Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

by

James Weldon Johnson

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man can help.

Clothing and Jewelry Symbol Analysis

Clothing and Jewelry Symbol Icon

Most obviously, clothes signify their wearers’ wealth and social status—as when the narrator’s father wears shiny shoes, the narrator himself dresses like “a little aristocrat” before starting school, and the rich widow and her companion are decked out in diamonds, but also when the losing dice players are forced to sell their own clothes and wear cheap replacements until they can win them back. Since the narrator is so perpetually enamored with wealth, other characters’ elegant clothes signal for him to emulate and respect them. Indeed, from his earliest days in Connecticut, the narrator felt he was distinguished because his mother dressed him well. Later, when the millionaire buys him expensive Parisian designs, the narrator sees this as an economic achievement that makes him his benefactor’s equal.

More importantly, clothes and jewelry also serve as an important metaphor for race and identity. In both cases, external appearances determine how one is viewed and interpreted by others, and especially what communities (of race and class, respectively) one is assumed to belong to. However, while race is ostensibly immutable—except perhaps in the narrator’s unique case—clothes are, to an extent, within people’s control: they signal how people see themselves as much as how the world is to see them. When Shiny speaks at the Connecticut school’s graduation ceremony, the narrator notes that his formal clothing “did not fit him any too well” and underlines the seriousness of his struggle against racism: the fact that he looks wrong in upper-class dress shows how dissonant it seems for blacks to live comfortably, and this social advancement is precisely what Shiny is fighting for. In his childhood, when his father visits him in Connecticut, the narrator cannot figure out who he is until he sees the shiny shoes and hat that remind him of the man from his childhood; these clothes stand in for what is, to everyone else, the narrator’s father’s most remarkable characteristic: his whiteness. More subtly, this points to the unequal relationship between the narrator’s parents: his mother was his father’s family’s sewing-girl, so his father’s beautiful clothes were in fact the product of his mother’s labor, just as white intergenerational wealth in the United States largely grew out of the value expropriated from black slave labor.

Clothing and Jewelry Quotes in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man quotes below all refer to the symbol of Clothing and Jewelry. 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 3 Quotes

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:
Get the entire Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man LitChart as a printable PDF.
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man PDF

Clothing and Jewelry Symbol Timeline in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

The timeline below shows where the symbol Clothing and Jewelry appears in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
...the narrator only remembers his mother and “a tall man with a small, dark mustache,” shiny shoes , and gold jewelry, which the narrator used to admire. The man (later revealed as... (full context)
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
...York and on to Connecticut, where they lived in a luxurious cottage. She began to dress him well —building in him the pride that goes with being well-dressed—and take care with his friends,... (full context)
Chapter 2
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
...hat. The narrator did not recognize the man until he got to “his slender, elegant, polished shoes .” It was his father, his mother explained. (full context)
Chapter 3
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
...often dormant, principle of the Anglo-Saxon heart, love of fair play.” Shiny’s diminutive frame and ill-fitting clothes made his speech seem like “so unequal a battle” against the world. The speech inspired... (full context)
Chapter 4
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
...landlord insisted he could not be held responsible, and the narrator noticed that his favorite tie was gone, too. (full context)
Chapter 5
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
...was wearing “what was, at least, an exact duplicate of my lamented black and gray tie.” At another of these raucous balls thrown by hotel waiters, he watched a cake-walk for... (full context)
Chapter 6
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
...supper and 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... (full context)
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Theme Icon
...on linen dusters,” which he soon learned the proprietor gave patrons who gambled away the clothing off their backs. Some, with nothing to wear, were trapped inside until they could win... (full context)
Chapter 7
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
Secrecy, Purity, and Origins Theme Icon
...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 in a cab and met “a well set up,... (full context)
Chapter 9
Racism and the Color Line Theme Icon
Music, Emotion, and American Culture Theme Icon
...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... (full context)