A biracial man who passes for white. The narrator's central conflict in his life is whether or not he wants to embrace his African American roots or live as a white man - at the turn of the century, there was nothing in between. He is intelligent, cerebral, and spontaneous. He is an extremely talented musician as well as a voracious reader and a skilled linguist. He becomes a cigar-maker in Atlanta, a gambler and musician in New York, and a wealthy white patron's private musician in Europe. At one point, he is inspired to move to the American South to find musical inspiration from "Negro" spirituals, but a violent lynching turns him against his own race. He is torn between his racial identities again when he falls in love with a white woman; but she eventually agrees to marry him and they have two children. His ambivalence about his race does not ever vanish, however, and he sometimes wonders if he is a traitor.
The narrator's mother
A sweet, loving, and hardworking African American, whose affair with a wealthy white man in the South resulted in the narrator's birth. Per his father's wishes, the narrator's mother moves to Connecticut with the hopes of making her son a gentleman and provide him with excellent opportunities. She never falls out of love with her son's father and staunchly defends him when she can. She dies of an illness right after the narrator graduates from high school.
The narrator's father
A rich and handsome white man who does not marry the narrator's mother but whom she nevertheless swears is a good and noble man. The narrator only encounters his father only twice in his life - once during his childhood when he visits the narrator and his mother, and a second time when the narrator spots his father in the audience at the Paris Opera, but does not say hello. The narrator's absentee father is a source of confusion and conflicted emotions for the narrator.
The narrator's childhood friend in Connecticut, Red is big and strong and not terribly intelligent. He is a loyal friend, however, and does not care when he finds out that the narrator is biracial.
An intelligent and ambitious young student at the narrator's Connecticut school, Shiny gets his nickname for his black skin and bright teeth. He gives the valedictory address at graduation and goes on to become a professor. The narrator encounters Shiny later in life when he returns to New York. The narrator admires Shiny, and sees him as the best of his race.
The brown-eyed girl
The narrator's first love, a talented violinist whom he accompanies on piano. He is dismayed when she marries someone else, although she did not ever return his affections.
A young college student who works as a Pullman porter. The narrator meets him on his journey to Atlanta and the porter helps and guides the narrator during his first few days in the new city.
The first person whom the narrator sees perform ragtime, at a bar in New York. The piano-player is a naturally talented musician with no classical training.
A rich and beguiling white woman who frequents the Club with her young African American lover. The widow sets her attentions on the narrator, but her companion sees them and shoots the widow in a fit of jealousy.
A young, attractive, and dignified white man who discovers the narrator's talent while he is playing ragtime at the Club. The millionaire hires him to play music at his grand house and later, accompany him abroad. The millionaire is lonely and bored, and listens to music to fill his hours. His love for music is insatiable. He is a close friend to the narrator as well as patron. The millionaire is generally free from prejudice, although he counsels the narrator not to embrace life as a "colored" man because it will be harder for him than passing as white.
The widow's companion
A young and hotheaded African American man who is the widow's lover. One night, he is overcome with rage and jealousy and shoots the widow at the Club while she is sitting across from the narrator.
A good-looking and cultured African American man whom the narrator meets on the ship from Europe to Boston. A well-to-do graduate of Howard University, the doctor and the narrator spend the boat journey discussing race issue. The doctor is "broad-minded" and intelligent, and believes that "colored people" are progressing socially and economically.
The Jewish man
A man whom the narrator meets on the train; he participates in the race discussion but takes no side.
A shy and awkward young man whom the narrator meets on the train; he barely participates in the race conversation.
A loud, brash man whom the narrator meets on the train; he touts the South's preeminence and asserts his view that African Americans are inferior to white Americans.
The old soldier
A former Union soldier whom the narrator meets on the train; he argues with the Texan about the Civil War, slavery, and racial equality.
A renowned Macon preacher known for his artful oratory and impassioned sermons about hellfire and heaven.
A slight but powerful Macon song leader, known for his command of "Negro" spirituals and his ability to guide and inspire a congregation.
The school teacher
An impassioned and earnest young African American man who lives and teaches in Macon. The narrator spends some time with him before moving on to New York.
The singer/the girl
A young, beautiful white singer whom the narrator falls in love with when he hears her sing at a party. The two begin a relationship but the narrator is conflicted about whether or not to tell her he is biracial. Once he imparts his secret, she is flustered and does not respond, fleeing the city for the summer. When she returns, she agrees to marry the narrator and they have two children. She dies during childbirth.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The narrator receives a gorgeous new piano as a gift from his father, illustrating the fact that a "big" gift represents having received few from him. The narrator then shares with his mother his growing desire to visit the South, after which, he...