The first-person narrator, whose name the reader does not know (for the purposes of this study guide, he will be referred to as “the narrator”), begins by explaining that he Is going to divulge his greatest secret, a painful and fascinating secret that he has kept for years. He describes his early childhood growing up in a small town in Georgia right after the Civil War. His earliest memories are punctuated by his father's infrequent visits. He remembers that his father once gave him a small coin with a hole bored through it that he still wears around his neck.
One day, the narrator's mother takes him to Connecticut, where she proceeds to raise him as a “perfect little aristocrat”. She earns money by sewing. Early on, the narrator takes up the piano, imitating the songs his mother plays. He finds much joy in music, soon surpassing his mother and impressing his first teacher with his natural gift. He also embraces his school books and loves learning as much as he loves playing the piano. After a few pleasant years at a private school, the narrator's mother enrolls him in a public school. There, he makes a strong friend in “Red Head”, or as he later calls him, “Red”, an older and larger boy who has been held back from advancing in grades. Their friendship is cemented when the narrator saves Red from embarrassing himself during a spelling competition. The narrator feels that he “benefit[s]" from Red's "strength and faithfulness” and Red, meanwhile, sees the mutual advantage of the narrator's “wit and quickness”.
The narrator mentions that he there are a few "colored" boys and girls in his school and class; one of them, nicknamed “Shiny” for his polished black skin and sparkling eyes, is the top pupil in the school. However, the white students taunt the African American students by calling them “nigger”. One day, the narrator uses the word in his home and he is stunned at his mother’s stinging rebuke.
One day the principal of the school comes into the narrator’s classroom and instructs the white students to stand. The narrator stands along with the rest of his white classmates, but is surprised when the principal tells him to sit down. The narrator is confused and shocked, overhearing other students saying they always knew he was "colored". When he is back at home, he studies his features in the mirror, understanding why his mother’s friends always call him a “pretty” boy. Tormented, he implores his mother to tell him if he is a "nigger". Her eyes well with tears, but she tells him that he is not a "nigger". The narrator keeps pressing his mother and asks her if she is white and if he is white. She finally says no, but quickly adds that his father is a great man. The narrator wants to know more about his father and meet him but his mother says it is not the right time. The narrator later muses about the reveal of this great secret, “perhaps it had to be done, but I have never forgiven the woman who did it so cruelly”.
After that day, the narrator becomes keenly aware of the way people at school perceive him. He mentions that even decades later, he has never forgotten how it felt to experience the knowledge of his blackness. He believes he has passed into another world where the fact of his being "colored" permeates every thought and every experience of his life in the United States. His view is no longer that of “a…citizen, or a man, not even a human being” but of a “colored man”. The narrator concludes that this division is what makes the "colored" people more mysterious to white Americans, while "colored" people understand whites, their oppressors, in a much deeper way.
The narrator explains how this new awareness of his race changes his behavior towards other people, and not the other way around. He becomes “reserved…suspicious” and considers faithful Red as his only friend. He does not want to be grouped with the other students of color, even though he feels a sympathetic bond with Shiny.
The narrator instead turns inward to his books and music, reading the Bible rigorously but not being impressed overall with books of theology. He takes lessons with the organist of the church he attends with his mother, and, at twelve, begins his lifelong career of impressing older listeners with his musical skill. He is praised for his ability to playing a piece of music with feeling and verve, and not in a rote or artificial manner. His affectations are pure and his ear is mature.
The narrator continues through school, helping Red along with his studies so that they can remain together. During his third term, he falls in love with a young violinist, and even though he hates playing as an accompanist, he agrees to work with her. This brown-eyed girl is his first love “and [he] love[s] her as only a boy loves”.
One day, the narrator arrives home, in a hurry to get his music and get to his duet practice with the brown-eyed girl, when he realizes that something is different. An elegant, well-dressed visitor is there, smiling at the young narrator and leaning on the mantel. His mother tells her bewildered son that the elegant man is his father. The narrator is stunned, and although this man is who he pictured his father to be, he is nervous and tongue-tied. He feels like he cannot rise to the occasion and act as he should.
After a bit of polite conversation, the narrator's mother, who is blissfully happy and full of smiles, asks her son to play something for his father. He plays Chopin passionately for his rapturous parents, but admits to the reader that his efforts are half-hearted. He asks if his father is staying, but the man replies that he is going to New York and will see him again soon. The narrator reveals that he only met his father once more after that.
On his way to the rehearsal, the narrator's young mind races over the encounter. As an older man, the narrator understands that at the time his younger self could not conceive of his white father as truly different from him because “he had only a faint knowledge of prejudice and had no idea at all how it ramified and affected our entire social organism.” After the rehearsal, which is nearly cancelled because the brown-eyed girl is annoyed at his tardiness, he returns home to his darkened house and finds his mother singing softly to herself. She tells the narrator about his father: “a great man, a fine gentleman” who will make a great man out of him as well. Looking back years later, the narrator wonders if his mother was aware that she was speaking in half-truths.
As this novel is structured as an autobiography, the narrator begins by describing his childhood, setting up the context that he grows up in and that develops his identity. Identity is one of the central themes of the text and will be discussed in later analyses, but it is clear that the narrator's childhood experiences are crucial to his later development. He grows up not knowing that he is "colored" and comes by this knowledge in a humiliating way. He does not know his father and spends his adult life consequently grappling with the notion of manhood and how it impacts his racial identity. Johnson also establishes that the narrator is brilliant and a gifted musician, which will later facilitate his forays into both sides of the racial divide as he attempts to reconcile the two. These early chapters also introduce one of the few characters with a name -Shiny- and present him as a foil for the narrator as a man who embodies a different, more authentic form of blackness.
The novel's reissue during the the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance is not surprising given James Weldon Johnson's stature in the 1920s. He had made his name in music, arts and letters, diplomacy, and became a political leader as head of the NAACP. Even though The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was first published in 1912, it contains themes of self-actualization, "passing", the cultural contributions of African-Americans, and common consciousness, all of which were ubiquitous features of Harlem Renaissance fiction. Like Johnson's narrator, Harlem Renaissance writers viewed their language as performative speech and strove to prove that they were worthy of equal stature in American society.
In this novel, Johnson describes stereotypes and early characterizations of African Americans that Harlem Renaissance writers would later categorize within the "Old Negro" archetype. These literary tropes were largely negative and could be read as semiotic signs, which imparted meaning to readers. The "Old Negro" characters included: the tom, a docile servant named after Uncle Tom; the coon, a backward country type; the buck, a sexualized and savage man; the tragic mulatta, a mixed-race and sexually attractive female character; and the mammy, a large, loyal, female domestic servant. Other less common "Old Negro" characters included the concubine and the conjure woman. Harlem Renaissance writers directly counteracted these popular images and endeavored to replace them with positive and nuanced depictions of African Americans. This was not only to change white readers' opinion about African Americans but also to counteract the deleterious affect such representations had on African Americans themselves, who were wont to internalize the stereotypes. In contrast, the "New Negro", as touted by Renaissance writers, was characterized by self-respect, self-dependence, and racial pride.
The Harlem Renaissance writers, a group which includes Johnson even though he wrote Autobiography a decade earlier, grappled with certain common questions. Since their artistic abilities possessed performative potential, they wondered what level of responsibility they must take for portraying the positive aspects of African American characters. Should they defend and glorify their characters or present an honest portrayal of their people, even if it was negative and sometimes verged into the territory of stereotypes? Should they appeal to an African American audience, even though the majority of book-readers were white? W.E.B. Du Bois famously noted that "all art is propaganda and ever must be", and Johnson was very much aware of this. In The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the relationship between Johnson and the character of the narrator is unclear. Literary critics have long debated which ideas and sentiments are actually the author's and which are the character's, trying to negotiate the degree to which Johnson himself ever felt the narrator's brand of self-hatred, racism, and naiveté. The title of the novel further complicates the matter, since it is not really an autobiography, but is written as if it were, and was originally published anonymously. Meanwhile, the character of the narrator makes a point of keeping his racial identity a secret and refusing to divulge certain identifiable details about his life.
In terms of structure and style, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a veritable pastiche. It is structured as an autobiography but contains elements of the picaresque, psychological realism, social protest, parody, and the slave narrative. The novel's relationship to slave narratives, hitherto the primary literary mode utilized by African American writers, is noteworthy. Slave narratives, like those written by Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, and Harriet Jacobs, were all factual, written in the first person, and depicted the struggles of their protagonists using autobiographical terms. These narratives revealed their authors' dignity and resilience in the face of abject despair at the hands of their white masters in an overwhelmingly racist society. Slave narratives usually began with a recounting of the author's time in slavery followed by a description of his or her escape to freedom. Through this journey, each of the former slaves describes a transition to selfhood and enlightenment. Johnson's novel is similar in that it is told by a first-person narrator who is on a journey of realization, although it is fictional. The critic Donald C. Goellnicht pays particular attention to the scene where the narrator's father says goodbye to him and gives him the coin necklace. He reads this scene as a parallel to "the auctioning off of the slave-owner's bastard children (born to female slaves) that is a common trope in the slave narratives. Having been auctioned off as a child, the narrator still maintains a misplaced desire for the coin that establishes his value –or, rather, his lack of value –as a human being." The coin represents the shackles of slavery and the narrator's enslavement to "the system of private property ownership that was the basis of chattel slavery".
Some critics, however, describe The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man as a reverse slave narrative, in which the narrator actually cancels his selfhood. He is, critic Zoe Trodd writes, an "unreliable narrator, with a void past and numerous shifting identities" who "narrates himself out of existence." Goellnicht offers arguments for this perspective as well, noting that in Johnson's novel, the reader "[gets] a narrative in which the construction of a non-self...involv[ing] perverse blindness, voluntary invisibility, and self-enslavement".