Ryan Lawson's Reviews > The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson
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's review
Jan 21, 2009

it was ok
Read in January, 2009

James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man
Wk.40; Bk.40

Something tells me that if I were to tell the author of this book that I didn't like it, his response would be that I didn't like it because I'm not black. In the words of the narrator, which I believe is merely Johnson himself [paraphrased:]:

An African-American knows what it's like to be white, but a white person could never know what it's like to be black.

An entirely subjective suggestion of which the author/narrator never gives strong support.

First and foremost, this is not an actual autobiography; however, that means very little. It doesn't have to be an autobiography for an author's voice to bleed through a narrative. But, I will not say that Johnson is a racist because I have not read any of his other works (and, after this one, I think I might find it hard to bear any others). I will say that this isn't a good book. In fact, it's not a book with a story so much as it is a book full of assumption. It's a nasty, little judgmental novel that doesn't deserve half of the praise it receives.

Second off, this isn't a believable text whatsoever. The book begins with a "la-di-da" boy and his single mother who move from Georgia to New York fairly shortly after the American Civil War. It is in New York that the main character learns that he is black... And, this isn't some heartbreaking discovery through the eyes of growing youth that skin color exists and he learns of color barriers. No, the "protagonist" from the beginning of the book assumes that he's white so there's no way he's not aware of race. There is no possible way that a child, no matter how fair skinned, in pre-civil rights era America (or afterward for that matter) would not be aware of their ethnic background.

The main character discovers that he's "black" during a classroom exercise. When he makes this discovery, he runs home to mother and asks if what he has found out is true. She, of course, says yes. To top it off, he then asks her if she is black (she is)!

This is a major problem with Johnson as a writer. I'm a firm believer that anything can happen in a novel so long as the author does a great job of presenting the information. Johnson is a splendid failure in this department. It's not believable at all. A black, albeit very fair skinned, child coming from the deep south of GEORGIA right after the civil war is going to know whether or not his mother as well as himself is black or has an ethnic background.

The entire book is nothing more than the narrator segregating himself from every facet of society. All white people are specimens, all black people are specimens, all poor people are specimens, all rich people are specimens, and he is somehow above it all. This is a wholly conceited text. I wanted every secondary character in the book to kick the crap out of the narrator because he thought so much of himself. I never once felt an inkling of sympathy for him.

The book is also lacking in character development. Johnson introduces potentially interesting people, but they never get fleshed out. Instead, they serve as cardboard cutouts that only work to accentuate the narrator's dullness.

This doesn't deserve to be in the American Literature canon; and it most certainly shouldn't fall into the African-American Literature canon. Once again this is the kind of garbage that masks truly great Afro-American novels such as Richard Wright's Native Son.

The single redeeming facet of this novel is it's portrayal of the American Ragtime scene. The New York Ragtime setting is without a doubt the strongest character of the book; but, of course, Johnson kills it quickly in order to give more attention to the narcissist, I mean, narrator.

Next up:

Les Stroud's Survive! Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere--Alive
Wk.41; Bk.41
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message 1: by Geek (new)

Geek Lee The main character discovers that he's "black" during a classroom exercise. When he makes this discovery, he runs home to mother and asks if what he has found out is true. She, of course, says yes. To top it off, he then asks her if she is black (she is)!

this may come as a shocker to you but children do not automatically know what racial classifications are. they aren't born knowing them, they have to be taught "you are white." "you are black." and if you ask young children (4 - 7) this question they will most likely not know unless they've already heard people talking. and even then they may not know. my son asked us if we spoke spanish because he knew we spoke another langauge at home and all he ever heard mentioned was the word spanish. we, in fact, speak dutch. and now that i've explained that to him, he knows.

i am interested in reading this book so i'm reading the reviews to see if it's worth my time. a review like this definitely makes me want to see what all the fuss is about.

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