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Irony in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a book of irony upon irony. Not a true autobiography but a novel based loosely on the author's life, the book portrays the life of a man of mixed black and white heritage who undergoes a series of unexpected reversals of consciousness largely based on his racial experiences. The protagonist appears to be white and is raised as a white of some socioeconomic privilege. His primary awakenings take him from his white upbringing into the world of blacks, where he comes to recognize and appreciate his black heritage, and finally back to the white world after his abandonment of that black heritage. Ironically, however, this series of awakenings leaves the protagonist as confused about his identity at the end of the book as he was in the beginning. The bulk of the book's ironies are rooted in the protagonist's almost obstinate determination to discover his own reality, a determination which in fact prevents him from such a discovery because of his obsessive intellectualization.

The man's story is a tragedy because he is trapped between the two worlds, never truly a part of either, and his situation is beyond his control. He does indeed make the final choice to marry a white woman and live in the white world, turning his back on the black world, but by that time it has become clear that personal and social forces beyond his control have rendered him helpless to find the racial home he seeks. His intellectualization renders him incapable of experiencing his own life in a way which would give him some sort of liberation from his demons. By the end of the book, when he makes that choice, he has come to intellectually appreciate his black heritage, but his subsequent abandonment of that heritage strikes the sympathetic reader as a true tragedy. The protagonist is a man who is trying to work out his place in the world, but finally he finds no place of his own and must settle for a...

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Irony in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 07:28, October 01, 2020, from