Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man


James Weldon Johnson

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Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man: Style 1 key example

Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis:

Johnson's writing style mimics the highs, lows, and off-beat notes of the music the narrator likes to play. Lofty similes, metaphors, and other figurative language convey a sense of melodrama, but Johnson tends to bring the melodrama back down with the use of irony. For example, in Chapter 1, the narrator describes lining up with his fellow students to spell aloud; he uses a dramatic metaphor to describe what is a comparatively silly moment of suspense:

Since that day I have waited anxiously for many a turn of the wheel of fortune, but never under greater tension than I watched for the order in which those letters would fall from “Red’s” lips—“o-u-r-t-h.”

The children each have a different word to spell. The narrator just spelled "third," and now it is "Red Head's" turn to spell "fourth," a notably more difficult word because of the diphthong formed by "o" and "u." The narrator is trying to surreptitiously help his classmate by feeding him the answer, and he is now waiting to find out if he will be saved from witnessing "Red Head's" public embarrassment.

The wheel of fortune is a very old metaphor that describes the inability of humans to control our own fate. Fortune, or Fortuna, is a goddess who supposedly spins a wheel to determine at random what will happen. Good or bad, the outcome is up to chance. The metaphor appears commonly in literature and drama when characters are awaiting extremely high-stakes outcomes. The narrator's use of the metaphor in this instance emphasizes, on the one hand, how monumental this small moment felt to him and "Red Head" at the time. But the idea that the narrator (whose life has been quite adventurous) has never felt "greater tension" than he felt when he waited for "Red Head" to spell "fourth" is also ironic and a bit funny. In this way, Johnson produces a tense moment and then resolves the tension all in one sentence. These emotional ups and downs on the sentence level persist throughout the novel.