The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson

This book has been sitting on my bookshelf since college but I didn’t remember reading it. Needing something short to read, I decided to see what it was about.

The autobiography of an Ex-Colored ManIn short, the book follows the narrative of a black man growing up and integrating in society. It delves into his personal views and observations about the people around him and how they treat him.

I have probably said this about a few of the books I have read, but I will say it again, this book may have been written in 1912 but is still prevalent today, especially given the racial tension in this country for years. Some of the points that the narrator makes in this book are arguments that are still being made today.

Right in the first chapter, you see the narrator realize he is different only after the teacher segregates him into the group with the “colored” kids. Previously, the narrator hadn’t thought about it, especially since he had a white father, but from this moment on, it changes his whole perspective and makes him look more closely.

“He is forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man or even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man.” … “I do not think my friends changed so much toward me as I did toward them.”

It  makes me think of “Americanah” where Chimamanda Agozi uses her characters to point out how they never put labels to who they were while in Nigeria. There was never “African” or “African American” until they came to America. “Americanah” was written in 2013 and it’s making the same points made in a book written in 1912. While “Americanah” is more of an immigration story, the parallels are so similar.

What I thought even more interesting was that Weldon brings up the whole argument about the usage of the “N” word. I thought it was interesting that his argument was being made back in the day when the word was of common vernacular. Here I thought it was a present day argument to keep the word in the vernacular.

“I noticed that among this class of colored men the word “nigger” was freely used in about the same sense as the word “fellow” and sometimes as a term of endearment but I soon learned that its use was positively and absolutely prohibited to white men.”

Today, there are some people that argue that if one class of people can’t say it then not should say it at all, while others argue that they can use it when it is used as a term of endearment. To think that we are still having these arguments is dumbfounding.

The plot follows the narrators journey as he struggles to define who he is and where he fits in society. He offers criticisms of his fellow man while at the same time pointing out their attributes. This book doesn’t pass judgement but is merely an analysis of a culture and is a book that should continued to be read today.


Have you read this book? What did you think? Let’s discuss!

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