Intent and Significance of Irony in “The Autobiography of an Ex- Colored Man”

August 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

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 before. Though most novels during the time were treated by the author in a straightforward manner, Johnson undoubtedly strays away from that to produce an intricate portrayal of a mixed-race man. The narrator’s treatment of race, being that he is able to pass as both black and white, taints colour lines through the uncertainty of his identity. As a result, Johnson forms a complex speaker who is ironic in many cases by symbolizing a meaning that he does not perceive. The theme of irony, which is broadly understood to be a gap between what seems to be true and what is actually true, runs the through the novel not only as he discusses his upbringing but also as he concludes with his adulthood. It is unknown whether Johnson, by including irony in many circumstances, has done so in order to communicate with the reader, but it can be implied that through its inclusion, a deeper significance can be extracted. Having done so being aware or unaware of his intentions, the irony of the novel symbolizes a level of racial ambiguity within the life of the narrator through his lacking of a stable identity by which the audience can understand. The narrator’s use of language, values, and personality 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 first glances of irony that is evident in the novel is displayed during the upbringing of the protagonist through his use of a negative term that perpetuates racial oppression. While in school after recognizing the academic talents that his black classmate possesses, the narrator’s first description of him was his skin being “black as night” (Johnson 9). The characteristics of his skin color, eyes, teeth, and face prompted him to address the boy by “Shiny,” a racial slur used against blacks. Considering he was just a nine year old kid in grade school, it can be interpreted that because of his adolescence, he was unable to realize and fully understand the negative connotation of the tag “Shiny” onto a black peer. Though that might be the case, the narrator deliberately continues to address his friend by “Shiny” well into his adulthood. Admiring his academic ability, he says, “Shiny” was considered without question to be the best speller, the best reader, the best penman—in a word, the best scholar, in the class” (Johnson 9). Although he recognizes his knowledge, he fails to acknowledge the harm of the term. After he learns of his African lineage from his black mother, the narrator is conflicted between his white identity that he has been raised as and his unfamiliar black identity that he is suddenly forced to acknowledge. Despite being aware of race relations regarding whites and African-Americans during the time, irony is established through his lacking ability to detach a negative term from a close black friend. Being that he knows his heritage— black heritage—his constant 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 because they do not directly affect him. Typically, an individual belonging to the same race of another person would refrain from using racist language against them. For this reason, the narrator, a man who is half black, using a slur against another black man speaks to the betrayal that he evokes. Ironically, the fact that he is mixed-race and never ceases to address his friend by his legal name instead of a racist nickname displays the extent of carelessness that the narrator possesses. In other words, the narrator is allowing the use of racial slurs to flourish and sufficiently be used. He signifies that since he refrains from using terms of endearment for blacks, racially negative terms are acceptable to be used 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 economic status of the African-American community.

From the start of his transition from the North to the South and onwards, the unnamed narrator points out the class differences within the black community reverting him back to his white identity which he strives to dismiss. Frequently mentioned in the novel as “the race question” is proven by the narrator to not be as important as the question of class. As Pisiak explains, “He is given to making broad generalizations and forming simplistic classifications, and while it appears that the narrator can classify anything, his “specialty” is people” (Pisiak, 91). In bringing attention to the customs and status of blacks, he states, “The unkempt appearance, the shambling, slouching gait and loud talk and laughter of these people aroused in me a feeling of almost repulsion” (Johnson 40). He affirms, “The colored people may be said to be roughly divided into three classes, not so much in respect to themselves as in respect to their relations with the whites” (Johnson 55). The feeling of repulsion towards certain customs and a keen focus on the status of blacks directly displays a sense of uneasiness for blacks in general. Possibly unknowingly, Johnson’s narrator voices his interest into class prejudice as a symbol of irony. Considering his move to the south to be in touch with his black identity, his preconceived notions of the people, which he is striving to become closer with, are subtly attacked. His irony displays that he is inevitably viewing African-Americans’ status through an outsider’s lens constantly reverting to white values and responses. As he increasingly becomes associates with the upper class black community, he says, “This was my entrance into the race” (Johnson 74). Unable to understand 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 being that he overly admires economic status. To counter, it can be said that the narrator is so used to living in middle to upper class conditions, based off of his environment growing up, that when he encounters otherwise, he is shocked. Provided that, the fact that he analyzes and labels African-Americans in the south according to their economic status verifies that he looks 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 through his experiences in Europe to compel him to connect with his black roots and contribute in a positive manner.

While in Europe, the narrator covertly reveals he was never truly happy because he felt he owed something to the black community. He stated, “I felt leap within me pride that I was colored; and I began to form wild dreams of bringing glory and honor to the Negro race” (Johnson 32). In an effort to “help those he considered my people,” he moves from Europe back to the South and willingly witnesses a celebration and burning ceremony of a black man (Johnson 107). Immediately 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 being associated with a race that receives such punishment instead of embracing his black identity. His self-directed response symbolizes the absence of directed anger at the white lynchers. Ultimately, 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 greater good of assisting the black community in a positive 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 fear of pain and his mechanisms of escape and avoidance” (Skerrett 556). In other words, the narrator’s fears successfully overcome his longing for black identity making him incapable of responding as both a black or white person. True uncertainty about “the race question” is reinforced considering 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 perform action and, as a result, his skewed personality and values are displayed through his musicality.

The importance of music, one in which the narrator uses to navigate life, is ironically overlooked and taken advantage of by him being unappreciative of negro styles of music. Music is not only literally but symbolically used as a physical and psychological scapegoat as he searches for his “true” identity. His travels through Europe and the Americas speak to his affinity for music and search for economic prosperity through his musical abilities on the piano. Throughout his plight to find his identity, he utilizes classical music, a European form of music, that is mainly attributed to whites, Negro spirituals which are closely associated with African roots, and ragtime, a mixture that includes characteristics from both styles. The narrator first gains curiosity for ragtime when he hears it being played by a German guest for the first time. He states, “I had been turning classic music into ragtime, a comparatively easy task; and this man had taken ragtime and made it classic. “I gloated over the immense amount of material I had to work with, not only modern ragtime, but also the old slave songs—material which no one had yet touched” (Johnson 104). He signifies the phrase “not yet touched” discounts the African- Americans who in fact did touch the material by creating it themselves. In addition, through 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 styles. The connotation of the word material in his statement symbolizes it has no substance and is less important than classical music because it not widely accepted in European society. Bruce Barnhart feels, “The narrator sees the music that he will encounter as a form of raw material remarkable as much for its being 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 being the case, the way in which he views himself as white during the time ironically correlates with his statement that can be seen as devaluing Negro spirituals. Considering the race relations that correspond with classical and Negro spiritual music, his view on the African styles of music speaks to his thoughts about race in general. In his attempt to utilize a style of music with “no value,” Barnhart suggests the narrator “repeats the racial hierarchy that links 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 own relationship signaling a subconsciousness discontent with his own family. While in “the club,” the narrator says, “I shall never forget how hard it was for me to get over my feelings of surprise, perhaps more than surprise, at seeing her with her black companion; somehow I never exactly enjoyed the sight” (Johnson 79). He hints to the audience that he does not particularly care for interracial relationships between blacks and whites. The novel’s conclusion states otherwise; it is later shown that he later contradicts himself by him not only entering a relationship with a white woman, but by marrying her and having children. Considering 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 fact that his reaction is that of a white man” (Fleming 92). Ironically, him starting a family with a white woman and voicing discontent about intermarriage shows that he would ultimately be against his own 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 suggest that the contradictions 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 different 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 selling his “birthright for a mess of pottage” communicates the intricate situation that the narrator struggles with, (Johnson 1, 154). His vacillation between identities and responses directly contributes to the way in which his statements create meanings he does not perceive but the audience understands. Because of this, the only thing the audience can judge the narrator on is what he symbolizes therefore 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 perspective and the black self from a white perspective,” (O’Sullivan 94). The fact that he recognizes racism when it affects him directly, but perpetuates many of its myths and stereotypes himself without realizing it illustrates the level of irony that racial ambiguity can create. 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 personality.

Johnson’s representation of the unnamed narrator’s emotional insight into a mixed-race man is monumental. His ability to portray life through irony rather than through traditional literature techniques reveals the importance of analyzing a novel in its entirety. Through the ways in which he reveals greater dimension of the narrator’s life uncovering his psychological layers, he offers a rather complex nature to the concept of passing. He deconstructs the notion of “sameness” between all blacks and whites. Thus he proves through the protagonist that no such thing as the “ideal concept of a Negro” exists and race is a made up concept that confines people to a group based on characteristics and values. For this reason, his authorship and literary style’s inspiration on others has given way to the expanded variety of the “black experience” depicted in African-American literature. Despite changes in traditional African-American styles of literature, James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man holds a meaningful place for the reader who hopes to be enlightened on the psychological aspects 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 Critical Judgments of ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.’” African American Review, vol. 40, no. 2, 2006, pp. 257–270.

This article focuses on “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” by James Weldon Johnson and his ability to mask its genre. Considering 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.4, 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 experience of a fair-skinned person of some colored background who successfully passes into white society. She attempts to look at and compare and contrast two African American novels which deal with the theme of passing by both a man and woman. It displays how the two novels reject the standards of color division rules that accept a position within society as predetermined 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 Review, vol. 40, no. 3, 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 key part of the narrator’s movement from his childhood with his black mother to his adulthood. He discusses the constructs of each form 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. 3, 1995, pp. 17–29.

Criticism of James Weldon Johnson’s, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” has strongly held the position of uncertainty within the unnamed narrator, but its stance on racial issues proves of equal importance. In this piece, Neil Brooks examines the issue of passing for white not only being black, but being a black male. The concept of passing and its socio-economic ramifications are discussed and linked to the narrative, which is seen 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: Current Objectives of Postgraduate American Studies 10 (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 concept of race. Using assertions from Geoffrey Galt Harpham and John Guillory, “Ambiguity and the Ethics of Reading race and Lynching” discuss 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. 4, no. 4, 1970, pp. 120–124.

“Contemporary Themes in Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man” by Robert E. Fleming explores the overaching concepts that make up the meaning 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 issues more than others to shine light on common issues of that time.

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

Like many other critical overviews of critical race theorists, Robert E. Fleming in his “Irony as a Key to Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man” asserts irony used by the author to characterize the unnamed narrator. He believes the narrator is ironic therefore contradicting his actions and statements in earlier sections of the novel. Using references from other theorists, Fleming concludes without attention to the irony symbolized throughout 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 Review, vol. 30, no. 3, 1996, pp. 403–419.

In this criticism, Kathleen Pfeiffer argues that the unnamed narrator created by James Weldon Johnson is a complete paradox of race and color. She affirms that because he is legally black and visibly white. She views the ex-colored man as a person who values individualism being that at one moment, he is on a quest to neither claim the black or white race. At the same time, she highlights the ways in which he is undisciplined and strives to improvise in various situations. With knowledge of individualism, success, and American identity within the novel, the audience is allowed a 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 color lines and the way race is constructed is formed through the use of language are the major themes in James Weldon Johnson’s work, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” Pisiak argues the narrator holds the opinion that separation of races is a fact of life, but his actions and reactions from his surrounding peers subverts the notion in the reader. She asserts that language is therefore used to distort culture that to attempts to label people “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. Often contradicting himself between his actions and sayings, Skerret not only recognizes his faults, but displays the significance. Drawing from other critical race theorists, Skerret concludes the narrator’s treatment of the unnamed narrator is essentially ironic.

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