An Autobiography, 100 Years Later

The most recent addition to our book shelf is James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Published anonymously in 1912 due to Johnson’s concerns about protecting his diplomatic career, the book had a poor initial readership. It wasn’t until it was republished in 1927 that it enjoyed the success of many Harlem Renaissance writers. Although events from the lives of Johnson and his friends are reflected in the book, it is not a true autobiography but rather a novel based in historical reality.
Very briefly, this story is about a young boy with a relatively privileged childhood in the North who is thrust at a young age into orphanhood when his mother dies. He meets many obstacles as he attempts to start school in the South, and finally begins to create a life for himself playing ragtime in New York. A benefactor then enters the scene, taking him on tour in Europe and allowing him to develop his skills in opulence. After returning to the States with a desire to continue studying and writing music, the man witnesses a lynching, and makes the decision to “pass” in order to better his own position in life.
From the first page of the book, Johnson makes it clear that race is going to be the focal point of the story, and he is unapologetic throughout the book in his honest accounts of the main character’s life. We never learn the name of the Ex-Colored Man, which may have helped many white readers of the book break through the stereotype that all non-white people – be they black, Indian, Asian – were of a single and decidedly lower class. In addition, it is noted in the preface that
These pages also reveal the unsuspected fact that prejudice against the Negro is exerting a pressure, which, in New York and other large cities where the opportunity is open, is actually and constantly forcing an unascertainable number of fair-complexioned colored people over into the white race.
While making some broad generalizations about white people, Cubans, Jewish men, and the entire populations of France and England, the Ex-Colored Man also shows that many white people in his own life were “sympathetic” and supportive of his early education and his later musical career. He also shows his own prejudices in remarking on the “Chinaman’s” pigtail and the relationship between an older, rich, white woman and a younger, black man he sees in a nightclub. The Ex-Colored Man has not come to terms with his decisions by the end of the book, and I don’t think that the reader is meant to be left in a settled place. Written over 100 years ago, this book resonates yet today with its issues of race, class, education, “street” versus “cultured” life, and who defines what success in life really is.

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