James Weldon Johnson 1871–1938
American novelist, poet, autobiographer, historian, and critic.
Johnson is regarded as an influential black American author whose novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) impacted the work of later writers concerned with the nature of racial identity. Seen as an accurate sociological depiction of the lives of black Americans by his contemporaries, Johnson's novel is today viewed as a complex work providing an ambiguous psychological study of its anonymous title character. Although literature for Johnson was only one aspect of an active and varied professional life, he produced accomplished works in several literary genres, including the novel, conventional and experimental poetry, popular songs, literary and social criticism, and autobiography. As a poet, Johnson is best known for God's Trombones (1927), a collection of seven poems which capture the rhythmic and spiritual essence of traditional black sermons. He is furthermore recognized for his groundbreaking editorship of The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922).
Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, where his father worked as headwaiter at a luxury resort hotel and his mother taught grammar school. At Jacksonville's Straton Grammar School he showed early virtuosity in both music and literature, but because secondary education was not available to black students, he was sent to a preparatory school at Atlanta University in Georgia. Johnson graduated in 1894 and was recommended for, and received, a scholarship to Harvard University medical school; however, he turned down this offer in order to return to Straton Grammar School as its principal. Although he continued at Straton for several years, Johnson simultaneously pursued other careers: as a lawyer with a private practice; as founder of the Daily American, believed to have been the first black daily newspaper in the country; and as a lyricist for Cole and Johnson Brothers, writing successful songs with his younger brother Rosamond and his song-and-dance partner Bob Cole. In 1906 Johnson abandoned his show business activities to accept a position in the U. S. Consular Service. He began his work at a small post in Venezuela, and it was at this time that he wrote most of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Later he was advanced to a position in Nicaragua, where he completed the novel.
In 1913 Johnson resigned from the service and in January of that year his poem "Fifty Years," commemorating the
Emancipation Proclamation, appeared in the New York Times. Johnson's literary reputation soared and the work's popularity prompted publishers of the New York Age to hire him as an editorial writer in 1914. His popular column in this newspaper offered a conciliatory view toward the opposing black political factions aligned with either Booker T. Washington or the militant W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1916 Johnson joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and served as the organization's executive secretary from 1920 to 1930. His active association with the NAACP also marks the years Johnson published the poetry collections Fifty Years, and Other Poems (1917) and God's Trombones, as well as wrote the historical study Black Manhattan (1930) and edited the works of lesser-known black poets in an anthology titled The Book of American Negro Poetry. In 1931 he returned to education as a professor of creative literature at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Johnson died in 1938 in an automobile accident.
The nature of Johnson's early poetic works is demonstrated in the collection Fifty Years, and Other Poems—comprised of traditional verse and dialect poetry, in the manner of Johnson's contemporary Paul Laurence Dunbar, which seeks to approximate the language of southern blacks of the period. The sixteen poems in the latter mode are grouped together in the section entitled "Jingles and Croons." These pieces generally touch upon transitory or humorous subjects, though they occasionally confront more significant themes, such as lost love in "Sense You Went Away." The remaining, conventional pieces of the collection primarily document serious, racial topics—slavery, lynching, black rights, interracial relationships—and include the protest poems "To America" and "Brothers." Johnson's second volume of poetry, God's Trombones, represents a significant departure from his earlier verse. Containing seven poetic sermons in free verse, the work evokes what critics perceive as a powerful and natural black voice in the idiom of the traditional southern Negro preacher. As such, the themes of God's Trombones are throughout religious and spiritual, drawing significantly from Biblical narrative in such works as "The Creation," "The Prodigal Son," "Noah Built the Ark," and "The Crucifixion." Johnson's final poetry collection, St. Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems (1935), features very little new material aside from the long, satirical Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day. The poem's narrative offers a parable of racial prejudice recounted by St. Peter. In it, a collection of whites watch as the body of the Unknown Soldier is exhumed on the day of resurrection. To their dismay, they learn that the soldier is black and watch him as he proceeds into heaven while singing a Negro spiritual.
Johnson's early Fifty Years, and Other Poems attracted only slight interest at the time of its publication, and has since been largely dismissed by critics who see the collection as a very modest composition in standard poetic forms and of verse characterized by the minstrel dialect often used by poets of the time. Additionally, the poem Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day has been viewed as a disappointing satire marred by stylistic and structural flaws. In contrast, critics have regarded God's Trombones as an impressive poetic achievement and have lauded its superb translation of the rhythms and metaphors of black preachers into literary form. It is for this work that scholars have generally acknowledged Johnson as a poet of considerable influence and vision, equaling that of his accomplishments in fiction as the author of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.