The Autobiography Of An Ex-Colored Man By James Weldon Johnson

1416 Words6 Pages

The concept of what it means to be white and black in America is explored throughout the novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson. This novel explores these concepts through the life of a man who is both black and white and is perceived as both. His being both white and black allows him to explore and experience life as both a white man and a black man. This lens allows him to experience what it means to black and what it means to be white in America. Although race is usually defined solely on skin color, this novel suggests otherwise. This novel brings up the idea that race can be performed, meaning that if the way one acts, speaks, thinks, dresses differs from that of their perceived “race” one can be categorized …show more content…

The idea of blackness in this novel is comprised of many attributes, but in the end, they always sum up to the idea that one who is “Black” will always be subordinate. The idea that black people are subordinate first rises when the narrator is talking about how “Shiny” is considered one of the best scholars in the school but, “it did not take me long to discover that, in spite of his standing as a scholar, [Shiny] was in some way looked down upon” (Johnson 797). In this novel, the differences between black and white surface very early on in the narrator’s life. This realization that Shiny is still looked down upon will soon become a very real idea for the narrator. The next time the narrator comes into contact with this idea is right after he finds out that he is not actually a white boy, but is a black boy. After the narrator tells his mom that the white boys at school started calling him a “nigger”, his mom tells him, “you are as good as anybody; if anyone calls you a nigger, don’t notice them” (Johnson 799). She says this to him because now that he is considered “Black” she doesn’t want him to think any less of himself as a person. It is only …show more content…

In the beginning of the novel, the idea of what being “White” means is never explicitly touched upon, but it can be inferred through the negative space that the narrator leaves while carving out the definition of being “Black”. One can see that the white students are in position of privilege without earning, when the narrator talks about how Shiny is still looked down upon although he is one of the best students. This demonstrates that being “white” means being privileged in this situation. Later on, in the section where the narrator talks about the three classes of black people, what it means to be “White” comes up because above every group of black people there is a better group of white people. “White” means to be above everything that is considered “Black”. The concrete evidence of what is means to be “white” comes when the narrator says, “I think that white people somehow feel that colored people who have education and money, who wear good clothes and live in comfortable houses, are ‘putting on airs’… or are, at best, going through sort of a monkey-like imitation” (Johnson 822). In this case whiteness can be performed, and everything good that a normal person would want is considered white. This statement is very similar to the statement made by the millionaire, that says, “my boy, you are by blood, by appearance, by education,

Open Document