The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

by James Weldon Johnson
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Consider the ending of the book The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and provide an analysis of the last paragraph. How does the narrator represent himself at the end of the novel? How does he view African Americans? How does the ending reflect upon issues of race in America? What is your critique of this novel as a work of art?

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James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (published anonymously in 1912, then under his name in 1927) features a passing biracial man, who, upon learning of the false promises of passing for white, is faced with the literal and metaphoric “dead end” of his racial position. In the end, the narrator decides he will live not as a white man, black man, or both, but ambivalently ex-colored.

Narratives of racial passing in early-twentieth century America reveal the complicated and often contradictory process by which race becomes part of a fictional economy of readable identity. The story of our ex-coloured narrator is a curious one, precisely because his racial sympathies are always shifting.

The author uses the theme of racial passing as a metaphor/allusion to the uneasy exchange between black and white people relative to the changing spatial configurations of black populations, an effect of large-scale migration to the urban North. In this sense, the novel as a "work of art" might be characterized as an autobiography of African American cultural memory, entrenched in the need to respond to the effects of segregation. So too does the spatial scope of New York central to Autobiography include various forms of travel—in which physical journeys double the yearning for community, as well as social (and geographical) mobility on a larger scale. I would say this a highly political text, given the backdrop of American miscegenation law, and there is much to explore here in terms of what the author is critiquing.

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