The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, by James Weldon Johnson, was published anonymously by a small New York publisher, Sherman, French and Company, in 1912. The work is a novel, but the author hoped that by remaining anonymous he could persuade readers that it was an actual autobiography. The novel, told in the first person, is the story of a man whose parents were a wealthy white Southern gentleman and the “coloured” seamstress employed by the gentleman’s family. The narrator travels around the United States and through Europe, observing how white and black people behave within separate enclaves and with each other. In the end, he decides to “pass,” or to live as a white man, and abandon his African American heritage. The story includes many short scenes and didactic digressions, told in a rather flat style with little description or dialogue. When the book was published, only two or three books by African Americans had attracted large audiences, and The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man did not sell many copies. Its publisher went out of business, and the book all but disappeared.
With the blooming of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Johnson became widely known as a writer and an intellectual. His book was re-issued by Knopf, an influential firm that published many of the Harlem Renaissance writers, and for the first time Johnson acknowledged that he was the author. This time, the book was widely sold and discussed, and it has remained in print ever since.