Goodreads: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
Published: 1912, 1927
An unnamed narrator, born to a black woman and a white man, recounts the story of his life, from his first realization that, despite his fair skin, he is black, to his desire to play ragtime music to elevate his race, to his decision to claim neither black nor white ancestry–effectively allowing him to “pass” as white.
James Weldon Johnson’s novel, initially published anonymously, intentionally participates in the rich tradition of African American autobiography, granting it an air of authenticity as it describes various black cultures as its narrator travels throughout America. To claim a monolithic culture for black Americans is, Johnson suggests, deceptive–and so his narrator moves from his comfortable Connecticut suburb to a black college in Atlanta, from Atlanta to a cigar factor in Florida, to the nightclubs of New York and to the rural South. In each place, the narrator must confront the reality of the color line and grapple with the problem of how to carve out a place for himself, born of a black woman and a white man, in a society that only sees in terms of black and white.
The narrator’s journey remains relevant to today as America continues to grapple with problems of race. His experiences illuminate some of the difficulties facing Americans of color; he may experience and participate aspects of various cultures, but society is determined to box him in, to assign him a color designation so as to easily assess and dismiss him. The narrator dreams of being “a great black man” and to do this by sharing with the world what he sees as black America’s great and unique contribution to American culture–ragtime. And yet, in the end, he realizes that he will always belong to a race that America degrades and shames. In the end, that realization is too much for him to bear.
Johnson brings his story to life with nuance and care, making the experiences of his character so realistic that, apparently when it was first published, audiences, believing the autobiography real, speculated as to who the passing narrator might actually be. This realistic quality helps draw the readers in and to engage them, both in the experiences of the narrator, and in the problem of how society might change.