"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."
The narrator begins his autobiography by telling the reader that he has a secret to tell, and that it is going to be particularly difficult to divulge. Aware of the title of the book, the reader can already guess what that secret is – that the narrator is (or was) a "colored" man, and that not many people know this fact. Also evident in these introductory words is the intimation that the narrator is conflicted, pained, and anguished. He seems to impart the truth in a grudging manner that bespeaks his internal conflict. Keeping these introductory remarks in mind while reading the novel is important, for the reader should be expecting that there will come a time when the narrator decides to conceal his 'great secret', his race.
"I buried my head in her lap and blurted out: 'Mother, mother, tell me, am I a nigger?'"
The narrator is unaware of his true racial identity until a cruel principal at his elementary school points it out in front of his whole class. It is difficult for the narrator to ask his mother this question, especially since he he has mocked another kid at school with the same racial epithet not too long before. This scene also lays the groundwork for the narrator’s persistent quest to unearth his identity. His mother tiptoes around the truth but then comes to it in a roundabout way, admitting she is not white, but the narrator's “great” father is. She thus confuses her son about his paternity and his race at the same time, and he will have to come to terms with both throughout his life.
"He is forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man, or even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man."
In this passage, in which the narrator shares his musings on what it means to be a "colored man" in America, he articulates the idea that the a man with black skin is always the “other”. The narrator understands that as a "colored man", he is constantly reminded about the barriers and oppression that surround him. Of course, what makes the narrator's case unique is that he can pass as a white man, so he has seen the world from both sides of the racial divide. However, these comments indicate that even though the narrator chooses to lives in as a member of the dominant race, embracing the accompanying mores and values, he can never escape his fundamental self and will be tormented by his own ambivalence for the rest of his life.
"And how the scene of the struggle has shifted! The battle was first waged over the right of the Negro to be classed as a human being with a soul; later, as to whether he had sufficient intellect to master even the rudiments of learning; and today it is being fought out over his social recognition."
Literary scholars and historians often refer to the narrator as an antihero, and label his decision to pass as white loathsome. However, the novel does make some unflattering yet pertinent observations about the evolution of racial relations in the United States. James Weldon Johnson was an extremely intelligent and accomplished individual who was a vocal participant in African American culture and politics. This passage indicates how keenly aware he was of the struggles faced by African Americans. This passage also cements the relationship between this work and the famous slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, which attempted to prove the equal intelligence of African Americans in order to break through the shackles of slavery and discrimination. Although the narrator chooses not to follow in Douglass' and Jacobs' hallowed footsteps, Johnson himself was a vocal advocate of racial equality.
"I sat amazed. I had been turning classic music into ragtime, a comparatively easy task; and this man had taken ragtime and made it classic. The thought came across me like a flash—It can be done, why can't I do it? From that moment my mind was made up. I clearly saw the way of carrying out the ambition I had formed when a boy."
Music is a very important part of the narrator’s life. It provides him with personal inspiration and professional employment. When he travels to Berlin with his wealthy patron, he witnesses a German musician re-interpret ragtime and is suddenly inspired to return to the South and pursue a career as an openly African American composer. This passage is important because it shows one of the narrator's goals (which will, sadly, he will not accomplish) as well as revealing the narrator's opportunistic outlook. He cannot accept ragtime on its own merits, but only sees its potential when he imagines how he can mix it with classical music. Some critics have rightly lambasted this passage as evidence of the narrator's inherent racism, while others have wondered if it was not merely an accurate representation of the status of ragtime, which was famous for its crossover appeal.
"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?"
Taken out of its full context, these words sound harsher then they were probably intended by the millionaire. He prefaces this comment with a trenchant commentary on the very real challenges of living as an African American man in turn-of-the-century America, as well as the inability of one person to save millions from suffering. The narrator uses the millionaire's argument as proof that the millionaire is free from prejudice, and his philosophy does espouse an every-man-for-himself ideal. However, the millionaire represents the height of capitalism - he is a rich, white, successful businessman. He has never had to contemplate his racial identity or consider his place as part of a community. Rather, his philosophy is focused on self-improvement, and it has clearly worked for him - but his world never co-incides with African American individuals, so he never sees anything beyond their collective struggle.
"But they ought not to represent the race. We are the race, and the race ought to be judged by us, not by them. Every race and every nation should be judged by the best it has been able to produce, not by the worst."
The novel, similar to many written by Harlem Renaissance literati, deals plainly with the tensions between social classes of African Americans. The narrator and the doctor both look down on African Americans who are poor, uncultured, and uncouth. They believe that the educated members of the race must represent it in the struggle for social equality and justice. However, this does a tremendous disservice to all other African Americans, who, while not part of the "Talented Tenth", are still human beings with feelings, ambitions, relationships, and intrinsic worth. It is rather problematic when African Americans like the narrator and the doctor reinforce discrimination within the race that they are trying to free from prejudice.
"A great wave of humiliation and shame swept over me. Shame that I belonged to a race that could be so dealt with; and shame for my country, that it, the great example of democracy to the world, should be the only civilized, if not the only state on earth, where a human being would be burned alive."
This passage describes the climax of the novel when the narrator witnesses a violent mob of white men lynch a black man. Before this moment, the narrator has spent most of his time with cultured and open-minded white people, which protected him from the reality of life was for many of his African American brethren in the South. This incident ties Autobiography to the great slave narratives of Douglass, Jacobs, and Equiano, which were rife with scenes of violence that cruel white masters inflicted on their slaves. This incident is extremely significant in that it precipitates the narrator's fateful decision to pass as white, and save himself from potential torture at the hands of white men who do not hold a rational viewpoint on race relations.
"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."
The narrator's epochal decision to pass as white comes after the narrator witnesses the brutal lynching of a black man in the South. Most readers find this decision surprising. We hope that this experience would inspire the narrator to further devote himself towards achieving racial equality in America. However, he chooses the easier, and more cowardly, path. He displays a self-loathing and shameful attitude when he decides not to be part of a race that "allows" itself to be treated thusly. Quite naturally, readers and scholars alike criticize the narrator for the choice to disassociate himself completely from racial identity, but some see it as a heroic action that reveals his pure autonomy.
…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 the last sentence of the novel and it fully expresses the ambivalence the narrator feels at his choice to pass as white and not embrace his African American roots. Part of him believes that he made the right choice because life has been easier for his family. However, he feels some regret when he observes the great spokesmen who stand up against racial inequality and wonders if he could have been one of them. The phrase "mess of pottage" refers to the Biblical story of Esau, who sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. The narrator casts his own decision in these terms. This last line shows that at the end of the novel, the narrator's identity is still unformed, still amorphous, still a mass of contradictions. He cannot truly pass as white and lives with the awareness that he is biracial. He cannot find any meaningful closure. He represents the tragedy of trying to live in two worlds at once, and choosing self-interest over self-awareness.
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.