James Weldon Johnson Critical Essays

Harold W. Felton


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

For young readers, James Weldon Johnson works well on two sensitively treated levels: first, in its presentation of the difficulties that most creative persons would have encountered in rising from Johnson’s native environment to prominence in one field, let alone in several, and, second, in its treatment of the additional challenges that Johnson had to confront as an African American during his generation.

Felton skillfully describes Johnson’s childhood dreams in order to help readers identify with what are certainly the common aspirations, however fleeting, of many young people. Throughout his story, in fact, Felton depicts Johnson as pursuing the normal process of identifying and refining his talents, except for one critical difference: He was an African American in a racist United States.

Although Johnson as a writer reveals the many painful discriminations and indignities, some blatant and some subtle, that he and other African Americans encountered, Felton—with young readers in mind—deals with racial prejudice less as an immediately personal affront and more as an institutionalized social evil. For example, Johnson had many white friends, well-wishers, and mentors; was not subjected to physical threats of violence; and when verbally insulted to his face was able to respond straightforwardly. Felton makes it clear, however, that Johnson grew up in a world in which Southern African Americans could not do or say certain things; they occupied an inferior space. Moreover, Johnson’s ambitions always brought him up against racial barriers. As a youngster, he was a superior pitcher, but he could only play ball with African-American teams. On his way to college with a...

(The entire section is 702 words.)