Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Connecticut. New England state to which the unnamed Georgia-born narrator moves as a small child. There he is reared by his mulatto mother with the financial support of his father, a prominent white southerner. Johnson had considered titling the novel The Chameleon, and he shows his protagonist, who is kept unaware of his racial ancestry, adapting his own protective cultural “coloring” as he adopts the mores of the white culture that match his skin color. He identifies with the white students at the integrated school he attends and joins them in tormenting the black students. When his own African American ancestry is unexpectedly revealed, he, too, is ridiculed and ostracized by his white classmates. However, by then he has already internalized their prejudices to a degree that will prove inescapable.


*Atlanta. Georgia city to which the narrator goes to attend college when his mother dies, shortly after he graduates from high school. In Atlanta he encounters lower-class black people in large numbers for the first time and is appalled and repelled by their dialect, manners, and appearance. Johnson’s viewpoint is different from that of his unreliable narrator; his purpose is to demonstrate the dwarfing and distorting influence of racial discrimination on his protagonist and, by implication, on all Americans. Johnson also takes advantage of the narrative opportunity of his narrator’s train ride to Atlanta to document the work of Pullman railroad car porters—an...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Slave Narratives

During the middle of the nineteenth century, a number of biographies and memoirs written by slaves...

(The entire section is 1069 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View

As would be expected from a book that calls itself an autobiography, The Autobiography of an...

(The entire section is 938 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1910s: Only two books by African Americans—both autobiographies—have a wide readership among both white and black audiences.


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Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research recent organizations and activities of people whose parents are of different races. How do multi-racial or “mixed race” people...

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Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was adapted in 1996 as a sound recording on two audiocassettes, read by Allen Gilmore and...

(The entire section is 35 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Johnson’s most famous and most successful book is God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927). The poems in this volume,...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Bone, Robert A., The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, 1958, pp. 45–49.


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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Alin, Lena. The “New Negro” in the Old World: Culture and Performance in James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, and Nella Larsen. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2006. Reads The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man as a crucial Harlem Renaissance text and compares its representation of American and European culture to those of two other African American authors.

Bell, Bernard W. “James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938).” The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. The psychological impact of color and class has turned the mulatto narrator from the majority of black...

(The entire section is 592 words.)