41 pages 1 hour read

James Weldon Johnson

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1912

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Published anonymously in 1912, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is James Weldon Johnson’s fictional memoir centered on how a talented man born to a Black mother and a white father after the Civil War became white in the early-20th century. Johnson, an important critical and artistic contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, published the novel under his own name in 1927 during the height of the movement. The novel is an important bridge between the literature of Post-Reconstruction and works of the Harlem Renaissance. Readers are advised that the novel includes representations of racial violence, including lynching. This guide is based on the digital facsimile of the 1912 Sherman, French and Company print edition available via Google Books.

Plot Summary

Johnson opens the novel with a Preface purportedly from the publishers. They promise that the work that follows will expose for the first time the inner life of Black people and particularly those who pass.

The narrator describes his early life. He spends the first part of that life in Georgia in a cottage with his mother and a father who visits only periodically. His life changes dramatically when his father, a white man, sends the narrator and his mother to live in Connecticut. His father shows up only sporadically at this point, including one last, uncomfortable visit when the narrator is a teen.

Because of his light skin, the narrator assumes from an early age that he is white. He discovers his racial identity one day after a teacher asks him to sit down after the principal asks the white students to stand. The narrator struggles with this new identity, especially as he recognizes that his white peers and the school treat Black students differently than white students.

As the narrator moves into his teen years, he becomes even more aware of prejudice. He also gains public recognition for his gift with music, especially the piano, and decides that he will study music in college. His mother’s death slows these plans, but the narrator manages to raise enough money to pay for a few years at Atlanta University in Georgia. His naivete leads to the theft of his tuition money as he travels to Atlanta, so he is forced to go to Jacksonville in search of work that will allow him to save for college.

Once in Jacksonville, the narrator starts an entry-level position in a cigar-making factory and progresses all the way up to the position of reader (tasked with reading out loud to his peers). He becomes more worldly, learns about respectable Black people as he gives music lessons in the community, and gains exposure to popular Black dance and music. The music fascinates him, and he decides his life’s work will be elevating this music to the same stature as classical Western music.

The narrator moves to New York to learn more about this music. He masters ragtime (the musical precursor to jazz) and begins his project of interpreting classical music as ragtime. After dark days as a gambler, he eventually picks up work playing at parties for an inscrutable white millionaire. His rich patron saves him one night when a jealous lover of a woman the narrator knows nearly kills the narrator. The millionaire takes the narrator to Europe as his valet.

In Europe, the millionaire gives the narrator an outsized salary and the free time to learn all he can about music, art, and culture. He travels and lives in France, London, and Berlin. The narrator experiences little overt prejudice. After realizing the potential of ragtime in the world of classical music and encountering his father and half-sister one night at the opera, the narrator decides to go home. His great contribution to Black culture will be writing classical Black music that will force Americans to recognize the richness of Black American musical culture.

A chance meeting with a respected Black doctor on the trip home connects the narrator to middle-class and affluent Black people in cities like Washington. D.C., Richmond, and Nashville. Rather than stay in these places, the narrator travels to the Deep South to explore the roots of the music that so inspires him. One night in a small town in Georgia, however, the narrator witnesses the lynching of a Black man. After this terrifying event, the narrator begins to passively pass and then does so actively to advance in the world of business.

Through scrupulous saving and investment in property, the narrator becomes prosperous. He dates a white woman. The two split up when he tells her about his racial background, but love allows the pair to reconcile and marry. They have two children, but his wife dies in childbirth. The narrator closes the novel by explaining that he has continued to pass for the sake of his children, but he sometimes wonders if his focus on prosperity has been worth the sacrifice of his culture and racial identity.