(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

James Weldon Johnson claimed that one of the reasons for publishing his autobiography, Along This Way, was to finally make clear that his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912) was not a record of his life. A public figure as important as Johnson hardly needed, however, a justification for adding another book to the growing shelf of autobiographies of distinguished African Americans, such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois. In a controlled and often ironic narrative tone, Johnson not only provides insights into his life and times but also focuses on African American accomplishments in the hostile social climate that he battled against all his life.

Despite a middle-class upbringing, a university degree, and immediate success first as a school principal, in passing the Florida bar examination—the first African American to do so—and then as songwriter, writer, consul, and civil rights activist, Johnson always committed himself to the cause of African Americans. When on university vacation, he spent three months teaching African American farmers’ children in rural Georgia, realizing “that they were me, and I was they; that a force stronger than blood made us one.” Accordingly, all his artistic work was committed to improving the social situation of African Americans and to exploring African American art forms. When embarking on his composing and songwriting career, he “began to grope...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Butterfield, Stephen. Black Autobiography in America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974.

Fleming, Robert E. James Weldon Johnson. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Levy, Eugene. James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.