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Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man

In the novel Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man by James Weldon Johnson, the main character and narrator sees shame as the controlling emotion in his life, as it clearly is in the book. The shame the main character is made to feel relates to his race, to the fact that his race is not readily evident, to the way other people behave toward him based on either knowing or not knowing that he is black and yet does not look black. The true shame is that for the time he is a boy, he is made to feel shame for characteristics he cannot help and in a way for his very existence.

The controlling issue of shame is raised early when he tells the story of his boyhood best friend's shame during a spelling lesson (13). He himself has no awareness of his own race when he is a child, and he hears words and does not understand their meaning, as is evident when he sees a black boy throw a slate and hit a white boy in the mouth:

We ran after them pelting then with stones until they separated in several directions. I was very much wrought up over the affair, and went home and told my mother how one of the "niggers" had struck a boy with a slate. I shall never forget how she turned on me. "Don't ever use that word again," she said, "and don't you ever bother the colored children at school. You ought to be ashamed of yourself." I did hang my head in shame, not because she had convinced me that I had done wrong, but because I was hurt by the first sharp word she had given me" (15).

He only begins to learn that he is black when the school principal shames him in class as he rises with the white children and is told to sit down and rise with the others--she ism not harsh about it, but he is stricken:

Perhaps it had to be done, but I have never forgiven the woman who did it so cruelly. It may be that she never knew that she gave me a sword-thrust that day in school which was years in healing (19).

He is made to feel shame for himself and f...

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Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 08:30, October 01, 2020, from