Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

When The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was published in 1912, it received little critical attention. It was first published anonymously, but it was reissued under Johnson’s name in 1927, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. In an introduction to the 1927 edition, Carl Van Vechten, a white critic who often wrote on African American themes, praised the novel as “a composite autobiography of the Negro race in the United States in modern times.” The book purported to be the actual life story of an African American living as a white. The work, however, is not the actual autobiography of James Weldon Johnson, although the narrator’s life parallels his own in several respects, especially in his love for literature and music and his fondness for New York and Paris. Johnson had spent much time in New York, visiting the city as a youth and working as a young man; he had also traveled to Europe as a part of a musical group. To allay any lingering suspicions that the The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man might, in fact, be his life story, Johnson later wrote an actual autobiography, Along This Way (1934).

In The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Johnson utilizes some of the techniques of the slave narrative, the predecessor of the African American novel and a popular form of nineteenth century literature. Johnson’s use of the first-person narrator, a stock element of the slave narrative, is an innovation in...

(The entire section is 498 words.)