Identity is at the ideological core of this novel. The narrator endeavors to understand, at a basic level, whether he is black or white. He does not know where he belongs in society, or how he should hone his musical skills. At times, he contemplates his responsibility to his race, and weighs it against his responsibility to himself. He vacillates between two worlds, sometimes embracing life as a "colored" man, and at other times, choosing to pass as white. He is full of contradictions and his identity is not singular. His multi-faceted persona never seems to gel together completely, which is a cause of struggle in his life. The narrator observes that "the colored people of this country, in reality, [are] a mystery to whites". However, through the narrator's experience, it becomes clear that often, personal identity does not align with pre-established racial boundaries.
Diversity within African Americans
Through the narrator's journey around American and Europe, the reader meets African-Americans in all walks of life. The narrator describes African American people in the South as loud and coarse, marginalizing them as "the desperate class". He believes that the lowest class of "colored people" in the South are bitter and lack the desire to better themselves. Meanwhile, he asserts, there is the domestic class of "colored people", who are servants to their white counterparts. Finally, the educated class is accomplished, successful, and at the forefront of the fight for racial equality in the USA. As a member of the educated class, the narrator looks upon the "desperate" and "domestic" classes with disappointment and sometimes disgust, which has led many literary scholars and critics to label the narrator as racist.
The doctor on the ship to Boston agrees with the narrator's disdain, saying that the uneducated African American population "ought not to represent the race. We are the race, and the race ought to be judged by us, not by them" (114). Since Johnson's name became connected with the novel, it has been difficult to discern whether these are wholly the thoughts of Johnson's character or if Johnson himself actually felt that way. There was well-documented tension between the Talented Tenth and "lower-class" African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance, which paralleled the doctor's opinions. Therefore, it is entirely possible that Johnson also possessed these ideas.
Art and Culture
During (and even before) the Harlem Renaissance, African American writers were keen to prove that they, too, could be part of the American literary tradition, and that their culture was just as important as that of white Americans.
In Autobiography, the narrator explores artistic expressions on both sides of the racial divide. He praises spirituals, Uncle Remus stories, jubilee songs, ragtime and the cakewalk. After spending time in Europe, he decides to to move to the South, identify himself as "colored", and compose music based on the African American sound. However, he spends an equal amount of his narrative detailing his mastery of literature and music created by white Americans and Europeans. He plays Beethoven, learns Latin-based languages, and attends the Opera. At the time that Johnson wrote Autobiography, his narrator embodied the new idea that an African American man could be just as intelligent, talented, and intellectually curious his white counterparts. This places Johnson squarely within the tradition established by authors of slave narratives, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, who were early examples of African American writers who used their work to prove that African American men and women were not inherently inferior.
"Passing" as White
Like several other novels that came to relevance during the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson deals with the theme of "passing". Passing is not as straightforward it sounds. [Autobiography] deals with the impermeability of racial boundaries in turn-of-the-century American society, when a person with any amount of African American blood was considered "colored". Passing could be intentional or unintentional, and the narrator embodies almost every permutation of the experience. When he finally decides to fully pass as white at the end of the novel, he has decided to suppress a major part of his identity, thus destroying his chances to achieve true contentedness and self-awareness.
The narrator of Autobiography is equal parts compelling and frustrating because he, at times, seems to lack self-awareness. He offers many generalizations about "colored people" without really seeing them as actual human beings. He also does not take the time to understand why he feels the way he does. He vacillates between a weak and strong will, intelligence and naivete, identification with other African Americans and a complete disavowal of them. He cannot seem to make a decision for his life without hesitating or wondering if it was the right one. The autobiographical structure of the novel mirrors the fungible and unreliable identity of the narrator. The lack of real names for the characters reinforces the idea that the narrator, telling his story, finds it difficult to ground himself or anyone else in an stable identity.
Masculinity and manhood
The narrator lacks a powerful father figure and so he naturally wrestles with the idea of masculinity. His father is a powerful and wealthy white man, but he is absent during the narrator's childhood. Rather, the narrator is raised solely by his mother, which was also common for many children who were born into slavery. For men of color who were born to or raised by single mothers, taking up the mantle of racial identity often served to mold and promote their masculinity. The narrator, however, does not walk the path of fighting for racial equality in America, like many of his fully African American counterparts, although he toys with becoming a part of the African American community. By the end of the novel, however, he has decided to pass as white, choosing to become wealthy and support his family instead of fighting for racial equality. This is similar to the way the narrator's father chose to live his life - he secretly cared for and supported his African American mistress and biracial son financially, but he did not feel the need to fight for their equal treatment in American society. Therefore, the narrator chooses to mold himself to the ideals that his father represented - which proves to be unsatisfying, but he never knew his father well enough to understand if he ever felt inner conflict.
Self-interest vs. self-sacrifice
As the novel progresses it appears that the narrator is going to have to make a choice: embrace the self-interested path of pursuing worldly success and material wealth, which is easier for a white man, or to live in a society plagued by racial inequality and fight for his rights as a proud African American. The narrator oscillates between these two poles throughout the novel. He admires his white father and wants to become a famous classical composer. He also wants to live in the South and gain inspiration from old "Negro" spirituals and literature to create a new type of music. It seems that he is going to go the latter route, especially after he observes the magnetism and power of John Brown and Singing Johnson at the big meeting. However, the narrator ultimately decides to act in his own self-interest after viewing a violent and debasing lynching in the South. He chooses to pass as white, throws himself into the business world and becomes wealthy. He marries a white woman and raises his children as white. Although he expresses some ambivalence and regret at the end of the novel, it is clear that for this "ex-colored man", self-interest is more important than sacrificing his comfort to embrace the struggle and the cultural heritage of the African American community.
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.