James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is one of the most significant works of fiction by an African American author and one of the preeminent works of the Harlem Renaissance (although it was published first in 1912 and reissued in 1927). As it was published anonymously, many readers assumed it was a true story. Autobiography has been a mainstay in courses on African American literature because of its layered description of racial tensions and the conflicting nature of identity in the early 20th century.
Johnson was an avid reader and a student at Columbia University when he started working on the novel. He showed it to his professor, Bernard Matthews, in 1906, and the older man encouraged him to keep working on it. Johnson finished Autobiography in 1912 when he was working as a diplomat in Corinto, Nicaragua. The Boston firm of Sherman, French, and Company published Autobiography in 1912, but Johnson requested that his name remain anonymous. There were few novels published by African- American writers during this time. Soon after iAutobiography] came out, Charles W. Chestnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods (1902), and W.E.B. DuBois’s collection of essays The Souls of Black Folk (1903) were published.
In his own autobiography, Along This Way (1933), Johnson wrote about debating whether or not to publish Autobiography anonymously in addition to using the word “Autobiography” in the title. He wrote, “When I chose the title, it was without the slightest doubt that its meaning would be perfectly clear to anyone; there were people, however, to whom it proved confusing.” He also commented that he was pleased that readers thought Autobiography was a true story, for he “had done the book with the intention of its being so taken.” Some critics also speculated that he chose the title and format for economic reasons, as the aforementioned novels by African Americans were not particularly financially successful in comparison to more traditional non-fictional slave narratives. Regardless, Johnson's novel received favorable reviews but it did not sell well when it was released.
In 1927, Alfred Knopf reissued The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man but changed the spelling of “colored” to “coloured” and identified Johnson as the author. Unlike the first printing, the sales were very strong this time around. The novel’s popularity was no doubt due to Johnson’s respected standing as a man of letters and as the leader of the NAACP during the Harlem Renaissance. An introduction by Carl Van Vechten, another Renaissance luminary, addressed the intersection of the real author and the fictional narrator: “The Autobiography, of course, in the matter of specific incident, has little enough to do with Mr. Johnson’s own life, but it is imbued with his personality and feelings, his views of the subjects discussed, so that to a person who has no previous knowledge of the author’s own history, it reads like a real autobiography."
Contemporary criticism of the novel focuses on whether or not the narrator is self-loathing and racist, the complicated nature of racial identity and "passing"at the turn of the century, and the relationship between the author and the narrator.