The mixed-race narrator of James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man manages to move back and forth between the rigidly segregated worlds of black and white America at the turn of the twentieth century. Because he can “pass” for white, the narrator gets a firsthand look at the white Americans’ violent prejudices and comes to understand that legal emancipation cannot improve the opportunities available to black Americans without a radical and sustainable change in white racist attitudes. Although this view of racism and inequality is relatively uncontroversial today, it was an important intervention in national conversations about race when Johnson published this book more than a century ago. At the time, African-American politics centered on the question of whether blacks should work to improve their standing within a discriminatory society and win respect from whites (a view associated with Booker T. Washington) or demand political equality as human beings (a view associated with W.E.B. Du Bois). Crucially, the “ex-colored” narrator’s chameleon-like ability to navigate both white and black America also shows how the sharp racial categories that continue to structure American life are fuzzy social constructs rather than biological realities.
The novel demonstrates that, unlike under slavery, when the systematic exploitation of black life and labor required white and black Americans to live in close quarters, by the turn of the twentieth century the model had shifted: the world was divided into two separate, unequal societies and racism operated through black citizens’ exclusion from white institutions that offered economic opportunities, social prestige, and political power. Even in the narrator’s remarkably integrated childhood town in Connecticut, race remains a crucial dividing line: he looks down on his black classmates until the teacher explicitly divides the white and black students, and he realizes he too is “colored.” When he leaves Connecticut for Atlanta, the narrator marvels at how the black population seems to have developed its own, entirely separate society within the white-dominated South; he is unable to patronize white businesses and is confined to certain neighborhoods. Even in New York, the novel’s black characters are mostly confined to a tiny, segregated black neighborhood in midtown Manhattan. As a result of this divided world, the narrator argues that white and black people are limited to particular, provincial viewpoints and unable to grasp the whole reality (like he is, since he can switch back and forth).
The narrator sees that this division is grounded in racism, which means that attitudinal change is a necessary component of racial justice. The narrator most distinctly realizes this when he watches a man from Texas and a former Union soldier—both of whom believe he is white—argue about whether “the Anglo-Saxon race” deserves to rule over other races, or whether instead different racial groups in America should have equal opportunities and self-determination. The Texan claims various historical achievements for “the Anglo-Saxon race” and goes so far as to say he would rather have “no country at all” than “niggers [ruling] over [him].” The narrator compares the logical gymnastics required to justify this theory to the astronomical distortions required to believe the Earth is the center of the solar system. White people’s racism is bolstered by negative stereotypes about a certain class of African-Americans—the ostensibly poor, bitter victims that the narrator also looks down on—as well as stereotypes from literature (like the archetype of “happy-go-lucky, laughing, shuffling, banjo-picking” rural Southern blacks) and entertainment (like those at minstrel shows). White supremacy is also internalized among black Americans, especially elites; the narrator’s own cultural snobbishness and ultimate decision to give up his blackness are proof enough, but he also discusses, for instance, wealthy black people’s tendency to marry people with “lighter complexions” and “whiten” the next generation.
The narrator’s ability to navigate both black and white spaces merely because he is racially ambiguous undermines not only racist beliefs in white supremacy but also the more fundamental notion that race can be strictly determined and has some biological “truth.” In other words, his very existence as a mixed-race man who is able to “pass” as either black or white proves how concepts of race and racism are socially constructed. The narrator’s racial flexibility creates a handful of satirical moments, like when he distances himself from darker-skinned black men or gets taken for white in rural Georgia towns until he visits the black preacher’s house. Indeed, in Jacksonville, he even manages to (supposedly) become a better Cuban than the Cubans: he rises up in the cigar factory and learns Spanish so quickly that he gets the job of reading newspapers and novels to the entire factory workforce. The preface takes up the fictiveness of race explicitly, arguing that the book exposes the phenomenon of passing in order to give a “bird’s-eye view” of the American “race-drama.” Whether the narrator appears as white or black depends on other people’s expectations and the social context: when he plays ragtime at the “Club,” nobody questions his blackness; when he has a cigar in the whites-only smoking car of his train to Atlanta, nobody questions his whiteness. No one ever sees him as mixed, or both white and black; instead, everyone demands a concept of racial purity, which is distinctly American and grounded in the “one-drop rule,” or the assumption that anyone with any black blood automatically counts as black.
Although contemporary readers have probably been long familiar with the ideologies of racial purity and superiority that have sustained oppressive American institutions like slavery, Jim Crow, and now mass incarceration, James Weldon Johnson was exposing their mechanisms and arbitrariness at a crucial moment in American history, when the political conversation about racial equality had to grapple with what it would take to see and treat a formerly enslaved population as full human beings.
Racism and the Color Line ThemeTracker
Racism and the Color Line Quotes in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
It is very likely that the Negroes of the United States have a fairly correct idea of what the white people of the country think of them, for that opinion has for a long time been and is still being constantly stated; but they are themselves more or less a sphinx to the whites.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?”
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.
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.
What an interesting and absorbing game is money making!
“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.”
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.