For young readers, James Weldon Johnson works well on two sensitively treated levels: first, in its presentation of the difficulties that most creative persons would have encountered in rising from Johnson’s native environment to prominence in one field, let alone in several, and, second, in its treatment of the additional challenges that Johnson had to confront as an African American during his generation.
Felton skillfully describes Johnson’s childhood dreams in order to help readers identify with what are certainly the common aspirations, however fleeting, of many young people. Throughout his story, in fact, Felton depicts Johnson as pursuing the normal process of identifying and refining his talents, except for one critical difference: He was an African American in a racist United States.
Although Johnson as a writer reveals the many painful discriminations and indignities, some blatant and some subtle, that he and other African Americans encountered, Felton—with young readers in mind—deals with racial prejudice less as an immediately personal affront and more as an institutionalized social evil. For example, Johnson had many white friends, well-wishers, and mentors; was not subjected to physical threats of violence; and when verbally insulted to his face was able to respond straightforwardly. Felton makes it clear, however, that Johnson grew up in a world in which Southern African Americans could not do or say certain things; they occupied an inferior space. Moreover, Johnson’s ambitions always brought him up against racial barriers. As a youngster, he was a superior pitcher, but he could only play ball with African-American teams. On his way to college with a...
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While Felton stresses the range of his subject’s activities and accomplishments—and they are impressive—Johnson is perhaps best remembered for his novels, poems, and enduringly for one song composed with John: “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” widely known as the Negro National Hymn.
Felton’s choice of Johnson as a subject undoubtedly owes much to the civil rights activism of the 1960’s, identified nationally with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as with the then-relative militancy of the Black Panthers and Black Muslims. In the context of racial riots in many major U.S. cities, the killings and intimidations of civil rights activists in the South, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and King, and California’s trial of Angela Davis and other militants, Felton’s James Weldon Johnson, published in 1971, purposely focuses on an admirable leader of the previous generation. Johnson first of all was a creative person whose writings and other achievements had intrinsic value regardless of their author’s race or the fact that they dealt with race. Moreover, for the generation of the 1960’s, Felton, by implication, is able to underscore the point that the persistent moderation of the previous generation of African-American leaders had helped to clear the way for the dramatic events of subsequent years.