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The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Pages
May 29th, 2022
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by James Weldon Johnson

REVIEW BY MEREDITH MCKINNIE

“In the life of everyone there is a limited number of experiences which are not written upon the memory, but stamped there with a die; and in the long years after, they can be called up in detail, and every emotion that was stirred by them can be lived through anew; these are the tragedies of life.”

Published in 1912, Johnson’s autobiography is one initially released in anonymity. Fearful of the social and legal implications of disclosing the truth of his life, Johnson wrote the confessional without claiming it. Having passed as a white man in post-reconstruction America, Weldon’s account shows the internal turmoil of a man who felt pulled in two directions – both to defend his own race and to live a life of privilege afforded him by his white-enough skin. Johnson’s account of his life as a man of color is backdropped by an America reeling from the horrors of its original sin. 

One of the opening scenes of the book begins with Weldon learning he is colored, when a Northern school teacher separates the children by race. Alarmed, Weldon admits being disappointed by the realization, running to his light-skinned mother for confirmation. Fostering a musical talent at such a young age, the piano prodigy decides to use his skills to give back to his people, to combine the lyricism of black music with the refined sounds of the European classics he learns abroad. Tragedy and reality challenge his efforts abroad and back home in the South. What follows is a man’s desperate search for selfhood and freedom in his home country founded on those very principles. 

Johnson writes his narrative in a compelling, soothing style, as if the reader is curled up on the couch hearing the story from the author’s own mouth. Though a century removed from the historical events, the resonance and spirit of America leaps from its pages, grasping for recognition and confirmation. Weldon’s internal revelations of the social upheaval following the Civil War, of an America adjusting to a new reality, is layered with nuance – never totally vilifying the Southern aristocrat or absolving the Northern abolitionist. The exploration of dynamics at play in a country trying desperately to unify once more is reminiscent of today’s social turmoil, where everyone can find enough truth in his own version to cling desperately to one side of an argument. 

I read old novels to understand today’s problems. What’s the saying, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” African American authors, generations removed, provide a version of events from the people who lived it first-hand. Engaging these stories allows the historically suppressed voices a chance to speak. 

“It is the spirit of the South to defend everything belonging to it. The North is too cosmopolitan and tolerant for such a spirit.”