James Weldon Johnson Poetry: American Poets Analysis - Essay

James Weldon Johnson Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

James Weldon Johnson had many roles—lawyer, activist, politician, diplomat, journalist, songwriter, and anthologist—but he is perhaps best remembered for his writings, including his inspirational poetry. The lasting popularity and public interest in Johnson’s writings is demonstrated by the numerous reprints of his works.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Johnson wrote Lift Every Voice and Sing to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900; his brother John Rosamond Johnson set the poem to music. The rhyme scheme is aabccdeee. The popular composition is the voice of free African Americans expressing their hopes for the future of the United States. It served as the NAACP’s theme song and as the African American national hymn. Johnson’s elation each time he heard it is noted in Complete Poems.

Fifty Years, and Other Poems

Johnson’s first verse collection, Fifty Years, and Other Poems, compiled twenty years of writing. Johnson wrote the poem “Fifty Years” in Nicaragua in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The twenty-four-stanza poem, with a rhyme scheme of abab, originally was forty-one stanzas long. The New York Times published the poem on the fiftieth anniversary (1912) of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Many of the poems are about racial discrimination. “Color Sergeant” descrbies a man with “color black” who gives his life in warfare. Although “despised of men” for his color, the sergeant remains true “to his duty.” The poem reminds readers of the military contributions of African Americans. The five-stanza poem uses the rhyme scheme of abcb. The unrhymed “Brothers” is a graphic description of a mob’s burning an African American at the stake. The final words of the victim are “’Brothers in spirit, brothers in deed are we.’” The poem ends with the mob pondering what the victim meant by these words.

The last poems in the volume employ dialect, suggestive of the writings of Johnson’s friend Paul Laurence Dunbar. This writing is offensive to some readers and critics but pleasing to others. Two of the poems employing dialect—“Nobody’s Lookin’ but de Owl and de Moon: A Negro Serenade” and “You’s Sweet to Yo’ Mammy Jes de Same: Lullaby”—were lyrics taken from the songs written in New York by...

(The entire section is 994 words.)