"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”…show more content…
Thus, he is convinced “passing” for a member of the white society would safeguard him from a life of uncertainty and violence. He is ashamed to be “indentified with a people [the black race] that would with impunity be treated worse than animals,” affirming his want to be treated as a white person to omit any violence being inflicted onto himself (Johnson 101). This observation coerces the narrator to ultimately decide to “pass” to the white society. While he declares he will neither “disclaim the black race nor claim the white race” but he would change (Johnson 101). He will “let the world take [him] for what it would,” because he refuses to go about life amidst a “label of inferiority pasted across [his] forehead,” which would occur should he claim the black race (Johnson 101). He recognizes that by intentionally “passing” he will keep himself out of harm’s way and safe from having such treatment being inflicted upon himself.
“Passing,” for The Ex-Colored Man gives him an initiation into a “freemasonry of…race;” gaining access to a secret knowledge that is out of reach for most individuals (Johnson 59). His ability to view the world from both races enables him to experience “the attitude of the whole [community] to change,” when he is “passing” as a black; he is treated differently than when he is “passing” for white (Johnson 95). This “freemasonry” is what convinces him the white society is the dominant culture. Success can only be
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