At what point in life do you remember coming to the realization that people are different from you, in particular, when do we start to notice race, eye color, hair texture, we see difference?
I might have been in first or second grade (elementary school) when some of my classmates asked me a question about my hair. I’ll probably talk about this later since it is probably more suited for an introduction to another book I’m reading. But at some point in our childhood, we paid attention to the differences we saw in ourselves and others.
“And this is the dwarfing, warping, distorting influence which operates upon each and every coloured man in the United States. He is forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the view-point of a citizen, or a man, or even a human being, but from the view-point of a coloured man.”
When reading The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, the unnamed narrator of this account discovers that although he’s fair skinned, he is indeed black. He comes home baffled and ask his mother, a beautiful brown skinned black woman if he is indeed the deragorty term he heard at school. His mother, always been his beloved confidant, the nucleus of his only child life but upon the discovery of his race, he struggles, at an early age to reconcile who he is and to know more about his absent father.
He does meet his father, bewildered again that his visit will change life. His father, a white man can’t marry or live with his mother because that’s against the law. His father does assure his mother he will receive a better future because his father will finance his education. He eventually learns that his father has been sending money regularly to his mother to take care of him for most of his life. Unfortunately, his mother dies when he’s a teenager and he’s left to find a way to navigate the next part of his life without knowing how to contact his father.
By this stage in his life, he’s resolved to make a difference as a “race man” advocating for black people as others have done before him. After some help from his neighbors, he had enough money to travel to Atlanta to attend university but falls victim to theft. Left with little choice, he heads to Jacksonville to obtain employment at a cigar factory.
Using his agile mind, our narrator has been able to master languages and also has a strong disposition to playing music. These things serve him well especially as he has frequent opportunities to observe and muse over the interactions of white people and the different “classes” of black people.
Even the difference between northern whites and southern whites provide some insight into the mindset of people within the same race. A mixing of the races in night clubs is not unusual and when our narrator finds himself caught in a jealous disagreement, he travels abroad with a wealthy millionaire friend.
Encounters abroad further shape our narrator into a refined man. He confides in his millionaire benefactor that he’d like to return to the US to pursue and make his mark on the “race” issue. Candid advice is shared and our narrator makes the journey back home after a few years.
“This idea you have of making a Negro out of yourself is nothing more than a sentiment.”
“I can imagine no more dissatisfied human being than an educated, cultured, and refined coloured man in the United States.”
A significant event happens near the end of the book which causes the narrator to consider all his plans for the future and how they crash to a halt after observing a horrible atrocity. Our narrator can’t reconcile being associated with either race, white or black after this event. Johnson’s book is a study in discrimination, race relations, classes within races, and the decision of one man to choose survivial and happiness by passing, although he’s faced with another major decision in revealing who he really is. I enjoyed this book because sometimes the decisions a person makes aren’t always for the reasons we think. Is it possibly they I would have come to a similar conclusion if I could?
Books about passing are of interest to me; you might remember my review of Nella Larsen’s Passing from last year. I have a few more books on my shelf that I’d like to read about the subject but I’m not sure which one I’ll read next.
Have you read The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man or Passing? Or any books about passing?