James Weldon Johnson

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James Weldon Johnson American Literature Analysis

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Johnson wrote poetry all his life. Despite that fact, his poems would be eclipsed by the work of later poets of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes. Toomer and Hughes might have been better poets than Johnson was, but they also had the advantage of being younger. Johnson came to poetry at a time when African Americans were interested in proving their competence as poets. Exploring the richness of the African American dialect was always tempered by the desire to demonstrate skill with traditional poetic form and traditional English. Johnson consciously chooses to use such forms in his poetry, stating in the preface to God’s Trombones that “Negro dialect in the United States has been set, to the fixing effects of long association with the Negro only as a happy-go-lucky or a forlorn figure.” Thus, he reasons, “negro dialect as a form for Aframerican poets is absolutely dead.” Hughes, Toomer, and others would prove him wrong.

Readers should not, however, assume that Johnson’s approach to verse signals any unwillingness to grapple with race in the United States or to appreciate the power of African American expression. “Creation,” from God’s Trombones, is a poem that pays homage to African American pulpit rhetoric at a time when few were noticing it. Johnson was exploring material that later writers, such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, would continue to explore. Ellison’s main character in his posthumous novel Juneteenth (1999) is a black preacher named Alonzo Hickman, but his nickname is “God’s Trombone,” suggesting some indebtedness to Johnson. Furthermore, in poems such as “Brothers” and “Fifty Years,” Johnson explores the complex ironies of race and culture that would divide the country for the rest of the twentieth century.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Johnson’s only novel, was in many respects everything that his poetry was not, for though it appears to be a conventional novel, it is, in many respects, revolutionary. It explores the taboo subject of passing in an unsettling fashion. “Passing” was the choice that light-skinned African Americans made to live on the white side of the color line. That Johnson writes a novel about such a matter brings this quietly kept subject into the open, but it also suggests that white might not be white.

A segregated society rests on the notion that white is white and black is black. The elaborate series of terms for the various amounts of African heritage one carried demonstrates this fact. A mulatto was one-half African. A quadroon carried one-fourth African heritage; an octoroon was one-eighth African. At the octoroon level, African heritage might hardly be visible. The narrator of Johnson’s novel, the son of a white man and a black woman, appears to be white. He marries a white woman, produces white children, and lives as a white man. Thus, in the view of those who would segregate society, the white race has been contaminated. One can only consider how revolutionary this notion might have been in 1912.

Still, Johnson’s novel is even more revolutionary on other levels. The narrator of the novel is sophisticated, articulate, bilingual, an accomplished musician, and a man who visits and understands European culture. Thus, Johnson argues implicitly that the entire edifice of segregation is erected upon a false premise. The whole notion of the savagery of African Americans, the foundation for slavery and for segregation, is a sham. As the narrator states, “I frequently smiled inwardly at some remark not altogether complimentary to people of color; and more than once I felt like declaiming, ’I am a colored man. Do I...

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not disprove the theory that one drop of Negro blood renders a man unfit?’” This statement summarizes the theme of the novel.

Some sections of Johnson’s novel present debates on the “race question” from various perspectives. Upon discovering the narrator’s plan to go home and become an advocate for African American music, the narrator’s friend states, “My boy, you are by blood, by appearance, by education, and by tastes a white man. Now why do you want to throw your life away amidst the poverty and ignorance, in the hopeless struggle of the black people of the United States?” The narrator later explains that the millionaire is completely free from prejudice but that his philosophy of life is to be happy and make others happy. A life of struggle on behalf of equality would not bring about happiness.

The black doctor, whom the narrator meets on his voyage from Liverpool to Boston, explains that he does not object to prejudice so long as that prejudice does not limit his “personal liberty.” Then in a speech that the narrator describes as eloquent, the doctor states, “if there is a merciful but justice-loving God in heaven . . . we shall win; for we have right on our side.” The third discussion occurs on the train from Nashville to Atlanta among a diverse group of men, a veritable spectrum of American life. As the conversation narrows to the “Negro,” a Texan and an old Union soldier take sides. When the old soldier challenges the Texan’s assumption that African Americans are inferior, the Texan responds with an argument well known in Johnson’s day and later: “No race in the world has ever been able to stand competition with the Anglo-Saxon.” The soldier’s response once again allows Johnson to chip away at the edifice of racial prejudice. According to him, the Anglo-Saxon has done nothing original and attains his position simply by standing on the rubble of races that came before. “We are simply having our turn at the game, and we were a long time getting to it.”

The narrator chooses finally to be white, but his choice can only make sense in the context of the ideas dramatically embodied in the novel. It is much harder to be black than it is to be white. Nonetheless, as the narrator’s refinements and gifts make clear, a black man or a mixed-race man might be as intelligent and gifted as a white man. In a better world, a near-white man might choose to be black, as the narrator’s closing remarks suggest: “I cannot repress the thought, that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”

By his very voice, the nameless narrator of The Autobiography of Ex-Coloured Man challenges American assumptions about race. Moreover, his namelessness makes one wonder who he is, where he is, and if there are others like him. Finally, Johnson’s novel extends the autobiographical pattern started in African American literature with the slave narrative. Through him, the pattern was bequeathed to later writers, such as Ellison.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man

First published: 1912

Type of work: Novel

A nameless man of mixed parentage explores both sides of the color line and decides to live as a white man because it is easier.

The story is not what the title suggests, for James Weldon Johnson is not telling his own story. He is telling the story of a nameless man whose father is white and mother is black. Though the story does begin at the birth of the narrator, it ends shortly after the narrator makes a profound decision: to live as a white man, or to “pass.” The autobiography, then, is actually the story of the black part of the narrator’s life. Only in the last few pages of the novel does the reader learn about what happens after the narrator passes.

The narrator’s story begins with his birth in a small town in Georgia, shortly after the Civil War. The narrator’s earliest memories include a visitor to his house, a man who has status and wealth. The reader later learns that this gentleman is the narrator’s white father. The father sends money for his son’s support. He even visits frequently before the narrator and his mother migrate to the North. Up North, the narrator shows considerable talent for music and education. While in school, the narrator learns the word “nigger” and even uses it to insult black classmates. When one of his white friends looks at him and says, “Oh, you’re a nigger too,” the narrator discovers the complex nature of his heritage. His mother, crying about the fact that she is black, tells him, “your father is one of the greatest men in the country—the best blood of the South is in you—”

The narrator’s father buys him a piano. His mother dies just after he graduates from high school. With four hundred dollars cobbled together from his mother’s estate and a piano concert, the narrator heads south to attend college at Atlanta University. After a short time in the program, his money is stolen, and he is forced to make other plans. On the advice of a Pullman porter, the narrator heads to Jacksonville, Florida, to get a job. In Jacksonville, the narrator becomes a cigar roller and begins to understand the various economic gradations of African American society. He also learns to speak Spanish by associating with the Cuban workmen in the cigar factory. Despite his success in Jacksonville, the narrator soon books passage to New York City.

In New York, the narrator develops into a popular musician by frequenting a gambling establishment called the “Club.” The narrator first visits the club to gamble and to enjoy the glitz, glamour, music, and excitement of club life. Eventually, he puts his classical musical training to work, becoming “a remarkable player of ragtime . . . indeed the best ragtime player in New York.” White patrons who “slum” in black clubs begin filling the “Club” to hear him play. One of them, a white man of great wealth, begins to employ the narrator to play for him at parties and privately.

The narrator’s stardom comes to an abrupt end when a female admirer called the “widow” insists that he drink with her. In the midst of their encounter, her former boyfriend shoots her. In order to escape the fallout of such an event, the narrator’s millionaire friend employs him to go to Europe with him. In Europe, the narrator and his friend stay in Paris. When the friend tires of Paris, they drift to London and then to Holland and finally to Germany. In Berlin, the narrator encounters a piano player who awakens him to the rich possibilities of ragtime. While the narrator has made a name for himself by turning classical music into ragtime, this gentleman takes the chords of ragtime apart and turns it into what the narrator calls “a classic.” The narrator dedicates the rest of his life to demonstrating the genius of black music and culture.

With this goal in mind, he heads back to the United States against the advice of his friend, returning to the state of his birth, Georgia. There he hopes to study African American culture, ultimately making others aware of the genius therein. However, when he witnesses a lynching, he decides to go back to New York City. There he enrolls in business school and eventually becomes a successful businessman. He marries a white woman, confessing to her the truth of his heritage before the wedding. They live very happily as a white couple until she dies giving birth to their second child. Though the narrator continues to feel that he deserted the better part of himself by becoming white, he cannot regret his action: “My love for my children makes me glad that I am what I am.”

“Fifty Years”

First published: 1913 (collected in Fifty Years, and Other Poems, 1917)

Type of work: Poem

A poem celebrating the fifty-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Johnson wrote “Fifty Years” to celebrate the fifty-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. He uses a regular iambic tetrameter meter in the poem and an abab rhyme scheme. The poem is ceremonial, the poet reminding the reader that homage is due to Abraham Lincoln for his insight, his sacrifice, and his action.

Despite the conventional nature of the poem, Johnson puts forward significant arguments that would later become part of the Civil Rights movement. Africans were brought here against their will; nonetheless, African Americans have more than earned the right of “sonship” through working the soil, fighting in war, and being loyal to a country that enslaved them. The poet argues that African American experience in this country is of divine origin: “A part of His unknown design.” Accordingly, God still controls the destiny of the race, and he will not allow the sacrifice of Lincoln and others to “come to naught.”

“The Creation”

First published: 1920 (also in God’s Trombones, 1927)

Type of work: Poem

A poem written in imitation of the first section of a traditional African American sermon.

Johnson wrote “The Creation” in imitation of African American pulpit oratory. The poem eventually became a part of a seven-poem sequence published as God’s Trombones. The traditional sermon pattern that Johnson is imitating follows a sequence beginning with Creation, moving through the Fall of Man, the persecutions of the Hebrews, redemption through Christ’s Crucifixion, and finally to Judgment Day. Johnson’s poems basically correspond to this sequence. Though the source of this structure is biblical, the African American preacher was quite individualistic in his retelling of this story. Though Johnson consciously avoids dialect in the poems, he carefully embeds into the verse a nontraditional pattern of meter, using dashes to indicate pauses for breath and embedding syllables to create “a decided syncopation of speech.” In “The Creation,” God creates the world in the same basic sequence that he creates it in Genesis, but God in the poem is much more anthropomorphic than the Old Testament God. He walks around and looks around. He even puts his head in his hands. When he breathes life into man, God is “Like a mammy bending over her baby.”


First published: 1916 (collected in Fifty Years, and Other Poems, 1917)

Type of work: Poem

“Brothers” is a poem in which a man to be lynched explains the reasons for his crimes, explaining finally that he is a brother to those who lynch him.

“Brothers” is a poem of conventional meter, iambic pentameter, and conventional form, question and answer. The subject matter, however, is disturbing. A man to be lynched is asked why he has acted like a beast. He responds that his beastlike shape slumbers in all of those quiet African Americans who have for years taken abuse and discrimination while acting as loyal servants. After his body is burned, those who lynched him ponder his last “muttered” words: “’Brothers in spirits, brothers in deed are we.” The explanation they seek is in the title of the poem: They have committed a crime against him as he has committed a crime against them. Ironically, however, the man who is lynched committed one crime; the men who lynched him committed the crime of killing him and collectively creating the beast he had become.


James Weldon Johnson Poetry: American Poets Analysis