The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Reception and later criticism

Knowing, as we do today, the multiple obstacles successfully surmounted by the black community it is hard to accept the premise that it is "most natural" to marry a lighter skinned person in order to advance one's position in society. At the same time it is hard to fault the desire to live a relatively happy, and by far safer, life as a "white man."

—David Burn (Poet, Critic, and Storyteller), "Economic necessity and Racial Identity in The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man"

This scene is interesting not so much for the way the stereotypical attitudes of the Northerner and Southerner are depicted, but rather for what it fails to disclose and for the way the Jew and the narrator himself are positioned as the scene unfolds. What the narrator does not reveal is that the smoking-compartment is, undoubtedly, for whites only. This is, after all, a portrayal of the Deep South at the turn of the twentieth century. The narrator is clearly "passing." As a "black" man, he would be denied access to such a space, a (purportedly) all-white and all-male hegemonic site. It is only by virtue of his "light skin" and the assumption of whiteness that he is privy to the discussion at all.

—Catherine Rottenberg, "Race and ethnicity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and The Rise of David Levinsky: the performative difference"

The impetus fueling Johnson's narrative experiment seems clearer if one summons to view the African-American male writerly tradition. In his own autobiography, 'Along This Way (1933),' Johnson maintains that he expected that the title, 'The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,' would immediately reveal the work's ironic inflections and implicit relationship to prevailing discourses on black male subjectivity. He writes: "When I chose the title, it was without the slightest doubt that its meaning would be perfectly clear to anyone." (238). Although Johnson's ironic title borders on satire, the discursive subversion marked by satire is meaningless without a clear contextualization of the black male literary enterprise upon which satire would, as it were, "signify."

—Heather Russell Andrade, "Revising critical judgments of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man"

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