The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man Essay - Critical Evaluation

James Weldon Johnson

Critical Evaluation

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is the account of a mulatto who decides, after a series of experiences and revelations beginning in his childhood and stretching into adulthood, to “pass” for white. The mulatto narrator remains anonymous, and the tone of the book suggests that the story is based on fact. In the first paragraph the narrator professes to know his identity. He states that his autobiography is the complete expression of his “sort of savage and diabolical desire to gather up all the little tragedies of my life, and turn them into a practical joke on society.”

When the novel was published anonymously in 1912, readers speculated about its verisimilitude. Anonymity, a common feature of the slave narratives that had lent support to the abolitionist movement, forms the foundation of the African American literary tradition. Just as anonymity had protected the identity of slaves and lessened the chance of reprisals from slave masters, it is not difficult to assume that this author chose anonymity to avoid answering questions or compromising his status. The book also reveals the trickster aspect of black-white relations: Readers cannot be certain that what the narrator says is precisely what he is thinking.

Some critics judged the narrator to be a moral coward because he chose to live his life as a white man. This criticism makes the assumption that choosing to be black would have been better than choosing to be white. If, however, the making of money is not innately immoral, it does not follow...

(The entire section is 631 words.)