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The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man [Paperback]

James Weldon Johnson
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Dec 17 1989 0679727531 978-0679727538 Vintage Books ed
First published anonymously in 1912, this resolutely unsentimental novel gave many white readers their first glimpse of the double standard -- and double consciousness -- that ruled the lives of black people in modern America. Republished in 1927, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, with an introduction by Carl Van Vechten, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man became a groundbreaking document of Afro-American culture; the first first-person novel ever written by a black, it became an eloquent model for later novelists ranging from Zora Neale Hurston to Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.

Narrated by a man whose light skin enables him to "pass" for white, the novel describes a journey through the strata of black society at the turn of the century -- from a cigar factory in Jacksonville to an elite gambling club in New York, from genteel aristocrats to the musicians who hammered out the rhythms of ragtime. The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is a complex and moving examination of the question of race and an unsparing look at what it meant to forge an identity as a man in a culture that recognized nothing but color.

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From Amazon

With the possible exceptions of Dr. Alain Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois, no African American excelled on as many different levels as James Weldon Johnson. Along This Way--the first autobiography by a person of color to be reviewed in The New York Times--not only chronicles his life as an educator, lawyer, diplomat, newspaper editor, lyricist, poet, essayist, and political activist but also outlines the trials and triumphs of African Americans from post-Reconstruction to the rise and fall of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Florida in 1871 to middle-class West Indian parents, Johnson recognized the challenges and absurdities of segregated America early on. But it was his experience as a tutor to rural blacks while a student at Atlanta University that was to alter the course of his life: "It was this period that marked the beginning of psychological change from boyhood to manhood," he writes. "It was this period that marked also the beginning of my knowledge of my own people as a race."

With a rare blend of pride and humility, Johnson recounts how he, among other accomplishments, became Florida's first black lawyer in 1898, a diplomat in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and lyricist for his brother Rosamond Johnson's famous song, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Johnson's commentary on his epochal novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, as well as writings on his works of poetry--The Creation, God's Trombones, and Fifty Years and Other Poems--is priceless. Equally important are the logical and even-tempered opinions on race that he wrote for The New York Age, which offered comprehensive critiques of Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Marcus Garvey, along with his analysis of the racial climate while serving as head of the NAACP. This remarkable man left a mark on the 20th century that goes beyond the boundary of race. --Eugene Holley Jr. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

From Library Journal

Johnson's theme of moral cowardice sets his tragic story of a mulatto in the United States above other sentimental narratives. The unnamed narrator, the offspring of a black mother and white father, tells of his coming-of-age at the beginning of the 20th century. Light-skinned enough to pass for white but emotionally tied to his mother's heritage, he ends up a failure in his own eyes after he chooses to follow the easier path while witnessing a white mob set fire to a black man. Reader Allen Gilmore contributes a fine reading. Recommended, with hopes for an unabridged edition in the future.?Sandy Glover, West Linn P.L., Ore.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audio Cassette edition.

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First Sentence
I KNOW THAT IN WRITING THE FOLLOWING PAGES I AM divulging the great secret of my life, the secret which for some years I have guarded far more carefully than any of my earthly possessions; and it is a curious study to me to analyse the motives which prompt me to do it. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sorely needed perspective July 16 2000
In most literature dealing with race relations, we get either the black perspective or the white perspective. This book is a refreshing reminder that there are shades of gray as well. Johnson's prose is very fluid and, unlike some other reviewrs, I found the story line engaging. Finally, a remark about the last line--whether or not one agrees with Johnson's assessment, it is certainly the type of statement that stays with the reader long after the book has been put down.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A True Classic!!! Nov. 30 2002
I purchased this book several years back, as part of the research for my second book. I cannot recommend any book more highly. Anyone interested at all in African American life from the 1880s to the 1930s (particularly as it was lived in New York City from about 1899 to the Harlem Renaissance) should buy it. There is not a more fascinating autobiography in print anywhere! And the life of this man! He was the founder of the first high school for African Americans in the state of Florida, located in Jacksonville (the high school my own mother would attend); the first African American to pass the bar exam in the state of Florida; part of the first successful African American Broadway composing team (after he left Jacksonville and moved to New York City); composer of the lyrics to, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the song long considered the African American national anthem (his brother Rosamond composed the music); a consulate in Nicaragua and Venezuela; the first executive secretary of the NAACP, in which capacity he pioneered anti-lynching legislation (though he was unsuccessful in seeing it pass, the effort is described in the book, and is a fascinating lesson in the machinations of Congressional politics in the 1920s); author of groundbreaking fiction such as, "The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man"; author of the nonfiction classic, "Black Manhattan." The list goes on... His accomplishments, his dignity and intelligence were stunning, simply awe inspiring. And it is a real shame, an indication of how troubled our culture is, that Hollywood has never made a movie about his life, and he is barely mentioned as a key figure who shaped American culture (notice I didn't say African American culture, I said AMERICAN CULTURE). To everyone reading this review, BUY THIS BOOK. Read more ›
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4.0 out of 5 stars Harsh reminder of America's rascist "past" Sept. 26 2000
This is a tragic book in a lot of ways. It is a reminder that America has not fullfilled her promise to all of her children. It would be great to read a book like this as an object lesson in the bigotry of the past. We have made some progress but there is still much to be done. James Weldon Johnson produced a wrenching tale. That it is somewhat autobiographical adds to the ambivalent narration. First the narrator feels shame in his heritage but then grows to accept himself and feel pride in who he is. This tells a tale that America is often loathe to hear but it is important nonetheless. The aspect of a mulatto man passing for white is sad. One should be allowed to feel pride in multiethnicity. This is a horrible stain on our culture that so many people had to live in denial of who they really were. This book is a valuable document of America's dark side. I would hope that it experiences a much deserved revival now that evidence of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemmings has reopened the discussion on this sad piece of our history. Read this book and weep but most of all read this book and learn.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Unknown classic Sept. 19 2000
Perhaps best known for writing the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing , James Weldon Johnson wrote one of the first novels to probe the ambiguities of race, the novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. As a boy, the fictional title character is sent North with his Mother to be raised in Connecticut. He does extremely well in school and is even something of a musical prodigy.
But, he is stunned when one day in school a teacher asks the white students to stand, and scolds him when he joins them. He confronts his fair skinned mother and she reveals that she is indeed black and his father is a white Southern gentleman. His father later comes to visit, and even buys him a piano, but the child is unable to approach and deal with him.
As a young man, the death of his mother & sale of their house leaves him with a small stake & he determines to attend college. Though qualified, he rules out Harvard for financial reasons & heads back down South to attend Atlanta University. However, his stake is stolen from his boarding house room before he can register & he ends up with a job in a cigar factory.
When the factory closes, he heads North again, this time to New York City and discovers Ragtime music and shooting craps, excelling at the one & nearing ruin in the other. A white gentleman who has heard him play enters into an exclusive agreement to have him play at parties & subsequently takes him along on a tour of Europe.
Inevitably, he is drawn back to America and to music. He tours the South collecting musical knowledge so that he will be able to compose a uniquely American and Black music. But his idyll is shattered when he sees a white lynch mob burn a black man.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderfully woven plot that holds your interest
I absolutely loved reading this book, and would eagerly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn of Johnson's America through the eyes of a man caught between two worlds. Read more
Published on March 11 2004 by Ogyabooks
4.0 out of 5 stars The Auto-Biography of an Ex-Coloured Man
James Weldon Johnson was a man of many firsts. For me, this book was also a first. It was the first time that I had ever sat down with a book and not wanted to get up. Read more
Published on Jan. 30 2002 by Sloth Moore
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic!
James Weldon creates a story line of unimaginable magnitude! This complex book makes the reader almost sympathetic for a character who may not deserve it!
Published on Oct. 1 2001 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Spellbinding and relevant
For a book which was first published in 1912, this is an amazingly relevant work for today. Johnson's novel (hidden in the form of an autobiography) graphically looks at relations... Read more
Published on July 18 2001
1.0 out of 5 stars The autobiography of a real loser
This book made me want to run to the bathroom with my hands covering my mouth. The plot is absurd, and epitomizes mediocre literature. Read more
Published on May 15 2000 by Bandit 1981
4.0 out of 5 stars surprised at these reviews
I thought this book was great. The writing was good and the story was good, and what else can I say? It gives you insight into life. He's a good storyteller.
Published on April 19 2000
4.0 out of 5 stars The Search for American Identity
Johnson's novel travels through various African-American societies (New England, Jacksonville, New York City, the Black Belt) in a story of a mulatto caught between two opposing... Read more
Published on Feb. 24 2000 by D.J. Smith
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent study of the meaning of race
This work is a truly great study of racial identity, showing that the lines of race are drawn more by culture than biology. Highly recommended reading! Read more
Published on Oct. 27 1999
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting tale of life in the 1900's
An autobiographical tale of a very smart man, ( who is part black / park white ) raised in the north who discovers the south in his late teen years. Read more
Published on July 12 1999
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