Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man


James Weldon Johnson

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Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man: Pathos 2 key examples

Definition of Pathos
Pathos, along with logos and ethos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective speaking or writing). Pathos is an argument that appeals to... read full definition
Pathos, along with logos and ethos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective speaking or writing). Pathos is... read full definition
Pathos, along with logos and ethos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective... read full definition
Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Social Organism:

In Chapter 2, the narrator describes the unsettling experience of meeting his father. He uses a metaphor to develop a sense of pathos, demonstrating to the reader how damaging complex social dynamics can be to an individual child:

On the way I could think of nothing but this new father, where he came from, where he had been, why he was here, and why he would not stay. […] notwithstanding my changed relations with most of my schoolmates, I had only a faint knowledge of prejudice and no idea at all how it ramified and affected the entire social organism. I felt, however, that there was something about the whole affair which had to be hid.

By representing society metaphorically as an "organism," the narrator evokes the idea of a living creature with a delicately balanced constitution. Prejudice affects society in the way that a disease might affect a living creature, invading its cells and spreading through its body until none of the systems are functioning properly. The narrator has noticed that he interacts differently with his schoolmates ever since they all found out that he is Black. Now that he has finally met his white father, who holds himself at a distance, he is starting to discover that prejudice against Black people will affect every social relationship he will ever have. Even his relationship with his mother is shaped by his father's prejudice and by his mother's fear that the narrator himself will see himself differently if he knows he is Black.

The narrator's father is the one behaving badly, and yet it is the young narrator who begins to feel ashamed of his family. The novel as a whole serves as both a defense and a criticism of light-skinned Black people who choose to pass for white. By describing the undeserved shame he felt as a child due to his father's prejudice and the prejudice of the "entire social organism," the narrator wins readers' sympathy. Through this pathos, he helps them see that passing for white is a choice informed by a lifetime of social injustice and emotional pain. Passing might not be the answer to social inequality, but everyone who is part of the "social organism" needs to combat the disease of prejudice if passing is going to becomes a less attractive option for Black people with the privilege to pull it off.

Chapter 10
Explanation and Analysis—Lynching:

In Chapter 10, the narrator uses graphic imagery (quoted and discussed below) to describe a lynching he witnessed. This imagery helps him convey a sense of pathos, convincing the reader that racial violence in the United States is intolerable:

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.

The "scorched post" and "smoldering fire" are visual images, but it is also easy to imagine the feeling of heat radiating from the fire. The visual image of the flames still licking at "blackened bones" as "charred fragments" of a human body disintegrate through the chain that held the man to the post is nauseating in itself, but the narrator goes on to describe the even more nauseating smell of the body burning. He describes the smell as resting "in [his] nostrils," suggesting that he will carry the smell with him when he leaves the scene. The reader, too, is left with the visceral aftereffects of imagining this scene.

After this, the narrator finally makes the choice to leave his Blackness behind and present himself as white. The horror and disgust he evokes with the imagery serve to make the reader so uncomfortable that they understand his choice not to expose himself to the risk of lynching, which was a major problem in the years following Reconstruction. White vigilantes, including members of the KKK, brutally murdered Black people in the messy aftermath of the Civil War. Lynching is such a horrible fate, the narrator suggests here, and such a threat to Black people that it might be preferable to deny one's identity than to live openly as a Black American. On top of justifying the narrator's decision, the sense of pathos also serves to convince white readers that they need to do something about the violence Black people endure in the United States. A lynching like this is so horrifying that it makes everyone physically ill, including white witnesses.

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