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 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The duet went so well that “we were obliged to respond with two encores,” and the narrator thought bowing on the stage with the violinist might be the greatest joy in life. In the dressing room, she hugged and kissed him, but he “struggled to get away.” Soon, he joined the choir and started organ and music theory lessons—he wrote and performed a few preludes of his own before he even finished grammar school.
Through music the narrator gets to at once indulge his emotions and win status, but ironically, in rejecting the violinist’s kiss, he seems to forget his love as soon as the music is over. He also begins to move away from his initial, embodied and emotional relationship to music, and instead toward the formal theory of Western classical music.
Themes
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Growing older, the narrator began to wonder where he and his mother fit into the world—his history books were too broad, and newspapers “did not enlighten” him. But then, he came across Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Many critics of all perspectives have criticized Harriet Beecher Stowe, but the narrator thinks she painted a relatively accurate picture of slavery (although he did not admire Uncle Tom’s “type of goodness,” like that of foolish “old Negroes” who stayed on plantations and helped the Southern army). Uncle Tom’s Cabin showed him “who and what I was and what my country considered me,” but he was not shocked.
The narrator finds that the nonfiction deemed to express official truths about America, but written from a white perspective, fails to acknowledge questions of race. While it is telling that he first learns about race from a white author, he also seems to hope that his own book can perform a similar function to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, uncovering the secrets of the black experience from a perspective removed enough to avoid the accompanying backlash.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
The narrator felt he could finally talk to his mother about it all, so she started telling him fascinating stories from her “old folks” and made him want to see the South. She even talked about his father—she was his mother’s sewing girl, and he was back from college. He was about to marry “a young lady of another great Southern family,” and so they agreed to bring the narrator North so he could be educated. The narrator’s mother only ever praised his father—she never ceased “believing that he loved her more than any other woman in the world,” and she may have even been right—“Who knows?”
The unresolved question that hangs over this passage—and the narrator’s entire family life—is the precise nature of his parents’ relationship. It could make his mother’s nostalgia beautiful and subversive, because it shows that love can overcome the extraordinary social barrier of Southern racism. However, it could also be tragic if she has merely convinced herself that he loved her, even though he does not visit or support them much, out of psychological necessity or an internalized reverence for whiteness.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
Related Quotes
By his graduation day, the narrator had developed “a definite aspiration.” The day was extravagant—he played a piano solo, but Shiny stole the show, giving a passionate speech to a nearly all-white audience, as though “for the particular time and place he bore the weight and responsibility of his race.” He delivered Wendell Phillips’ lecture “Toussaint L’Ouverture” and won over the audience. The narrator notes that other “colored speakers who have addressed great white audiences” often get the same response, perhaps because of that “basic, though often dormant, principle of the Anglo-Saxon heart, love of fair play.” Shiny’s diminutive frame and ill-fitting clothes made his speech seem like “so unequal a battle” against the world. The speech inspired the narrator to feel pride at his blackness and dream of “bringing glory and honor to the Negro race,” which he talked endlessly about to his mother.
Shiny’s speech exemplifies stereotypes of eloquent black political leaders who are fluent in the language and customs of white America—and therefore could easily succeed as members of the black professional elite—but instead pursue the fight for equality because of their moral values and dedication to a collective cause. The narrator clearly understands this possibility, but he nevertheless ends up putting his own success above the collective interests of the black community, which he already scarcely identifies with. While he notes the hypocrisy of whites who theoretically value equality but refuse to take action for its sake, he does not see how his own ambition follows this same pattern.
Themes
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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The narrator entered high school—he continued music (but quit the choir because his voice dropped) and read widely, living “in a world of imagination” and almost never doing outdoor exercise, although his health was fine. His mother’s, however, was not, although “she kept her spirits up” and continued to sew to pay for her son’s college. He also started teaching piano lessons, and began requesting information brochures from colleges. He agreed with his father’s preferences: Harvard or Yale. Sometimes, Shiny and Red Head would come over for dinner—Shiny was planning to go to Amherst and live with his cousin, Red Head was to go straight to work at a bank and rise up through family connections.
Unlike the childhood he spent running around gardens and feeding cows, the narrator’s life is now entirely intellectual. Even though his wealthy father determines where the narrator wants to go to college, his mother still has to support him financially. Red Head’s white privilege—his ability to easily find work at a bank despite his thorough incompetence, only because his family is well-established and did not lose generations of wealth due to slavery—contrasts sharply with Shiny’s decision to go to college in the only place he need not support himself. Both of these cases contrast with the narrator’s clearly dwindling network of family support.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
After the narrator graduated high school, his mother was so sick that she could not leave bed or work; she knew she was dying and wrote to the narrator’s father, who never wrote back. She soon died with her son at her side, her fingers running through his hair. He soon moved into his music teacher’s house, sold and gave away his mother’s possessions, and found himself with 200 dollars in cash and no idea what to do.
Despite the narrator’s mother’s lifelong faith in his love, the narrator’s father never helps in their most desperate moment. The narrator takes over his role as her primary source of emotional solace, and the music teacher takes over as the narrator’s caregiver.
Themes
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
The music teacher convinced the narrator to hold a benefit concert; the violinist, now married, played but was losing her talent. The narrator performed Beethoven’s “Sonata Pathétique” more solemnly than ever and ended up with another 200 dollars. Altogether, his 400 dollars was enough for one year at Harvard or two at Atlanta, and he still had a “peculiar fascination with the South,” so he chose Atlanta.
While the narrator successfully transforms his sorrow into a masterful rendition of Beethoven’s sonata, the violinist seems to have lost her talent precisely because she became emotionally unavailable to the narrator. His decision to go to Atlanta is triply significant: it was the author’s alma mater, it is a historically black institution, and it is in Georgia, where he grew up but has never returned.
Themes
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon