Throughout his life, the narrator maintains a tumultuous relationship with other African-Americans: he alternatingly disavows and identifies with his blackness, as well as the economic and political struggles of the more destitute and oppressed black people he encounters. Most of all, he consistently prioritizes his individual achievement over his role in a racial community, even if he understands the necessity to fight collectively against racism. At the very end of his book, he declares that “I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage,” alluding to the biblical story of Esau, who literally traded his right to authority over his family for a meal of lentil stew. In other words, the narrator realizes that, out of fear and shame, he sacrificed the African-American community’s collective interests in order to live an unremarkable but comfortable life as a white man; indeed, collective progress and individual achievement were not contradictory but rather complementary goals, and his best chance to achieve something meaningful in the world was his opportunity to use his privileges to become a leader in the community. By deciding to “pass,” he let himself fade into a “small and selfish” obscurity.
Virtually all of the African-Americans the narrator associates with come from the same elite, a small class able to rise socially because of its individual achievements. Compared to most of the book’s other black characters, the narrator has a remarkably privileged upbringing: while he does experience some racism in his childhood, he lives in a relatively integrated town, wears fancy clothes, and seems like a “perfect little aristocrat” before he starts school, where he actually sides with the other white students against the black children. In Atlanta, the narrator mostly interacts with the middle-class Pullman Porters and is shocked to see poor “colored people in large numbers” and the segregated restaurants and boarding houses where they are forced to go. In Jacksonville, he joins “the best class of colored people” and resents the black “desperate class” that he thinks give the rest of his race a bad name; later, the Washington physician introduces him to the Northern black elite in Boston and Washington. And in New York, the narrator’s acquaintances are limited to famous and wealthy blacks at the “Club,” the walls of which are lined with “photographs or lithographs of every colored man in America who had ever ‘done anything.’” None of the people he meets are politicians, activists, or community leaders with any interest in fighting racism.
This elite class is often even unwilling to confront racism, preferring to deny it (claiming they have overcome it) or lament that it happens to less fortunate people elsewhere. The Washington physician has astonishingly regressive views about race despite his education and success: he looks down on poorer African-Americans as “lazy, loafing, good-for-nothing darkies” and insists that “I don't object to anyone's having prejudices so long as those prejudices don't interfere with my personal liberty.” He has no sense of a collective black predicament; he is only concerned with his own career and “personal liberty.” (Of course, prejudice does impact him—for instance, by preventing him from fraternizing with whites of his same economic class.) The narrator notes in Jacksonville and Georgia that this is a more general trend: affluent black people ignore the cultural achievements and daily struggles of lower-class blacks, refusing to see what they have in common and preferring to consider themselves a separate, superior class with no responsibility for the others. Of course, this is the same pattern that also leads white people to ignore civil rights struggles: for instance, the millionaire thoroughly understands American racism but still argues that people should make themselves “as happy as possible” and never “attempt to right the wrongs and ease the sufferings of the world,” which “is a waste of effort.”
Yet the book offers a number of character foils to the narrator who show that it is possible to find individual success precisely by advancing the struggle for justice. The author is an obvious example—he went to many of the same places and had many of the same interests as his narrator, but became one of the United States’ most prominent civil rights leaders in the first half of the twentieth century. So is the narrator’s childhood schoolmate “Shiny,” who gives a powerful commencement speech to a white audience and later becomes a prominent professor at a black college. In the closing portion of the final chapter, the narrator sees Booker T. Washington speak, and the event is remarkably similar to Shiny’s earlier oratory; this leads him to realize and regret the shortsightedness of escaping rather than fighting to liberate his race. In the South, the preacher John Brown and chorus-leader “Singing Johnson,” while primarily church figures, also offer the same communal leadership as political activists like Shiny and Washington. While these figures are all relatively elite, unlike the part of the elite class that the narrator joins, these activists realize that they “carry the entire weight of the race question” and use their position to fight for equality. At the end of the book, the narrator declares that he has “sold my birthright for a mess of pottage” precisely because he realizes that it would have been possible for him to join this strand of the black elite.
Ultimately, the narrator justifies publishing his autobiography by arguing that it both reveals the “practical joke” he has played on society and also helps to resolve the sense of remorse he explains at the end of the book. In other words, it at once shows that he is capable of success despite his biological blackness and does something for the black community by portraying it faithfully for a wider audience. While he earlier sought to become famous in the world of white music through his compositions, the narrator ultimately realizes that it is more important for him to contribute to justice for the black community than win acceptance in the white world.
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement ThemeTracker
Collective Progress and Individual Achievement Quotes in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
“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.
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.
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.
“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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.