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Literature / The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

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Published anonymously in 1912, James Weldon Johnson's novel became an inspiration for later writers of the Harlem Renaissance. The book deals with the nature of duality — the narrator is a mulatto born in Georgia, who is able to pass as black or white as needed. After the narrator's mother dies, he leaves University in Atlanta and goes to live in Jacksonville. When the narrator loses his factory job, he moves to New York. He spends time at 'the Club', and he gambles and describes the thriving Jazz scene in New York. This is where he gains a patron ("my millionaire"), who takes him on a tour of Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam. He's inspired to return to the South and compose music based on the black aesthetic of ragtime. Returning to America, he takes a train from Boston to Washington, and finally, he arrives in Macon, Georgia.


When the narrator travels around, he describes the self-divisions among the African American communities. He also witnesses a lynching, describes the Jim Crow laws, but he also describes Negro spirituals and sermons. When the narrator witnesses a black man burned at the stake, he abandons his intentions to immerse himself in African American culture again and returns to the North to live as a white man. He puts aside his artistic ambitions, takes up business, and marries a white woman.


Provides examples of:

  • Culture Clash: The entire point of this novel is to contrast the differences in the cultures (and racism) in the North, South, and Europe
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Between the narrator and himself as he moves through life and definitely between later readers of the book, who could have a difficult time placing the story in context

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