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Born shortly after the Civil War in a small Georgia town, the narrator's African-American mother protected him as a child and teenager.The narrator's father, a wealthy white member of the Southern aristocracy, is absent throughout the narrator's childhood but, nevertheless, continues to provide financial support for the narrator and his mother.He lives through a variety of experiences, including witnessing a lynching, that convince him to "pass" as white to secure his safety and advancement, but he feels as if he has given up his dream of "glorifying" the black race by composing ragtime music.
The narrator also chooses to withhold the name of the small Georgia town where his narrative begins, as there are still living residents of the town who might be able to connect him to the narrative.
Throughout the novel, the adult narrator from the frame interjects into the text to offer reflective commentary into the events of the narrative.
While Alain Locke and other critics called for literature to portray the Negro of the new day and discard the old representations, James Weldon Johnson understood the Old Negro’s enduring importance to modern black self-conception.
His 1912 novel, , portrays the consequences of accepting existing, white-authored literary representations of the Old Negro.
After the narrator's mother dies, he becomes a poor orphan and subject to harsh conditions.
He adapted very well to life with lower-class blacks and was able to move easily among the classes of black society.
The white gentleman hired him to play ragtime piano for guests at parties.
Soon the Ex-Colored Man spent most of his time working for the white gentleman, who paid him to play ragtime music for hours at a time.
The gentleman was not "loaning" him out as a piece of property, but simply giving the narrator a broader palette to display his talents.
The Ex-Colored man saw how the rich lived; he was thrilled to live in this lifestyle.