Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

by

James Weldon Johnson

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The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” Character Analysis

The unnamed protagonist and narrator of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a racially ambiguous businessman with a remarkable aptitude for music, languages, and navigating various cultural and racial communities. He is born in Georgia to a black sewing-girl and the son of the prominent white family that either employs or enslaves her, but his mother raises him in a relatively integrated town in Connecticut, where he does not even realize he is black until his schoolteacher teacher separates the students by race one day. After his mother’s death, the narrator moves back to Georgia but ends up working at a cigar factory in Florida, then gambling and playing both classical and ragtime music full-time in New York City and Europe. When he realizes that he might be able to translate black folk songs into classical genres, he returns to Georgia; but his trip is again cut short when he witnesses a man get lynched. Horrified, he becomes so ashamed of the United States’ “brutality and savagery” toward blacks that he decides to save himself from racism and live as a white man in New York. In the final chapter, his barriers to success melt away, and he earns a decent living and builds a family with a white woman, the only person in his new life who knows his secret. After his wife’s death, the narrator realizes in the book’s closing lines that, by disavowing his blackness, he has prioritized the comforts of white privilege over his duty to fight for justice and potential to make history improving the conditions of African-American life.

The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” Quotes in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man quotes below are all either spoken by The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” or refer to The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man”. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the W.W. Norton edition of Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man published in 2015.
Chapter 1 Quotes

I know that in writing the following pages I am divulging the great secret of my life, the secret which for some years I have guarded far more carefully than any of my earthly possessions; and it is a curious study to me to analyze the motives which prompt me to do it. I feel that I am led by the same impulse which forces the un-found-out criminal to take somebody into his confidence, although he knows that the act is likely, even almost certain, to lead to his undoing. I know that I am playing with fire, and I feel the thrill which accompanies that most fascinating pastime; and, back of it all, I think I find a sort of savage and diabolical desire to gather up all the little tragedies of my life, and turn them into a practical joke on society.

Related Characters: The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

“Tell me, mother, am I a nigger?”

Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

“Father, father,” that was the word which had been to me a source of doubt and perplexity ever since the interview with my mother on the subject. […] And here he stood before me, just the kind of looking father I had wishfully pictured him to be; but I made no advance toward him; I stood there feeling embarrassed and foolish, not knowing what to say or do. I am not sure but that he felt pretty much the same.

Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

In none of her talks did she ever utter one word of complaint against my father. She always endeavored to impress upon me how good he had been and still was, and that he was all to us that custom and the law would allow. She loved him; more, she worshiped him, and she died firmly believing that he loved her more than any other woman in the world. Perhaps she was right. Who knows?

Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

He made a striking picture, that thin little black boy standing on the platform, dressed in clothes that did not fit him any too well, his eyes burning with excitement, his shrill, musical voice vibrating in tones of appealing defiance, and his black face alight with such great intelligence and earnestness as to be positively handsome. […] I think there must have rushed over him a feeling akin to that of a gladiator tossed into the arena and bade to fight for his life. I think that solitary little black figure standing there felt that for the particular time and place he bore the weight and responsibility of his race; that for him to fail meant general defeat; but he won, and nobly.

Related Characters: The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” (speaker),  “Shiny”
Related Symbols: Clothing and Jewelry
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

They filled the shops and thronged the sidewalks and lined the curb. I asked my companion if all the colored people in Atlanta lived in this street. He said they did not and assured me that the ones I saw were of the lower class. I felt relieved, in spite of the size of the lower class. The unkempt appearance, the shambling, slouching gait and loud talk and laughter of these people aroused in me a feeling of almost repulsion. Only one thing about them awoke a feeling of interest; that was their dialect. I had read some Negro dialect and had heard snatches of it on my journey down from Washington; but here I heard it in all of its fullness and freedom.

Related Symbols: Clothing and Jewelry
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

I said somewhere in the early part of this narrative that because the colored man looked at everything through the prism of his relationship to society as a colored man, and because most of his mental efforts ran through the narrow channel bounded by his rights and his wrongs, it was to be wondered at that he has progressed so broadly as he has. The same thing may be said of the white man of the South; most of his mental efforts run through one narrow channel; his life as a man and a citizen, many of his financial activities, and all of his political activities are impassably limited by the ever present "Negro question." […] In this respect I consider the conditions of the whites more to be deplored than that of the blacks.

Related Characters: The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” (speaker)
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

The game was really interesting, the players being quite expert, and the excitement was heightened by the bets which were being made on the result. At times the antics and remarks of both players and spectators were amusing. When, at a critical point, a player missed a shot, he was deluged, by those financially interested in his making it, with a flood of epithets synonymous with "chump"; While from the others he would be jeered by such remarks as "Nigger, dat cue ain't no hoe-handle." I noticed that among this class of colored men the word "nigger" was freely used in about the same sense as the word "fellow," and sometimes as a term of almost endearment; but I soon learned that its use was positively and absolutely prohibited to white men.

Related Characters: The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” (speaker)
Page Number: 49-50
Explanation and Analysis:

American musicians, instead of investigating ragtime, attempt to ignore it, or dismiss it with a contemptuous word. But that has always been the course of scholasticism in every branch of art. Whatever new thing the people like is pooh-poohed; whatever is popular is spoken of as not worth the while. The fact is, nothing great or enduring, especially in music, has ever sprung full-fledged and unprecedented from the brain of any master; the best that he gives to the world he gathers from the hearts of the people, and runs it through the alembic of his genius. In spite of the bans which musicians and music teachers have placed upon it, the people still demand and enjoy ragtime. One thing cannot be denied; it is music which possesses at least one strong element of greatness: it appeals universally.

Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

I began to wonder what this man with such a lavish natural endowment would have done had he been trained. Perhaps he wouldn't have done anything at all; he might have become, at best, a mediocre imitator of the great masters in what they have already done to a finish, or one of the modern innovators who strive after originality by seeing how cleverly they can dodge about through the rules of harmony and at the same time avoid melody. It is certain that he would not have been so delightful as he was in ragtime.

Page Number: 54-5
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

My glance immediately turned into a stare. Yes, there he was, unmistakably, my father! looking hardly a day older than when I had seen him some ten years before. What a strange coincidence! What should I say to him? What would he say to me? Before I had recovered from my first surprise, there came another shock in the realization that the beautiful, tender girl at my side was my sister. Then all the springs of affection in my heart, stopped since my mother's death, burst out in fresh and terrible torrents, and I could have fallen at her feet and worshiped her. They were singing the second act, but I did not hear the music. Slowly the desolate loneliness of my position became clear to me.

Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

He seated himself at the piano, and, taking the theme of my ragtime, played it through first in straight chords; then varied and developed it through every known musical form. I sat amazed. I had been turning classic music into ragtime, a comparatively easy task; and this man had taken ragtime and made it classic. The thought came across me like a flash—It can be done, why can't I do it? From that moment my mind was made up. I clearly saw the way of carrying out the ambition I had formed when a boy.

Related Characters: The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” (speaker), The Millionaire
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

“My boy, you are by blood, by appearance, by education, and by tastes a white man. Now, why do you want to throw your life away amidst the poverty and ignorance, in the hopeless struggle, of the black people of the United States? Then look at the terrible handicap you are placing on yourself by going home and working as a Negro composer; you can never be able to get the hearing for your work which it might deserve. I doubt that even a white musician of recognized ability could succeed there by working on the theory that American music should be based on Negro themes. Music is a universal art; anybody's music belongs to everybody; you can't limit it to race or country. Now, if you want to become a composer, why not stay right here in Europe?”

Related Characters: The Millionaire (speaker), The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man”
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

I could see, in spite of the absolute selfishness upon which it was based, that there was reason and common sense in [his argument]. I began to analyze my own motives, and found that they, too, were very largely mixed with selfishness. Was it more a desire to help those I considered my people or more a desire to distinguish myself, which was leading me back to the United States? That is a question I have never definitely answered.

Related Characters: The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” (speaker), The Millionaire
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

I sat often with the tears rolling down my cheeks and my heart melted within me. Any musical person who has never heard a Negro congregation under the spell of religious fervor sing these old songs, has missed one of the most thrilling emotions which the human heart may experience. Anyone who can listen to Negroes sing, “Nobody knows de trouble I see, Nobody knows but Jesus,” without shedding tears, must indeed have a heart of stone.

Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

As yet, the Negroes themselves do not fully appreciate these old slave songs. The educated classes are rather ashamed of them and prefer to sing hymns from books. This feeling is natural; they are still too close to the conditions under which the songs were produced; but the day will come when this slave music will be the most treasured heritage of the American Negro.

Related Characters: The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” (speaker)
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

It was over before I realized that time had elapsed. Before I could make myself believe that what I saw was really happening, I was looking at a scorched post, a smoldering fire, blackened bones, charred fragments sifting down through coils of chain; and the smell of burnt flesh—human flesh—was in my nostrils.

Related Characters: The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” (speaker)
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

I finally made up my mind that I would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race; but that I would change my name, raise a mustache, and let the world take me for what it would; that it was not necessary for me to go about with a label of inferiority pasted across my forehead. All the while I understood that it was not discouragement or fear or search for a larger field of action and opportunity that was driving me out of the Negro race. I knew that it was shame, unbearable shame. Shame at being identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals. For certainly the law would restrain and punish the malicious burning alive of animals.

Related Characters: The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” (speaker)
Page Number: 99-100
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

What an interesting and absorbing game is money making!

Related Characters: The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” (speaker)
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

“I understand, understand even better than you, and so I suffer even more than you. But why should either of us suffer for what neither of us is to blame for? If there is any blame, it belongs to me and I can only make the old, yet strongest plea that can be offered, I love you; and I know that my love, my great love, infinitely overbalances that blame and blots it out. What is it that stands in the way of our happiness? It is not what you feel or what I feel; it is not what you are or what I am. It is what others feel and are. But, oh! is that a fair price? In all the endeavors and struggles of life, in all our strivings and longings, there is only one thing worth seeking, only one thing worth winning, and that is love. It is not always found; but when it is, there is nothing in all the world for which it can be profitably exchanged.”

Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

It is difficult for me to analyze my feelings concerning my present position in the world. Sometimes it seems to me that I have never really been a Negro, that I have been only a privileged spectator of their inner life; at other times I feel that I have been a coward, a deserter, and I am possessed by a strange longing for my mother's people.

Related Characters: The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” (speaker)
Page Number: 109-110
Explanation and Analysis:

I am an ordinarily successful white man who has made a little money. They are men who are making history and a race. I, too, might have taken part in a work so glorious.

My love for my children makes me glad that I am what I am and keeps me from desiring to be otherwise; and yet, when I sometimes open a little box in which I still keep my fast yellowing manuscripts, the only tangible remnants of a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed talent, I cannot repress the thought that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.

Related Characters: The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” (speaker)
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” Character Timeline in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

The timeline below shows where the character The Narrator or “Ex-Colored Man” appears in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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The narrator explains that this writing gives away his greatest, most carefully maintained secret, much like a... (full context)
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The narrator was born just after the Civil War in a small Georgia town that he wants... (full context)
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There were also various people in the house, but the narrator only remembers his mother and “a tall man with a small, dark mustache,” shiny shoes,... (full context)
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After getting the coin, the narrator and his mother “started on what seemed to me like an endless journey”—by train to... (full context)
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...made a decent salary, for she got a letter with money every month. She taught the narrator to read and write, and played slow hymns on the piano every Sunday evening and,... (full context)
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The narrator began teaching himself to play the piano and could play all his mother’s songs by... (full context)
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At age nine, the narrator entered school and was surprised to be surrounded by boys of all sorts, including some... (full context)
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The teacher made the students line up and spell their places—“t-h-i-r-d, third,” said the narrator on his turn, feeling lucky that his word was so easy and “impressed with the... (full context)
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The narrator recalls how many “black and brown boys and girls [were] in the school,” and especially... (full context)
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...the black boys threw a slate, which hit a white boy and cut his lip. The narrator joined the white boys in throwing stones at the black boys while they ran. Later,... (full context)
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...day, the teacher asked “all of the white scholars to stand for a moment,” and the narrator stood with them. She told him to sit down; the white boys said, “Oh, you’re... (full context)
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When he got home, the narrator “became conscious of” his beauty for the first time, gazing at his eyes and hair... (full context)
Chapter 2
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The narrator remarks that he has always tried to make sense of that day, and especially the... (full context)
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The change in the narrator ’s life was mostly about his increasing suspicion of his friends and fear of being... (full context)
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When he had grown older, the narrator ’s “forced loneliness” led him “to find company in books, and greater pleasure in music.”... (full context)
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The narrator also turned to music “with an earnestness worthy of maturer years,” taking lessons with his... (full context)
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At school, the narrator was entering the third term, having managed to support Red Head by gradually starting to... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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So that day, the narrator felt a “pleasurable excitement” about being able to “be of service to [the violinist].” He... (full context)
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The narrator had always wondered who and where his father was, and especially why his mother refused... (full context)
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The narrator ’s mother asked the narrator to play a song for his father, which he did... (full context)
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Heading to the rehearsal, all the narrator could think about was his father, but he did not realize “that he was different... (full context)
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They practiced the duet, and the narrator “was soon lost to all other thoughts in the delights of music and love,” which... (full context)
Chapter 3
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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.... (full context)
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Growing older, the narrator began to wonder where he and his mother fit into the world—his history books were... (full context)
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The narrator felt he could finally talk to his mother about it all, so she started telling... (full context)
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By his graduation day, the narrator had developed “a definite aspiration.” The day was extravagant—he played a piano solo, but Shiny... (full context)
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The narrator entered high school—he continued music (but quit the choir because his voice dropped) and read... (full context)
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After the narrator graduated high school, his mother was so sick that she could not leave bed or... (full context)
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The music teacher convinced the narrator to hold a benefit concert; the violinist, now married, played but was losing her talent.... (full context)
Chapter 4
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Traveling south and hoping for “luxuriant semi-tropical scenery,” the narrator was increasingly disappointed, and Atlanta was no improvement: it was “a big, dull, red town.”... (full context)
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Seeking a place to stay before University started, the narrator asked “one of the Pullman car porters,” who offered his own place. The narrator agreed... (full context)
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As they wandered around, the narrator saw “colored people in large numbers” for the first time and asked the Pullman porter... (full context)
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The Pullman porter took the narrator into a basement eatery, which he found filthy and smelly—no better restaurant would accommodate black... (full context)
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In the morning, the narrator hid his 300 dollars in a jacket in his suitcase and went out for breakfast,... (full context)
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The woman mentioned that Atlanta University was actually opening that day, and the narrator and the Pullman porter walked over to the campus, which felt like “a bit of... (full context)
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A bell sounded, and the students and teachers all congregated for the University president’s speech— the narrator was fascinated to see “all types and colors” among the students and teachers alike. After... (full context)
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The narrator went back to the university, intending to explain his situation to the University president, but... (full context)
Chapter 5
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“With a stiff and aching body,” the narrator wandered around Jacksonville until he met an inquisitive minister, who walked him to a boarding... (full context)
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The narrator wandered around Jacksonville, which he found much more pleasant and green than Atlanta, before asking... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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The narrator thinks that, in the South, “the colored people may be said to be roughly divided... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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At one ball, the narrator saw the second porter who had loaned him the money to get to Jacksonville and... (full context)
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Right when the narrator was thinking about settling down in Jacksonville, the cigar factory abruptly closed, and he decided... (full context)
Chapter 6
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The narrator arrived in New York harbor on a spring afternoon; he found it enchanting, “the most... (full context)
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...met some old acquaintances, who sent them to a bar full of “well dressed men.” The narrator went to watch the boisterous game of pool in the back parlor and noted that... (full context)
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The narrator followed his friends upstairs; they passed a contrastingly “aristocrat[ic]” poker game on their way to... (full context)
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The narrator remarks that this success “afterwards cost me dearly”; the others persuaded him to buy them... (full context)
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...pianist at the “Club” started playing “music of a kind I had never heard before.” The narrator could not help but tap his feet and fingers with the beat; it was ragtime,... (full context)
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The narrator went to the back room and chatted with the pianist, who had no training and... (full context)
Chapter 7
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In this chapter, the narrator takes a “pause in [his] narrative” to give a more detailed picture of this “Club,”... (full context)
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...an audience that competed to prove “their great intimacy with the noted one.” Over time, the narrator learned to pretend that he had heard of the visitors and soon began meeting them.... (full context)
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...also a handful of white women who regularly came to pass time with black men. The narrator fell for one of them, a French-speaking, piano-playing, elegantly-dressed woman of 35 who always came... (full context)
Chapter 8
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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... (full context)
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Soon, the narrator decided to give up work and focus full-time on gambling, like so many other “bright,... (full context)
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The narrator managed to supplement his inconsistent gambling income by becoming “a remarkable player of ragtime,” using... (full context)
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Most of the narrator ’s income came through a friend: a “clean cut, slender, but athletic looking man” marked... (full context)
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During dinner, the narrator began to play ragtime from the adjoining room—the dining room fell silent, and some of... (full context)
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The narrator also continued to play at the “Club,” but only as one of “the visiting celebrities,”... (full context)
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One night, the widow’s companion found the narrator drinking with the widow; they were both frightened, and the man “whipped out a revolver... (full context)
Chapter 9
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Traveling on the ship, the narrator continued to feel guilty for the widow’s death and refused to read the newspapers—he did... (full context)
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The narrator “was able to shake off [his] gloom” only when they pulled into Havre. He was... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Eventually, the narrator ’s “benefactor,” the millionaire, declared that they were leaving Paris. The narrator notes that he... (full context)
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Soon, the narrator was in London, which was “as ugly a thing as man could contrive to make,”... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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The narrator was surprised and felt paralyzed, seeing the sense in the millionaire’s argument “in spite of... (full context)
Chapter 10
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En route to Boston, the narrator quickly noted “a tall, broad-shouldered, almost gigantic, colored man” (the physician) whose majestic air attracted... (full context)
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In Boston, the narrator met “several of my new friend’s acquaintances,” who were educated, cultured, and wealthy, “genuine Yankees”... (full context)
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The narrator notes that “among Negroes themselves there is the peculiar inconsistency of a color question,” which... (full context)
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In the smoking car during his train ride, the narrator quickly grew friendly with the other men there—and soon they brought up “the Negro question.”... (full context)
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Returning to his seat, the narrator was discouraged, “sick at heart.” He noted that white and black Southerners alike insistently stuck... (full context)
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Upon reaching Macon, the narrator resolved to “strike out into the interior” and met the “rural colored people” who are... (full context)
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The narrator continually wished to return to Europe—his lodging was uncomfortable and cramped, and the food was... (full context)
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At the last town he visited, the narrator stumbled upon a “big meeting,” in which all the churches in an area congregated together... (full context)
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...to sing when, even at important moments during John Brown’s sermons. Listening to the songs, the narrator contemplated where they came from, who managed to transform biblical sentiments into such enchanting and... (full context)
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The narrator left the “big meeting” inspired to begin writing music, but decided to catch a ride... (full context)
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...passed the night in the boarding house where the teacher was staying. Sometime after eleven, the narrator heard men outside—a crowd of them, yelling about “some terrible crime.” Knowing that the townspeople... (full context)
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...“cries and groans that I shall always hear.” Some observers cheered, others looked away, and the narrator was unable to look away until he saw the man’s body reduced to “charred fragments”... (full context)
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The narrator walked away and felt “a great wave of humiliation and shame” at realizing the United... (full context)
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After about an hour, the narrator barely managed to drag himself back to the boarding house—he did not see the school... (full context)
Chapter 11
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The narrator , now an ex-colored man, notes that this final chapter covers much time in brief... (full context)
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The narrator considered money-making “an interesting and absorbing game”—he loved calculating the interest on his savings and... (full context)
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One night, at a musical party, the narrator fell in love with a singer, “the most dazzlingly white thing I had ever seen.”... (full context)
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One day, they were visiting the Eden Musée together, and the narrator realized that Shiny was standing next to him. He was paralyzed, unsure what to do,... (full context)
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As the narrator played Faure’s 13th Nocturne for the singer one night, he was overcome with “a wave... (full context)
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The whole summer, the singer did not write to the narrator ; he began to despair and lose all energy. Even after she returned, he wanted... (full context)
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The narrator and the singer married the next spring and spent a few months in France. They... (full context)
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The narrator sometimes feels that he has “never really been a Negro” and sometimes that he has... (full context)