The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man Summary and Analysis of Chapters III-IV


A few weeks after his father’s visit (and his successful duet with the brown-eyed girl), the narrator receives a gorgeous new piano as a gift from his father. He is momentarily disappointed that it is not a grand, but is happy nonetheless. As he gets older, he learns he has a great voice and joins the boys’ choir. He also diligently studies music theory and learns the pipe organ.

The narrator's increasing maturity brings with it questions about his and his mother’s place within the world. He tries find the answers in history books but finds them misleading or too condensed. When he discovers Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, he finally feels as though he is learning something important. Although the history of slavery is new to him, he relates, “there was no shock; I took the whole revelation in a kind of stoical way”. This is an important experience for the narrator because it enables him to speak frankly his mother on the subjects of slavery and race.

The narrator shares with his mother his growing desire to visit the South. The narrator learns that the reason he and his mother moved north is that his father was about to marry a white woman from a prosperous Southern family. However, he promised to take care of his son from afar. The narrator notes how much his mother loves and defends his father in their conversations, even though he has chosen not to build a life with her.

On the day of the narrator's grammar school graduation, Shiny emerges as the brightest star amidst all of the festivity and élan. His speech is rousing and inspiring, and the narrator is caught up in the emotion of the clamorous crowd. For the first time, the narrator feels a sense of pride in being "colored" and has the newfound desire to “bring glory and honor to the Negro race”. He begins to read everything he can about African American men who have achieved great things. His love for books becomes all-consuming, and he begins to “[dwell] in a world of imagination, of dreams and air castles”.

As he progresses through high school, the narrator notices his mother's health is beginning to fade and she becomes bedridden. The two of them talk about the narrator's future; his father wants him to go to Harvard or Yale but his mother cherishes a half-hope that he might go to Atlanta University. The first option seems likelier, though, since his father has promised to pay for some of his education and an Ivy League college will keep the narrator closer to home. A few months later, however, the narrator's mother dies. Devastated and lonely, he sells off some of his things and goes to live with his music teacher, who generously allows him to stay.

After his mother's death, the narrator does not have much money, so his music teacher suggests a benefit concert. Many talented performers sign on to participate, including the brown-eyed girl who has gotten married and lost much of her talent for the violin. On the night of the concert, the narrator plays Beethoven's "Sonata Pathetique" with more passion than he ever has before. It is so emotional and stunning that the rapturous audience cannot even clap. After the benefit, the narrator finds himself with about four hundred dollars to his name, and, realizing that the idea of the South still has a hold on his imagination, decides to attend Atlanta University.

When he travels down South, he is disappointed by the dreary and ugly landscape. He describes Atlanta as a "big, dull, red town." He meets a twenty-year-old student who works as a Pullman car porter. The young porter tells the narrator where can stay for a couple of days before the University opens. The narrator takes him up on his suggestion but is less than impressed with the worn and hideous boarding house. Meanwhile, while walking down the street, the narrator finds himself feeling critical of the African Americans he sees, who have an "unkempt appearance"; the "shambling, slouching gait and loud talk and laughter of these people arouse[s] in [him] a feeling of almost repulsion." He is fascinated, however, by their unique dialect, in particular their hearty way of laughing.

The porter takes the narrator to a place that serves food to "colored" men, but the food is tasteless and the surroundings unclean. The next morning, the narrator (who can pass for a white man here) tries to sneak away from the porter to find better food. However, the porter awakens and promises to take the narrator to a small boarding house which he knows serves good breakfast. The narrator is hesitant, but he finds the clean cottage and the amiable proprietress comforting, and her food, true Southern cuisine, is utterly remarkable.

The narrator learns that Atlanta University is starting classes that day and ventures there. He is pleased to see that the campus resembles New England with its gravel walks, brick walls, towering trees, and pleasant shade. He makes his way to the office of the University President, where he receives a warm welcome. At a gathering of new students in the general assembly hall, the narrator notes the large number of African American teachers and students, with no dearth of pretty girls. That night, leaving the university campus, the narrator feels a sense of contentment he has not experienced since his mother's death.

The narrator's contentment is short-lived, however, for when he returns to his room he discovers that all of his money his beloved tie have been stolen from his trunk. Disconsolate, he wonders if he ought to run back to school and tell the University President what has happened. He discards this idea in his shame, realizing that the loss is his own fault. His profound sense of loneliness and despair is somewhat alleviated when another porter, who shared his room the night before, tells him that he should go to Jacksonville and get a job in one of the big hotels there. The narrator is broke, but the porter offers him a place hiding in his closet on the Pullman car. The narrator is grateful for this man's generosity but finds the twelve-hour ride in the closet torturous: "I may live to be a hundred years old, but I shall never forget the agonies I suffered that night."


In these chapters, the narrator moves from childhood to young adulthood. He grapples with the legacy of his father, his mother’s sickness and death, questions of history and race, and finally, is faced with bare-bones survival when his money is stolen. This is certainly a challenge for a young man who has spent much of his life honing his cerebral interests and developing his love for music, theory, and books. The narrator's education and academic interests are important to note because as an African American author writing for a racially diverse audience, Johnson has created a protagonist who would have been described at the time as one of the “best” of his race. This portrayal would have helped readers remain sympathetic and engaged with the narrator even when, in later chapters, he embraces a life of gambling.

As a young man who is now aware of his racial identity, the narrator begins to contemplate what being "colored" actually means, as an individual and for the race as a whole. Johnson makes a comment about the educational priorities of the time through the fact that the narrator does not know much about the history of slavery and has to conduct his own research about the Civil War. However, he does not seem particularly aggrieved or affronted at the terrible treatment of his brethren in American history. This is one of the first incidents that supports the common belief that the narrator is somewhat racist. He does not identify himself as one of the oppressed "colored" people he reads about, nor does he have an emotional reaction upon discovering horrible realities of slavery. Indeed, when the narrator travels to the South, his derision for that region and its inhabitants is manifest. He finds the town dirty and ugly, describing its inhabitants as “unkempt” with a “shambling shuffling gait” that evokes within him “a feeling of almost repulsion” (40). He finds his new porter friend to be boring and does not enjoy the food he, as a "colored" man, is expected to eat.

However, the narrator does experience moments of racial pride during this section, but only when he witnesses an African American man or woman excelling in some way. It is Shiny's speech that first awakens the narrator's sense of identity. He describes the way he “felt leap within [him] pride that [he] was colored; and [he] began to form wild dreams of bringing honor and glory to the Negro race (32)." It is after this speech that the narrator begins to read everything he can about the accomplishments of the race (as opposed to fixating on the horrors of slavery). At this point, it may appear to readers that the narrator is on the path towards fully embracing his racial identity, but later chapters reveal that that this path soon becomes complicated, confusing, and one that the narrator ultimately abandons.

Similarly, the narrator's opinion of Atlanta shifts upon his arrival at Atlanta University, as he notices the African American professors and pretty girls on campus as well as the kindhearted nature of the President. His perception of the female and male students at the University unconsciously reveal his sympathy with white stereotypes of beauty. He admires girls of “delicate brown shades” who are “decidedly pretty,” and describes “many of the blackest” boys as “the kind of boys who developed into the patriarchal ‘uncles’ of the old slave regime” (44). The narrator's tendency towards a “white gaze” will reappear later in the text when he classifies "colored" people into three different classes, exhibiting a derision and lack of understanding that was generally ascribed to white Americans.

Another significant facet of the narrator’s emotional growth is the concept of masculinity. One critic, Heather Russell Andrade, describes the “law of the Mother” that was a part of the system of slavery in the U.S. Children born in to slavery often grew up without the guidance of their biological fathers (who were often either slaveowners of slaves themselves). Therefore, the mother was responsible for guiding the gender construction and identity development of her children. The narrator becomes aware of his racial identity at the same time that his mother reinforces the absence of his father. According to Andrade, this means that the “narrator’s confusion surrounding his racial identity is never resolved”. However, as the narrator, and other biracial men and women in his position, come into awareness of their race, Andrade believes that “’the law of Race,’ or the public declaration of racial pride, often displaces the ‘law of the Mother’”. W.E.B. DuBois famously articulated the impossibility of being both black and a man in America, however, African American masculinity could reveal itself through the fight for justice and social equality. This idea was in direct opposition to the established American notion of masculinity that existed at the turn of the century, which depended on a man's ability to acquire land, goods, and money.

By the end of Autobiography it becomes clear that the narrator, choosing to “pass” and live as a white man, has rejected self-sacrifice for self-interest, thus returning to the ideals of his white father. This choice is symbolized in the gold coin from the first chapter; it is, as Andrade points out, really fool’s gold because it cannot purchase anything and because the narrator has a father that “law cannot signify”. In this way, the narrator “can never, in the race-gender economies of his era, lay claim to [the] true ‘manhood rights’” of a white American. Of course, the essential question remains whether or not it is only the narrator choosing his father's construct of manhood, or if Johnson ascribed to these antiquated ideas as well.