The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson

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James Weldon Johnson was a well-known black lawyer in the literary world. He wrote a text on the life of a man of color in the USA (The autobiography of an ex-colored man). The text was published in anonymity from the 1900s because the author was afraid for his career in the public service. It was published a second time during the Harlem Renaissance under the name of James Weldon Johnson and laudatory analyzes. The author begins his autobiography by declaring to his audience that he has a secret to tell and that it will be particularly hard to disclose.

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By knowing the title of the book, the audience can already sense what is this secret which is nothing but the narrator is a “colored” man and that few people know. Despite the use of the term “autobiography” in the title, the story is based on fiction although influenced in part by the author’s personal life. The story follows an unnamed raconteur of mixed ancestry from a racist American society. The text critiques the system of American society and analyzes the psychological existences and the sociological result of the surrender for whites – one of the first writings in American literature to speak about this kind of problem. James Johnson is never mentioned and he speaks about himself only as “the ex-colored man”, which gives subjects such as abusive social variability, and the psychological impact of racism and misconduct. Therefore, I think this book can really help white people to understand what it is like to be black in the United States. There many points that he develops to help a white person to know the pain of some black people.

There are many quotes from the text to support that the white person will know many things about to be in America by reading Johnson story. For example, when he said ‘’I buried my head in her lap and blurted out: Mother, mother, tell me, am I a nigger?’’. The author does not know his true racial identity until the miserable director of his elementary school tells him in front of his classmates. It was very dreadful for the storyteller to ask his mother this question, especially since the headmaster had mocked another child at school with the same racial label not long ago. This show also raises the origins of the persistent investigation of the child to discover his racial affiliation. Her mother did not want to tell her the truth, but she does it in an indigent way, admitting that she is not white, but that the “great” father of the author is a white man. She makes her son deceive about his paternity and racial classification at the same time, and he will have to deal with both belongings throughout his life. Moreover, when he said ‘’He is forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of citizen, or a man, or even a human being, but from the viewpoint of colored man’’. In this section, in which the author shares his thoughts on what it means to be a “man of color” in America, he clearly expresses the idea that the man with the black color is always “the other”.

The narrator discovers that as a “man of color”, he is constantly reminded of the barriers and the oppression surrounding him. Of course, what re-establishes the exceptional case of the narrator is that he can pass himself off as a white man, so he has seen the world on both sides of the racial division. However, these observations demonstrate that even if the narrator chooses to live as a person of the dominant race, by adopting the customs and values that accompany it, he can never run away from his main self and will be preoccupied by his own ambivalence for the rest of his existence. Furthermore, ‘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’’ this is another point to sharpen to white person’s understanding of what it is like to be black in America.

This is the last part of the novel and it formulates very well the ambivalence that the author respects as a possibility to go from black to white and not to choose his Afro-American roots. One part of him thinks that he made the best selection because the life experience was more affordable for his family. However, he regrets a little bit when he looks at the great spokespersons who stand against racial inequality and the author wonders if he could have been like those great spokesmen of the Afro-American community. The phrase “soup mess” refers to the biblical account of Esau, who sold his birthright for a bowl of food. The narrator imagines his own judgment in this sense. This last part testifies that at the end of the novel, the narrator’s membership is always non-identifying, still amorphous, still a lot of contradictions. He cannot really pass for a white man and live with a clear conscience of being biracial. He cannot find any significant closure. It exposes the drama of trying to live in two different worlds at the same time and attaching great importance to self-interest to the detriment of self-awareness.

In conclusion, I think this book can sharpen or refine or add to a white person’s understanding of what it is to be black in the United States. There is great point in this book to explain every problem for being black in America. Even this is not based on true story, but it is really pedagogic for people who do not know that problem. I also think many white persons learn from James Johnson story. Moreover, I think that the problem of being black person become less because many writers write about that. Also with the evolution and the time, this problem will finish and the world will be good. Writing can really help the humanity to solve many problems in our world such as racism and other society problem. Writing can also be the voice of the voiceless. This book can help not only white person’s understanding but also some black person’s understanding of what it is to be black in America.     

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The autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson. (2019, Aug 13). Retrieved from