The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

by James Weldon Johnson

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631

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 that the narrator’s decision to function as a white businessman necessarily means that he is a moral coward. The narrator is criticized because he looks to material comfort for self-aggrandizement rather than to Christianity for spiritual growth in suffering. However, as a self-described agnostic, the narrator does not have any use for a religion that restricts people to emotionalism and numbs their impulse to strike back at avowed enemies. His willingness to suffer the millionaire’s apparent ennui and homosexual overtures suggests an inability to demand respect when his physical comfort might be jeopardized.

Johnson explores the ambivalence that troubles mulattoes who have some of the “best” and some of the “worst” blood in the South coursing through their veins. More than once, the narrator decides to live as a black man and be an exemplar of his race, but he finds he cannot do it. He has not grown up with a reason to fight against social or economic injustices. He has had to develop an awareness of his ethnic relationship with black people and invent ways to give expression to his ethnicity. His intellectual attachment to biblical and historical figures provides a release for the psychological struggle that mirrors the plight of many light-skinned blacks, but he is physically detached from the majority of blacks.

Shamefully naïve about black folk culture, the narrator is repulsed by unkempt and loud lower-class blacks. For a short time, he appreciates the beauty of African American culture as lower-class blacks express it. His appreciation for black folk music wanes, though, as he becomes aware that black music outside black society is not accepted as authentic art. The popular attitude of the time is that black people are fundamentally incapable of creating anything that can be considered artistic. The narrator adopts this view as his own.

Johnson’s use of anonymity to reveal the novel’s complexities accentuates the narrator’s sense of isolation from himself and from others, whether black or white. Having the narrator pass through rural, urban, and international environments suggests that a cosmopolitan experience can stimulate the development of art forms. However, the reaction to skin color, itself a rather ill-defined measure of personal identity, prevents the growth of artistic expression and an awareness of self.

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