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 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator remarks that he has always tried to make sense of that day, and especially the “radical change” in his personality after it. It was an unforgettable moment of pain, those great “tragedies of life.” After that day, he “pass[ed] into another world,” gradually realizing “the dwarfing, warping, distorting influence” that forces him to experience the world not as a citizen or human being but “from the viewpoint of a colored man.” This also blinds whites to the experiences of “the colored people of this country,” whose thoughts depend on experiences whites cannot understand and who therefore develop “a sort of dual personality.” He declares that black Americans understand white Americans better than the inverse.
While race never shapes the narrator’s character or personality, racism certainly does, constraining his sense of his own potential. He shows that racism operates as much psychologically as economically or politically: it creates not only two parallel societies but also two parallel mindsets. The “dual personality” he discusses closely follows W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of the black Americans’ “double consciousness”—they must view themselves from the outside as well as from their own perspectives.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
The change in the narrator’s life was mostly about his increasing suspicion of his friends and fear of being hurt by them; the white kids at school did not understand their differences from the black kids, except for a few who “evidently received instructions at home on the matter,” and the narrator only learned by observing how the other black and brown students were treated. He felt little about them but did not want to be grouped with them, and notes that he came to feel more comfortable around elderly white people than those his age, and that his feelings of exclusion continued throughout his life.
Given his outward ambiguity and relatively privileged Northern upbringing, the narrator never manages to fully identify with other black people and even maintains an internalized sense of prejudice against them. While he becomes sensitive to race only because it affects him, the white students pay no attention to it until they realize they can use it to for their social advantage.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
When he had grown older, the narrator’s “forced loneliness” led him “to find company in books, and greater pleasure in music.” He discovered the former through an illustrated Bible, looking at its pictures until he started to read the story, which he found less impressive at the end. He decided to “explore” all the other books in his mother’s cabinet; he never knew how she got them, but she had probably read most of them, and she encouraged his reading habit, even buying him new books and the weekly paper.
The narrator never conceives his identity in terms of race; feeling isolated from both the black and white communities, he only ever views himself as an individual. He starts with the Bible, a cornerstone of both white and African-American communities, which foreshadows his eventual interest in black church music.
Themes
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
The narrator also turned to music “with an earnestness worthy of maturer years,” taking lessons with his church organist and learning so rapidly that, after a performance at age 12, the newspapers gave him “the handicapping title of ‘Infant prodigy.’” He attributed his success to learning to “play with feeling,” using the pedals to create a “sympathetic, singing” song—all because he first began by copying his mother’s songs. His mannerisms were those of “great performers,” and came naturally when he put his whole body and emotional force into the instrument.
The narrator naturally plays with his body and not his mind, through imitation and not theory, which is an approach he later deems characteristic of ragtime and black music more generally. Although music wins him status as an artist even in the minds of Connecticut’s white community—although he never divulges the racial composition of the church he attends—he initially sees it as a way of translating and expressing his emotions rather than a way to become famous. He is frustrated, then, when his audiences emphasize his technical abilities, finding him remarkable only because of his age.
Themes
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
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At school, the narrator was entering the third term, having managed to support Red Head by gradually starting to just do his work for him. One day, he was “impetuous” about getting to his music teacher’s house to rehearse with a violinist he was set to accompany—although he has always hated accompaniment, since his “ideas of interpretation were always too strongly individual.”
While he happily supports Red Head through school, the narrator does not care for supporting the violinist. This reflects how uniquely he values music as a domain of expression as well as his enduring attachment to his concept of himself as an individual and refusal to be evaluated on anyone else’s terms.
Themes
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
The violinist was “a girl of seventeen or eighteen” whose performances had “moved me to a degree which now I can hardly think of as possible,” although probably just because the narrator found her so beautiful while she played in church. He “loved her as only a boy loves,” daydreaming about her constantly and dedicating everything he did to the thought of her. Of course, he carefully hid his love from her—she soon made a joke out of her friends calling him her “little sweetheart,” but he “wanted to be taken seriously” and thought he might “do something desperate” if necessary.
Notably, the narrator never mentions the violinist’s race. His affection to her is closely tied to the emotional power of music, which becomes a way for him to indirectly express his emotions without explicitly revealing how he feels. He continues to seem mature beyond his years, and frustrated when others view him through the lens of his age rather than his individual talents—but age, rather than race, continues to be the primary constraint on his identity.
Themes
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
So that day, the narrator felt a “pleasurable excitement” about being able to “be of service to [the violinist].” He got home but stopped in his tracks when he saw “a black derby hat” on his peg of the rack. His mother said someone was there to see him, and he turned out to be “a tall, handsome, well-dressed gentleman of perhaps thirty-five” even more fascinating than the hat. The narrator did not recognize the man until he got to “his slender, elegant, polished shoes.” It was his father, his mother explained.
Despite the narrator’s usual distaste for accompaniments, his eagerness to serve reflects the same conflation of labor with affection that brought his mother and father together; since his mother was his father’s family’s seamstress, it is accordingly no coincidence that he first notices his father’s presence through his clothes—his hat and then his flashy shoes.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
The narrator had always wondered who and where his father was, and especially why his mother refused to talk about him. And now, he was here—but neither of them had any idea what to do, which disappointed his mother. His father broke the silence: “Well, boy, aren’t you glad to see me?” This was the worst possible thing to say—but the narrator replied “yes, sir,” and stuck out his hand, which his father held. His father stroked his head and asked how old he was—which the narrator also found peculiar—and soon they “lapsed into another awkward pause,” although his mother “was all in smiles,” happier than perhaps ever.
The narrator’s meeting with his father is suffused with the awkward, forced formalities of a business interaction; his mother has said nothing about his father, as though his refined appearance and presence will speak for themselves. She delights in the image of her secret family reuniting, even if this confuses more than comforts the narrator—precisely because she has never told him about his father.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The narrator’s mother asked the narrator to play a song for his father, which he did “in a listless, halfhearted way,” for he “simply was not in the mood” and wanted to leave. But his father’s eager praise “touched [the narrator’s] vanity—which was great.” It also showed his “sincere appreciation”—this made the narrator grateful and emotional, and he channeled it into a Chopin waltz; after he finished, his father embraced him, and he asked his mother whether his father would be staying—although he could not yet manage to call him “father.” His father had to return to New York but promised to visit again, and the narrator reminded his mother about his appointment and then left, saying goodbye on the way out. He recalls, “I saw him only once after that.”
The narrator again uses music as a proxy for emotional expression and connection; he freely acknowledges that he only appreciated his father’s recognition of his talent, and his inability to say “father” suggests that he sees the visitor more as an audience than a family member. It is unclear whether his father lived in New York or was only visiting Connecticut because he had business in the city; either way, this suggests that the narrator’s father does not translate his apparent affection into action or support, perhaps because of indifference or perhaps because of the social risk he would incur.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
Heading to the rehearsal, all the narrator could think about was his father, but he did not realize “that he was different from me,” although the narrator also had little idea that prejudice “ramified and affected the entire social organism.” But he did feel “the whole affair” should stay hidden. He was late to rehearsal and made up a lie to explain himself: his mother was sick, and would not “be with us very long,” which the music teacher saw through easily—but in fact this was “a prophecy.”
The narrator still seems to see racism as localized, present only at school and not in the broader world, which likely contributes to his confused sense that his father has to keep him secret but his inability to understand why. As he remembers going to the rehearsal, the narrator cannot help foreshadowing not only his mother’s impending death and his eventual discovery of racism’s pervasiveness, but also the way his own eventual family becomes shrouded in secrecy about race.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
They practiced the duet, and the narrator “was soon lost to all other thoughts in the delights of music and love,” which is at its most pure and marvelous in boyhood. He returned home to his mother sitting in her rocking chair and singing, as usual. She told him that his father, “a great man, a fine gentleman,” would “make a great man of [the narrator]” too. He did not yet understand why this was only half-true.
The purity of the narrator’s love parallels his innocence about the scope of racism—indeed, he might be referring to the sense in which racism gets in the way of his later relationships with white women (especially his eventual wife). His insistence that his mother was telling a half-truth probably refers to the way he became much like his father—a white businessman in New York—despite his father’s absence for virtually the rest of his life; indeed, the one time he does see his father inspires his return to the United States and leads indirectly to his eventual choice to renounce his race.
Themes
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon