Although God’s Trombones carries the subtitle Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, it actually comprises nine sections: a preface, in which the author, James Weldon Johnson, explains the origins of his project and the logic behind it; a brief poem whose speaker is a prayer leader, perhaps a woman, calling on God to give wisdom to the preacher; and the sermons themselves. Each sermon is presented as both an authentic transcription of an oral performance and a lyric poem, capturing as much of the passion, the rhythm, and the pacing of “the old-time Negro preacher” as Johnson can capture with words, punctuation, and line breaks alone.
Johnson was a renowned teacher, newspaper editor, musician, politician, anthologist, and writer, perhaps best known as the composer of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known also as the Negro National Anthem. In 1927, when he wrote God’s Trombones, he was general secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and he had edited three landmark anthologies of African American poetry and spirituals. It had long been his intention to demonstrate to both white and black America that African Americans were capable of producing great intelligence, great wisdom, and great art. In God’s Trombones, written at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson honors the contributions of African American preachers and demonstrates the artistry of their preaching.
In his preface, Johnson recalls the sermons he heard as a child. In the African American church, he explains, many preachers delivered a series of basic sermons, using common themes and biblical texts but adapted and embellished with each preacher’s idiosyncratic imagery and oral skills. These preachers are compared to “trombones” rather than to other musical instruments, because the trombone, of all the wind instruments, most closely resembles the human voice in its range. One popular sermon that Johnson often heard began with the Creation and the fall of man, detailed the suffering of the Hebrew children during the Exodus, continued with the Passion of Christ and its promise of redemption, and concluded with the Judgment Day. It is this broad arc, with some diversions that Johnson traces...
(The entire section is 926 words.)