The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

“A Privileged Spectator:” Music and Its Role in the Narrator’s Life in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man College

In James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, the narrator presents the story of his life as a black man passing as white, and the different stages he progresses through while doing so. In both his life and the lives of many black Americans during the time of our narrator’s life, and to the present day, music plays an integral part in defining identity and culture. The narrator’s personal experience with music reflects a greater cultural experience shared by the black American community, and is sometimes the central element of his own life. By understanding the narrator’s experience with music, we can connect it to a broader experience of culture and status that Johnson comments on via the narrator.

Early in his life, the narrator discovers he has a proficiency in music, playing the piano in his home and joining various groups and ensembles early in his life (25-27). His musicianship also allowed him venues socially to spend time with people he may not have otherwise, beginning with his love interest in grade school. He remarks on his youthful love, saying “Perhaps the reader has already guessed why I was so willing and anxious to play the accompaniment to this violin solo; if not – the violinist was a girl...

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