The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
James Weldon Johnson

Part 3 out of 3

is apt to be impressed with this idea. If the mass of Negroes took
their present and future as seriously as do the most of their leaders,
the race would be in no mental condition to sustain the terrible
pressure which it undergoes; it would sink of its own weight. Yet it
must be acknowledged that in the making of a race overseriousness is
a far lesser failing than its reverse, and even the faults resulting
from it lean toward the right.

We drove into the town just before dark. As we passed a large,
unpainted church, my companion pointed it out as the place where he
held his school. I promised that I would go there with him the next
morning and visit awhile. The town was of that kind which hardly
requires or deserves description; a straggling line of brick and
wooden stores on one side of the railroad track and some cottages of
various sizes on the other side constituted about the whole of it. The
young school teacher boarded at the best house in the place owned by
a colored man. It was painted, had glass windows, contained "store
bought" furniture, an organ, and lamps with chimneys. The owner held a
job of some kind on the railroad. After supper it was not long before
everybody was sleepy. I occupied the room with the school teacher. In
a few minutes after we got into the room he was in bed and asleep; but
I took advantage of the unusual luxury of a lamp which gave light, and
sat looking over my notes and jotting down some ideas which were still
fresh in my mind. Suddenly I became conscious of that sense of alarm
which is always aroused by the sound of hurrying footsteps on the
silence of the night. I stopped work and looked at my watch. It was
after eleven. I listened, straining every nerve to hear above the
tumult of my quickening pulse. I caught the murmur of voices, then
the gallop of a horse, then of another and another. Now thoroughly
alarmed, I woke my companion, and together we both listened. After a
moment he put out the light and softly opened the window-blind, and we
cautiously peeped out. We saw men moving in one direction, and from
the mutterings we vaguely caught the rumor that some terrible crime
had been committed. I put on my coat and hat. My friend did all in his
power to dissuade me from venturing out, but it was impossible for me
to remain in the house under such tense excitement. My nerves would
not have stood it. Perhaps what bravery I exercised in going out was
due to the fact that I felt sure my identity as a colored man had not
yet become known in the town.

I went out and, following the drift, reached the railroad station.
There was gathered there a crowd of men, all white, and others were
steadily arriving, seemingly from all the surrounding country. How
did the news spread so quickly? I watched these men moving under
the yellow glare of the kerosene lamps about the station, stern,
comparatively silent, all of them armed, some of them in boots and
spurs; fierce, determined men. I had come to know the type well,
blond, tall, and lean, with ragged mustache and beard, and glittering
gray eyes. At the first suggestion of daylight they began to disperse
in groups, going in several directions. There was no extra noise or
excitement, no loud talking, only swift, sharp words of command given
by those who seemed to be accepted as leaders by mutual understanding.
In fact, the impression made upon me was that everything was being
done in quite an orderly manner. In spite of so many leaving, the
crowd around the station continued to grow; at sunrise there were
a great many women and children. By this time I also noticed some
colored people; a few seemed to be going about customary tasks;
several were standing on the outskirts of the crowd; but the gathering
of Negroes usually seen in such towns was missing.

Before noon they brought him in. Two horsemen rode abreast; between
them, half dragged, the poor wretch made his way through the dust. His
hands were tied behind him, and ropes around his body were fastened to
the saddle horns of his double guard. The men who at midnight had been
stern and silent were now emitting that terror-instilling sound known
as the "rebel yell." A space was quickly cleared in the crowd, and a
rope placed about his neck, when from somewhere came the suggestion,
"Burn him!" It ran like an electric current. Have you ever witnessed
the transformation of human beings into savage beasts? Nothing can be
more terrible. A railroad tie was sunk into the ground, the rope was
removed, and a chain brought and securely coiled around the victim and
the stake. There he stood, a man only in form and stature, every sign
of degeneracy stamped upon his countenance. His eyes were dull
and vacant, indicating not a single ray of thought. Evidently the
realization of his fearful fate had robbed him of whatever reasoning
power he had ever possessed. He was too stunned and stupefied even to
tremble. Fuel was brought from everywhere, oil, the torch; the flames
crouched for an instant as though to gather strength, then leaped up
as high as their victim's head. He squirmed, he writhed, strained at
his chains, then gave out cries and groans that I shall always hear.
The cries and groans were choked off by the fire and smoke; but his
eyes, bulging from their sockets, rolled from side to side, appealing
in vain for help. Some of the crowd yelled and cheered, others seemed
appalled at what they had done, and there were those who turned
away sickened at the sight. I was fixed to the spot where I stood,
powerless to take my eyes from what I did not want to see.

It was over before I realized that time had elapsed. Before I could
make myself believe that what I saw was really happening, I was
looking at a scorched post, a smoldering fire, blackened bones,
charred fragments sifting down through coils of chain; and the smell
of burnt flesh--human flesh--was in my nostrils.

I walked a short distance away and sat down in order to clear my dazed
mind. A great wave of humiliation and shame swept over me. Shame that
I belonged to a race that could be so dealt with; and shame for my
country, that it, the great example of democracy to the world, should
be the only civilized, if not the only state on earth, where a human
being would be burned alive. My heart turned bitter within me. I could
understand why Negroes are led to sympathize with even their worst
criminals and to protect them when possible. By all the impulses of
normal human nature they can and should do nothing less.

Whenever I hear protests from the South that it should be left alone
to deal with the Negro question, my thoughts go back to that scene of
brutality and savagery. I do not see how a people that can find in its
conscience any excuse whatever for slowly burning to death a human
being, or for tolerating such an act, can be entrusted with the
salvation of a race. Of course, there are in the South men of liberal
thought who do not approve lynching, but I wonder how long they will
endure the limits which are placed upon free speech. They still cower
and tremble before "Southern opinion." Even so late as the recent
Atlanta riot those men who were brave enough to speak a word in behalf
of justice and humanity felt called upon, by way of apology, to
preface what they said with a glowing rhetorical tribute to the
Anglo-Saxon's superiority and to refer to the "great and impassable
gulf" between the races "fixed by the Creator at the foundation of the
world." The question of the relative qualities of the two races is
still an open one. The reference to the "great gulf" loses force in
face of the fact that there are in this country perhaps three or four
million people with the blood of both races in their veins; but I fail
to see the pertinency of either statement subsequent to the beating
and murdering of scores of innocent people in the streets of a
civilized and Christian city.

The Southern whites are in many respects a great people. Looked at
from a certain point of view, they are picturesque. If one will put
oneself in a romantic frame of mind, one can admire their notions
of chivalry and bravery and justice. In this same frame of mind an
intelligent man can go to the theatre and applaud the impossible hero,
who with his single sword slays everybody in the play except the
equally impossible heroine. So can an ordinary peace-loving citizen
sit by a comfortable fire and read with enjoyment of the bloody deeds
of pirates and the fierce brutality of Vikings. This is the way in
which we gratify the old, underlying animal instincts and passions;
but we should shudder with horror at the mere idea of such practices
being realities in this day of enlightened and humanitarianized
thought. The Southern whites are not yet living quite in the present
age; many of their general ideas hark back to a former century,
some of them to the Dark Ages. In the light of other days they are
sometimes magnificent. Today they are often cruel and ludicrous.

How long I sat with bitter thoughts running through my mind I do not
know; perhaps an hour or more. When I decided to get up and go back to
the house, I found that I could hardly stand on my feet. I was as weak
as a man who had lost blood. However, I dragged myself along, with the
central idea of a general plan well fixed in my mind. I did not find
my school teacher friend at home, so I did not see him again. I
swallowed a few mouthfuls of food, packed my bag, and caught the
afternoon train.

When I reached Macon, I stopped only long enough to get the main part
of my luggage and to buy a ticket for New York.

All along the journey I was occupied in debating with myself the step
which I had decided to take. I argued that to forsake one's race to
better one's condition was no less worthy an action than to forsake
one's country for the same purpose. I finally made up my mind that I
would neither disclaim the black race nor 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 about
with a label of inferiority pasted across my forehead. All the while
I understood that it was not discouragement or fear or search for a
larger field of action and opportunity that was driving me out of the
Negro race. I knew that it was shame, unbearable shame. Shame at being
identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse
than animals. For certainly the law would restrain and punish the
malicious burning alive of animals.

So once again I found myself gazing at the towers of New York and
wondering what future that city held in store for me.


I have now reached that part of my narrative where I must be brief and
touch only on important facts; therefore the reader must make up his
mind to pardon skips and jumps and meager details.

When I reached New York, I was completely lost. I could not have felt
more a stranger had I been suddenly dropped into Constantinople. I
knew not where to turn or how to strike out. I was so oppressed by
a feeling of loneliness that the temptation to visit my old home in
Connecticut was well-nigh irresistible. I reasoned, however, that
unless I found my old music teacher, I should be, after so many
years of absence, as much of a stranger there as in New York; and,
furthermore, that in view of the step which I had decided to take,
such a visit would be injudicious. I remembered, too, that I had some
property there in the shape of a piano and a few books, but decided
that it would not be worth what it might cost me to take possession.

By reason of the fact that my living expenses in the South had been
very small, I still had nearly four hundred dollars of my capital
left. In contemplation of this, my natural and acquired Bohemian
tastes asserted themselves, and I decided to have a couple of weeks'
good time before worrying seriously about the future. I went to Coney
Island and the other resorts, took in the pre-season shows along
Broadway, and ate at first-class restaurants; but I shunned the old
Sixth Avenue district as though it were pest-infected. My few days of
pleasure made appalling inroads upon what cash I had, and caused me
to see that it required a good deal of money to live in New York as I
wished to live and that I should have to find, very soon, some more or
less profitable employment. I was sure that unknown, without friends
or prestige, it would be useless to try to establish myself as a
teacher of music; so I gave that means of earning a livelihood
scarcely any consideration. And even had I considered it possible to
secure pupils, as I then felt, I should have hesitated about taking up
a work in which the chances for any considerable financial success are
necessarily so small. I had made up my mind that since I was not going
to be a Negro, I would avail myself of every possible opportunity to
make a white man's success; and that, if it can be summed up in any
one word, means "money."

I watched the "want" columns in the newspapers and answered a number
of advertisements, but in each case found the positions were such as I
could not fill or did not want. I also spent several dollars for "ads"
which brought me no replies. In this way I came to know the hopes and
disappointments of a large and pitiable class of humanity in this
great city, the people who look for work through the newspapers.
After some days of this sort of experience I concluded that the main
difficulty with me was that I was not prepared for what I wanted to
do. I then decided upon a course which, for an artist, showed an
uncommon amount of practical sense and judgment. I made up my mind to
enter a business college. I took a small room, ate at lunch counters,
in order to economize, and pursued my studies with the zeal that I
have always been able to put into any work upon which I set my heart.
Yet, in spite of all my economy, when I had been at the school for
several months, my funds gave out completely. I reached the point
where I could not afford sufficient food for each day. In this plight
I was glad to get, through one of the teachers, a job as an ordinary
clerk in a downtown wholesale house. I did my work faithfully, and
received a raise of salary before I expected it. I even managed to
save a little money out of my modest earnings. In fact, I began then
to contract the money fever, which later took strong possession of me.
I kept my eyes open, watching for a chance to better my condition. It
finally came in the form of a position with a house which was at the
time establishing a South American department. My knowledge of Spanish
was, of course, the principal cause of my good luck; and it did more
for me: it placed me where the other clerks were practically put out
of competition with me. I was not slow in taking advantage of the
opportunity to make myself indispensable to the firm.

What an interesting and absorbing game is money-making! After each
deposit at my savings-bank I used to sit and figure out, all over
again, my principal and interest, and make calculations on what the
increase would be in such and such time. Out of this I derived a great
deal of pleasure. I denied myself as much as possible in order to
swell my savings. As much as I enjoyed smoking, I limited myself to an
occasional cigar, and that was generally of a variety which in my old
days at the "Club" was known as a "Henry Mud." Drinking I cut out
altogether, but that was no great sacrifice.

The day on which I was able to figure up a thousand dollars marked
an epoch in my life. And this was not because I had never before had
money. In my gambling days and while I was with my millionaire I
handled sums running high up into the hundreds; but they had come to
me like fairy godmother's gifts, and at a time when my conception of
money was that it was made only to spend. Here, on the other hand, was
a thousand dollars which I had earned by days of honest and patient
work, a thousand dollars which I had carefully watched grow from
the first dollar; and I experienced, in owning them, a pride and
satisfaction which to me was an entirely new sensation. As my capital
went over the thousand-dollar mark, I was puzzled to know what to do
with it, how to put it to the most advantageous use. I turned down
first one scheme and then another, as though they had been devised
for the sole purpose of gobbling up my money. I finally listened to a
friend who advised me to put all I had in New York real estate; and
under his guidance I took equity in a piece of property on which stood
a rickety old tenement-house. I did not regret following this friend's
advice, for in something like six months I disposed of my equity for
more than double my investment. From that time on I devoted myself to
the study of New York real estate and watched for opportunities to
make similar investments. In spite of two or three speculations which
did not turn out well, I have been remarkably successful. Today I am
the owner and part-owner of several flat-houses. I have changed my
place of employment four times since returning to New York, and each
change has been a decided advancement. Concerning the position which I
now hold I shall say nothing except that it pays extremely well.

As my outlook on the world grew brighter, I began to mingle in the
social circles of the men with whom I came in contact; and gradually,
by a process of elimination, I reached a grade of society of no small
degree of culture. My appearance was always good and my ability to
play on the piano, especially ragtime, which was then at the height of
its vogue, made me a welcome guest. The anomaly of my social position
often appealed strongly to my sense of humor. I frequently smiled
inwardly at some remark not altogether complimentary to people of
color; and more than once I felt like declaiming: "I am a colored man.
Do I not disprove the theory that one drop of Negro blood renders a
man unfit?" Many a night when I returned to my room after an enjoyable
evening, I laughed heartily over what struck me as the capital joke I
was playing.

Then I met her, and what I had regarded as a joke was gradually
changed into the most serious question of my life. I first saw her
at a musical which was given one evening at a house to which I was
frequently invited. I did not notice her among the other guests before
she came forward and sang two sad little songs. When she began, I was
out in the hallway, where many of the men were gathered; but with the
first few notes I crowded with others into the doorway to see who the
singer was. When I saw the girl, the surprise which I had felt at the
first sound of her voice was heightened; she was almost tall and quite
slender, with lustrous yellow hair and eyes so blue as to appear
almost black. She was as white as a lily, and she was dressed in
white. Indeed, she seemed to me the most dazzlingly white thing I had
ever seen. But it was not her delicate beauty which attracted me most;
it was her voice, a voice which made one wonder how tones of such
passionate color could come from so fragile a body.

I determined that when the program was over, I would seek an
introduction to her; but at the moment, instead of being the easy
man of the world, I became again the bashful boy of fourteen, and my
courage failed me. I contented myself with hovering as near her as
politeness would permit; near enough to hear her voice, which in
conversation was low, yet thrilling, like the deeper middle tones of a
flute. I watched the men gather round her talking and laughing in an
easy manner, and wondered how it was possible for them to do it. But
destiny, my special destiny, was at work. I was standing near, talking
with affected gaiety to several young ladies, who, however, must have
remarked my preoccupation; for my second sense of hearing was alert to
what was being said by the group of which the girl in white was the
center, when I heard her say: "I think his playing of Chopin is
exquisite." And one of my friends in the group replied: "You haven't
met him? Allow me----" Then turning to me, "Old man, when you have a
moment I wish you to meet Miss ----." I don't know what she said to me
or what I said to her. I can remember that I tried to be clever, and
experienced a growing conviction that I was making myself appear more
and more idiotic. I am certain, too, that, in spite of my Italian-like
complexion, I was as red as a beet.

Instead of taking the car, I walked home. I needed the air and
exercise as a sort of sedative. I am not sure whether my troubled
condition of mind was due to the fact that I had been struck by love
or to the feeling that I had made a bad impression upon her.

As the weeks went by, and when I had met her several more times, I
came to know that I was seriously in love; and then began for me days
of worry, for I had more than the usual doubts and fears of a young
man in love to contend with.

Up to this time I had assumed and played my role as a white man with a
certain degree of nonchalance, a carelessness as to the outcome, which
made the whole thing more amusing to me than serious; but now I ceased
to regard "being a white man" as a sort of practical joke. My acting
had called for mere external effects. Now I began to doubt my ability
to play the part. I watched her to see if she was scrutinizing me, to
see if she was looking for anything in me which made me differ
from the other men she knew. In place of an old inward feeling of
superiority over many of my friends I began to doubt myself. I began
even to wonder if I really was like the men I associated with; if
there was not, after all, an indefinable something which marked a

But, in spite of my doubts and timidity, my affair progressed, and I
finally felt sufficiently encouraged to decide to ask her to marry
me. Then began the hardest struggle of my life, whether to ask her to
marry me under false colors or to tell her the whole truth. My sense
of what was exigent made me feel there was no necessity of saying
anything; but my inborn sense of honor rebelled at even indirect
deception in this case. But however much I moralized on the question,
I found it more and more difficult to reach the point of confession.
The dread that I might lose her took possession of me each time I
sought to speak, and rendered it impossible for me to do so. That
moral courage requires more than physical courage is no mere poetic
fancy. I am sure I should have found it easier to take the place of a
gladiator, no matter how fierce the Numidian lion, than to tell that
slender girl that I had Negro blood in my veins. The fact which I had
at times wished to cry out, I now wished to hide forever.

During this time we were drawn together a great deal by the mutual
bond of music. She loved to hear me play Chopin and was herself far
from being a poor performer of his compositions. I think I carried
her every new song that was published which I thought suitable to her
voice, and played the accompaniment for her. Over these songs we were
like two innocent children with new toys. She had never been anything
but innocent; but my innocence was a transformation wrought by my love
for her, love which melted away my cynicism and whitened my sullied
soul and gave me back the wholesome dreams of my boyhood.

My artistic temperament also underwent an awakening. I spent many
hours at my piano, playing over old and new composers. I also wrote
several little pieces in a more or less Chopinesque style, which I
dedicated to her. And so the weeks and months went by. Often words of
love trembled on my lips, but I dared not utter them, because I knew
they would have to be followed by other words which I had not the
courage to frame. There might have been some other woman in my set
whom I could have fallen in love with and asked to marry me without a
word of explanation; but the more I knew this girl, the less could I
find it in my heart to deceive her. And yet, in spite of this specter
that was constantly looming up before me, I could never have believed
that life held such happiness as was contained in those dream days of

One Saturday afternoon, in early June, I was coming up Fifth Avenue,
and at the corner of Twenty-third Street I met her. She had been
shopping. We stopped to chat for a moment, and I suggested that we
spend half an hour at the Eden Musee. We were standing leaning on the
rail in front of a group of figures, more interested in what we had to
say to each other than in the group, when my attention became fixed
upon a man who stood at my side studying his catalogue. It took me
only an instant to recognize in him my old friend "Shiny." My first
impulse was to change my position at once. As quick as a flash I
considered all the risks I might run in speaking to him, and most
especially the delicate question of introducing him to her. I confess
that in my embarrassment and confusion I felt small and mean. But
before I could decide what to do, he looked around at me and, after an
instant, quietly asked: "Pardon me; but isn't this----?" The nobler
part in me responded to the sound of his voice and I took his hand in a
hearty clasp. Whatever fears I had felt were quickly banished, for he
seemed, at a glance, to divine my situation, and let drop no word that
would have aroused suspicion as to the truth. With a slight misgiving
I presented him to her and was again relieved of fear. She received
the introduction in her usual gracious manner, and without the least
hesitancy or embarrassment joined in the conversation. An amusing part
about the introduction was that I was upon the point of introducing
him as "Shiny," and stammered a second or two before I could recall
his name. We chatted for some fifteen minutes. He was spending his
vacation north, with the intention of doing four or six weeks' work in
one of the summer schools; he was also going to take a bride back with
him in the fall. He asked me about myself, but in so diplomatic a
way that I found no difficulty in answering him. The polish of his
language and he unpedantic manner in which he revealed his culture
greatly impressed her; and after we had left the Musee she showed it
by questioning me about him. I was surprised at the amount of
interest a refined black man could arouse. Even after changes in the
conversation she reverted several times to the subject of "Shiny."
Whether it was more than mere curiosity I could not tell, but I was
convinced that she herself knew very little about prejudice.

Just why it should have done so I do not know, but somehow the "Shiny"
incident gave me encouragement and confidence to cast the die of my
fate. I reasoned, however, that since I wanted to marry her only, and
since it concerned her alone, I would divulge my secret to no one
else, not even her parents.

One evening, a few days afterwards, at her home we were going over
some new songs and compositions when she asked me, as she often did,
to play the Thirteenth Nocturne. When I began, she drew a chair near
to my right and sat leaning with her elbow on the end of the piano,
her chin resting on her hand, and her eyes reflecting the emotions
which the music awoke in her. An impulse which I could not control
rushed over me, a wave of exultation, the music under my fingers
sank almost to a whisper, and calling her for the first time by her
Christian name, but without daring to look at her, I said: "I love
you, I love you, I love you." My fingers were trembling so that I
ceased playing. I felt her hand creep to mine, and when I looked at
her, her eyes were glistening with tears. I understood, and could
scarcely resist the longing to take her in my arms; but I remembered,
remembered that which has been the sacrificial altar of so much
happiness--Duty; and bending over her hand in mine, I said: "Yes, I
love you; but there is something more, too, that I must tell you."
Then I told her, in what words I do not know, the truth. I felt her
hand grow cold, and when I looked up, she was gazing at me with a
wild, fixed stare as though I was some object she had never seen.
Under the strange light in her eyes I felt that I was growing black
and thick-featured and crimp-haired. She appeared not to have
comprehended what I had said. Her lips trembled and she attempted to
say something to me, but the words stuck in her throat. Then, dropping
her head on the piano, she began to weep with great sobs that shook
her frail body. I tried to console her, and blurted out incoherent
words of love, but this seemed only to increase her distress, and when
I left her, she was still weeping.

When I got into the street, I felt very much as I did the night after
meeting my father and sister at the opera in Paris, even a similar
desperate inclination to get drunk; but my self-control was stronger.
This was the only time in my life that I ever felt absolute regret at
being colored, that I cursed the drops of African blood in my veins
and wished that I were really white. When I reached my rooms, I sat
and smoked several cigars while I tried to think out the significance
of what had occurred. I reviewed the whole history of our
acquaintance, recalled each smile she had given me, each word she had
said to me that nourished my hope. I went over the scene we had just
gone through, trying to draw from it what was in my favor and what was
against me. I was rewarded by feeling confident that she loved me, but
I could not estimate what was the effect upon her of my confession. At
last, nervous and unhappy, I wrote her a letter, which I dropped into
the mail-box before going to bed, in which I said:

I understand, understand even better than you, and so
I suffer even more than you. But why should either of us
suffer for what neither of us is to blame for? If there is
any blame, it belongs to me and I can only make the old,
yet strongest plea that can be offered, I love you; and I
know that my love, my great love, infinitely overbalances
that blame and blots it out. What is it that stands in the
way of our happiness? It is not what you feel or what I
feel; it is not what you are or what I am. It is what others
feel and are. But, oh! is that a fair price? In all the
endeavors and struggles of life, in all our strivings and
longings, there is only one thing worth seeking, only one
thing worth winning, and that is love. It is not always
found; but when it is, there is nothing in all the world for
which it can be profitably exchanged.

The second morning after, I received a note from her which stated
briefly that she was going up into New Hampshire to spend the summer
with relatives there. She made no reference to what had passed between
us; nor did she say exactly when she would leave the city. The note
contained no single word that gave me any clue to her feelings. I
could gather hope only from the fact that she had written at all.
On the same evening, with a degree of trepidation which rendered me
almost frightened, I went to her house.

I met her mother, who told me that she had left for the country that
very afternoon. Her mother treated me in her usual pleasant manner,
which fact greatly reassured me; and I left the house with a vague
sense of hope stirring in my breast, which sprang from the conviction
that she had not yet divulged my secret. But that hope did not remain
with me long. I waited one, two, three weeks, nervously examining my
mail every day, looking for some word from her. All of the letters
received by me seemed so insignificant, so worthless, because there
was none from her. The slight buoyancy of spirit which I had felt
gradually dissolved into gloomy heart-sickness. I became preoccupied;
I lost appetite, lost sleep, and lost ambition. Several of my friends
intimated to me that perhaps I was working too hard.

She stayed away the whole summer. I did not go to the house, but saw
her father at various times, and he was as friendly as ever. Even
after I knew that she was back in town, I did not go to see her. I
determined to wait for some word or sign. I had finally taken refuge
and comfort in my pride, pride which, I suppose, I came by naturally

The first time I saw her after her return was one night at the
theatre. She and her mother sat in company with a young man whom I
knew slightly, not many seats away from me. Never did she appear more
beautiful; and yet, it may have been my fancy, she seemed a trifle
paler, and there was a suggestion of haggardness in her countenance.
But that only heightened her beauty; the very delicacy of her charm
melted down the strength of my pride. My situation made me feel weak
and powerless, like a man trying with his bare hands to break the iron
bars of his prison cell. When the performance was over, I hurried out
and placed myself where, unobserved, I could see her as she passed
out. The haughtiness of spirit in which I had sought relief was all
gone, and I was willing and ready to undergo any humiliation.

Shortly afterward we met at a progressive card party, and during the
evening we were thrown together at one of the tables as partners. This
was really our first meeting since the eventful night at her house.
Strangely enough, in spite of our mutual nervousness, we won every
trick of the game, and one of our opponents jokingly quoted the old
saw: "Lucky at cards, unlucky in love." Our eyes met and I am sure
that in the momentary glance my whole soul went out to her in one
great plea. She lowered her eyes and uttered a nervous little laugh.
During the rest of the game I fully merited the unexpressed and
expressed abuse of my various partners; for my eyes followed her
wherever she was and I played whatever card my fingers happened to

Later in the evening she went to the piano and began to play very
softly, as to herself, the opening bars of the Thirteenth Nocturne. I
felt that the psychic moment of my life had come, a moment which, if
lost, could never be called back; and, in as careless a manner as I
could assume, I sauntered over to the piano and stood almost bending
over her. She continued playing, but, in a voice that was almost a
whisper, she called me by my Christian name and said: "I love you, I
love you, I love you." I took her place at the piano and played the
Nocturne in a manner that silenced the chatter of the company both in
and out of the room, involuntarily closing it with the major triad.

We were married the following spring, and went to Europe for several
months. It was a double joy for me to be in France again under such

First there came to us a little girl, with hair and eyes dark like
mine, but who is growing to have ways like her mother. Two years later
there came a boy, who has my temperament, but is fair like his mother,
a little golden-headed god, with a face and head that would have
delighted the heart of an old Italian master. And this boy, with his
mother's eyes and features, occupies an inner sanctuary of my heart;
for it was for him that she gave all; and that is the second sacred
sorrow of my life.

The few years of our married life were supremely happy, and perhaps
she was even happier than I; for after our marriage, in spite of all
the wealth of her love which she lavished upon me, there came a new
dread to haunt me, a dread which I cannot explain and which was
unfounded, but one that never left me. I was in constant fear that she
would discover in me some shortcoming which she would unconsciously
attribute to my blood rather than to a failing of human nature. But
no cloud ever came to mar our life together; her loss to me is
irreparable. My children need a mother's care, but I shall never marry
again. It is to my children that I have devoted my life. I no longer
have the same fear for myself of my secret's being found out, for
since my wife's death I have gradually dropped out of social life;
but there is nothing I would not suffer to keep the brand from being
placed upon them.

It is difficult for me to analyze my feelings concerning my present
position in the world. Sometimes it seems to me that I have never
really been a Negro, that I have been only a privileged spectator of
their inner life; at other times I feel that I have been a coward,
a deserter, and I am possessed by a strange longing for my mother's

Several years ago I attended a great meeting in the interest of
Hampton Institute at Carnegie Hall. The Hampton students sang the old
songs and awoke memories that left me sad. Among the speakers were
R.C. Ogden, ex-Ambassador Choate, and Mark Twain; but the greatest
interest of the audience was centered in Booker T. Washington, and not
because he so much surpassed the others in eloquence, but because of
what he represented with so much earnestness and faith. And it is
this that all of that small but gallant band of colored men who are
publicly fighting the cause of their race have behind them. Even those
who oppose them know that these men have the eternal principles of
right on their side, and they will be victors even though they should
go down in defeat. Beside them I feel small and selfish. I am an
ordinarily successful white man who has made a little money. They are
men who are making history and a race. I, too, might have taken part
in a work so glorious.

My love for my children makes me glad that I am what I am and keeps me
from desiring to be otherwise; and yet, when I sometimes open a little
box in which I still keep my fast yellowing manuscripts, the only
tangible remnants of a vanished dream, a dead ambition, a sacrificed
talent, 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.


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