Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

As an expression of Harlem Renaissance inventiveness and as a part of the continuum of cultural creativity during the 1920’s, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse is James Weldon Johnson’s adaptation of African American folk sermons into an artistic form. The book contains eight poetic sermons—“Listen Lord,” “The Creation,” “The Prodigal Son,” “Go Down, Death,” “Noah Built the Ark,” “The Crucifixion,” “Let My People Go,” and “The Judgment Day”—written as monologues in the familiar call-and-response mode associated with the plantation preacher. Unlike Paul Laurence Dunbar, the author’s distinguished forerunner who became famous for writing dialect poetry, Johnson elects not to use dialect in his poems. Nevertheless, God’s Trombones does offer African rhythms and African American folk expressions, although Johnson maintains that the sermons are also saturated with Old Testament phraseology and King James English.

Genesis provides the basic material for “The Creation” and “Noah Built the Ark”; the Exodus account of Moses and the burning bush unfolds into distinct contemporaneous overtones in “Let My People Go”; details taken from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are recognizable in “The Crucifixion”; from Luke, Jesus’ parable on intemperance is made picturesque in “The Prodigal Son”; and Revelation provides a heavenward vision in “Go Down, Death” and “The Judgment Day.” Of particular note, the sermons are studded with echoes of actual spirituals and delivered in the tradition of the nineteenth century orator, where message and art (gestures and phonology) are intertwined.


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Carroll, Anne. “Art, Literature, and the Harlem Renaissance: The Messages of God’s Trombones.” College Literature 29, no. 3 (Summer, 2002): 57-82.

Fleming, Robert E. James Weldon Johnson. Boston: Twayne, 1987. An overview of Johnson’s life and work, with a chronology and an annotated bibliography.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Gates argues that Johnson’s assessment of the power of dialect is too negative.

Haskins, James, ed. Keeping the Faith: African American Sermons of Liberation. New York: Welcome Rain, 2002. This anthology presents “Go Down Death” and eighteen sermons by other preachers, including the old-style train story, “The Sermon,” that Johnson cites as a model.

Kostelanetz, Richard. Politics in the African American Novel: James Weldon Johnson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Levy, Eugene. James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. The first full-length biography of Johnson. Levy’s analysis of God’s Trombones focuses on Weldon’s avoidance of racial and socioeconomic themes or references in the sermons.

Marren, Susan, and Robert Cochran. “Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.” The Explicator 60, no. 3 (Spring, 2002): 147-149.

Price, Kenneth M., and Lawrence J. Oliver, eds. Critical Essays on James Weldon Johnson. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997. Seven of the essays in this volume briefly analyze God’s Trombones, particularly Johnson’s use of dialect.

Rottenberg, Catherine. “Race and Ethnicity in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and The Rise of David Levinsky: The Performative Difference.” MELUS 29, nos. 3/4 (Fall/Winter, 2004): 307-321.

Ruotolo, Cristina L. “James Weldon Johnson and the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Musician.” American Literature 72, no. 2 (June, 2000): 249-274.

Sacher, Jack. “James Weldon Johnson and the Poetry of God’s Trombones.” The Choral Journal 40, no. 1 (1999): 25.

Schulz, Jennifer L. “Restaging the Racial Contract: James Weldon Johnson’s Signatory Strategies.” American Literature 74, no. 1 (March, 2002): 31-58.