The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (James Weldon Johnson)

When I began this, the only thing that I knew about its author, James Weldon Johnson, is that he was responsible for, or at least partially responsible for the anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Now that I’ve read this, I will almost certainly fall into the self-fulfilling trap Johnson sets early in the book. He writes, “I believe it to be a fact that the colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them.” Leaving aside the problems inherent in the remarkably timely notion of believing in a fact, how then can a white reader and budding reviewer respond? To criticize, it seems, is to fail to understand.

I’ll risk it.

Johnson, who constantly tries to impress upon the reader and everyone else he encounters how educated he is, has written a boring book. It’s just dull. He mistakes florid sentences for good writing and is capable of droning on for pages and pages about. . . nothing.

There are other books that cover this territory more effectively, so unless you really want to learn about Johnson’s early life, I’d turn to Nella Larsen’s Passing instead.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.

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