#6: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson

Considering this was published in 1912, I found this really easy to read and quite enjoyable (in a sad but interesting sort of way). It is the story of a fictional man (autobiography is misleading – this is not about James Weldon Johnson) who is half black-half white, though he appears to just be white. As a young child, he finds out that he is black when his teacher asks all the white students to stand and he is told to sit down. By the end of the novel, after seeing a black man burned at the stake, he realizes that fitting in with the white crowd would be an easier life than living as a black man. At this point, there is only a chapter left and it jumps ahead a bit to where he has children. While on the one hand, he is happy he chose this path for his children’s sake, on the other hand he feels like he has abandoned his identity. In the last sentence of his narration, he says, “I cannot repress the thought that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”

I would definitely recommend this book, it’s a short book that tells a lot about history through one man’s perspective in an easy to digest way. Here are a few quotes that might spark your interest to read further…

“He is forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man, or even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man. It is wonderful to me that the race has progressed so broadly as it has, since most of its thought and all of its activity must run through the narrow neck of this one funnel.”

“My boy, you are by blood, by appearance, by education, and by tastes a white man. Now, why do you want to throw your life away amidst the poverty and ignorance, in the hopeless struggle, of the black people of the United States?”

“But, above all, when I am discouraged and disheartened, I have this to fall back on: if there is principle of right in this world, which finally prevails, and I believe that there is; if there is a merciful but justice-loving God in heaven, and I believe that there is, we shall win; for we have right on our side, while those who oppose us can defend themselves by nothing in the moral law, now even by anything in the enlightened thought of the present age.”

“It’s no disgrace to be black, but it’s often very inconvenient.”

“Every race and every nation should be judged by the best it has been able to produce, not by the worst.”

“Inequalities of numbers, wealth, and power, even of intelligence and morals, should make no difference in the essential rights of men.”

 

Next up, East of Eden by John Steinbeck…

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