"Passing" in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

"Passing" in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

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In 1912, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was anonymously published by James Weldon Johnson. It is the narrative of a light-skinned man wedged between two racial categories; the offspring of a white father and a black mother, The Ex-Colored man is visibly white but legally classified as black. Wedged between these two racial categories, the man chooses to “pass” to the white society. In Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are, Brooke Kroeger describes “passing” as an act when “people effectively present themselves as other than who they understand themselves to be” (Kroeger 7). The Ex-Colored Man’s choice to ultimately “pass” at the end of the novel has been the cause of controversy amongst readers. Many claim his choice to “pass” results from racial self-hatred or rejecting his race. Although this may be true, the main reason for his choice to “pass” is more intense. The narrator’s “passing” is an effort to place himself in a safe living environment, open himself up to greater opportunities and be adventurous and cynical in his success to fool the nation. It is because of his light skin that The Ex-Colored Man confidently knows the world will categorize him as white; thus cowardly disclaiming his black race without actually disclosing his decision.
Considering the circumstance of racial inequality during the time of this novel many blacks were the target of crime and hatred. Aside from an incident in his youth, The Ex-Colored Man avoids coming in contact with “brutality and savagery” inflicted on the black race (Johnson 101). Perhaps this is a result of his superficial white appearance as a mulatto. During one of his travels, the narrator observes a Southern lynching in which he describes the sight of “slowly burning t...

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..., as an outsider, you can conclude why an individual has chosen to “pass.” With that being said, The Ex-Colored Man’s preference to “pass” was done in effort to place him in a safe living environment open to opportunity and enjoy the adventures it awards the “passer” with. Brooke Kroeger affirms that many people “have passed: for opportunity, safety, adventure, or some combination of the three,” which Johnson illustrates in the life of The Ex-Colored Man (Kroeger 7). It is captivating to question whether or not the reasons The Ex-Colored Man’s opted “pass” could have been attained in his life as a biracial mulatto or black male.

Works Cited

Johnson, James Weldon, Noelle Morrissette, and Delano Greenidge. The Autobiography of an
Ex-Colored Man: And Other Writings. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2007. IBook.
Kroeger, Brooke. PDF. New York: Public Affairs.

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