The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
The narrator plans to go to college in Atlanta, and when he arrives, he sees some black people who are different from those he has met before. He learns more about the black culture of the South including their dialects and their attitudes and behavior towards each other. This also includes his new experiences with black people being very loud and social, which he hasn’t seen before, and his questions about “respectable” black people versus those he saw walking around in the streets and eating at the restaurants he went to. Although this setting did not make a drastic change in the narrator’s identity, the knowledge of his culture and history began to take root in his brain at this point.
In New York, the narrator identified himself more with his black side, especially during his time playing at the club and being around lots of other people of his own race. During this time, he also discovered himself through music and found his passion for ragtime. This gave him direction and purpose in his life and lead him to his millionaire friend and his time in Europe. This was one of the major parts in the story where the narrator found himself, because without his music, he would have been a completely different person and wouldn’t have had many of the life experiences that he had.
When the narrator returns to New York again, he initially identifies as white because he is afraid of the things that come with being black and the way that people would look at him or treat him if they knew he was black. However, he has a shift in the way he sees himself and his identity when he falls in love with a white woman. He feels like he needs to tell her about the other half of himself before he asks her to marry him, and after a long, long time of him being uncertain about whether or not she still accepts him and cares about him, she tells him that she loves him too. This is a turning point for him because she ultimately does not care about his race, just about who he is as a person, and he has children with her that are a mix of both their races. The narrator’s perception of himself changes because he sees the way his wife perceives him, and he becomes more confident in his identity as a half black, half white man.
The narrator connects with his black roots on some levels through the churches and music in the South, but he also comes to resent the black part of him when he witnesses a black man being burned to death because of his race. This creates so much resentment in him that he decides he no longer wants to be connected with his black side at all, and he decides to alter his appearance (the way he does his hair and trims his mustache, etc.) so that he no longer appears to be anything but white to the outside observer. At this point in the story, the narrator only identifies himself as white, by choice, not just the way he feels about the different parts of himself.
When the narrator was in Washington, D.C. with a friend he met on the way home from Europe, he began to meet black people that he considered respectable, which he had not found in New York when he was only associating with the people from the club, mainly gamblers and drunks. However, he also saw some very different black people who his friend said gave black people their bad reputation. This gave the narrator a better idea of who he could be in the black community based upon who he was and what he stood for and how he could be a positive or negative member of that race. This helped to develop his black identity because he was learning more about the other people of his race, just like he did when he went to Georgia for college.
The narrator of the story was born in Georgia. At this point in the story, his main identity came through his family, namely his mother. He felt extremely secure in the world in which he lived, and he didn’t really have any personal conflicts over his race at this point in time. We find out later that he identified himself as white during this period because he continues to be ignorant of the fact that he has any other ethnicity in him until later. Because this is so early on in the narrator’s life and is mostly just a description of that early life, the reader does not get to see a huge amount of character development at this point.
In Connecticut, the narrator begins to go to school, and this is where his real identity crisis begins. He discovers that he is not fully white when a teacher asks all the white students to stand up and tells him to sit down when he responds. He talks to his mother about this, and he finally learns the truth about his racial identity and his family lineage. The narrator struggles with this identity at first, but he also begins to connect with his black heritage, especially when he has the opportunity to learn about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and when he is able to feel pride in a fellow black student, Shiny. This gives him more pride in blacks as a whole and gives him more of a reason to want to connect with that side of himself and take pride in it.
When the narrator lived in Florida and worked at the cigar factory, his self discovery was less racial and more about the things he could do and what he liked. He discovered that he was very good at learning languages, in this case Spanish, and that he could become a respected and distinguished leader when he needed to be, like when he was a reader for the factory. He became a little less self disciplined than before and liked to spend his money on frivolous things rather than saving it, mostly because he was around people who acted similarly. The person he was in Florida was one of the more reckless and spontaneous versions of himself, which he would eventually have to move on from and mature out of.
Europe is a time of self discovery for the narrator as he goes from Paris to London to Germany and all around Europe. He learns a lot more about humans and the way they think and act, which in turn helps him to learn more about his feelings and himself, looking at which groups of people he relates to the most based upon their attitudes and behaviors. He also ends up seeing his father and his sister while he’s in France, which brings him back to his childhood and his feelings about who he is based upon his parents. At the end of his time in Europe, the narrator has realized more about what he wants from his life and what he wants to do to achieve it. He also realizes that he can use his race to his advantage, like when he is trying to figure out what place would be the most responsive to a black composer and musician, which becomes a key factor later in the book.