The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Other Writings (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Other Writings (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

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The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Other Writings, by James Weldon Johnson, is part of the Barnes & Noble Classics series, which offers quality editions at affordable prices to the student and the general reader, including new scholarship, thoughtful design, and pages of carefully crafted extras. Here are some of the remarkable features of Barnes & Noble Classics:
  • New introductions commissioned from today's top writers and scholars
  • Biographies of the authors
  • Chronologies of contemporary historical, biographical, and cultural events
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  • Comments by other famous authors
  • Study questions to challenge the reader's viewpoints and expectations
  • Bibliographies for further reading
  • Indices & Glossaries, when appropriate
All editions are beautifully designed and are printed to superior specifications; some include illustrations of historical interest. Barnes & Noble Classics pulls together a constellation of influences—biographical, historical, and literary—to enrich each reader's understanding of these enduring works.

In his long career James Weldon Johnson established himself as a poet, composer, lawyer, diplomat, educator, and journalist. Yet he wrote only one novel: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Published anonymously in 1912, it received scant notice until its reissue in 1927 at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. A landmark in African-American writing, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was the first black novel written in the first person, and a trailblazer for writers exploring racial ambiguity. It served as an eloquent model for later writers ranging from Zora Neale Hurston to Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.

A coming-of-age story about a man whose light skin enables him to “pass” for white, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man describes a remarkable journey through the strata of black and white society at the turn of the twentieth century. From a cigar factory in Jacksonville to an elite gambling club in New York, from hobnobbing with European aristocrats to jamming with ragtime musicians, the unnamed narrator struggles to forge an identity in a culture that recognizes nothing but color. At the end, he discovers that the decision to pass brings its practitioners little more than a ruinous self-denial.

This edition also includes a selection of Johnson’s poetry and newspaper writings.


Noelle Morrissette is Lecturer of African-American Studies and English Literature at Yale University, where she received her Ph.D. in 2002.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781593082895
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 04/01/2007
Series: Barnes & Noble Classics Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 71,226
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.52(d)

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From Noelle Morrissette’s Introduction to The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Other Writings

Poet, novelist, lyricist, historian, editorialist, educator, activist, and diplomat James Weldon Johnson was born in 1871 to James Johnson, an American freeman, and Helen Louise Dillett, of Nassau, the Bahamas. Johnson, who spent the bulk of his first thirty years in Jacksonville, Florida, became familiar to Americans both as a lyricist and poet and as an activist in national politics. His first work of prose fiction, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), has had a lasting appeal to audiences since its reissue in 1927, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance.

Educated in Jacksonville and later in Georgia at Atlanta University, Johnson described his permanent move to New York City at the turn into the twentieth century as part of the great black migration. For almost thirty years, Johnson did not write or speak about the defining event that propelled him to leave Jacksonville, where he had made a career for himself as principal of the all-black Stanton School. He had raised the quality and level of education offered to its students, helping to provide a resource—secondary-level education—that had been unavailable. (Johnson had had to leave the state to obtain secondary-level education, at Atlanta University.) As he related years later in his autobiography, Along This Way (1933), one event propelled Johnson northward: In 1901, as Jacksonville was placed under martial law after a great fire had swept through the city, he was nearly lynched by a mob of militiamen. Johnson, a noted local official representing the concerns of Jacksonville’s black population, had arranged to meet a journalist from an out-of-town newspaper seeking details of the impact of the fire and subsequent martial law on conditions for local blacks. Initially meeting in a public place, Johnson and the fair-skinned woman reporter walked to the park to conduct their interview, where he was pursued by a group of militiamen who mistakenly thought the reporter was white. While he had accomplished a great deal as principal of Stanton School, and had previously viewed Jacksonville, as a southern town, as atypically hospitable to blacks, this experience demonstrated to Johnson that he could not advance in the South.

Johnson abandoned his position as principal to collaborate as a lyricist with his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and Bob Cole on musical comedy and off-Broadway productions in New York City. He had been writing lyrics with Rosamond and spending his summers in New York City since 1899; with this step, he made New York his permanent home. The move was the first of several pivotal career shifts for Johnson. He would later take up an appointment as American consul to Venezuela and then Nicaragua. Resigning from diplomatic service, he moved to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he eventually became executive secretary. As he observed in his autobiography, accompanying each of these career changes was a fresh perspective on what he considered his main vocation: writing. From lyric writing, Johnson would shift his focus to poetry and prose (both fiction and nonfiction) that advanced positive images of black Americans.

As a lyricist, Johnson was a participant in and active shaper of the wave of black art in New York City that preceded the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Located in the Tenderloin District (roughly the area of mid-Manhattan bounded on the north and south by Forty-second Street and Twentieth-third Street and on the east and west by Fifth Avenue and Seventh Avenue), Black Bohemia, as it was called, served as the center of black musical and theatrical talent from the turn into the twentieth century well into 1915. Johnson observed that there were clubs of all sorts in Black Bohemia, those catering to boxers and jockeys, and to performers; and those that resembled “the modern night club,” catering to all and tolerating white sightseeing patrons and theatrical performers. Among these clubs, one stood out as the most “professional” and the most popular: Ike Hine’s. According to Johnson, the main-floor parlor, outfitted luxuriously, contained photographs and lithographs of accomplished, well-known blacks—in fact, the walls were entirely covered. There was space for entertainers and for dancing in the back parlor. Johnson used Ike Hine’s club as the basis for the “Club” in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. In Johnson’s “Club,” the minstrel “never essayed anything below a reading from Shakespeare,” and the audience of black fellow performers—as well as the “audience” of photographs of “every colored man in America who had ever ‘done anything’”—encouraged a kind of art that was not yet permitted outside of its walls. Yet “no manager could imagine that audiences would pay to see Negro performers in any other role than that of Mississippi River roustabouts” because of the limiting taste for stereotype among mainstream American audiences.

The Marshall Hotel, which served as Johnson, his brother, and Cole’s headquarters, became the next artistic center for aspiring black artists. It drew them uptown from Black Bohemia, an event that in Johnson’s opinion marked the beginning of a new generation of black art. The Marshall, run by black proprietor Jimmie Marshall, was located on West 53rd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. It served good food and had an excellent four-piece orchestra, and according to Johnson, brought about a palpable change: The black clientele transformed itself to match the standard of The Marshall’s surroundings, elevating its self-concept. The visual aspect—of well-dressed black men and women socializing, listening to music, drinking coffee—was not just inspiring, it was “unprecedented,” as Johnson recalled in his autobiography Along This Way. Johnson and his brother rented rooms there that served as a social hub for some of the most notable performers, composers, and poets of the day: Harry T. Burleigh, Will Marion Cook, Theodore Drury, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Bob Cole, who lived just a few doors away from the hotel. In their conversations, they often considered their roles as artists in changing the world of music and theater and thereby advancing the status and regard of black people as a whole. Their positions were unique and diverse (and there were clashes), yet the diversity of opinion demonstrated a vital intellectual culture. According to Johnson, the group agreed on the importance of convincing managers that a black company could play a first-class theater—in other words, on Broadway. This exceptional group of young men—individuals who had burgeoning talent, ambition, and optimistic plans to alter, through art, the mainstream white perceptions of blacks as a people—was faced with regulations limiting the dissemination of black art and with the social reality of widespread racism and violence against black people that characterized early-twentieth-century life in America.

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Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Other Writings (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
dixieoh More than 1 year ago
it was interesting to read about a man whose father was white and mother was black and how he ultimately came to terms with it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I got this book from the library it was so good, I bought it!
HistReader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If I may indulge in an aside right-off-the-bat, I read the Barnes & Noble Classics version. Having purchased a good number of these books in the Classics series, so appreciative of the thrifty price, I will likely attain more in the future. Yet what I have come to disregard are the supplemental pieces; I have come to prefer reading the classic literary offering without being colored by the views of a scholar who pens the introduction. If so inclined, I will read their views and history afterwards. With that said (however unrelated to the actual narrative my gripe is), I thoroughly enjoyed the story! James Weldon Johnson¿s style of writing continues in a tradition which has become a pleasure for me not easily passed up. Simple, yet thoughtful and eloquent, Mr. Johnson wrote a fictional autobiography that hints at being too real to be unbelievable. The saying is that truth is stranger than fiction, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man makes me wonder just how much of it is actually fiction! By virtue of anonymity, Mr. Johnson seemed free to provide commentary on the social dynamics still roiling mere three or four decades after the Civil War. He uniquely rolls social, religious, racial, economic philosophies into a story, fable-like, to voice both sides of any given social ailment; he does so from a seemingly personal, impeachable appointment.Somehow, he pegs human nature with an accuracy that stands the test of time. Pitting characters against one another, his nameless protagonist encounters, Mr. Johnson is provided a vehicle to debate two sides of a problem; he is free to avoid having to explicitly profess his own opinion but circuitously advances his belief without intention. For instance he uses the storyline of European travel to illustrate differences in human nature. The author compares the French to the British to the German. This exercise provides a useful method to remove characterization of Americans which would easily put anyone on the offensive; by exemplifying outsiders, the personalization if cast to the side for an impersonal evaluation. Later in the book he places his main character in a Pullman car to witness a heated debate between a Northern professor and a Texan cotton farmer; having set up the notion of human variances and inflexibility our opinions are the more correct, James Johnson is able to explain both men have some valid points but while they don¿t disagree with the other, they are in no way capable of thinking themselves incorrect. While residing in Europe, Johnson¿s character is subject to a monologue by his benefactor he refers to as his ¿millionaire¿ after voicing his desire to return to the southern United States to lift Blacks from their predicament. It boils down to a watered down admonishment that people will be people; there will be racists, there will be layabouts who are perceived as representatives of a group to which they belong, there will be those called to help but in actuality, what can¿t be done is change human nature. We may be able to help individuals from certain situations, but we will never change deep seated emotions cast by one group upon individuals.The character meets a man on the boat ride back to America. This fellow traveler is crafted in the image of a Frederick Douglass or Booker T. Washington. From slavery, to well educated, to being a proprietor of his own medical practice, this man adds to the previous sentiment. Discussing a white patron asking to be moved farther from this black doctor he retorts: ¿I don¿t object to anyone having prejudices so as long as those prejudices don¿t interfere with my personal liberty. ¿ but when his prejudice attempts to move me one foot, one inch, out of the place where I am comfortably located, then I object.¿ Not quite the militant pose so many have taken over the centuries, but it shows an understanding of humanity and problems for which there are no other solutions. If this was homage to Douglass and Wa
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This fine edition will become the new standard in Johnson scholarship. Excellent supplementary materials, engaging footnotes, and an outstanding price all work together to bring this important American novel to light.