Johnson originally published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man anonymously in 1912 by the small New York publisher Sherman, French, and Company. He decided to publish it anonymously because he was uncertain how the potentially controversial book would affect his diplomatic career. He wrote openly about issues of race and discrimination that were not common then in literature. The book's initial public reception was poor. It was republished in 1927 by Alfred A. Knopf, an influential firm that published many Harlem Renaissance writers, and Johnson was credited as the author. Despite the title, the book is a novel. It is drawn from the lives of people Johnson knew and from events in his own life. Johnson's text is an example of a roman à clef.
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