James Weldon Johnson
Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man Discussion Questions
This novel depicts the wide variety of lifestyles of American blacks
around the turn of the century, aiming to dispel the myth that all blacks
were/are "the same." It describes the experiences of African Americans
in both the North and the South, as well as in Europe. At the same
time, it creates a bridge between the slave narratives of the 19th century
and the wide variety of forms adopted in the 20th. Some critics believe
that the narrator/protagonist is based on Johnson himself, while others
believe he is modelled on Judson Douglas Wetmore, Johnson's friend from
Atlanta University and his partner in a law firm in Florida.
Things to Consider:
** Homework Questions ** (See Thursday's Q's )
||"The Talented Tenth"
||Roles of Books & Music & Language
Why is the narrator divulging his "secret"?
Explain what the narrator means when he says "As I look back now I can
see that I was a perfect little aristocrat" (552). What is the benefit
of looking back on his childhood days from an adult perspective?
Why does the teacher use the technique she does to "out" the narrator
as a "black"?
What is the "distorting influence which operates upon each and every
coloured man in the United States"(556)?
Why would, as the narrator says, blacks understand whites better than
whites would understand blacks?
What disappointed him about Jesus? (Remembering that he is only twelve
at the time, if that's significant)1
What does he mean when he says that his father "was all to us that custom
and the law would allow" (562)?
What is his initial reaction to the South and the blacks he first meets
Explain: "The ability to laugh heartily is, in part, the salvation of
the American Negro; it does much to keep him from going the way of the
What are the three classes of blacks, according to the narrator? Explain
the relationship each class experiences with the whites.
Other Discussion Questions:
Who are Red Head & Shiny?
Why does the speaker's mother tell him, "Don't you bother the coloured
children at school" (554)? How had he been bothering "them"?
What two hobbies relieve the narrator of the forced loneliness
resulting from his self-discovery?
What does he think about the Bible?
Why is Uncle Tom's Cabin important to the narrator?
Who is the narrator's father? How does meeting him help the narrator
communicate better with his mother?
Why does the narrator decide to go to Atlanta University instead of
Harvard? How, if at all, does his mother's death affect this decision?
What does it mean to "register" at the university? Why must he do it?
What does a "reader" in a cigar factory do?
How has "the scene of the struggle" shifted for Blacks at this point?
Why are "the conditions of the whites more to be deplored than that
of the blacks" (572)?
Why do the "advanced element of the coloured race . . . carry the entire
weight of the race question" (573)? Would you agree with this statement?
What four things demonstrate to the narrator that blacks have "originality
and artistic conception"?
Why does the narrator move North again?
** Thursday's Homework Questions **
What is significant, according to the narrator, about the development
Why does the millionaire believe that, "I can imagine no more dissatisfied
human being than an educated, cultured, and refined coloured man in the
United States" (591)?
The millionaire says this about evil: "We cannot annihilate it; we can
only change its form" (591). What does this mean?
Explain this reference to the race question: "The greater portion
of the race is unconscious of its influence" (593).
Why, does the narrator suggest, do blacks tend to marry lighter-skinned
Why do lazy blacks create the longest-lasting impressions of the race?
Explain: "The main difficulty with the race question does not lie so
much in the actual condition of blacks as it does in the mental attitude
of whites" (597).
Explain: "The claim of the Southern whites that they love the
Negro better than the Northern whites do is in a manner true" (598).
Why do educated blacks at this time feel ashamed of the old slave songs?
Why does the lynching make the narrator feel ashamed? How is his
reaction related to that of the educated blacks encountering old slave
Other Discussion Questions:
How is New York "like a great witch at the gate of the country"(575)?
How is New York like opium?
What benefits does the narrator receive from mastering ragtime?
Why does the narrator go to Europe with the millionaire?
Why does the narrator decide to become a linguist?
Why does he get drunk after seeing his half-sister at the opera with
Explain: "Paris practices its sins as lightly as it does its religion,
while London practices both very seriously" (589).
Why, according to the millionaire, would it be a handicap to work as
a "negro composer"?
Why does the narrator head South upon his return to the States?
What have Anglo-Saxons "done," i.e. contributed to humanity?
Why does the narrator respect the racist white Southerner?
How does meeting his future wife make passing less of a "joke" to him?
How does seeing Shiny give the narrator the resolve to "come out" to
What is the reference in the final line: "I have sold my birthright
for a mess of pottage" (610)?
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