The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

by James Weldon Johnson

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

When first released in 1912, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was published by a small firm, and the market for books by and about African Americans was small; it did not sell well or attract much critical attention. Reviewers debated whether the book was fact or fiction and how realistic its story was. In 1913, Brander Matthews included The Autobiography in an analysis of “Three Books Which Depict the Actualities of Present-Day Life” for Munsey’s Magazine. Writing for a white audience, Matthews recommended the book for all “who want to understand our fellow citizens of darker hue.” He wondered whether the anonymous story should be considered fiction or “an actual record of fact,” and concluded that it “contains what is higher than actual fact, the essential truth.” The Nashville American, a daily newspaper, accepted the book as fiction, “unhampered by respect of the verities and excited by hate,” and called its treatment of white women “outrageous.”

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man: Pullman Porter John Baptist Ford in uniform [graphic graphicname="TIF00183153" orient="portrait" size="A"]

Since the novel’s reissue in 1927, when Johnson claimed authorship and the work was accepted as fictional realism, it has never been out of print. The central critical question since then has been how one should approach the narrator: Is he a tragic figure, brought to an unhappy choice by an unjust world, or a weak one who makes poor choices because of his own character flaws? Robert A. Bone, in his 1958 study The Negro Novel in America, was one of the first to attribute the narrator’s ultimate choice to his own failings. Bone acknowledged that the narrator is “overpowered by life,” but refers to his “moral cowardice” and calls him “a symbol of man’s universal failure to fulfill his highest destiny.” Dickson D. Bruce Jr., on the other hand, finds in Black American Writing from the Nadir that the narrator’s attempts to find his identity among the African American communities he visits “are failures not because of his weakness or blindness but because they increase his sense of the separation of the races.”

Another issue for critics has been the unemotional and nondescriptive style of the narrator. Early critics, including Bone, tended to see this as a result of Johnson’s unsuccessful attempts to merge fiction with a political agenda. Howard Faulkner, writing in Black American Literature Forum in 1985, disagrees, arguing that the ex-coloured man’s “inability to feel deeply what is happening to him and to put those events in perspective” is not a failure of the author’s narrative skills, but a demonstration of what happens to a character who has been “destroyed from within.”

Criticism in the 1990s and beyond has focused on what the novel suggests about race itself, as suggested by the title of a 1996 Martin Japtok essay, “Between ‘Race’ as Construct and ‘Race’ as Essence: The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” Roxanna Pisiak, in Studies in American Fiction, explores Johnson’s themes of the ambiguity of the color line, and the ways in which language shapes our attitudes about race.

 

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