspoken racial divisions run so deep even in the North that the intangible, invisible fact of the narrator’s blackness—something she surely knows they would continue to hide from the world—devastates her. This event is, of course, a straightforward mirror image of his encounter with his father: in both cases, his blackness prevents him from receiving love from white people who do, in fact, love him.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The whole summer, the singer did not write to the narrator; he began to despair and lose all energy. Even after she returned, he wanted “to wait for some word or sign” before seeking her out. At the theater one evening, he came across the singer and her mother—along with a “young man whom I knew slightly”—sitting nearby. He felt powerless and hopeless. They met at a card party soon thereafter and “were thrown together at one of the tables as partners.” They summarily won the game; for the rest of the night, he was so busy watching her that he “played whatever card my fingers happened to touch.” She soon went to the piano and started playing the opening to the 13th Nocturne; he walked over and she said, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” He took over and finished the piece, “involuntarily” ending it with a major instead of a minor chord.
The narrator and the singer recapitulate their pattern of expressing and achieving emotional intimacy through music, but notably she also reaches out to him precisely by citing the moment of racial disclosure that led her to abandon him. Rather than resume their relationship while simply avoiding the question of his blackness—which she has been doing so far—she addresses it directly. Of course, the narrator’s accidental change to the Nocturne’s final chord clearly symbolizes the “happy ever after” of their coming marriage, but it also recalls his years as a full-time performer, when he reworked classical themes to create ragtime.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
The narrator and the singer married the next spring and spent a few months in France. They had a daughter with his complexion and her personality, and then a son with the opposite, who “occupies an inner sanctuary of [the narrator’s] heart” because his wife died giving birth to him. They were “supremely happy” for their short marriage, but soon “there came a new dread to haunt me”: the fear that she might blame his blood for his faults. She never did, and he insists that “her loss to me is irreparable.” Unwilling to marry again, he has dedicated his life to his children and withdrawn from his social circles.
The narrator’s son is just like him, but looks white—as “dazzlingly white” as his mother—which may be a more covert and insidious reason for the narrator’s love, even though he still passes on the biology he fears could be blamed for his faults. After revealing his secret to his wife, he feels not relief at getting to acknowledge his complete self but rather fear that his white wife will never truly see him as equal. He finally manages to take the active role his own father never could; he hides his children from their own blackness, it seems, out of love and fear for the way they may be treated.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
The narrator sometimes feels that he has “never really been a Negro” and sometimes that he has “been a coward, a deserter.” Years ago, he went to a Hampton Institute meeting at Carnegie Hall. The students’ songs “awoke memories that left me sad.” The audience became enamored with Booker T. Washington’s speech; his “earnestness and faith” was shared by “all of that small but gallant band of colored men who are publicly fighting the cause of their race.” Everyone knows “the eternal principles of right [are] on their side,” and the narrator feels “small and selfish” in comparison, “an ordinarily successful white man” before “men who are making history and a race.” He loves his children, but sometimes looks at the “fast yellowing manuscripts” of his old compositions and comes to think that “I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”
This is the sense of regret that, at the beginning of the book, the narrator said he was trying to address; by re-encountering the power of black music and political leadership through his character foils, who are given perhaps the world’s most prominent stage, he sees what he could have become. The last sentence of the novel is an explicit reference to the biblical story of Esau, who sold his birthright (his right to authority as his family’s elder brother) for a bowl of lentil stew (the “mess of pottage”). This story, like Faust, represents trading one’s identity for immediate comforts; the narrator realizes that his slightly greater comfort as a Northern white man does not resolve his shame at being black, or at seeing the way the United States treats its black population, but it does prevent him from openly fighting for civil rights. That leaves this book, an anonymous tale ending in regret, as the narrator’s only way to make amends and insist on the imperative of fighting for justice.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
Related Quotes