Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435
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 toward a realization of the American Negro’s cultural background and his creative folk-art.” In much of his poetry, too, Johnson built on African American folk traditions. He did so because he believed in the uniqueness of the African American heritage, based as it was on a deep spirituality. Thus, he implies that African Americans are a main resource for the United States in matters of artistry and spirituality, and that, in turn, the United States will be measured by how it treats African Americans. He pithily summarizes this belief in saying “that in large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.”
A considerable part of the book is devoted to Johnson’s fight for racial justice and his time in the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Johnson reveals explicitly that his program for improving the social status of African Americans, despite his own artistic, legal, and political efforts, is really a moral one: “The only kind of revolution that would have an immediately significant effect on the American Negro’s status would be a moral revolution.” As Along This Way makes clear, Johnson did his best on all fronts.