The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man recounts the life of its fictional narrator from his secret birth in Georgia just after the end of slavery through his childhood in Connecticut, early working years back in the South, and musical career in New York and Europe, culminating in the adulthood he spends denying his past life in the African-American world and living as a white man instead.
After the book’s Preface promises an unprecedented portrait of both black America and that subset of black Americans who choose to “pass” for white, the first chapter jumps into the racially ambiguous protagonist’s curious childhood in Georgia: the small house he shared with his mother and the well-dressed man who used to visit. It then follows him and his mother to their cottage in Connecticut, where he took up the piano, entered school, and learned for the first time during class, to his dismay, that he was black. In the second chapter, he begins coming to terms with his racial exclusion from his classmates and gets more deeply involved in music, even accompanying a young violinist, with whom he falls in love, and playing for the man from the first chapter, who comes to visit and turns out to be his father. In the third chapter, the narrator begins to question his place in the world, reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin and listening to his mother’s stories about her youth in Georgia. But she begins to fall ill as he makes his way through high school and dies shortly after his graduation, at which his black classmate “Shiny” gives an impassioned speech to the white audience.
Next the narrator heads south, planning to attend Atlanta University. For the first time, he also encounters a distinct black community and the systematic discrimination it faces. When he returns from his first visit to the university to find all his savings stolen, he cannot bring himself to return to the university. Instead, he follows a porter’s advice and heads to Jacksonville, where he moves into a boarding house run by a woman and her Cuban husband, who finds him work at a cigar factory. Over the next three years, the narrator picks up Spanish, moves up the ranks in the factory, and acquaints himself with the city’s black upper class, who live in an educated and cultured society parallel to white society but unable to mix with it. He also starts partying on the weekends, sometimes with the factory workers and sometimes with Jacksonville’s black elite. At one of these parties, the narrator meets and repays the man who loaned him $15 to start a life in Jacksonville—but also realizes this same man stole his money—and marvels at the cake-walk, which he sees as an exemplar of black culture.
The cigar factory abruptly shuts down, and the narrator goes to New York with some of his fellow workers. He finds the city “fatally fascinating” and soon stumbles upon the two establishments where he becomes a perennial customer: a bar that hosts dice games, where he immediately wins $200, and the “Club,” a flashy establishment frequented by black celebrities and where he becomes fascinated with ragtime music. The next three chapters recount the narrator’s brief fall into gambling addiction and rise to musical fame: he learns to play ragtime for himself and becomes a fixture at the “Club.” His music wins him attention from two white fans: a reclusive millionaire who hires him to play at private parties and a rich widow who begins seeing him to spite her usual companion, an extravagantly wealthy and well-dressed black man who shoots her dead when he finds out about the affair. The narrator flees the “Club” and runs into the millionaire, who decides to bring him to Europe for his lengthy upcoming trip.
The ninth chapter recounts the narrator’s extravagant trip around Europe with the millionaire: they spend more than a year in Paris, sightseeing during the days and visiting theaters and cafés at night. He continues to play piano for the millionaire and rapidly learns French (and then German for fun). One day, at the Grand Opera, the narrator notices a beautiful English-speaking girl only to realize that she is his sister: his father is sitting right next to her, but he knows he cannot say anything and stumbles out of the theater in agony. Soon, they leave Paris for London, Amsterdam, and Berlin, where a musician improvises the narrator’s ragtime tune in classical form and he suddenly realizes his calling: to return to the South and compile “the old slave songs” that are still the cultural backbone of rural black life. The narrator tells the millionaire he will not continue on to their next destinations, Egypt and Japan, and they have a lengthy argument about racism and whether the narrator can do anything to resolve it. After a few weeks of soul-searching, the narrator decides to go and sets out for Boston.
On the ship to Boston, the narrator meets a black physician from Washington who introduces him to various members of the Northern black elite. On his train to Macon, Georgia, the narrator listens to a group of white men debate whether black Americans deserve equality—they do not notice that he is black—and realizes that white racist attitudes are the main barrier to black achievement in the United States. He meanders around the rural South, collecting songs and eventually stumbling upon a “big meeting” at which an eloquent preacher and brilliant chorus leader steal the show. He makes a new friend and decides to spend a night in this friend’s town, only to notice armed white people congregating near the rail station—the next morning, they drag a black man into the center of the town, douse him in fuel, and cheer while they burn him alive. The narrator observes in horror from a distance and suddenly finds himself overcome with shame—he realizes how unspeakable brutality underlies the United States’ claim to be a “great example of democracy to the world” and realizes that he cannot trust Southern whites to pursue racial equality. He decides to return to New York and abandon his racial identity, to “change my name, raise a mustache, and let the world take me for what it would.”
The final chapter recounts his remarkably successful and painless life as a white man in New York: he drops out of business school but still finds a well-paying job as a clerk and begins investing in real estate. He easily makes money and starts moving in elite social circles, winning recognition for his ragtime and falling in love with a “dazzlingly white” singer. Intending to propose, the narratorstarts to realize that he cannot keep his secret any longer, and after they run into “Shiny,” now a respected professor, he musters the courage to tell her that he is black. The singer leaves for the summer, but they soon reunite and marry. The narrator’s wife dies delivering their second child, and the “ex-colored man” ends his narrative by summarizing his continual conflicting feelings about his “present position in the world.” He loves his children, but he feels he has deserted his race and, after seeing Booker T. Washington speak, realizes that he could have helped take up the fight for racial equality and shape history—looking through his manuscripts of his old songs, he proclaims, “I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”