Summer Assignment - Essay
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
Although the Civil War left slaves under the impression that they had won their freedom, blacks were still constantly the target of discrimination and it took many years for them to finally gain equality. In James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, a story is told through the eyes of a man in this troubling time, who learns in his early childhood that he is black, but with the ability to pass as a white man. Throughout his life he develops and fights a conflicted opinion: whether to live safely as a white man, or acknowledge his racial identity and act to advance his own race. Having been passed as a white by his mother the first several years of his life, with no knowledge of being in any way different from his white companions, the lines of race in America soon became blurred. This gave him the advantage of seeing and understanding both sides of the race issue. This man, half-white half-black and of very light complexion, was forced to choose between his heritage and the art that he loved and the ability to escape the inherent racism that he faced by passing as a white. This man learned about and struggles with his identity; he made his way through each of the social classes, became a linguist, and learned the tongues of the different people and through this becomes his own person. Above all, the ex-colored man realized the distorting influences in which colored men act upon in the U.S. in the post-Reconstruction era. These influences were external, a result of the societal pressures around him and the actions of others.
Growing up, a half white half black boy acted as a white. His mother hided his true color from him and for his boyhood he is considered white, until later the news was broken to him. Having witnessed the racism from mere white schoolboys towards the blacks, and even taking part in some of it, he was soon treated black and was called names. Because even with the passing of laws such as the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments of the constitution, which were aimed at giving them equal protection under law, blacks were still discriminated against. It would be years before behavior changed to match the law. And even then discrimination would remain. sometimes obvious and sometimes just under the surface. This is the beginning of the colored man's search for his identity. In school, he was taught that blacks were different than whites and that blacks had defects - he found himself transitioning "from one world to another," and early on learns of the distorting influences of a colored man put forth by whites.
"I believe it to be a fact that the colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them" (Johnson 10). Thus, the colored man grew up with a sort of dual personality: colored men were forced to act upon the considerations and judgements of the whites and to have a different outlook on things; every action and word dictated by the other races influences. This forced not only the colored man, but all blacks, to give thought to the question of their positions and what their exact relations to the world were in general.
Not only did the colored man have little knowledge of prejudice towards his race, but he had no idea at all how it "ramified and affected the entire social organism" (Johnson 16). To the colored man, and from the perspective of most blacks of the time, in the post-Reconstruction era there were three classes: the desperate class, the domestic service class, and the independent workman. The colored man believed the desperate class consisted of poor blacks that loathe the whites. The domestic service, domestic worker class consisted of blacks that work as servants to the whites. The third class consisted of well-to-do blacks that had no interaction with the whites. The colored man's descriptions of the black classes...
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