The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

by James Weldon Johnson

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

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 African American fiction. By purporting to record the actual thoughts and feelings of the narrator, the work achieves a greater psychological depth and complexity of character than any African American novel to the time. Though the novel gains in intensity and immediacy from the first-person narration, at the same time it loses something in its artistic style. For, just as in the slave narratives, there are in this work long, sometimes tedious digressions that interrupt the flow of the narrative. These digressions, however, contribute to one of the purposes of the novel—that of educating whites about the varied aspects of the African American experience.

While in structure The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is indebted to the slave narrative, in theme it utilizes the “tragic mulatto” theme popularized in such nineteenth century works of fiction as William Wells Brown’s Clotel: Or, The President’s Daughter, a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853). The tragic mulatto theme explores the problems of the near-white African American caught between the white and black worlds and rejected by both. In the hands of James Weldon Johnson, however, this theme is focused and refined.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, then, bridges the gap between nineteenth and twentieth century black fiction; in fact, the book can be said to mark the beginning of modern African American fiction. In the novel, Johnson explores a wider range of sensibilities of a black character—hopes and dreams, frustrations, ambitions, and ideologies—than had theretofore been attempted by an African American writer.

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Critical Evaluation