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 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next day, they awoke too late to look for work, but the narrator was not worried—he had 300 dollars and promptly lost 50 dollars of it at the same craps table from the night before. But he was sure he would make the money back; two of his friends decided to go home, proving that “gamblers are rated, not by the way in which they win, but by the way in which they lose.” However, he managed to convince them to come to the “Club,” and they found it much like the night before: again, the narrator was entranced by the piano music—he took a turn and tried but failed to imitate the pianist’s style. They went home, woke early the next morning, and found work rolling cigars. The narrator spent most of his money on dice and the “Club,” and increasingly found himself exhausted, missing work to stay home and sleep.
The narrator’s newfound vices begin taking over his life in New York; having finally made up the precise sum he lost in Atlanta (300 dollars), he seems poised to again undermine his own success, for (unlike his friends) he does not seem fazed by his losses. Although he already knows he can pass for white, as in Atlanta and Jacksonville he remains confined to the small, black corner of New York. Even though he was an “Infant prodigy” in Connecticut, admired by white audiences for his natural talent, this does not seem to translate into an aptitude for black music.
Themes
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Soon, the narrator decided to give up work and focus full-time on gambling, like so many other “bright, intelligent young fellows who had come up to the great city with high hopes and ambitions.” Unlike many of them, he managed to escape. During his time in New York, he “did not become acquainted with a single respectable family,” even though he knew that many certainly existed.
While the black people the narrator encounters in New York are not “respectable” like the Southern black elite, they are still wealthy and distinguished: economic and social class are not always the same thing, and wealth seems much more precarious in New York.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
The narrator managed to supplement his inconsistent gambling income by becoming “a remarkable player of ragtime,” using his classical training to become, reputedly, the best in New York. He played almost nightly at the “Club”—more and more white patrons started coming, people started calling him the “professor,” and of course music distracted him from gambling.
Music again saves the narrator, but his method is opposite that of the genre’s originators and the pianist he has previously watched: he translates his classical training into imitation ragtime rather than coming up with his own, much like the white musicians who take credit for black art. Still, he seems on track to becoming one of the celebrity performers who frequent the “Club.”
Themes
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Most of the narrator’s income came through a friend: a “clean cut, slender, but athletic looking man” marked by “the indefinable but unmistakable stamp of culture,” who sat silently in the corner and sent over five dollars every night he came. One night, the man (later referred to as the millionaire) called him over and offered a job playing for a dinner party at his apartment, which turned out to be luxurious and so comfortable he fell asleep in his chair. The butler brought him dinner, then sent him to work as the guests were arriving—he began with classical music, to which the refined audience of “about a dozen” paid close attention before turning to chatter and dining.
This man—whom the narrator soon starts calling the “millionaire”—clearly stands in for the refined judgment of white art critics and the public perception of art that they influence. The narrator falling asleep in the millionaire’s comfortable chair can be taken as a metaphor for his lost awareness of his art’s true value, evidenced by his starting the party with classical music, which the guests are likely familiar and comfortable with. Like his mother, he has become something of a servant and looks up to his wealthy white employer.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
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During dinner, the narrator began to play ragtime from the adjoining room—the dining room fell silent, and some of the women in attendance began gathering around to watch and ask him questions. He played virtuosically for the rest of the party and, afterward, the guests enthusiastically declared him “the most unique entertainment they had ‘ever’ enjoyed.” The millionaire gave him 20 dollars and offered to hire him for the future, so long as he would not play for any other private parties. Thereafter, the narrator played at various parties, at the host’s house and his friends’, or even for him alone, for hours at a time, while he listened, chain-smoking with his eyes closed. Sometimes these hours of continuous performance exhausted the narrator, but he was paid rather well.
Notably, when the narrator switches to ragtime, he moves out of sight in another room—he seems to move from a respectable white classical performer to a black ragtime pianist who must be segregated from the dinner party’s white patrons until they invade the space he has been forced into. They praise the music as “unique,” which reveals that their interest stems from ragtime’s exoticism rather than its value as art—and, ironically, the narrator’s version is not his “unique” work but rather an imitation of others’ music.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
The narrator also continued to play at the “Club,” but only as one of “the visiting celebrities,” and started to win affection from the women who went there, including the rich widow. A friend warned him about the rich widow’s black companion, with whom she had apparently been fighting—but his “finer feelings entirely overcame my judgment,” although he soon realized he was only being used to make her “surly black despot” jealous.
As the narrator wins fame in the “Club,” he also wins the company of a white woman and continues to distance himself from his original interest in ragtime as authentic black culture. For the narrator, New York’s true menace was not an addiction to gambling, but an addiction to fame. He does not even seem to mind the widow’s ulterior motives, since her company is still proof of his success.
Themes
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
One night, the widow’s companion found the narrator drinking with the widow; they were both frightened, and the man “whipped out a revolver and fired,” striking her in the throat. The man kept shooting; the narrator ran outside and walked frantically until he ran into the millionaire in a cab. He explained what happened and his employer decided to take him, instead of the valet, to Europe the next day. They drove around the park, but the narrator could not stop thinking about “that beautiful white throat with the ugly wound.”
With the widow’s murder, Johnson plays on stereotypes of black men as an irrationally violent or “savage” threat to white women, showing how the narrator (whom she may have “used” precisely because he looked white) buys into them: he fixates on the image of her “beautiful white throat” rather than the injustice of her murder. It seems that he lamented her death because he valued her whiteness—and his white millionaire also comes to his rescue. Through his engagement with black music, the narrator has actually solidified his alliance with whiteness.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon