The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and its relation to the Current Society
The relevance of the novel. (i.e. The socio-political climate of the US has greatly changed since Johnson wrote this novel. Is it still relevant? Which parts are outdated? What can it teach us about the current socio-political climate?
Race and ethnicity had been one of the known issues in the society of United States. For many years the most powerful state in the global community had faced its dilemma regarding the wide mixture of various cultures. In the earlier times, the most prevailing minority in the United States had been the blacks whom are currently called the African-Americans. In the written work of James Weldon Johnson “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” he highlights the problems of individuals who faced unrighteous treatments due to their skin color and ethnicity. In the case of Johnson, he carefully narrates his childhood experiences in relation to the societal norms during his time.
In the book, the author recounts that he was brought up in a well-to-do neighborhood and was offered to different wonders of life. He was brought up by his mother in a simple but affluent way of living in comparison to other kids his age. In addition, he was not a child who was exposed to playing outside of their house exploring with other children. Instead he was only relating with her mother, her mother’s clients as well as the teachers he had. Johnson was not a physically active child, thus he was more active in music and his academics. As a young person, he only sees the simple things and the goodness of living which was offered by his mother and some then unknown benefactor (eventually he knew that it was his father).
After a while Johnson grew a little older, her mother decided that he must go to a public school in order for him to learn more. During the first day of his class, he felt very awkward and out of place—which was the usual feeling of new students. He felt like everyone knew each other while he was alone in one corner. It truly helped that he knew someone in class, his teacher who was a client of her mother. His teacher made him comfortable and placed him in class with people whom she thinks will make him at ease. As time passed, he became at ease with his new environment and he became friends with some of the students. There was a child named Shiny. The author described him,” His face was as black as night, but shone as though it was polished; he had sparkling eyes, and when he opened his mouth he displayed glistening white teeth. It struck me at once as appropriate to call him “Shiny face,” or “Shiny eyes,” or “Shiny teeth” (Johnson 6). He was bewildered by the fact the Shiny had these attributes. In addition to this, he was the best in class and best in most of everything that Shiny does. He also became close to one of his classmates named Red he was a big child but he is often known as someone who does not do good in school. Through out his years in school, he had been helping Red in terms of academics.
All was well while Johnson was in school; he was just a typical boy who was excelling in his academics while still having fun. Although he was not given case of serious misconduct, he often have fun but most of the time the blame is directed to other people. However, there was one experience that he could not forget for the rest of his life. Once, their principal came to their room. After a while, his teacher asked the students, “I wish all of the white scholars to stand for a moment” (7). As a child who understood the question clearly and did not have any doubts about himself. He rose quickly but he was immediately asked to sit down and was told that, “You sit down now, and rise with the others” (7). In great amusement he did not know what to do. Nevertheless, he sat down immediately as instructed. With all the students who were in the class, he got humiliated in front of all his brown and white classmates.
Subsequent to the incidents things greatly changed in terms of his self esteem and the treatment of his other friends. After he went home, he immediately looked at the mirror to analyze the reality of his situation. From the author’s work he stated that,
“I rushed up into my own little room, shut the door, and went quickly to where my looking-glass hung on the wall. For an instant I was afraid to look, but when I did I looked long and earnestly. I had often heard people say to my mother, “What a pretty boy you have.” I was accustomed to hear remarks about my beauty; but, now, for the first time, I became conscious of it, and recognized it. I noticed the ivory whiteness of my skin, the beauty of my mouth, the size and liquid darkness of my eyes, and how the long black lashes that fringed and shaded them produced an effect that was strangely fascinating even to me. I noticed the softness and glossiness of my dark hair that fell in waves over my temples, making my forehead appear whiter than it really was” (8).
He himself realized the situation but he needed a reassurance from his mother. His mother told him the truth. Later on he has also realized that his mother was not white but a light skinned African-American while his father was a white man.
The entire the years of his life, from his birth until that very day, he did not knew or felt that he has an interracial ethnicity. He did not think that he was someone unusual than others. He had exceptional talents and he was excelling in school. He knew how to play piano and had great interest in reading books. He was brought up into a comfortable environment and was not limited to do all the things that he wanted. Johnson was raised with good manners. His mother was often proud of him, whom protected him from all the harm which he could possibly face. Yet, the time to know reality came and it cannot be hindered.
In analysis, the written work of James Weldon Johnson is a representation of how cruel the society is to those that are different from the others. Although the literature was written a long time ago, the reality of the situation is still seen within the current society. Parents as we all know are very much protective with their children and they do all the possible ways to protect their child from possible harm. Same as the mother of James, she never did anything to make her son be helpless and be exposed in an environment that would cause him hurt. But the harsh society truly presented the reality for James therefore, humiliating him in front of all his classmates.
In the society such harsh reality is still experienced by many children. The distinction between African-Americans, white Americans, Hispanics and Asians are truly felt. With these differences, there is a need for children and other individuals to belong in a group. After the time James knew he was different from the other children, he did not know what to do. His former confidence in himself was lost and it seems that all his efforts of becoming the best were useless. All the talents that he had were something to be proud of but then the people around him thought other wise. Similar to the current situation of United States most of the minorities feel the same. Different individuals excel in various types of activities however; it is not enough to be accepted by the society. In the scrutinizing eyes of the society, white Americans are white Americans while other ethnicities are only considered as “others.” Although changes are made, such that of the election in office of the first African American president Barack Obama, discrimination, inequality and limitation due to various differences are still present. Even though segregation between ethnicities had long collapsed, the society’s unsaid rules and norms are still. Such evidence could be seen through issues of daily living for instance poverty, racism, classicism, racial profiling and the likes. The issue which is highlighted by Johnson was only a portion of the dilemmas facing the American society. In fact from the time the book was written, additional issues have risen not only in United States but in different parts of the globe.
Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. New York: Dover Publications, 1995.