Race Passing and American Individualism

By Kathleen Pfeiffer | Go to book overview

3
Passing and the Fictional Autobiography

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 confessor, the Ex-Colored Man's initial self-presentation defies clear psychological categorization. Likewise, his racial liminality structures the narrative. The protagonist was born in Georgia to a former slave mother and a former slave-owning father; he and his mother move to Connecticut while he is still young. In school, the protagonist befriends not only a “big awkward boy” who is white and who he names “Red Head” (7) but also “the best scholar” who is “as black as night” and who he names “Shiny” (9). He is surprised when informed by his schoolteacher that he is himself considered black, and though many other students shun or tease him, Red Head and Shiny remain his friends, symbolically connecting him to both the white and black worlds.

The Ex-Colored Man's adolescence and young adulthood are characterized by many fluctuations and a great deal of movement. During childhood, he nurtures his interest in piano; his father visits once, and then sends him a piano, promising to “make a great man” of him (26). When the Ex-Colored Man's mother dies shortly after he graduates from high school, however, his father ignores her final correspondence, thereby abandoning his son altogether. The son gives a piano concert that successfully raises funds sufficient for his college education, but the money is stolen as he travels to Atlanta University. He takes a job in a cigar factory in Jacksonville, where he “constantly postponed and finally abandoned returning to Atlanta University” (61). After a few years in Jacksonville, he follows “a desire like a fever” and moves to New York (64), where he becomes involved in gambling, cabaret life, and ragtime music,

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Race Passing and American Individualism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Passing and the Sentiment Novel 18
  • 2 - Passing and the Rise of Realism 39
  • 3 - Passing and the Fictional Autobiography 58
  • 4 - Passing and the “fast Yellowing Manuscripts” 82
  • 5 - Passing and the Rise of Mass Culture 107
  • 6 - Reading Passing Through a Different Lens 128
  • Epilogue: Passing in the Present 147
  • Acknowledgments 153
  • Works Cited 155
  • Index 163
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