Individualism, Success, and American Identity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Individualism, Success, and American Identity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

African American Review
Volume 30, Number 3 (Autumn, 1996)  
pages 403-419

Kathleen Pfeiffer, Professor of English
Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan

The title character in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man embodies the paradox of race and color because he is both legally black and visibly white. The Ex-Colored Man’s response to this paradox defies his audience’s expectations: He believes that it’s possible for blacks to aspire and succeed in America, yet he decides to seize his own opportunity for success by passing as white. Passing in general and the Ex-Colored Man’s narrative in particular have long been viewed as instances of racial self-hatred or disloyalty. Both are predicated, so the argument goes, on renouncing blackness—an “authentic” identity—in favor of whiteness, an “opportunistic” one. These previous interpretations have insisted on a “racially correct” way of reading the text. However, such readings try to categorize a character who often resists categories. Must the Ex-Colored Man’s embrace of the potential for success to which his white skin avails him be seen simply as his co-optation by a culture founded on “white” values? Must passing necessarily indicate a denial of “blackness,” or racial self-hatred and nothing more?

When we look at the Ex-Colored Man as a person who values individualism, who is idiosyncratic, undisciplined, and inclined towards improvisation, we invite a much richer and more complex reading. When we recognize that the Ex-Colored Man demonstrates ambivalence about whiteness as well as blackness, we avail ourselves of the novel’s more complicated nuances. Not strictly fiction, yet not entirely autobiographical, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man reveals the instability of generic distinctions in much the same way that the Ex-Colored Man’s passing reveals the instability of racial distinctions. A textual changeling, the book is taxonomically slippery, encoding into its very pages the sort of disarray and ambivalence which passing evokes; the book’s own stubborn resistance to easy categorization thus suggests the constructed nature of distinctions separating texts as well as races. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, like the ideology of segregation, incorporates fundamentally contradictory attitudes. In turn, the Ex-Colored Man demonstrates the degree to which this segregation logic permeates our most deeply embedded beliefs about identity, race, and the U.S.A.

Because the book first appeared anonymously in 1912, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was, understandably, construed by its initial readers as the genuine autobiography of a light-skinned black man who had successfully passed into white society. It was, in fact, a fictional account written by James Weldon Johnson. The narrative’s opening paragraphs offer contradictory motives for the document that follows. At once a divulger of secrets, a confidence man, a trickster figure, and a confes-…

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