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“The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man”: The Purpose of Irony

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson divulges aspects of passing by a “mulatto” man that no other novel had confronted ahead of. Even though most novels in the course of the time were treated by the author in a simple manner, Johnson undoubtedly strays away from that to produce an intricate portrayal of a mixed-race man. The narrator’s therapy of race, being that he is able to pass as both black and white, taints colour lines by way of the uncertainty of his identity. As a result, Johnson types a complicated speaker who is ironic in a lot of circumstances by symbolizing a meaning that he does not perceive. The theme of irony, which is broadly understood to be a gap between what appears to be accurate and what is really correct, runs the by means of the novel not only as he discusses his upbringing but also as he concludes with his adulthood. It is unknown regardless of whether Johnson, by like irony in numerous circumstances, has accomplished so in order to communicate with the reader, but it can be implied that through its inclusion, a deeper significance can be extracted. Possessing completed so getting aware or unaware of his intentions, the irony of the novel symbolizes a level of racial ambiguity inside the life of the narrator through his lacking of a stable identity by which the audience can comprehend. The narrator’s use of language, values, and character causes the novel to be seemingly ironic and contradictory in nature, displaying a level of significance that uncovers the inner conflicts that the narrator endures.

One of the initial glances of irony that is evident in the novel is displayed for the duration of the upbringing of the protagonist via his use of a damaging term that perpetuates racial oppression. Even though in college after recognizing the academic talents that his black classmate possesses, the narrator’s first description of him was his skin becoming “black as night” (Johnson 9). The traits of his skin color, eyes, teeth, and face prompted him to address the boy by “Shiny,” a racial slur utilised against blacks. Considering he was just a nine year old kid in grade school, it can be interpreted that due to the fact of his adolescence, he was unable to realize and fully understand the negative connotation of the tag “Shiny” onto a black peer. Although that may be the case, the narrator deliberately continues to address his buddy by “Shiny” effectively into his adulthood. Admiring his academic ability, he says, “Shiny” was regarded as with out question to be the ideal speller, the very best reader, the greatest penman—in a word, the greatest scholar, in the class” (Johnson 9). Even though he recognizes his understanding, he fails to acknowledge the harm of the term. After he learns of his African lineage from his black mother, the narrator is conflicted in between his white identity that he has been raised as and his unfamiliar black identity that he is all of a sudden forced to acknowledge. In spite of getting conscious of race relations relating to whites and African-Americans in the course of the time, irony is established via his lacking potential to detach a negative term from a close black pal. Becoming that he knows his heritage— black heritage—his continuous reaffirmation of the nickname “Shiny” is a perpetuation of racial oppression (Johnson 22). This perpetuation shows that not only is he withdrawn from the African-American emotional reaction of oppressive labels, but that he fails to acknowledge the harm behind racialized terms since they do not directly impact him. Generally, an individual belonging to the exact same race of yet another particular person would refrain from employing racist language against them. For this purpose, the narrator, a man who is half black, utilizing a slur against another black man speaks to the betrayal that he evokes. Ironically, the reality that he is mixed-race and never ever ceases to address his friend by his legal name alternatively of a racist nickname displays the extent of carelessness that the narrator possesses. In other words, the narrator is enabling the use of racial slurs to flourish and sufficiently be utilised. He signifies that since he refrains from making use of terms of endearment for blacks, racially negative terms are acceptable to be employed both loosely or intentionally. Not only is irony displayed through the protagonist’s unapologetic use of negative racial terms but it is clearly shown through his focus on the financial status of the African-American community.

From the start off of his transition from the North to the South and onwards, the unnamed narrator points out the class differences within the black neighborhood reverting him back to his white identity which he strives to dismiss. Regularly talked about in the novel as “the race question” is verified by the narrator to not be as critical as the query of class. As Pisiak explains, “He is offered to generating broad generalizations and forming simplistic classifications, and although it appears that the narrator can classify anything, his “specialty” is people” (Pisiak, 91). In bringing interest to the customs and status of blacks, he states, “The unkempt look, the shambling, slouching gait and loud speak and laughter of these folks aroused in me a feeling of practically repulsion” (Johnson 40). He affirms, “The colored individuals might be mentioned to be roughly divided into three classes, not so significantly in respect to themselves as in respect to their relations with the whites” (Johnson 55). The feeling of repulsion towards specific customs and a keen focus on the status of blacks straight displays a sense of uneasiness for blacks in basic. Possibly unknowingly, Johnson’s narrator voices his interest into class prejudice as a symbol of irony. Contemplating his move to the south to be in touch with his black identity, his preconceived notions of the folks, which he is striving to turn into closer with, are subtly attacked. His irony displays that he is inevitably viewing African-Americans’ status by way of an outsider’s lens consistently reverting to white values and responses. As he increasingly becomes associates with the upper class black neighborhood, he says, “This was my entrance into the race” (Johnson 74). Unable to recognize that class does not symbolize acceptance into a race shows just how materialistic he is. This communicates to the audience that his values are somewhat skewed getting that he overly admires economic status. To counter, it can be stated that the narrator is so utilized to living in middle to upper class circumstances, primarily based off of his environment expanding up, that when he encounters otherwise, he is shocked. Supplied that, the fact that he analyzes and labels African-Americans in the south according to their financial status verifies that he appears down upon the manners of African Americans if they are less fortunate and embraces them if they are upper-class. His lack of transparency and acceptance transforms by way of his experiences in Europe to compel him to connect with his black roots and contribute in a good manner.

Although in Europe, the narrator covertly reveals he was in no way really pleased since he felt he owed something to the black community. He stated, “I felt leap inside me pride that I was colored and I started to type wild dreams of bringing glory and honor to the Negro race” (Johnson 32). In an effort to “help these he regarded as my men and women,” he moves from Europe back to the South and willingly witnesses a celebration and burning ceremony of a black man (Johnson 107). Right away afterwards, he unpacks his overwhelming emotions of shame for himself, “Shame that I belonged to a race that could be so dealt with,” (Johnson 137). He expresses remorse of getting related with a race that receives such punishment as an alternative of embracing his black identity. His self-directed response symbolizes the absence of directed anger at the white lynchers. In the end, he fails at helping those he considers people—blacks—because he refuses to intervene and speak out about the injustice happening against the innocent black man. The lack of intervention against the white crowd of racists directly signals he did not leave Europe for the higher great of assisting the black community in a constructive manner. Irony is established in the way in which his action and reaction toward the lynching contradict his words. As Skerrett puts it, “His reaction is, ironically, not a reinforcement of his identity as a threatened and oppressed black man, but rather a reinforcement of his worry of pain and his mechanisms of escape and avoidance” (Skerrett 556). In other words, the narrator’s fears effectively overcome his longing for black identity producing him incapable of responding as each a black or white particular person. True uncertainty about “the race question” is reinforced contemplating his dreams of “bringing glory and honor to the Negro race” are negated, (Johnson 32, 55). The narrators ironic view on race relations is contradictory of his inability to carry out action and, as a result, his skewed personality and values are displayed by way of his musicality.

The significance of music, a single in which the narrator utilizes to navigate life, is ironically overlooked and taken benefit of by him being unappreciative of negro types of music. Music is not only actually but symbolically utilized as a physical and psychological scapegoat as he searches for his “true” identity. His travels by way of Europe and the Americas speak to his affinity for music and search for economic prosperity by way of his musical abilities on the piano. All through his plight to discover his identity, he utilizes classical music, a European kind of music, that is mainly attributed to whites, Negro spirituals which are closely connected with African roots, and ragtime, a mixture that involves qualities from both designs. The narrator initial gains curiosity for ragtime when he hears it getting played by a German guest for the 1st time. He states, “I had been turning classic music into ragtime, a comparatively effortless activity and this man had taken ragtime and created it classic. “I gloated more than the immense quantity of material I had to function with, not only contemporary ragtime, but also the old slave songs—material which no a single had yet touched” (Johnson 104). He signifies the phrase “not but touched” discounts the African- Americans who in truth did touch the material by generating it themselves. In addition, by way of the way in which he speaks about music and his ambitions, he subconsciously notes that European music is a form of art, whereas the Negro spiritual style of music is not worthy. This irony speaks to his position on the value of musical types. The connotation of the word material in his statement symbolizes it has no substance and is significantly less important than classical music due to the fact it not extensively accepted in European society. Bruce Barnhart feels, “The narrator sees the music that he will encounter as a form of raw material remarkable as considerably for its becoming untouched by other hands as for any intrinsic musical character” (Barnhart 556). This is not only indicative of his values of music but strongly suggests his racial status. That getting the case, the way in which he views himself as white during the time ironically correlates with his statement that can be observed as devaluing Negro spirituals. Thinking about the race relations that correspond with classical and Negro spiritual music, his view on the African designs of music speaks to his thoughts about race in basic. In his attempt to utilize a style of music with “no worth,” Barnhart suggests the narrator “repeats the racial hierarchy that hyperlinks dark-skinned Americans to formless materiality and lighter skinned Americans to higher principles of form and order” (Barnhart 561). Johnson’s protagonist’s view on music ironically mimics his view on inter-racial marriage and the racial hierarchy of skin complexion.

The narrator’s stance on interracial relationships in the novel is contradictory of his personal relationship signaling a subconsciousness discontent with his personal loved ones. Although in “the club,” the narrator says, “I shall by no means forget how hard it was for me to get more than my feelings of surprise, perhaps more than surprise, at seeing her with her black companion somehow I by no means precisely enjoyed the sight” (Johnson 79). He hints to the audience that he does not specifically care for interracial relationships among blacks and whites. The novel’s conclusion states otherwise it is later shown that he later contradicts himself by him not only getting into a partnership with a white lady, but by marrying her and obtaining youngsters. Taking into consideration the historical and cultural context, it would not be likely that a member of a race would be against endogamy. As Fleming puts it, “Not even the constrained understatement can conceal the truth that his reaction is that of a white man” (Fleming 92). Ironically, him beginning a loved ones with a white lady and voicing discontent about intermarriage shows that he would ultimately be against his personal marriage, taking his mixed-race subjectivity into account. The level of irony that the narrator signals throughout the novel highlights the extent of his racial uncertainty along with his values.

The racial ambiguity of Johnson’s unnamed narrator lends the novel to an ironic state to recommend that the contradictions in between his black and whites selves becomes his identity. A paradox is formed as he navigates and views society from black and white lenses at various times all at his discretion. The extent of his view upon the world highlights the level of racial ambiguity and struggle for identity that the narrator possesses. The complexity of playing a “practical joke on society” and concluding with promoting his “birthright for a mess of pottage” communicates the intricate circumstance that the narrator struggles with, (Johnson 1, 154). His vacillation in between identities and responses directly contributes to the way in which his statements generate meanings he does not perceive but the audience understands. Since of this, the only thing the audience can judge the narrator on is what he symbolizes for that reason transforming his racial identity into an individualistic identity. O’Sullivan proposes that the “narrator is continually gazing into a distorting mirror, “unable to be either black or white, constantly seeing the white self from a black point of view and the black self from a white point of view,” (O’Sullivan 94). The reality that he recognizes racism when it affects him straight, but perpetuates many of its myths and stereotypes himself without having realizing it illustrates the level of irony that racial ambiguity can generate. Thus, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man can be interpreted as “The Autobiography of an Ex-Racialized Man” that is formed from a man whose identity becomes neither black nor white, but his language, values, and character.

Johnson’s representation of the unnamed narrator’s emotional insight into a mixed-race man is monumental. His capability to portray life by means of irony rather than by means of conventional literature techniques reveals the value of analyzing a novel in its entirety. By means of the methods in which he reveals higher dimension of the narrator’s life uncovering his psychological layers, he gives a rather complicated nature to the notion of passing. He deconstructs the notion of “sameness” amongst all blacks and whites. Thus he proves via the protagonist that no such issue as the “ideal concept of a Negro” exists and race is a made up notion that confines folks to a group based on traits and values. For this explanation, his authorship and literary style’s inspiration on other people has provided way to the expanded assortment of the “black experience” depicted in African-American literature. Despite alterations in conventional African-American designs of literature, James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man holds a meaningful spot for the reader who hopes to be enlightened on the psychological elements of passing.

Works Cited

Johnson, James W. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. New York: Penguin Group, 1990.


Annotated Bibliography

Andrade, Heather Russell. “Revising Vital Judgments of ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.’” African American Overview, vol. 40, no. two, 2006, pp. 257–270.

This post focuses on “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” by James Weldon Johnson and his capability to mask its genre. Thinking about it is the first fictional text written by an African American to do so, it is monumental. Heather Russel Andrade considers the socio-historical circumstances the frame Johnson’s act of writing conflict with the narrator.

Babu, Dinesh. “The Theme of “Passing” in the Novels of James Weldon Johnson and Nella Larsen.” IJIMS, vol 1, no.four, 2014, pp. 53-58.

In “The Theme of “Passing” in the Novels of James Weldon Johnson and Nella Larsen,” Dinesh Babu dissects the depiction of the encounter of a fair-skinned person of some colored background who successfully passes into white society. She attempts to look at and evaluate and contrast two African American novels which deal with the theme of passing by each a man and lady. It displays how the two novels reject the requirements of colour division guidelines that accept a position within society as predetermined primarily based on not only race, but gender.

Barnhart, Bruce. “Chronopolitics and Race, Rag-Time and Symphonic Time in ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.’” African American Assessment, vol. 40, no. three, 2006, pp. 551–569.

“Chronopolitics and Race, Rag-Time and Symphonic Time in ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” is about the implications of music as classical, negro-spiritual, and ragtime. In his criticism, Bruce Barnhart attempts to expose a crucial component of the narrator’s movement from his childhood with his black mother to his adulthood. He discusses the constructs of every single kind of music and how and why the narrator utilizes them.

Brooks, Neil. “On Becoming an Ex-Man: Postmodern Irony and the Extinguishing of Certainties in the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” College Literature, vol. 22, no. three, 1995, pp. 17–29.

Criticism of James Weldon Johnson’s, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” has strongly held the position of uncertainty inside the unnamed narrator, but its stance on racial troubles proves of equal significance. In this piece, Neil Brooks examines the problem of passing for white not only being black, but getting a black male. The idea of passing and its socio-financial ramifications are discussed and linked to the narrative, which is observed as irony from Brooks’ “On Becoming an Ex-Man: Postmodern Irony and the Extinguishing of Certainties in the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.”

Dexl, Carmen. “Ambiguity and the Ethics of Reading Race and Lynching in James W. Johnson’s the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912).” COPAS: Present Objectives of Postgraduate American Research ten (2009): (no pagination). Print.

In this essay, Carmen Dexl argues that the James Weldon Johnson’s novel, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” portrayals of uncertainty within the unnamed narrator symbolizes contradiction towards the idea of race. Using assertions from Geoffrey Galt Harpham and John Guillory, “Ambiguity and the Ethics of Reading race and Lynching” go over the ethics of reading and analyzing race and lynching in Johnson’s piece.

Fleming, Robert E. “Contemporary Themes in Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” Negro American Literature Forum, vol. four, no. four, 1970, pp. 120–124.

“Contemporary Themes in Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man” by Robert E. Fleming explores the overaching ideas that make up the which means of the novel. Focusing in on the theme of passing, self-identity, and amibguity, Fleming proposes various sections of the book that assert the themes. He concludes James Weldon Johnson strategically chose to position certain troubles far more than others to shine light on widespread issues of that time.

Fleming, Robert E. “Irony as a Essential to Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” American Literature, vol. 43, no. 1, 1971, pp. 83–96.

Like a lot of other critical overviews of crucial race theorists, Robert E. Fleming in his “Irony as a Crucial to Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man” asserts irony employed by the author to characterize the unnamed narrator. He believes the narrator is ironic consequently contradicting his actions and statements in earlier sections of the novel. Utilizing references from other theorists, Fleming concludes without having attention to the irony symbolized all through the novel, an accurate reading of the narrator is distorted.

Pfeiffer, Kathleen. “Individualism, Success, and American Identity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” African American Overview, vol. 30, no. 3, 1996, pp. 403–419.

In this criticism, Kathleen Pfeiffer argues that the unnamed narrator designed by James Weldon Johnson is a full paradox of race and color. She affirms that because he is legally black and visibly white. She views the ex-colored man as a particular person who values individualism getting that at one particular moment, he is on a quest to neither claim the black or white race. At the identical time, she highlights the ways in which he is undisciplined and strives to improvise in numerous scenarios. With expertise of individualism, accomplishment, and American identity inside the novel, the audience is permitted a far more complex insight into the book.

Pisiak, Roxanna. “Irony and Subversion in James Weldon Johnson’s ‘the Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man’.” Studies in American Fiction. 21.1 (1993). Print.

The uncertainty of colour lines and the way race is constructed is formed by means of the use of language are the significant themes in James Weldon Johnson’s function, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” Pisiak argues the narrator holds the opinion that separation of races is a reality of life, but his actions and reactions from his surrounding peers subverts the notion in the reader. She asserts that language is for that reason utilised to distort culture that to attempts to label individuals “black” or “white.”

Skerrett, Joseph T. “Irony and Symbolic Action in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” American Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 5, 1980, pp. 540–558.

Joseph T. Skerret attempts in his criticism, “Irony and Symbolic Action in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man,” to highlight the irony that the unnamed narrator portrays. Frequently contradicting himself among his actions and sayings, Skerret not only recognizes his faults, but displays the significance. Drawing from other crucial race theorists, Skerret concludes the narrator’s therapy of the unnamed narrator is primarily ironic.
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