Places: The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1912

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Connecticut

*Connecticut. Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, TheNew 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 occupation that offered cultural as well as geographical mobility to several generations of young black men.


*Jacksonville. Northeastern Florida city in which the narrator works in a cigar factory–a trade in which no color-line is drawn. Johnson extends his analysis of minority cultures in America to the Cuban American community that the narrator encounters in Florida. There the narrator also begins giving music lessons to the children of the emergent African American bourgeois class, “the best class of colored people,” giving Johnson the opportunity to analyze their mores and the social and economic threat they pose to the middle-class whites who attempt to undermine their success.

*New York City

*New York City. City in which the narrator associates with black entertainers, athletes, and gamblers and experiences another completely different range of black culture. Johnson continues the narrator’s ascent up the social scale indirectly, not by showing large numbers of upper-class black characters–a virtual impossibility in a realistic novel of the time–but by depicting the upper-class white patrons–primarily women–who make up the primary audience for the black artists and musicians.


*Europe. Continent to which the narrator travels as the companion of a white American millionaire. In Europe he himself is accepted as white, and his experiences there allow Johnson to contrast the more liberal and enlightened racial views of Europeans with the generally narrower views of white Americans.

Ocean liner

Ocean liner. Ship on which the narrator returns home from Europe. Aboard the ship, he meets an educated and well-to-do black doctor, who introduces him to other highly cultivated black men. As elsewhere in the book, Johnson’s protagonist shows himself to be as bigoted as many white Americans in his acceptance of only those upper-class African Americans who are the most thoroughly acculturated to white standards of behavior. His experiences among white Americans have caused him to become white himself in many ways, particularly in accepting and internalizing white stereotypes about race.

*Deep South

*Deep South. After returning to America from Europe, the narrator tours the Deep South to study African American spirituals and ragtime music with a view toward commercializing them for a large white audience. The traumatic experience of witnessing a lynch mob burn a black man alive prompts him to return to New York City to spend the rest of his life “passing” as a white man.

BibliographyAlin, 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 Americans and toward an identity with white Americans that subverts his self-worth.Canady, Nicholas. “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and the Tradition of Black Autobiography.” Obsidian 6 (Spring/Summer, 1980): 76-80. Examination of Johnson’s novel in the context of the autobiographical form. Focuses upon the ways in which Johnson’s handling of that form is unique to African American fiction of the period.Davis, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1900-1960. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1981. Contains a chapter devoted to a general discussion of Johnson’s works. Pays some attention to character and theme in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, which the author sees as a departure from the norm in African American fiction.Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Introduction to The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, by James Weldon Johnson. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. Excellent discussion of Johnson’s life and work. Centers on the elements of structure and theme that make The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man a signal accomplishment in African American fiction.O’Sullivan, Maurice J. “Of Souls and Pottage: James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” CLA Journal 23 (September, 1979): 60-70. Examines Johnson’s protagonist from a standpoint different from that of most critics. Contends that the book’s narrator is “richly complex,” not merely weak and vacillating, and that it is in the character’s ambivalence that this complexity is centered.Pisiak, Roxanna. “Irony and Subversion in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” Studies in American Fiction 21 (Spring, 1993): 83-96. This bibliographic essay cites numerous articles whose criticisms have focused on irony, one of the most interesting approaches to take to the novel.Price, Kenneth M., and Lawrence J. Oliver, eds. Critical Essays on James Weldon Johnson. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997. Collection of writings on Johnson, from contemporary reactions to late twentieth century reassessments.Rosenblatt, Roger. “The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” In Black Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. Argues that Johnson’s protagonist is yet another example of the “vanishing hero” in black fiction. Suggests that in trying to beat the system by accommodating to it, Johnson’s narrator disappears into that system, losing all sense of himself in the process.Ross, Joseph T. “Audience and Irony in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” CLA Journal 118 (December, 1974): 198-210. Asserts that the ambivalence of Johnson’s protagonist is not so much a natural weakness of character but rather a studied attempt by the author to dramatize the effects of betrayal by a white upper-class value system from which the protagonist cannot escape.Stepto, Robert. “Lost in a Guest: James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” In From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979. A thorough examination of Johnson’s novel within the context of other literary forms of the period, specifically the autobiography and the slave narrative. Concludes that although Johnson utilized many of the techniques of these forms, he produced something new and different.
Categories: Places