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Autobiography Of An Ex-Colored Man Essay Help

"Passing" In James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography Of An Ex Colored Man

In 1912, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was anonymously published by James Weldon Johnson. It is the narrative of a light-skinned man wedged between two racial categories; the offspring of a white father and a black mother, The Ex-Colored man is visibly white but legally classified as black. Wedged between these two racial categories, the man chooses to “pass” to the white society. In Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are, Brooke Kroeger describes “passing” as an act when “people effectively present themselves as other than who they understand themselves to be” (Kroeger 7). The Ex-Colored Man’s choice to ultimately “pass” at the end of the novel has been the cause of controversy amongst readers. Many claim his choice to “pass” results from racial self-hatred or rejecting his race. Although this may be true, the main reason for his choice to “pass” is more intense. The narrator’s “passing” is an effort to place himself in a safe living environment, open himself up to greater opportunities and be adventurous and cynical in his success to fool the nation. It is because of his light skin that The Ex-Colored Man confidently knows the world will categorize him as white; thus cowardly disclaiming his black race without actually disclosing his decision.
Considering the circumstance of racial inequality during the time of this novel many blacks were the target of crime and hatred. Aside from an incident in his youth, The Ex-Colored Man avoids coming in contact with “brutality and savagery” inflicted on the black race (Johnson 101). Perhaps this is a result of his superficial white appearance as a mulatto. During one of his travels, the narrator observes a Southern lynching in which he describes the sight of “slowly burning to death a human being” (Johnson 101). This repulsive observation causes the narrator to feel uneasy and distresses about his safety. Thus, he is convinced “passing” for a member of the white society would safeguard him from a life of uncertainty and violence. He is ashamed to be “indentified with a people [the black race] that would with impunity be treated worse than animals,” affirming his want to be treated as a white person to omit any violence being inflicted onto himself (Johnson 101). This observation coerces the narrator to ultimately decide to “pass” to the white society. While he declares he will neither “disclaim the black race nor claim the white race” but he would change (Johnson 101). He will “let the world take [him] for what it would,” because he refuses to go about life amidst a “label of inferiority pasted across [his] forehead,” which would occur should he claim the black race (Johnson 101). He recognizes that by intentionally “passing” he will keep himself out of harm’s way and safe from having such treatment being inflicted upon himself.
“Passing,” for The Ex-Colored Man gives him an initiation into a “freemasonry of…race;” gaining access to a secret knowledge that is out of reach for most...

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When The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was published in 1912, it received little critical attention. It was first published anonymously, but it was reissued under Johnson’s name in 1927, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. In an introduction to the 1927 edition, Carl Van Vechten, a white critic who often wrote on African American themes, praised the novel as “a composite autobiography of the Negro race in the United States in modern times.” The book purported to be the actual life story of an African American living as a white. The work, however, is not the actual autobiography of James Weldon Johnson, although the narrator’s life parallels his own in several respects, especially in his love for literature and music and his fondness for New York and Paris. Johnson had spent much time in New York, visiting the city as a youth and working as a young man; he had also traveled to Europe as a part of a musical group. To allay any lingering suspicions that the The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man might, in fact, be his life story, Johnson later wrote an actual autobiography, Along This Way (1934).

In The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Johnson utilizes some of the techniques of the slave narrative, the predecessor of the African American novel and a popular form of nineteenth century literature. Johnson’s use of the first-person narrator, a stock element of the slave narrative, is an innovation in...

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