Identity in “The Autobiography of an ex-colored man” The Autobiography of an ex-colored man is a fiction novel dealing with acceptance and fitting in. The narrator of the story, who is considered both black and white, is struggling in his quest to find his true identity. The book is tragic and ironic in a way, since the main character spends a huge part of his life pretending to be white, while the author, James Johnson, is an active fighter for the rights of colored people.
The novel itself is one of the first texts ever written, showing the difficulties which people of colour were facing. The hero goes back and forth while exploring the world and his roots. That is why, probably seeking redemption, he goes back to his childhood dream of becoming a great man of colour. Personal history and childhood is always in the bottom of people and their behavior. This is why understanding the narrator’s childhood and his dream is important for understanding his identity.
In the beginning of the book the author describes Shiny’s great speech and how this triggered his dream of becoming a great coloured man. The little boy’s triumph seems to inspire the narrator’s dream, but the later description of the “phenomenon of enthusiasm” which comes after Shiny’s triumph, and every other Negro, who has reached Excellency, suggests that a man of colour can never achieve a true victory. It seems like the author suggests that Shiny is not actually applauded because of his speech, but rather because of his skin colour and the fact that white people expect less from him.
Aware of that, the narrator believes that whatever he achieves in his life, every rise and fall, will be judged by “coloured eyes” and that is probably why he ultimately does not choose to follow his childhood dream of becoming a composer The author describes the little black boy in great details. In the author’s opinion, Shiny “made a striking picture”, which implies that the boy looks ridiculous on the stage.
To complete the picture of the boy, the narrator explains how his clothes “didn’t fit him too well”, which provokes the reader’s sympathy, because of the fact that he is trying to prove how he is more than what he looks like. The ex-coloured man also describes Shiny’s looks as “positively handsome”, which implies a surprise that someone that black can actually look handsome. The way in which the boy is described, reveals the hidden bias against the coloured people in the whole novel. The public is escribed as dominantly white “with an exception of a score or so that was lost to view. ” In a real situation, coloured people would be easily distinguishable among the white ones. Thus, I believe that the author is trying to highlight how little support Shiny has and how helpless is he feeling. The narrator doesn’t know what the little black boy is feeling up on the stage, but he makes many assumptions. We can assume that those assumptions are what the narrator would have felt if he was up there himself.
Shiny is also compared with “a gladiator tossed into an arena”. This leaves the impression that he has no other option, but to fight and prove him, which shows how man of colour were never judged equally, but rather seen through the “coloured eyes”. By the end, the author says “How so young an orator could stir so great enthusiasm was to be wondered”. Here he finally admits for the first time that not the appearance, but the abilities and great speech of Shiny has won the applauses.
The word “wondered” appears to be some kind of skepticism, and later the author explains in the next paragraph that people are always “stirred by the same emotions” and the “same phenomenon of enthusiasm” follows any black man’s success. This once again underestimates Shiny’s success. The author hints that his abilities have nothing to do with his successful speech, because after all Shiny is “what is common in his race, a natural orator. ” The author also paints the picture of how the “boy gallantly waging with puny, black arms so unequal” managed to touch the “deep springs in the hearts of his audience”.
The perceived weakness of the African-American people is notably present in the description of the scene, and it provokes deep sympathy in the readers. This particular memory of the narrator is crucial for understanding his motives. It may seem like he is running away from his race and living the life of a white man because it is easier, but considering the fact that he observes this scene through his “coloured eyes”, we can assume that this is probably in the bottom of his decision not to pursue his dream and to end up choosing the “easy” path of life.