Freedom In James Weldon Johnny’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the narrator is troubled by the two facets of his racial identity making him incapable of determining his self-identity. Music plays a crucial a role in the determination of the narrator’s self-identity, he expresses admiration towards African American culture for its originality and universality, while he also reveres European culture for its priority on intellectualism and classical music.
It is clear that the narrator struggles with his self- identity throughout the novel, but by Joining both of his musical roots is the narrator palpable to formulate his self-identity. The narrator was conscious that “there were some black and brown boys and girls” Monsoons 13) at his school and that they were “in some way looked down upon” (1 3), but as for race and racism, the narrator was entirely ignorant, until his principal segregated him from the other white students in his class.
For the first time in his life he “noticed the ivory whiteness” (15) of his skin, which led him to ask his mother a preeminent question, “Am I white? Are you white” (16)? His mother never gave an explicit answer, further confusing the narrator about his race; she simply admitted that she was not white, but that his father was white and “the best blood of the South” (16). The narrator’s life-changing discovery resulted into two things: he “began to find company in books, and great pleasure in music” (18).
European culture is emotionally and intellectually significant for the narrator and plays a substantial role in his love life. From an early age the narrator is intellectually curious, reading books on theology, science, and history, and is evidently intelligent himself, since he “learned to speak merely by speaking” (74). Classical music was notionally important for the narrator for its connection to his “life in Connecticut” (75).
The narrator is first introduced to music by his mother, specifically remembering “those evenings on which she opened the little piano the happiest hours of life” (10). More significantly, the narrator meets his father for the first time at the age of twelve during one of his piano lessons, initially not arousing “any considerable feeling of need for a father” (23). He initially plays “half hearted” (24) music for his father, but when he notices his father’s “enthusiastic.. Praise… Touched vanity’ (24), he showed his “gratitude by playing for him a Chopin waltz with all feeling that was in ” (24). The narrator’s performance established a father and son relationship, “When I had finished… My father stepped across the room, seized me in his arms, and squeezed me to his breast. I am certain that for that moment he was proud to be my father” (24). Classical music also plays an influential role in the narrator’s love life. “It was not her delicate beauty’ (110) that drew the narrator to his wife to-be, “it was her voice” (110) that attracted him the cost.
On the other hand, the white singer was captivated by the narrator’s “playing of Chopin” (1 10), she often asked him “to play the 13th Nocturne” (1 13), and confessed her love to the narrator and also accepting his marriage proposal while she played Music in the Biography of an Ex-Colored man By sickbay important aspect of the narrator’s life, especially music, for its ability to produce particular work that appeals to the masses due to its significant entertainment value: The cake-walk, I think they ought to be proud of it.
It is my opinion that the colored people of this country have done four things which refute the oft advanced theory that they are an absolutely inferior race, which demonstrate that they have originality and artistic conception, and, what is more, the power of creating that which can influence and appeal universally. (51) The narrator values ragtime for its ancestry and originality, but above all he esteems the music’s lack of theory, unlike classical music, and its natural guidance by “instinct and talent” (57).
The narrator relates well to ragtime music because these musicians relied on “instinct and talent” (57), animally to the narrator who “always tried to interpret a piece of music.. With feeling” (19), and played “by ear” (10). The narrator cannot accept ragtime on its own merits, only when a German musician re-interprets ragtime with a mix of classical music does the narrator see the potential in that genre of music: I sat amazed. I had been turning classical music into ragtime, a comparatively easy task; and this man had taken ragtime and made it classic.
The thought came across me like a flash – It can be done, why can’t I do it? From that moment my mind was made up. From that moment my mind was made up. I clearly saw the way of carrying out the ambition I had formed when a boy. ” (79) The narrator is unable to determine his respective racial identity, only when he Joins both halves of his musical roots does he feel that he can carry out the ambition he had formed before racism was ever an issue to him.
But after witnessing the lynching of an African American man, the narrator consciously makes the decision to let society choose his self-identity, that of a white man, “l would neither disclaim the black race or claim the white race; but that I would change my name, raise a mustache and let the world take me for what it would; that it was not necessary for me to go with a label of inferiority pasted across my forehead” (106).
The narrator expresses ambivalence towards his choice, “l cannot repress the thought, that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage” (118). He recognizes the fact that he is choosing comfort over self-awareness. The narrator displays fondness for classical and ragtime music for contrasting reasons. The narrator appreciates classical music for its intellectual aspect, but most importantly for its connection with his mother and the bond it created between himself and his father.
Ragtime music enhances the narrator’s love for music, while also ameliorating his opinion on the African American population. The narrator is inspired by both genres of music and is able to combine both halves if his musical identity in a way that he cannot do with his racial identity. Brown, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Boston: Sherman French co. , 1912. PUB file.