Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man Book Review
Kevin Rance HIST3102 Pratt 8 September 2011 The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man Book Review The novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson shows a story of a man with mixed blood of white and coloured. Throughout the story, the man is conflicted with his heritage, sometimes accepting his coloured heritage and at other times rejecting his coloured heritage and passing himself off as a white man. The main character travels all around the United States and Europe while observing how whites and coloureds behave separately and with each other.
The nameless man goes through tough times and prosperous times his whole life and comes out with quite a few revelations. The two themes that are very evident in this novel are race relations and identity. This novel is set in the time period of a few years after the civil war, and as such the United States is trying to decide what the roles of the newly freed coloureds will be. The nameless man, throughout the course of the novel, lives life as a coloured man and white man both in the north and south. Due to those experiences, he has observed racial issues from a variety of perspectives.
The man, brought up mostly among whites, sets out around the country to study the coloureds and share what he learns with his readers. He shows this by stating that, “it is a difficult thing for a white man to learn what a coloured man really thinks …” and “I believe it to be a fact that the coloured people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them. In chapter five, he divides the coloureds into three categories based on their interactions with the white men: the desperate class, the working-class servants, and middle and upper classes.
The lower class or the “desperate class,” as the narrator calls them, “carry the entire weight of the race question. ” In chapter nine, during an intense discussion of future racial relations between the narrator and the millionaire, the millionaire states his view on the racial status of coloureds in the United States by saying he “can imagine no more dissatisfied human being than an educated, cultured, and refined coloured man in the United States. ” Life as a coloured man in the United States was shown to be very harsh as proven by both the narrator and the millionaire.
However, the narrator has another crisis to tackle, his self-identity. In the United States, there are only two types of people: white and coloured. The narrator struggles with self-identification and does not know whether to call himself white or coloured. In the beginning of the novel, the narrator assumes he is white and looks down upon the coloured children whom he attends school with. However his struggle with identification starts once he learns that he is classified as coloured solely for the reason that his mother is coloured as well.
He stops teasing the coloured children, but he feels a “very strong aversion to being classed with them. ” For the entirety of the novel, he resists the label “coloured” and tries to find ways to distinguish himself from the rest of his people he deems inferior. When in Paris, he was identified as neither coloured nor white, but simply as an American. He could roam Paris freely and enter any business he wanted due to being treated as equal. Paris was the first time he has ever ignored the color of his skin.
Life in the United States is very different for the narrator however. The treatment of the narrator in the different towns he visits is dependent on whether or not the citizens know he is coloured. His self-identification is dependent on what the citizens viewed him as, white or coloured. However, after the lynching he witnessed near the end of the novel, he decided to “let the world take me for what it would. ” Basically at the end of the novel, the narrator has no identity relating to race at all.
However, the narrator has the identity of a musician with him throughout the whole novel and that particular identity never leaves him. Throughout the whole novel, the narrator keeps repeatedly flipping back and forth between white and coloured self-identification. At the end of the novel, he has split the coloured people into three different categories, experienced different perspectives related to race issues, and came out at the end of the novel with no racial identity. The narrator is most definitely rich in life experiences now.