James Weldon Johnson Johnson, James Weldon - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Fifty Years, and Other Poems 1917

The Book of Negro American Poetry [editor] 1922

God's Trombones 1927

St. Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems 1935

Other Major Works

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (novel) 1912

Black Manhattan (history) 1930

Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (autobiography) 1933

Benjamin Brawley (review date 1918)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A Review of Fifty Years and Other Poems, in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. III, No. 2, April, 1918, pp. 202-203.

[In the following review, Brawley lauds "the simple, direct, and sometimes sensuous expression" of several poems in Johnson's Fifty Years, and Other Poems.]

From time to time for the last fifteen years Mr. James Weldon Johnson has been remarked as one of the literary men of the race. He has now brought together his verses in a little volume, Fifty Years and Other Poems, an introduction to which has been written by Professor Brander Matthews, of Columbia University. The task was eminently worth while.

The book falls...

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Harriet Monroe (review date 1927)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A Review of God's Trombones, in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. XXX, No. V, August, 1927, pp. 291-93.

[In the following review, Monroe praises Johnson's God's Trombones as "his own highest achievement as a poet."]

For some time Mr. Johnson has been known as a leader among the American Negro poets, and as by all odds their best editor. His Book of American Negro Poetry, and his two books of Spirituals, with their prefaces, are monuments of patient and sympathetic scholarship and of devotion to his race in its highest achievements.

The present volume [God's Trombones] is his own highest achievement as a poet. The author...

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The Canadian Forum (review date 1927)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A Review of God's Trombones, in The Canadian Forum, Vol. VII, No. 84, September, 1927, pp. 380, 382.

[In the following review, the critic calls God's Trombones "a striking achievement of… reverence."]

[God's Trombones] contains what the author calls 'seven negro sermons in verse' Readers of The Century Magazine and of The American Mercury will have seen two of the poems, since 'The Judgment Day' appeared in the former, and 'Go Down, Death', in the latter periodical. Mr. Johnson will add to an already enviable reputation by this latest experiment, for such it must be called. He has taken seven of the stock themes of the...

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Countee Cullen (review date 1927)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "And the Walls Came Tumblin' Down," in The Bookman (New York), Vol. LXVI, No. 2, October, 1927, pp. 221-22.

[In the following review, Cullen favorably assesses the poems of Johnson's God's Trombones.]

And seven priests shall bear before the ark seven trumpets of rams' horns; and the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets.

And it shall come to pass, that when they make a long blast with the ram's horn, and when ye hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat….


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Harold Rosenberg (review date 1936)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Truth and the Academic Style," in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. XLIX, No. I, October, 1936, pp. 49-51.

[In the following review of St. Peter Relates an Incident, Rosenberg observes that Johnson's conservative poetic temperament undercuts the harsh political realities of his subject matter.]

The title poem [of Saint Peter Relates an Incident, Selected Poems] is the author's expression in satirical terms, of the indignation he felt on reading in the newspaper of a morning in 1930 that the U. S. government was sending a group of gold-star mothers to France to visit the graves of their sons slain in the World War, and that the Negro gold-star mothers...

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Stephen H. Bronz (essay date 1964)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "James Weldon Johnson," in Roots of Negro Racial Consciousness, The 1920's: Three Harlem Renaissance Authors, Libra Publishers, 1964, pp. 18-46.

[In the following excerpt, Bronz examines the social importance of Johnson 's early poetry in Fifty Years, and Other Poems and comments on his later work as a precursor to the Harlem Renaissance.]

His First Poems: History, Polemics, and Croons

[Johnson's] first poem to reach a large audience, "Lift Every Voice," has become known as the Negro National Anthem.14 Johnson wrote the anthem together with [his brother John] Rosamond in 1900, to be sung by Jacksonville school children...

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Lynn Adelman (essay date 1967)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Study of James Weldon Johnson," in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. LII, No. 2, April, 1967, pp. 128-45.

[In the following essay, Adelman reflects on Johnson 's life, writing, and contributions to African-American culture between the 1890s and 1930s.]

The period running roughly from the 1890's to the 1930's was a particularly harsh one for the American Negro. It was characterized in many ways by a deterioration in the Negro's status both in the South and the North. And although the Negro made some important gains, especially in the latter part of this period, the South's capitulation to racism and to the Jim Crow code of discrimination, which began in the...

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Richard A. Long (essay date 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Weapon of My Song: The Poetry of James Weldon Johnson," in Phylon, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter, 1971, pp. 374-82.

[In the following essay, Long surveys Johnson 's poetic works, assessing his evolving notion of "the function of the poet."]

The verse output of James Weldon Johnson falls into four groups: lyrics in standard English, poems in the dialect tradition, folk-inspired free verse, and a long satirical poem. The first two groups are contemporary and were published in the volume Fifty Years and Other Poems (Boston, 1917). The prayer and seven Negro sermons of the third group constitute God's Trombones (New York, 1927). The last group is...

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Jean Wagner (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "James Weldon Johnson," in Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, University of Illinois Press, 1973, pp. 351-84.

[In the following excerpt, Wagner explores the conventionality of Johnson 's early verse and describes the poet's ambivalence toward agnosticism and dialect poetry.]

Religious and Patriotic Conformism

Since the avowal made in his autobiography five years before his death, we know that all Johnson's religious poetry came from the pen of an unbeliever.29

Under the influence of his maternal grandmother, who would have liked to see him become a minister, from the...

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Blyden Jackson and Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Search for a Language, 1746-1923," in Black Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretation, Louisiana State University Press, 1974, pp. 1-36.

[In the following excerpt, Jackson and Rubin recount Johnson 's influential creation of a true black voice in American poetry.]

When James Weldon Johnson, putting together his first book of verse in 1917, entitled the final section "Croons and Jingles," he was making an ironic comment not only upon his own early work but upon the situation of the American poet who was black. For by croons and jingles, Johnson was referring to the modes of poetry in which the black poet was expected to write. He could...

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Saunders Redding (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "James Weldon Johnson and the Pastoral Tradition," in The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Fall, 1975, pp. 417-21.

[In the following essay, Redding investigates Johnson's use of dialect and the "Southern Negro idiom" in his poetry.]

In a book entitled Some Versions Of Pastoral, published in 1935,' the English critic and poet William Empson set forth a definition of the pastoral that differed from both the ancient classical and the later Elizabethan concept, both of which comprehended poetry only. Empson's definition more or less ignored the elements of form, of meter, and of subject matter in order to emphasize technique and intent. He...

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Susan J. Koprince (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Femininity and the Harlem Experience: A Note on James Weldon Johnson," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, September, 1985, pp. 52-56.

[In the following essay, Koprince relates Johnson's presentation of women as temptresses or as saintly mothers in the poems of God's Trombones to his impression of Harlem in the 1920s.]

God's Trombones (1927), James Weldon Johnson's collection of folk sermons in verse, has long been celebrated for its innovative language1—in particular, for its rhythmic, free-verse lines, which recreate the art of the "old-time Negro preacher."2 But these poetic sermons can also be examined profitably in...

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Robert E. Fleming (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Composition of James Weldon Johnson's 'Fifty Years,'" in American Poetry, Vol. 4, No. 2, Winter, 1987, pp. 51-56.

[In the following essay, Fleming suggests that Johnson significantly revised his poem 'Fifty Years ' prior to its publication in order to make it more acceptable to white audiences.]

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) has frequently been recognized as the sort of black writer and leader who achieved a great deal by working within the American legal and political system. Educated at Atlanta University, Johnson taught in an all-black rural elementary school and in a black high school and college, practiced law in Florida, wrote for black newspapers...

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Robert E. Fleming (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: James Weldon Johnson, Twayne Publishers, 1987,123 p.

[In the following excerpt, Fleming traces Johnson's development from a writer of conventional poetry to one of experimental free verse in God's Trombones.]

During his Atlanta years Johnson began to write poetry. From the 1890s through his publication of Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917) the form and subject matter of his poems are characteristic of the period in which he wrote; that is, they are written in conventional stanzaic forms, in rhymed verse, and they address subjects that are either the conventional subject matter of the poet or the specialized subject matter of the Afro-American poet, as...

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Robert E. Fleming (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones as a Source for Faulkner's Rev'un Shegog," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, September, 1992, pp. 24-30.

[In the following essay, Fleming suggests the influence of Johnson 's God's Trombones on William Faulkner's southern black preacher in The Sound and the Fury.]

Studies of Faulkner's relationship to the black race have usually treated his depiction of black characters, his position on civil rights questions, the place of African Americans in Faulkner's South, or Faulkner's influence—positive and negative—on later black writers from Ralph Ellison to William Melvin Kelley.1 It has generally...

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Holly Eley (review date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Committed to the Conduit," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4721, September 24, 1993, p. 27.

[In the following review of St. Peter Relates an Incident, Eley summarizes Johnson's career and the significance of his poetry.]

James Weldon Johnson's reputation no longer rests—if it ever truly did—on his poems. Although his work includes the gospel hymn, "Steal Away to Jesus," he arguably deserves most respect as an exemplary member of W.E.B. Du Bois's "talented tenth": black Americans who, having managed to surmount the difficulties encountered by the descendants of slaves and having joined the middle class, neither abandon their brothers nor burn out....

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Mason, Julian. "James Weldon Johnson." In Fifty Southern Writers After 1900: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain, pp. 280-89. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Bibliography of primary and secondary sources preceded by an introduction to Johnson's life and the major themes of his work.


Brawley, Benjamin. "Protest and Vindication-James Weldon Johnson." In The Negro Genius: A New Appraisal of the Achievement of the American Negro in Literature and the Fine Arts, pp. 206-214. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1937.


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