Johnson, James Weldon
James Weldon Johnson 1871–1938
American novelist, poet, autobiographer, historian, and critic.
Johnson is regarded as an influential black American author whose novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) impacted the work of later writers concerned with the nature of racial identity. Seen as an accurate sociological depiction of the lives of black Americans by his contemporaries, Johnson's novel is today viewed as a complex work providing an ambiguous psychological study of its anonymous title character. Although literature for Johnson was only one aspect of an active and varied professional life, he produced accomplished works in several literary genres, including the novel, conventional and experimental poetry, popular songs, literary and social criticism, and autobiography. As a poet, Johnson is best known for God's Trombones (1927), a collection of seven poems which capture the rhythmic and spiritual essence of traditional black sermons. He is furthermore recognized for his groundbreaking editorship of The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922).
Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, where his father worked as headwaiter at a luxury resort hotel and his mother taught grammar school. At Jacksonville's Straton Grammar School he showed early virtuosity in both music and literature, but because secondary education was not available to black students, he was sent to a preparatory school at Atlanta University in Georgia. Johnson graduated in 1894 and was recommended for, and received, a scholarship to Harvard University medical school; however, he turned down this offer in order to return to Straton Grammar School as its principal. Although he continued at Straton for several years, Johnson simultaneously pursued other careers: as a lawyer with a private practice; as founder of the Daily American, believed to have been the first black daily newspaper in the country; and as a lyricist for Cole and Johnson Brothers, writing successful songs with his younger brother Rosamond and his song-and-dance partner Bob Cole. In 1906 Johnson abandoned his show business activities to accept a position in the U. S. Consular Service. He began his work at a small post in Venezuela, and it was at this time that he wrote most of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Later he was advanced to a position in Nicaragua, where he completed the novel.
In 1913 Johnson resigned from the service and in January of that year his poem "Fifty Years," commemorating the
Emancipation Proclamation, appeared in the New York Times. Johnson's literary reputation soared and the work's popularity prompted publishers of the New York Age to hire him as an editorial writer in 1914. His popular column in this newspaper offered a conciliatory view toward the opposing black political factions aligned with either Booker T. Washington or the militant W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1916 Johnson joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and served as the organization's executive secretary from 1920 to 1930. His active association with the NAACP also marks the years Johnson published the poetry collections Fifty Years, and Other Poems (1917) and God's Trombones, as well as wrote the historical study Black Manhattan (1930) and edited the works of lesser-known black poets in an anthology titled The Book of American Negro Poetry. In 1931 he returned to education as a professor of creative literature at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Johnson died in 1938 in an automobile accident.
The nature of Johnson's early poetic works is demonstrated in the collection Fifty Years, and Other Poems—comprised of traditional verse and dialect poetry, in the manner of Johnson's contemporary Paul Laurence Dunbar, which seeks to approximate the language of southern blacks of the period. The sixteen poems in the latter mode are grouped together in the section entitled "Jingles and Croons." These pieces generally touch upon transitory or humorous subjects, though they occasionally confront more significant themes, such as lost love in "Sense You Went Away." The remaining, conventional pieces of the collection primarily document serious, racial topics—slavery, lynching, black rights, interracial relationships—and include the protest poems "To America" and "Brothers." Johnson's second volume of poetry, God's Trombones, represents a significant departure from his earlier verse. Containing seven poetic sermons in free verse, the work evokes what critics perceive as a powerful and natural black voice in the idiom of the traditional southern Negro preacher. As such, the themes of God's Trombones are throughout religious and spiritual, drawing significantly from Biblical narrative in such works as "The Creation," "The Prodigal Son," "Noah Built the Ark," and "The Crucifixion." Johnson's final poetry collection, St. Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems (1935), features very little new material aside from the long, satirical Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day. The poem's narrative offers a parable of racial prejudice recounted by St. Peter. In it, a collection of whites watch as the body of the Unknown Soldier is exhumed on the day of resurrection. To their dismay, they learn that the soldier is black and watch him as he proceeds into heaven while singing a Negro spiritual.
Johnson's early Fifty Years, and Other Poems attracted only slight interest at the time of its publication, and has since been largely dismissed by critics who see the collection as a very modest composition in standard poetic forms and of verse characterized by the minstrel dialect often used by poets of the time. Additionally, the poem Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day has been viewed as a disappointing satire marred by stylistic and structural flaws. In contrast, critics have regarded God's Trombones as an impressive poetic achievement and have lauded its superb translation of the rhythms and metaphors of black preachers into literary form. It is for this work that scholars have generally acknowledged Johnson as a poet of considerable influence and vision, equaling that of his accomplishments in fiction as the author of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.
Fifty Years, and Other Poems 1917
The Book of Negro American Poetry [editor] 1922
God's Trombones 1927
St. Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems 1935
Other Major Works
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (novel) 1912
Black Manhattan (history) 1930
Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (autobiography) 1933
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SOURCE: A Review of Fifty Years and Other Poems, in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. III, No. 2, April, 1918, pp. 202-203.
[In the following review, Brawley lauds "the simple, direct, and sometimes sensuous expression" of several poems in Johnson's Fifty Years, and Other Poems.]
From time to time for the last fifteen years Mr. James Weldon Johnson has been remarked as one of the literary men of the race. He has now brought together his verses in a little volume, Fifty Years and Other Poems, an introduction to which has been written by Professor Brander Matthews, of Columbia University. The task was eminently worth while.
The book falls into two parts. The first is made up of poems in the commonly accepted forms, though there are one or two examples of vers libre; and the second is entitled Jingles and Croons. This second division consists of dialect verses, especially the songs that have been set to music, most frequently by the poet's brother, Mr. J. Rosamond Johnson. Outstanding are the very first lines, "Sence you went away." It is well that these pieces have been brought together. For artistic achievement, however, attention will naturally be fixed upon the first division. "Fifty Years" was written in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the emancipation of the race. Professor Matthews speaks of it as "one of the noblest commemorative poems yet written...
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SOURCE: A Review of God's Trombones, in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. XXX, No. V, August, 1927, pp. 291-93.
[In the following review, Monroe praises Johnson's God's Trombones as "his own highest achievement as a poet."]
For some time Mr. Johnson has been known as a leader among the American Negro poets, and as by all odds their best editor. His Book of American Negro Poetry, and his two books of Spirituals, with their prefaces, are monuments of patient and sympathetic scholarship and of devotion to his race in its highest achievements.
The present volume [God's Trombones] is his own highest achievement as a poet. The author says modestly in his excellent preface:
I claim no more for these poems than that I have written them after the manner of the primitive sermons.
But it is something of an achievement to suggest, as he does, the spirit and rhythm of those sermons, and to do it without the help of dialect or of antiphonal repetitions. There may be two opinions about the tradition of dialect; at least Mr. Johnson makes a very good argument against it in his preface, and gets on very well without it.
With the old-time Negro, religion was a grand adventure. It exalted him into rapture, and his imagination lavished gymnastic figures upon it. Here, for example, are two...
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SOURCE: A Review of God's Trombones, in The Canadian Forum, Vol. VII, No. 84, September, 1927, pp. 380, 382.
[In the following review, the critic calls God's Trombones "a striking achievement of… reverence."]
[God's Trombones] contains what the author calls 'seven negro sermons in verse' Readers of The Century Magazine and of The American Mercury will have seen two of the poems, since 'The Judgment Day' appeared in the former, and 'Go Down, Death', in the latter periodical. Mr. Johnson will add to an already enviable reputation by this latest experiment, for such it must be called. He has taken seven of the stock themes of the old-time preachers of his race, 'The Prodigal Son', 'Noah Built the Ark', 'The Crucifixion', 'Let My People Go', 'The Judgment Day', and the two already mentioned. These he has put into verse form, with a striking achievement of impressiveness and reverence, striking only, to be sure, when one recalls that for many years now the negro sermon of the old type has been used chiefly as a subject for very hackneyed parody at rural garden parties and other ready-made entertainments.
The chief means whereby Mr. Johnson has avoided the possibility of giggling, a possibility which no amount of sympathy with the negro preacher or his point of view can deny, is the non-employment of dialect, as he explains in his exceedingly interesting...
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SOURCE: "And the Walls Came Tumblin' Down," in The Bookman (New York), Vol. LXVI, No. 2, October, 1927, pp. 221-22.
[In the following review, Cullen favorably assesses the poems of Johnson's God's Trombones.]
And seven priests shall bear before the ark seven trumpets of rams' horns; and the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets.
And it shall come to pass, that when they make a long blast with the ram's horn, and when ye hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat….
James Weldon Johnson has blown the true spirit and the pentecostal trumpeting of the dark Joshuas of the race in God's Trombones, composed of seven sermon-poems and a prayer. The seven sermons are like the seven blasts blown by Joshua at Jericho. "The Creation", "The Prodigal Son", "Go Down Death—A Funeral Sermon", "Noah Built the Ark", "The Crucifixion", "Let My People Go", and "The Judgment Day", they are all great evangelical texts. And the magnificent manner in which they are done increases our regret that Mr. Johnson was not intrigued into preaching "The Dry Bones In the Valley", the pièce de résistance in the repertoire of every revivalist to whom a good shout is a recommendation of salvation well...
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SOURCE: "Truth and the Academic Style," in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. XLIX, No. I, October, 1936, pp. 49-51.
[In the following review of St. Peter Relates an Incident, Rosenberg observes that Johnson's conservative poetic temperament undercuts the harsh political realities of his subject matter.]
The title poem [of Saint Peter Relates an Incident, Selected Poems] is the author's expression in satirical terms, of the indignation he felt on reading in the newspaper of a morning in 1930 that the U. S. government was sending a group of gold-star mothers to France to visit the graves of their sons slain in the World War, and that the Negro gold-star mothers would not be allowed to travel with the white, but would be sent over later on a second-class ship. The incident, related in Eternity by Saint Peter, deals with the discovery on Resurrection Day that the Unknown Soldier, buried in Washington, happens to be a Negro.
It is grievous to report that the outrageous act of public discrimination against his race which inspired Mr. Johnson to write his poem strikes very little fire in the poem itself. Naturally, the blurb on the book tries to capitalize on the genius of the Negro people by claiming for the poem "something of the simple charm of Negro lore." As a matter of fact, however, the Saint Peter poem, as well as the rest of the volume, is less typical of the poetry produced...
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SOURCE: "James Weldon Johnson," in Roots of Negro Racial Consciousness, The 1920's: Three Harlem Renaissance Authors, Libra Publishers, 1964, pp. 18-46.
[In the following excerpt, Bronz examines the social importance of Johnson 's early poetry in Fifty Years, and Other Poems and comments on his later work as a precursor to the Harlem Renaissance.]
His First Poems: History, Polemics, and Croons
[Johnson's] first poem to reach a large audience, "Lift Every Voice," has become known as the Negro National Anthem.14 Johnson wrote the anthem together with [his brother John] Rosamond in 1900, to be sung by Jacksonville school children on Lincoln's Birthday. The following snippets give a fair summary:
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, …
Till we stand at last where the white gleam of our star is cast …
God of our silent tears,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our...
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SOURCE: "A Study of James Weldon Johnson," in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. LII, No. 2, April, 1967, pp. 128-45.
[In the following essay, Adelman reflects on Johnson 's life, writing, and contributions to African-American culture between the 1890s and 1930s.]
The period running roughly from the 1890's to the 1930's was a particularly harsh one for the American Negro. It was characterized in many ways by a deterioration in the Negro's status both in the South and the North. And although the Negro made some important gains, especially in the latter part of this period, the South's capitulation to racism and to the Jim Crow code of discrimination, which began in the 1890's, ran unabated until well into the depression years.1 These conditions placed heavy demands on Negro leadership, which was itself torn, at least until 1915, by the bitter split between Booker T. Washington and W. E. DuBois and their followers.
The adult life of James Weldon Johnson spanned approximately these years. Johnson lived from 1871 until 1938. Study of his career yields substantial insight into the period and into the way in which it affected an individual Negro. Johnson's problems and responses were, to be sure, not altogether typical, for he was an unusually gifted and versatile person. But in some ways both his personal career and the nature of the leadership which he provided demonstrate the...
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SOURCE: "A Weapon of My Song: The Poetry of James Weldon Johnson," in Phylon, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter, 1971, pp. 374-82.
[In the following essay, Long surveys Johnson 's poetic works, assessing his evolving notion of "the function of the poet."]
The verse output of James Weldon Johnson falls into four groups: lyrics in standard English, poems in the dialect tradition, folk-inspired free verse, and a long satirical poem. The first two groups are contemporary and were published in the volume Fifty Years and Other Poems (Boston, 1917). The prayer and seven Negro sermons of the third group constitute God's Trombones (New York, 1927). The last group is represented by the poem "St. Peter Relates An Incident of the Resurrection Day," privately printed in 1930, and republished with a selection of earlier poems in 1935.
The early poetry of Johnson belongs to the late nineteenth century tradition of sentimental poetry in so far as its techniques and verse forms are concerned, seldom rising above the mediocrity characteristic of American poetry in the period 1890-1910, during which it was written for the most part. In purpose, however, Johnson's early verse was a species of propaganda, designed sometimes overtly, sometimes obliquely, to advance to a reading public the merits and the grievances of blacks. In this sense the poetry of Johnson is an integral part of a coherent strain in...
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SOURCE: "James Weldon Johnson," in Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, University of Illinois Press, 1973, pp. 351-84.
[In the following excerpt, Wagner explores the conventionality of Johnson 's early verse and describes the poet's ambivalence toward agnosticism and dialect poetry.]
Religious and Patriotic Conformism
Since the avowal made in his autobiography five years before his death, we know that all Johnson's religious poetry came from the pen of an unbeliever.29
Under the influence of his maternal grandmother, who would have liked to see him become a minister, from the age of nine he had been forced into religious observances, inappropriate for a child, in the Methodist church which she attended. When she wanted him to be accepted as a full-fledged member, an argument broke out between her and her son-in-law; this aroused anxiety in the child. With it was blended his dislike for certain external religious practices common in the popular Negro churches:
These combined factors at length produced reluctance, doubt, rebellion. I began to ask myself questions that frightened me. I groped within the narrow boundaries of my own knowledge and experience and between the covers of the Bible for answers, because I did not know to whom I could turn … I was alone with my...
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SOURCE: "The Search for a Language, 1746-1923," in Black Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretation, Louisiana State University Press, 1974, pp. 1-36.
[In the following excerpt, Jackson and Rubin recount Johnson 's influential creation of a true black voice in American poetry.]
When James Weldon Johnson, putting together his first book of verse in 1917, entitled the final section "Croons and Jingles," he was making an ironic comment not only upon his own early work but upon the situation of the American poet who was black. For by croons and jingles, Johnson was referring to the modes of poetry in which the black poet was expected to write. He could produce sentimental songs like Johnson's own "Sence You Went Away":
Seems lak to me dat ev'ything is wrong,
Seems lak to me dat day's jes twice es long,
Seems lak to me de bird's forgot his song,
Sence you went away.
Or he could write quaintly comic lyrics like Paul Laurence Dunbar's lines in "When De Co'n Pone's Hot":
He could, in other words, write what in the case of the black writer was indeed a loaded term: local color literature.…
As Dunbar's friend James Weldon Johnson reported, "Often he said to me: 'I've got to write dialect poetry; it's the only way I can get them to listen to me.'" In so saying,...
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SOURCE: "James Weldon Johnson and the Pastoral Tradition," in The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Fall, 1975, pp. 417-21.
[In the following essay, Redding investigates Johnson's use of dialect and the "Southern Negro idiom" in his poetry.]
In a book entitled Some Versions Of Pastoral, published in 1935,' the English critic and poet William Empson set forth a definition of the pastoral that differed from both the ancient classical and the later Elizabethan concept, both of which comprehended poetry only. Empson's definition more or less ignored the elements of form, of meter, and of subject matter in order to emphasize technique and intent. He conceived of the pastoral as a "device for literary inversion," a method for "putting the complex into the simple," and of expressing, in whatever literary genre, "complex ideas through simple personages" and dramatizing these ideas through the imitation of actuality and the representation of the concrete and the real: "Any work in any genre which sets forth the simple against the complicated, especially to the advantage of the simple, is a pastoral."
If one accepts this definition—and in view of the topic of our discussion one must accept it—it is scarcely to be argued that much if not all of the fiction and a good deal of the poetry of the South is pastoral. Applied to the one novel and practically all of the verses of James...
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SOURCE: "Femininity and the Harlem Experience: A Note on James Weldon Johnson," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, September, 1985, pp. 52-56.
[In the following essay, Koprince relates Johnson's presentation of women as temptresses or as saintly mothers in the poems of God's Trombones to his impression of Harlem in the 1920s.]
God's Trombones (1927), James Weldon Johnson's collection of folk sermons in verse, has long been celebrated for its innovative language1—in particular, for its rhythmic, free-verse lines, which recreate the art of the "old-time Negro preacher."2 But these poetic sermons can also be examined profitably in terms of the literary characters which occur in them. A study of the women in Johnson's sermons, for example, not only reveals the poet's attitude toward the female sex, but, in a broader sense, helps to explain his enchantment with Harlem during the 1920s—the same Harlem which Johnson evokes so vividly in his cultural treatise Black Manhattan (1930).
Several poetic sermons in God's Trombones make clear Johnson's view of women as powerful temptresses. The poem "Noah Built the Ark" introduces the figure of Eve, the archetypal temptress "With nothing to do the whole day long / But play all around in the garden" (p.32) with her consort, Adam. Although Eve disobeys God out of vanity ("You're surely goodlooking,"...
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SOURCE: "The Composition of James Weldon Johnson's 'Fifty Years,'" in American Poetry, Vol. 4, No. 2, Winter, 1987, pp. 51-56.
[In the following essay, Fleming suggests that Johnson significantly revised his poem 'Fifty Years ' prior to its publication in order to make it more acceptable to white audiences.]
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) has frequently been recognized as the sort of black writer and leader who achieved a great deal by working within the American legal and political system. Educated at Atlanta University, Johnson taught in an all-black rural elementary school and in a black high school and college, practiced law in Florida, wrote for black newspapers and magazines, and worked for his race as secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Always a political realist, he campaigned among black voters for the election of Theodore Roosevelt, and after Roosevelt's election he gladly accepted diplomatic appointments as U.S. consul in Venezuela and later in Nicaragua. Through all these careers, Johnson also found time to write prose, poetry, and song lyrics. His first major poem to find a large audience was the occasional poem "Fifty Years," a work that still represents Johnson in many anthologies of Afro-American literature. "Fifty Years" serves as an example of the side of Johnson to which many modern readers object. Written to commemorate the fiftieth...
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SOURCE: James Weldon Johnson, Twayne Publishers, 1987,123 p.
[In the following excerpt, Fleming traces Johnson's development from a writer of conventional poetry to one of experimental free verse in God's Trombones.]
During his Atlanta years Johnson began to write poetry. From the 1890s through his publication of Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917) the form and subject matter of his poems are characteristic of the period in which he wrote; that is, they are written in conventional stanzaic forms, in rhymed verse, and they address subjects that are either the conventional subject matter of the poet or the specialized subject matter of the Afro-American poet, as handed down from early protest writers such as George Moses Horton and Frances Watkins Harper. During the 1920s, however, Johnson began to experiment with more modern forms, eventually producing in God's Trombones (1927) a free verse form calculated to recall the style and rhythm of the southern black minister. These later poems are the ones most likely to appear in literary histories, despite the popularity of some early poems such as "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
FINDING A VOICE
Characteristic of Johnson's early poetry is a Petrarchan sonnet, "Mother Night," that he wrote while serving as consul in Venezuela. The night is personified as "a brooding mother" out of which the universe evolved...
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SOURCE: "James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones as a Source for Faulkner's Rev'un Shegog," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, September, 1992, pp. 24-30.
[In the following essay, Fleming suggests the influence of Johnson 's God's Trombones on William Faulkner's southern black preacher in The Sound and the Fury.]
Studies of Faulkner's relationship to the black race have usually treated his depiction of black characters, his position on civil rights questions, the place of African Americans in Faulkner's South, or Faulkner's influence—positive and negative—on later black writers from Ralph Ellison to William Melvin Kelley.1 It has generally been assumed that Faulkner, as a Southerner, needed no sources for his successful black characters. He grew up among black people and had ample opportunity to observe their speech and mannerisms. However, comparing the Easter service at Dilsey's church with James Weldon Johnson's book of African-American sermons in verse, God's Trombones (1927), suggests that Faulkner knew the book and used it in his depiction of Reverend Shegog, the visiting preacher from St. Louis.
God's Trombones was the culmination of nearly a decade of experimentation in which Johnson attempted to capture the idiom of the black Southern preacher without resorting to the usual dialect spellings associated with the comic "darkies" of the...
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SOURCE: "Committed to the Conduit," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4721, September 24, 1993, p. 27.
[In the following review of St. Peter Relates an Incident, Eley summarizes Johnson's career and the significance of his poetry.]
James Weldon Johnson's reputation no longer rests—if it ever truly did—on his poems. Although his work includes the gospel hymn, "Steal Away to Jesus," he arguably deserves most respect as an exemplary member of W.E.B. Du Bois's "talented tenth": black Americans who, having managed to surmount the difficulties encountered by the descendants of slaves and having joined the middle class, neither abandon their brothers nor burn out.
Johnson was born in 1871, in Florida, the son of a waiter and a schoolmistress, and church was an influential part of his upbringing. Extraordinarily energetic and highly disciplined, by the age of twenty-three he had become principal of a segregated school and, a year later, the founding editor of the Daily American, the first national US newspaper for blacks. He then qualified as a lawyer (the first black to be admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction), and wrote memorable songs for Broadway such as "Under the Bamboo Tree" and "O Didn't He Ramble," while avoiding involvement in the racially exploitative minstrel shows of the time.
In 1906, on the advice of Booker T. Washington, who had...
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Mason, Julian. "James Weldon Johnson." In Fifty Southern Writers After 1900: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain, pp. 280-89. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Bibliography of primary and secondary sources preceded by an introduction to Johnson's life and the major themes of his work.
Brawley, Benjamin. "Protest and Vindication-James Weldon Johnson." In The Negro Genius: A New Appraisal of the Achievement of the American Negro in Literature and the Fine Arts, pp. 206-214. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1937.
Provides a sketch of Johnson's life which includes a brief survey of his works of poetry.
Broun, Heywood Hale. "James Weldon Johnson." In Collected Edition of Heywood Broun, pp. 452-54. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1941.
Gives a short biographical assessment of Johnson.
Desjardins, Lucile. "James Weldon Johnson." In Rising Above Color, edited by Philip Henry Lotz, pp. 98-104. New York: Association Press, 1943.
Offers a biographical study of Johnson that concentrates on his poetic achievements and work with the National Association for the...
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