James Weldon Johnson is best known as the author of the words of what is still sometimes called the Negro national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as well as the oft-neglected but never forgotten novelThe Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), which is included in volume 2 of The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson. Editor Sondra Kathryn Wilson is interested in excavating the writings of a complete public intellectual, a man who, apart from his literary accomplishments, had much to say about politics, religion, American imperialism, literature, and race matters. Though the words and ideas on these pages are not of uniformly high quality, they certainly deserve to be preserved and disseminated. Whether these writings will convince readers to share Wilson’s view that “his [Johnson’s] influence must be subsumed into mainstream twenty-first century American thought” is another matter, but they succeed in her more modest goal of showing Johnson as a mass educator of black and white Americans who had special insights into the race issues of his day.
Johnson (born in 1871) was an activist high school principal of the Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida (the largest black high school in the state), and the first African American member of the Florida bar when, in 1900, he wrote the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, wrote the music). It would come to serve as an uplifting anthem for black schools and organizations for years to come. The following year he was nearly lynched, an event that convinced him to leave the South for New York City. In his thirties, he became a songwriter, musician, and political activist, writing songs for the Teddy Roosevelt campaign. Roosevelt appointed him consul first to Venezuela, in 1906, and later to Nicaragua, in 1909. In 1912, Johnson published the work that remains his best argument for literary permanence, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. After resigning from the consular service, in part because of the racial prejudice he encountered, he was appointed contributing editor of New York Age, one of the most important black newspapers of the day, and two years later he joined the staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the organization he was eventually to lead. Volume 1 focuses on this period of his life, 1914-1923, reprinting and organizing by theme selected editorials from the pages of New York Age.
Casual readers who may or may not have read other African American works from this period, such as W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903) or Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery: An Autobiography (1901), will find these editorials pithy, intelligent, diverting, and occasionally eerie. Some of Johnson’s concerns about violence, police treatment of black men, and the equality and privileges of women could as easily have been written in 1995 as in 1922. Readers who consider themselves serious students of African American literature, political journalism, or American race relations will find these editorials to be absorbing, necessary reading, a lens carefully ground to reveal a small portion of the past in sharp detail.
As a commentator, Johnson was fairly conservative. Letters to the editor would have their grammar, logic, and rhetoric analyzed and corrected before getting a response, regardless of what Johnson thought of the merits of their position. In another vein, he repeatedly criticized Marcus Garvey, ridiculing his plans to arrange a mass exodus of African Americans to Africa and his publicity stunts designed to support this scheme. Johnson did, however, acknowledge Garvey’s ability to stir the imagination of the black population, and his harshest words were reserved for white leaders, not black ones.
Wilson has arranged the reprinted editorials into fourteen thematically grouped sections. The first section, “Race Prejudice and Discrimination,” begins with an editorial attacking Henry Ford for comments on the supposed inferiority of the Negro skull, though Johnson commends Ford for hiring at least a limited number of black men in his factories. In later editorials he attacks D. W. Griffith for his film The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Thomas Dixon for his book The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), on which the film was based. The onset of World War I finds him publicly rebutting any insinuation that American Negroes are in sympathy with the pro-German fringe, while urging his black readership to take advantage of the possibilities that military service offers to prove their value and patriotism. After the war, he fought in the court of public opinion for the respect that black soldiers had earned but were not receiving.
Of black churches, Johnson shows himself to be both a strong supporter and a firm, if loving, critic. In the editorials collected under the topic “religion,” he urges young African Americans to consider the ministry as a profession and urges the church to be entirely worthy of the leadership position it held within the black community. “Union,” he urges church leaders, “is what we need.”
(The entire section is 2143 words.)