Passing For White: An Examination of Autobiography of an "Ex-Colored Man" by James Weldon Johnson.

Essay by BILLMAN October 2005

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"The reasonable man adapts to the world around him.

"The unreasonable man expects the world to adapt to him.

Therefore, all progress is made by unreasonable men."

-George Bernard Shaw

The book Autobiography of an "Ex-Colored Man" by James Weldon Johnson is the tale of a black man who decides to 'pass' for white. It was released, anonymously, in 1912 then reissued in 1930, fully acknowledging the author's identity. The first edition had been assumed to be an actual nonfiction narrative by its author, and many were understandably surprised when it was realized to be a work of fiction. This was one thing which pleased Mr. Johnson, because he had intended to write in such a manner that his fiction would be taken for truth and thus open the eyes of America to the social situation in its midst, that being the racism and mistreatment of blacks, and how racism functions in our lives.

It served as social commentary, but not any particular judgment or call to change.

There are many angles from which to view this book and I would like to touch on a few of them. To examine them from a white, mono-racial point of view may seem inadequate and draw criticism. What do I know about being black or 'passing'? Would some people disregard anything I might have to say because I could not possibly have sympathy for, or empathy with, the black in America? It was once mentioned to me that I really had no need to know what it is like to be black, because I ruled the country. I recognize that as an opinion that exists in the world, possibly even a valid opinion. However, I believe it is important to understand our fellow man, and I reject the notion that one...