Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

In fifteen brief chapters of chronological narrative, Harold W. Felton, the author of eighteen previous stories for young readers, depicts the rise of an obscure African American to eminence as an educator, lawyer, composer, writer-poet, and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during a period of tightening segregation and ingrained racial intolerance. Each chapter of James Weldon Johnson is enhanced by the full-page illustrations of the award-winning artist Charles Shaw. The author’s fictionalized dialogue, unlike that found in many juvenile works, is both plausible and intelligent, closely following materials found in Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), God’s Trombones (1927), and Black Manhattan (1930).

Among African Americans, as well as within white communities, Johnson is better remembered by intellectuals and professional people than he is by the citizenry at large. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, when African-American athletes and religious leaders such as Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Father Divine were beginning to command the attention of the American public, Johnson was a somewhat more anonymous part of an African-American leadership that had included such figures as W. E. B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, and Booker T. Washington. Although Johnson’s was not a household name, however, it was a significant one. Johnson too had risen...

(The entire section is 457 words.)