In the book titled The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson, the topic of race and identity are discussed through the experience of a biracial American. When this man, the protagonist, is introduced the concept of race does not seem to affect his day to day life until a moment when he is grouped together with the coloured children. This occurrence is then followed by a scene when the protagonist examines himself in detail for the first time. This scene is a pivotal moment in the protagonist’s life because it ignites his curiosity and determination to understand his identity. This moment also completely shifts his view of himself, the people around him and the society in which he lives. Therefore, I will argue that the mirror scene is the catalyst for the protagonist’s self-conception due to the way it completely shifts and molds his understanding of his identity.
The author conveys this realization through his interaction with his mirror and the diction used to describe his appearance. In literature, mirrors are often used to symbolize illumination and wisdom since they reflect light as well as the world around them. They are also often seen as reflecting truth. This is one way the mirror is used in this scene. When the protagonist comes home he grabs the mirror so that he can examine himself, but he admits that he is afraid to look at first. This fear manifests due to the mirror being a place that holds and reflect truth. The mirror is going to reflect his image without bias or manipulation therefore it is going to shatter his preconceived idea of being white. When examining himself he admittedly appears whiter, but he is aware that there is something “strangely fascinating” about him image. The mirror exposed this difference in his features, that reflect his ethnically diverse heritage, that he had not noticed. This realization effectively changes the protagonist view and understanding of himself resulting in him questioning his race, and by extension his identity, with his mother.
The mirror is acting as a channel for the truth, but it also symbolizes the bridging of the conscious and unconscious mind. Well the protagonist is looking in the mirror he expresses that before this self examination in the mirror he was not aware of his appearance apart from what his mothers’ customers said about him. The mirror provided him with a way to become “conscious of it, and recognize it”, meaning himself and his physical appearance. The mirror in this scene awakened his conscious so that he could view himself in a different way. The switch in consciousness through the self examination in the mirror changed his perception of himself causing him to question his physical appearance and his social image with his mother. The mirror provides a method in which to view himself with clarity, this in turn ignites his interest in his self-conception and social image. The mirror is a powerful tool used to change the protagonists view of himself and works as a method to start his journey to navigating a biracial existence in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. Another method the author uses to highlight the shift in self-conception is in that language used when he is describing himself. Diction or word choice can be an effective way to emphasize meaning, ideas, or themes to the audience without outright stating them. In addition, this can be especially effective when trying to create a tone, image or evoke a certain emotion in the reader. In this scene with the mirror the protagonist takes time to describe himself in detail sharing with the audience his facial features. When he describes his skin, he makes a point to say that it is ivory white giving the reader a distinct image of an off-white tone.
By comparing his skin to the colour of ivory that is not only beautiful off white, but a luxurious item brings an air of prestige to the description. This description invokes this kind of understanding due to the history and status associated with white skin. This is contrasted with his observation of his dark features; these features include his “liquid dark eyes”, “long black lashes” and “glossy dark hair” (Johnson 8). None of the descriptions regarding his “dark” characteristics are paired with any terms or items that would indicate status. They are simply stated with no terms of endearment. This in contrast shows that lighter features or whiter features are desirable and have a status associated with them and that dark features are understated. Furthermore, it shows the divide between whiteness and blackness within the protagonists’ identity. His blackness is hidden due to the lack pf physical representation in his features. By having his blackness under stated it also reflects the way in which he previously saw himself and the shift in that view after he saw himself in the mirror; and then realised that his features where “strangely fascinating”, acknowledging the blackness in his features that he is now conscious of. This use of language shows the shift in his understanding of his identity from a state of misunderstanding to an informed state now that he has more knowledge and understanding of his mixed ethnicity.
Throughout this paper I have draw upon the tools used by the author, such as the mirror and diction, to prove that the mirror scene works as the catalyst for the protagonist’s shift in self-conception. The authors ability to use the mirror as a method for the protagonists to see himself and change his understanding of his identity through physically seeing himself; allows the readers to understand the contrast of his understanding of his identity before and after the mirror. Furthermore, the use of language to highlight and understate certain elements of his appearance allows for the conflict between his former white self and his enlighten biracial self to show the transition from uninformed to informed.
This story and scene is still relevant to discussion about race but also to individuals that are biracial and experience moments like this in their lives. It provides a unique look at what it means to be biracial and the struggle that racial identity can pose when you are both and neither at the same time.