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 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Traveling on the ship, the narrator continued to feel guilty for the widow’s death and refused to read the newspapers—he did see her picture in one, but it “did not in the least resemble her.” After a few days, he worked up the energy to look at a beautiful, glimmering iceberg, but was dismayed that, contrary to his schoolbooks, there was no polar bear on it.
Like the widow’s body, the iceberg and polar bear are dazzling spectacles of whiteness that captivate the narrator and foreshadow his coming reverence for Europe.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
The narrator “was able to shake off [his] gloom” only when they pulled into Havre. He was enchanted with “the strange sights, the chatter in an unfamiliar tongue and the excitement of landing and passing the customs officials.” The “extremely funny,” miniscule train proved remarkably fast, and the scenery was incredible; he found an unending love for France before reaching Paris by afternoon—which only compounded his reverence. They had dinner, went to a theater, and visited a café, where they joined “several hundred people, men and women, in the place drinking, talking, and listening to the music.”
Like white people watching ragtime at the “Club,” the narrator immediately becomes obsessed with France because of its exoticness and unfamiliarity; yet his other initial encounters with difference—with the Cubans in Florida and lower-class black community in Atlanta—led him to suspicion, not reverence. Crucially, race almost entirely fades from the picture during the narrator’s time in Europe; it is unclear whether this means he successfully “passed” for white or, much less likely, that Europeans recognized his blackness but were not racist toward him.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
A few women joined them—they chatted (although the narrator only in his broken high school French). The next day, they went shopping—the millionaire bought the narrator extravagant clothes, treating him “as an equal, not as a servant” and paying him extremely well even though he had practically no duties. For the next “fourteen or fifteen months,” besides a few side trips, they spent their days sightseeing and their nights in theaters and cafes, or hosting parties at the apartment the millionaire rented. The narrator continued to play the piano, both for the parties and the millionaire, “this man of the world, who grew weary of everything” but his music. In fact, he would sometimes wake the narrator in the middle of the night to play—which was his “only hardship” the whole trip.”
The narrator’s relationship with the millionaire proves increasingly complicated: although his friend showers him with gifts, resources, and the fatherly affection he always lacked, the narrator is clearly not the millionaire’s “equal” because of the power imbalance between them. The narrator’s obligation to perform the piano is also distinctly the work of a “servant.” As with his own father, in the “Club,” and in his coming relationship, the narrator only wins white people’s affection by commodifying black music for them.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
When he did not know the millionaire’s whereabouts, the narrator spent his days wandering around and his nights taking language lessons—he would buy beer and cigarettes for some young women who would teach him in return, and he gained “more than an ordinary command of French” by the time he left. Realizing that his language skills could offer him “an added accomplishment” to his music, he started reading Spanish newspapers and memorizing French words and conjugations. Soon, he could just learn by talking, which he notes is rare among classroom students. This was because he focused on a small but practical vocabulary—soon, he had successfully done the same with German.
Again, the narrator’s aptitude for languages attests to his cultural flexibility and ability to “pass” in more ways than just racially. He also views it as a game of personal advancement, a way to prove his abilities and worth to a world that refuses to believe in them; of course, he needs the millionaire’s money to even access his “lessons” in the first place.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
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One night, watching Faust at the Grand Opera, the narrator became enamored with an English-speaking girl sitting next to him, presumably on her first trip to Paris with her parents. And, next to her, the man she addressed as her father was—“unmistakably, my father! looking hardly a day older than when I had seen him some ten years before.” The girl was his sister—he felt all the love he had lost since his mother died, and during the second act “the desolate loneliness of [his] position became clear,” for he absolutely “could not speak.” Feeling that he might yell out in the middle of the opera, he finally “stumbled out of the theater” and “for one of the very few times in my life drank myself into a stupor.”
Faust is an appropriate backdrop for this encounter: there is a clear analogy between Faust’s deal with the devil in exchange for absolute knowledge and power and the narrator’s ultimate decision to live as white. Again, he and his father meet under the guise of music, which frames all the narrator’s most important emotional experiences. He “could not speak” not only because of the performance, but also because his very existence is a taboo: he could never reveal his father’s interracial relationship to his half-sister.
Themes
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Eventually, the narrator’s “benefactor,” the millionaire, declared that they were leaving Paris. The narrator notes that he must have enjoyed it because he was American, for “Americans are immensely popular in Paris, much more so than in London.” The one embarrassing moment was when a friend asked, “Did they really burn a man alive in the United States?” and the narrator had no idea what to say.
The friend’s question about burning people alive foreshadows the events of the following chapter, and the narrator’s ignorance about it now shows that he fails to understand the true, vile depth of American racism until he witnesses it firsthand.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Soon, the narrator was in London, which was “as ugly a thing as man could contrive to make,” although it soon turned impressive, in the same way as “a great mountain or a mighty river,” an authentic beauty unlike Paris’s, which was “hand-made, artificial.” He sees the difference between Paris and London as reflecting “a certain racial difference” between their people: French aesthetic values and morality; British utilitarianism and hypocrisy. The French own up to their vices, as when they drink moderately in the open air; the British hide them away, drinking as much as possible in cramped, smoky rooms. The most interesting thing in London was people’s insistence on saying “thank you,” even when it seemed meaningless—he wondered how the English could “accuse Americans of corrupting the language.”
The “racial difference” between the English and the French is a clear foil for that between white and black America, or even different classes of black America. The difference between London’s forceful beauty in aggregate and Paris’s cultivated, deliberate beauty might point to the narrator’s elevation of aesthetically conscious, refined white American culture over the culture of lower-class segregated blacks, often confined to smoky underground rooms, that he has considered crass ever since he first encountered it in Atlanta.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Soon, they went to Amsterdam—the canals were surprising—and Berlin—which was certainly better than London and “in some things” even better than Paris: namely, the music. One night, at a party full of remarkable musicians, the narrator was supposed to impress them with a ragtime tune—after he left the piano, one of the other guests took over and played a series of classical variations on his ragtime song. “Amazed,” the narrator realized that “it can be done, why can’t I do it?” and decided to go through “carrying out the ambition I had formed as a boy.” He realized he was wasting his gifts and determined “to go back into the very heart of the South, to live among the people, and drink in my inspiration first-hand”—not only ragtime, “but also the old slave songs—material which no one had yet touched.”
While the narrator has made a career out of turning classical tunes into ragtime, the Berlin musician does the opposite, reinforcing the hierarchy of Western music culture by subordinating vernacular musical content to classical musical forms and tempting the narrator to do the same, which could presumably get him taken seriously as a composer and artist (rather than merely appearing as an exotic but marginal performer). The narrator’s desire to turn “untouched” music composed by anonymous slaves into his own art demonstrates that his motives are more about individual than communal advancement and recognition; much like the white people who steal and profit from black musicians’ ragtime compositions.
Themes
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
Related Quotes
As he increasingly yearned to go back to the United States, the narrator realized he needed to leave his millionaire, whom he loved dearly—but who was clearly only using him to occupy “all in life that he dreaded—Time.” One day, when the “millionaire” declared they would go to Egypt and Japan, the narrator mustered, “I don’t think I want to go” and explained his reasoning. The millionaire grew “a curious, almost cynical, smile” and remarked that “you are by blood, by appearance, by education and by tastes, a white man.” Why, he asked, would the narrator “throw [his] life away” by returning to the world of black America, when he could pursue the “universal art” of music “right here in Europe?”
The millionaire’s ostensible fear of “time” points to the glaring economic inequality in America, which plays a significant role in all the conflicts between groups that the book addresses but the narrator somehow fails to grasp. Similarly, the millionaire points out the irony in European claims to universality, particularly in music: while this book does show that music can cross the color line in the right contexts due to its emotional appeal, the very notion that music is universal implies that there should be no difference between pursuing it in Europe and the United States.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Related Quotes
This was the first time that the millionaire had ever mentioned race—it turned out that “he was a man entirely free from prejudice, but he recognized that prejudice was a big stubborn entity which had to be taken into account.” There was no reason for the narrator to return to the United States, the millionaire continued, for “I can imagine no more dissatisfied human being than an educated, cultured and refined colored man in the United States.”
While the millionaire clearly understands the fact of racism and seems to believe in people’s equality across racial difference, he views prejudice in individual rather than collective terms—since the narrator looks white enough to dodge racism, the millionaire thinks he should not worry about it.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Neither of them, the millionaire believed, could do anything about “their wrongs,” so the narrator “would be foolish to unnecessarily take their wrongs on your shoulders.” He says that evil is indissoluble: slavery turned into the Civil War, which turned into animosity and Jim Crow. “Modern civilization” has turned the poor anarchist, socialist, and resentful instead of ignorant; “modern philanthropy” has made the miserable only suffer longer. He concluded that “my philosophy of life is this: make yourself as happy as possible, and try to make those happy whose lives come into touch with yours; but to attempt to right the wrongs and ease the sufferings of the world in general, is a waste of effort.”
The millionaire uses his wide-ranging pessimism to justify prioritizing his own interests over those of any conceivable community; he pities the poor rather than seeing them as humans worthy of dignity and justice. While this principle looks appealing to those of means—including, now, the narrator—the notion that one should only look out for one’s own and ignore the welfare of the disadvantaged is precisely the mindset (of indifference, not necessarily prejudice) that allows systematic racial inequality to persist even after the formal abolition of slavery.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
The narrator was surprised and felt paralyzed, seeing the sense in the millionaire’s argument “in spite of the absolute selfishness upon which it was based.” He wondered whether he wanted to help his people or simply distinguish himself before the world—he has “never definitely answered” this question. For weeks, he was tortured by his dilemma, but ultimately he decided that perhaps music was the best way to be selfish, and he might even become famous precisely for being a black composer. Of course, he secretly wanted “to voice all the joys and sorrows, the hopes and ambitions, of the American Negro, in classic musical form.” He told the millionaire, who gave him a 500-dollar check and sent him on his way “almost coldly,” and just like that he lost his “best friend” and “greatest influence” ever, besides his mother. He set out for Liverpool and then for Boston.
While the narrator recognizes the millionaire’s selfishness, instead of reconceiving his mission in terms of a broader social good, he simply accepts the millionaire’s premise and looks for a selfish justification for doing what he has already decided to do. By insisting that black music might only become famous when it adopts “classic musical form,” he reinforces the hierarchy of formal over vernacular, white over black, and written over performed music. The astonishing fact that the narrator’s best friend is the almost robotically unemotional millionaire—who does not even outwardly show much pleasure in music—demonstrates the extent of his lifelong emotional isolation and, of course, how thoroughly he internalizes the capitalist value of individual accumulation over collective connection or justice.
Themes
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Related Quotes