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 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
“With a stiff and aching body,” the narrator wandered around Jacksonville until he met an inquisitive minister, who walked him to a boarding house and asked him to visit his church. The “neat and not uncomfortable” house was run by “a rather fine looking, stout, brown-skinned woman of about forty” and the landlady’s Cuban husband. The other boarders, cigar factory workers, chatted rambunctiously in Spanish—the narrator worried that a fight would break out, but soon realized “they were discussing purely ordinary affairs and arguing about mere trifles” and began to enjoy their company.
While the narrator again ends up in a boarding house, this time he finds an entirely new ethnic community there; this section in his life borrows from the author’s childhood in Jacksonville and extensive diplomatic work in Latin America. Notably, Jacksonville is not strictly segregated between whites and blacks; the Cuban cigar workers are also excluded from white society, and the narrator is initially suspicious of them, too, until he realizes they are not going to fight.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
The narrator wandered around Jacksonville, which he found much more pleasant and green than Atlanta, before asking his landlady about work—the hotels were not going to open for two more months, so he asked whether might be able to teach music lessons (he could, but “the colored people were poor” and could only pay 25 cents per lesson). The landlady’s husband offered the narrator work at the cigar factory, which he enthusiastically accepted. The cigar rollers could work at their convenience and were paid per thousand cigars, but the narrator would be a “stripper,” tasked with separating tobacco stems and leaves. The landlady’s husband also began talking about Cuban independence—he belonged to the Jacksonville junta (committee) that helped fund the Cuban rebels. The narrator was impressed with his eloquent English.
Again, all of the narrator’s preconceptions and plans fall away, and he ends up planning to work in a job for which his obsessive reading and music performance have done nothing to prepare him. In contrast to poor blacks’ vernacular in Atlanta, the landlady’s husband’s English seems to prove his legitimacy and trustworthiness to the protagonist, who narrates the entire book in a flowery and formal register that belies his failure to ever actually attend a university. The narrator seems unsure what to make of the man’s political activities, which reflects his own lifelong ambivalence about involving himself in politics.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
The next morning, a fellow “stripper” showed the narrator how to remove the stems—he was a natural, given his years of piano training, and soon became the fastest in the factory, making 4 dollars a week and teaching piano lessons at night. After three months, he was promoted and began to roll cigars. He also started “to smoke, to swear, and to speak Spanish,” which he picked up with remarkable speed—within a year, he was “like a native,” even better than the Cubans. In fact, he was even selected as the factory’s “reader,” the man who read newspapers and novels to the workers as well as resolving disputes. Making 25 dollars a week, he bought a piano and stopped teaching lessons.
For the first time in his life, the narrator comfortably belongs to a larger group, even though he has nothing at all in common with the cigar workers; in a sense, he is already “passing,” and Johnson clearly turns satirical here. Despite his relatively sheltered upbringing and disdain for lower-class black people in Connecticut and Atlanta alike, the ex-colored man somehow falls in with the working-class Cubans and even becomes more Cuban than them, winning a position of power in the factory and suddenly rising out of this class role.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
But these lessons, along with church, had introduced the narrator to “the best class of colored people in Jacksonville,” or what he called “the freemasonry of the race.” Because of his position as an outsider, he learned things that were too quotidian for his new acquaintances to even realize: that black Americans passively but effectively resist racism; that white Southerners squander their energy oppressing blacks; that “the scene of the struggle has shifted” from black people’s humanity to their worthiness for education and now their “social recognition.” In fact, he finds it remarkable that both black and white Southerners have their lives “limited by the ever present ‘Negro question’” and even suggests that whites are more “deplored” insofar as they cannot help but fixate on race.
Although it allows him to essentially give up his race, the narrator’s racial ambiguity also gives him a remarkably balanced perspective on American racism, since not only is he an “outsider” to the segregated South, but whites and blacks both assume he is a racial “insider.” He recognizes that racism is more about white people (their fears and irrational systematic prejudices, which arose after the beginning of slavery to retroactively justify it but hold no concrete truth) than the faults, behaviors, or tendencies of black people.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
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The narrator thinks that, in the South, “the colored people may be said to be roughly divided into three classes, not so much in respect to themselves as in respect to their relations with the whites.” There is the “desperate class” of laborers, convicts, and drunks, who hate “all white men” and do not value their lives; while this class is small, “it often dominates public opinion concerning the whole race.” He thinks that reducing this class—not by violence, but by changing the horrible conditions that leads to its formation—must be a priority. The second class consists of “simple, kindhearted and faithful” domestic servants who serve as “the connecting link between whites and blacks.”
The narrator’s view of the “desperate” class continues to hold true in the twenty-first century: media portrayals of black America focus disproportionately on the most destitute, resulting from and recursively feeding centuries-old stereotypes about African-Americans. This leads him to a clear political demand for basic opportunities of the sort that allowed him to make an honest living for himself; yet this political vision never translates into political activity on his part. Surprisingly, he has the least to say about the class of black servants, even though his mother came from this class.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
The third class consists of independent workers and “the well-to-do and educated colored people,” who “live in a little world of their own” and are just as disconnected from whites as the first class. For instance, a friend once pointed out that a white man he grew up with would not talk to him since he became a professional; white people seem to think that educated and comfortable blacks are just “spiting the white folks” or “going through a sort of monkey-like imitation,” rather than realizing that everyone would similarly progress given the opportunity. People in this last class are “well disposed toward the whites” but deeply cognizant of the discrimination they face, like when they are forced to ride in segregated train cars. They “carry the entire weight of the race question” but can still enjoy their lives without shame.
More affluent black people do not overcome segregation but simply have the resources to build out their separate world. As wealth and status have been exclusively available to white people until this point in American history, they are so conflated with whiteness that many think affluent blacks are trying to act white, rather than simply trying to live comfortably. The irony here is that the narrator, who has already joined this last class, in fact does end up living as white and, when he decides to begin “passing,” he cites shame as his reason for doing so—he seems to gain a broader understanding of American racism than African-Americans who only associate with other black elites.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
This upper class has formed discriminating societies of their own, connected across the nation and difficult to join for even upwardly mobile outsiders. Jacksonville was in the early stages of developing such a community, and the narrator managed to enter it, visiting “comfortable and pleasant homes,” joining the literary society, and going to church and charity events. The next three years, “not at all the least enjoyable of my life,” even brought him a short-lived romance with a schoolteacher. But it was no fantasy life: the cigar makers, indifferent to social status, taught him to spend indiscriminately and brought him to endless weekend parties, although he “can’t remember that [he] ever did anything disgraceful.”
The black elite’s exclusionary self-definition and animosity toward outsiders not only parallel those of the Southern white planter class (to which the narrator’s father belongs), but also cuts them off from the experiences and interests of the rest of black America. For now, at least, the narrator manages to sustain his relationships to the working-class Cubans on the weekends—but he seems to be starting to look down on them from his new position of status.
Themes
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
At one ball, the narrator saw the second porter who had loaned him the money to get to Jacksonville and eagerly paid him back—although he was wearing “what was, at least, an exact duplicate of my lamented black and gray tie.” At another of these raucous balls thrown by hotel waiters, he watched a cake-walk for the first time. Competing for a gold watch, the couples danced in a square and the judges narrowed them down to three before declaring a winner. The cake-walk, the narrator declares, should be a point of pride and not shame: it is one of the “four things which refute the oft advanced theory that [black people] are an absolutely inferior race.” The other three are the Uncle Remus Stories, Jubilee songs, and ragtime, which was so popular in Europe that Parisians simply called it “American music.”
The narrator’s insistence on paying back the 15 dollar loan contrasts with the porter’s apparent dishonesty. It is telling that the narrator’s argument against blacks’ inferiority hinges on the artistic products of black culture and especially music; the cake-walk is even more interesting because, much like Johnson’s book, it hinges on the appropriation and inversion of other cultural forms: it began as a satire of plantation owners’ European ballroom dances and turned into an art form of its own.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
Right when the narrator was thinking about settling down in Jacksonville, the cigar factory abruptly closed, and he decided to follow some of the workers north to seek work in New York.
Again, the narrator moves from the South—where he has found a place in the world despite segregation—to the North, where he finds comparative freedom but ends up relatively rootless. Curiously, he also seems to choose the cigar workers over the Jacksonville black elite, who could have presumably found him another source of income.
Themes
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon