James Weldon Johnson

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Benjamin Brawley (review date 1918)

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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 into two parts. The first is made up of poems in the commonly accepted forms, though there are one or two examples of vers libre; and the second is entitled Jingles and Croons. This second division consists of dialect verses, especially the songs that have been set to music, most frequently by the poet's brother, Mr. J. Rosamond Johnson. Outstanding are the very first lines, "Sence you went away." It is well that these pieces have been brought together. For artistic achievement, however, attention will naturally be fixed upon the first division. "Fifty Years" was written in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the emancipation of the race. Professor Matthews speaks of it as "one of the noblest commemorative poems yet written by any American—a poem sonorous in its diction, vigorous in its workmanship, elevated in its imagination, and sincere in its emotion." This is high praise, and yet it may reasonably be asked if there are not in the book at least four pieces of finer poetic quality. These are, first of all, the two poems that originally appeared in the Century [Magazine], "Mother Night" and "O Black and Unknown Bards," and "The White Witch" and "The Young Warrior." The first of these four poems is a sonnet well rounded out. The second gains merit by reason of its strong first and last two stanzas. "The White Witch" chooses a delicate and difficult theme, but contains some very strong stanzas. "The Young Warrior" is a poem of rugged strength and one that deserves all the popularity it has achieved with Mr. Burleigh's musical setting. Mr. Johnson is strongest in the simple, direct, and sometimes sensuous expression that characterizes these latter poems, and it is to be hoped that he may have the time and the inclination to write many more like them.


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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...

(This entire section contains 965 words.)

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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 theDaily 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.

Harriet Monroe (review date 1927)

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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 says modestly in his excellent preface:

I claim no more for these poems than that I have written them after the manner of the primitive sermons.

But it is something of an achievement to suggest, as he does, the spirit and rhythm of those sermons, and to do it without the help of dialect or of antiphonal repetitions. There may be two opinions about the tradition of dialect; at least Mr. Johnson makes a very good argument against it in his preface, and gets on very well without it.

With the old-time Negro, religion was a grand adventure. It exalted him into rapture, and his imagination lavished gymnastic figures upon it. Here, for example, are two stanzas from "The Creation":

Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas;
He batted his eyes, and the lightning flashed;
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled,
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

We have space for only a hint of the book's quality. Mr. Johnson does not claim to have originated the sermons; like Joel Chandler Harris he has set down what he heard—the essence of it; and he is entitled to credit of the same kind. Hardly to the same degree, however, as the authenticity is less complete, the art less perfect. I wish he could have let himself go a little more rashly; for the creation myth, as I heard Lucine Finch repeat her old mammy's version, was more powerfully poetic than Mr. Johnson's.

However, we should be grateful for this book. As the author says:

The old-time Negro preacher is rapidly passing, and I have here tried sincerely to fix something of him.

Principal Works

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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

The Canadian Forum (review date 1927)

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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 old-time preachers of his race, 'The Prodigal Son', 'Noah Built the Ark', 'The Crucifixion', 'Let My People Go', 'The Judgment Day', and the two already mentioned. These he has put into verse form, with a striking achievement of impressiveness and reverence, striking only, to be sure, when one recalls that for many years now the negro sermon of the old type has been used chiefly as a subject for very hackneyed parody at rural garden parties and other ready-made entertainments.

The chief means whereby Mr. Johnson has avoided the possibility of giggling, a possibility which no amount of sympathy with the negro preacher or his point of view can deny, is the non-employment of dialect, as he explains in his exceedingly interesting introduction. I have heard two of these stock sermons, preached by semi-literate negroes, with a dignity and an exaltation that have left a lasting impression, and find it difficult to account for the retention of the intimate simplicity and peculiar power of the old sermon when the dialect has been discarded. All the vividness and directness have been retained, all the quick alternation of solemn far-away objectivity and apocalyptic imagery with sudden, familiar evangelistic appeal, with the stress naturally shifted to the former.

Not the least arresting feature of the book is the fine series of eight drawings by the negro artist, Aaron Douglas. The whole makes an important contribution to the study of the negro folk-culture, by two men who possess the gift, rare indeed among their people, it seems to me, of being able to stand off and analyze their old culture without losing genuine feeling for it.

Countee Cullen (review date 1927)

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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….

James Weldon Johnson has blown the true spirit and the pentecostal trumpeting of the dark Joshuas of the race in God's Trombones, composed of seven sermon-poems and a prayer. The seven sermons are like the seven blasts blown by Joshua at Jericho. "The Creation", "The Prodigal Son", "Go Down Death—A Funeral Sermon", "Noah Built the Ark", "The Crucifixion", "Let My People Go", and "The Judgment Day", they are all great evangelical texts. And the magnificent manner in which they are done increases our regret that Mr. Johnson was not intrigued into preaching "The Dry Bones In the Valley", the pièce de résistance in the repertoire of every revivalist to whom a good shout is a recommendation of salvation well received.

An experiment and an intention lie behind these poems. It will be remembered that in The Book of American Negro Poetry Mr. Johnson spoke of the limitations of dialect, which he compared to an organ having but two stops, one of humor and one of pathos. He felt that the Negro poet needed to discover some medium of expression with a latitude capable of embracing the Negro experience. These poems were written with that purpose in view, as well as to guarantee a measure of permanence in man's most forgetful mind to that highly romantic and fast disappearing character, the old time Negro preacher.

The poet here has admirably risen to his intentions and his needs; entombed in this bright mausoleum the Negro preacher of an older day can never pass entirely death-ward. Dialect could never have been synthesized into the rich mortar necessary for these sturdy unrhymed exhortations. Mr. Johnson has captured that peculiar flavor of speech by which the black sons of Zebedee, lacking academic education, but grounded through their religious intensity in the purest marshalling of the English language (the King James' version of the Bible) must have astounded men more obviously letter-trained. This verse is simple and awful at once, the grand diapason of a musician playing on an organ with far more than two keys.

There is a universality of appeal and appreciation in these poems that raises them, despite the fact that they are labeled "Seven Negro Sermons in Verse", and despite the persistent racial emphasis of Mr. Douglas' beautiful illustrations, far above a relegation to any particular group or people. Long ago the recital of the agonies and persecutions of the Hebrew children under Pharaoh ceased to chronicle the tribulations of one people alone. So in "Let My People Go" there is a world-wide cry from the oppressed against the oppressor, from the frail and puny against the arrogant in strength who hold them against their will. From Beersheba to Dan the trusting wretch, rich in nothing but his hope and faith, holds this an axiomatic solace:

All you sons of Pharaoh,
Who do you think can hold God's people
When the Lord himself has said,
Let my people go?

In considering these poems one must pay unlimited respect to the voice Mr. Johnson has recorded, and to the pliable and agony-racked audience to whom those great black trombones blared their apocalyptic revelations, and their terrible condemnation of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Theirs was a poetic idiom saved, by sincerity and the heritage of a colorful imagination, from triteness. If in "Listen, Lord", they addressed the Alpha and Omega of things in a manner less reverent than the frigidity of the Christian's universal prayer, it is not to be doubted that their familiarity was bred not of contempt, but of the heart-felt liberty of servitors on easy speaking terms with their Master. What people not so privileged could apostrophize Christ so simply and so humanly as merely "Mary's Baby"?

In like manner certain technical crudities and dissonances can be explained away. The interpolation here and there of a definitely rhymed couplet among the lines of this vigorous free and easy poetry will not jar, when one reflects that if poetry is the language of inspiration, then these black trumpeters, manna-fed and thirst-assuaged by living water from the ever flowing rock, could well be expected to fly now and then beyond their own language barriers into the realms of poetic refinements of which they knew nothing, save by intuitive inspiration. And if on occasion the preacher ascended from you and your to thee and thou, this too is in keeping with his character.

To me "The Creation" and "Go Down Death" are unqualifiedly great poems. The latter is a magnificent expatiation and interpretation of the beatitudes; it justifies Job's "I know in Whom I have believed" to all the weary, sorrow-broken vessels of earth. It is a revelation of to what extent just men shall be made perfect. The repetitions in "The Crucifixion" are like hammer-strokes of agony.

It is a tribute to Mr. Johnson's genius that when a friend of mine recently read "Go Down Death" to an audience in Mr. Johnson's own natal town, an old wizened black woman, the relic of a day of simpler faith and more unashamed emotions than ours, wept and shouted. Perhaps many a modern pastor, logically trained and multi-degreed, might retrieve a scattering flock, hungry for the bread of the soul, by reading one of these poems as a Sunday service.

Further Reading

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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.

Provides a sketch of Johnson's life which includes a brief survey of his works of poetry.

Broun, Heywood Hale. "James Weldon Johnson." In Collected Edition of Heywood Broun, pp. 452-54. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1941.

Gives a short biographical assessment of Johnson.

Desjardins, Lucile. "James Weldon Johnson." In Rising Above Color, edited by Philip Henry Lotz, pp. 98-104. New York: Association Press, 1943.

Offers a biographical study of Johnson that concentrates on his poetic achievements and work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Levy, Eugene. James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973, 380 p.

Provides an exemplary, full-length biography of Johnson.


Collier, Eugenia W. "James Weldon Johnson: Mirror of Change." Phylon 21, No. 4 (1960): 351-59.

Evaluates the pivotal 1920s emergence of Johnson's verse in the southern black idiom, which elevated the genre of stilted and traditional African-American dialect poetry.

Whalum, Wendell Phillips. "James Weldon Johnson's Theories and Performance Practices of Afro-American Folksong." Phylon 32, No. 4 (Winter 1971): 383-95.

Examines Johnson's writings as they pertain to the style and performance of black American spirituals.

Additional coverage of Johnson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 19; Black Literary Criticism, Vol. 2; DISCovering Authors: Multicultural Authors Module; DISCovering Authors: Poets Module; Black Writers, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 125; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography 1917-1929; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 32; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 51; Major 20th-century Writers; and Something About the Author, Vol. 31.

Harold Rosenberg (review date 1936)

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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 poetictemperament 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 would not be allowed to travel with the white, but would be sent over later on a second-class ship. The incident, related in Eternity by Saint Peter, deals with the discovery on Resurrection Day that the Unknown Soldier, buried in Washington, happens to be a Negro.

It is grievous to report that the outrageous act of public discrimination against his race which inspired Mr. Johnson to write his poem strikes very little fire in the poem itself. Naturally, the blurb on the book tries to capitalize on the genius of the Negro people by claiming for the poem "something of the simple charm of Negro lore." As a matter of fact, however, the Saint Peter poem, as well as the rest of the volume, is less typical of the poetry produced out of the labor, anguish, courage, and awakening consciousness of the Negro race in America, than of the literary products of the conservative upper-class nationalist of any race or nation. Mr. Johnson is a Negro poet only in the sense that he applies his academic art to the situation of the American Negro. So far as literary qualities are concerned, a conservative Chinese nationalist, a conservative Zionist, a conservative Hindu nationalist, a conservative celebrator of American accomplishment, all resemble Mr. Johnson in their comfortable idealization of nature-sentiments, their reliant appeals to abstract Justice, their self-solacing trust in an after-death rectification of what their people have suffered. Amid the most brutal assaults upon the lives and liberties of their beloved people, these patriots manage to remain aloft and dignified, the official mourners, the official voices of hope in the future. With respect to nationality, they exist as Chinese, Jews, Hindus, Americans; with respect to poetry, they are all one thing—academicians: an internationalism of mediocrity forever seeking to disguise itself under racial and geographic borderlines.

Whatever part it may play in the social and political progress of the people it aims to represent, the official gesture is irreconcilable with good poetry. The chemistry of interaction between experience, imagination, and language is completely unknown to the stencil-designer of monumental shadows of good will. When Mr. Johnson, in the poem called "Brothers—American Drama," gives an account of the burning alive of a member of his race, he does not say that the victim was lynched because he was a Negro—that would be too horrible; he is lynched because he is not a Negro at all but

The monstrous offspring of the monster, Sin,

a criminal, whom Mr. Johnson is careful to dissociate from

That docile, child-like, tender-hearted race
Which we have known three centuries.

And the only admonition he can give to the righteous mob which has "avenged" some "fiendish crime" are the dying man's last words,

Brothers in spirit, brothers in deed are we—

in short, an absurd application (Why "brothers in deed"?—did the victim lynch himself?—or did he lynch the mob?) of the apostolic slogan to be found in all idealistic versions of crime and punishment. Is this the speech of a Negro poet? Of any Negro in concrete imaginative contact with the ultimate dread and horror of the black man's history? Such a falsely conceived, slave-mongering piece of high-society propaganda, overlooking its lynch-condoning implications in order to raise the "problem" of mass-servitude to a metaphysical height, could only be constructed in the most wooden language imaginable. With its calculated juggling of old figures, it has the poetic and intellectual value of a false financial report.

Such being the condition of Mr. Johnson's talents, it is possible to respond favorably to his verses on two occasions only: when the great folk-song tradition of his people flows over his poetry, as in some of the dialect poems; and when it happens to fall within his philosophy to make a clear statement of fact:

Stephen H. Bronz (essay date 1964)

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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 on Lincoln's Birthday. The following snippets give a fair summary:

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;


We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, …

Till we stand at last where the white gleam of our star is cast …
God of our silent tears,


Keep us forever in the path, we pray


Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.

These are curious lines to have come from Johnson. First, he was an admitted agnostic.15 Second, the anthem's sentiments stress only the Negro's duties instead of also the white man's and God's obligations to the Negro. Even more curious is Johnson's own comment many years later that "nothing I have done has paid me back as fully in satisfaction.… I am also carried back … to … the exquisite emotions I felt at the birth of the song." In 1935, he wrote that he and Rosamond had all but forgotten the anthem after moving from Jacksonville. Only after the song had spread across Negro America, and was proclaimed the Negro National Anthem by the NAACP in 1920, did Johnson apparently recall such "exquisite emotions." Even though Johnson doubtless would have written a very different Negro anthem in 1935, he probably saw no point in disavowing what had become a mainstay of Negro school pageants.16

In the same spirit, Johnson wrote "Fifty Years," a rousing if not quite heroic commemorative published in the New York Times on January 1, 1913, the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. It begins with a summary view:

O brothers mine, to-day we stand
Where half a century sweeps our ken,
Since God, through Lincoln's ready hand,
Struck off our bonds and made us men.

We have made great strides, it continues, since we were "a naked, shivering score, / … wild-eyed on Virginia's shore." We thank God for our progress, and pray that "we may grow more worthy of this country and this land of ours." Though we came from Africa, we are no longer Africans, or mainly Negroes, but Americans:

This land is ours by right of birth,
This land is ours by right of toil;
We helped to turn its virgin earth,
Our sweat is in its fruitful soil.

In the poem's conclusion, Johnson views the sacrifices whites have made for Negroes, as part of God's plan:

Think you that John Brown's spirit stops?
That Lovejoy was but idly slain?
Or do you think those precious drops
From Lincoln's heart were shed in vain?

That for which millions prayed and sighed,
That for which tens of thousands fought,
For which so many freely died,
God cannot let it come to naught.

Despite the apparent passivity of its message, "Fifty Years" poses an implicit challenge. To make America as much the Negro's land as the white man's and to ensure continued progress would involve more change than most whites were ready to accept in 1913. Possibly with a sense of relief at the poem's apparent mildness, the Times ran an editorial the next day praising "Fifty Years" as a "great subject … greatly treated."17

In 1917, "Fifty Years" was published in a volume by that title with other poems Johnson had written since about 1900.18 ("Lift Every Voice" was not published in a volume until 1935.) Some of the poems in Fifty Years discuss race and the Negro, some are dialect poems, and the remainder are the sorts of third-rate expression of sentiment and moralism one finds tucked away near the drug store ads of small town newspapers. Besides "Fifty Years," Johnson's most powerful poem about race is "To America" which reads:

How would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking 'neath the load we bear?
Our eyes fixed forward on a star?
Or gazing empty at despair?

Rising or falling? Man or things?
With dragging pace or footsteps fleet?
Strong, willing sinews in your wings?
Or tightening chains about your feet?

This appeal to whites' self-interest as well as to simple justice, though reminiscent of Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Exposition speech, implies that prejudice oppresses the white man as well as the Negro.

In "Brothers," Johnson depicts a Negro, accused of rape, telling his white captors, in elevated language, who he really is, and how he came to be that way. "Are not you," the lynchers ask him, "who seem more like brute than man" sprung from "that more than faithful race which through three wars / Fed our dear wives and nursed our helpless babes / Without one single breach of trust?" "I am, and am not," the Negro replies,

The bitter fruit I am of planted seed;
The resultant, the inevitable end
Of evil forces and the powers of wrong


Lessons in degradation, taught and learned,
The memories of cruel sights and deeds,
The pent-up bitterness, the unspent hate

Filtered through fifteen generations have
Sprung up and found in me sporadic life.

Brothers in spirit, brothers in deed are we.

Notwithstanding their captive's eloquence, the whites proceed to lynch him brutally, and to divide his charred bones among themselves as mementos. One vagrant thought, however, still troubles them: "What did he mean by those last muttered words, 'Brothers in spirit, brothers in deed are we?'" The irony of the poem's ending—a man brutally lynched by those who made a brute out of him in the first place—may seem heavy-handed, but the sociology stated in the poem's first section is more sophisticated. Johnson seems to be making three main points: that racial hatred as well as slums and broken homes can produce criminals, that American Negroes potentially can become violent revolutionaries, and that a lynching is as degrading to the lynchers as rape to the lynched, if, indeed, rape was committed.

The dialect poems, together entitled "Jingles and Croons," ring authentic as folk poetry. Their imagery is vivid and the equal of the best efforts of Dunbar, the popular dialect poet, whom, in fact, Johnson was emulating.19 The most famous, the folk blues "Sence You Went Away," has been recorded by Paul Robeson and provided with a violin obligato by Fritz Kreisler.20 The first and last stanzas read:

Johnson's dialect poems and their later counterpart, God's Trombones, form an integral part of his work. They show that he was not only an earnest race leader, but a man able to love and enjoy the folk life of the very people he was trying to uplift.…

As Harlem Renaissance Leader: Critic and Author

Throughout the 'twenties, Johnson helped to lead the Harlem Renaissance, both as poet and elder statesman. Observations he made on the meaning and problems of the movement were penetrating and sophisticated. As early as 1918, he had foreseen that "it may be … that what many are looking for, perhaps unconsciously, from the Negro poet is something not necessarily good, but something different, something strange … something new."48 It was indeed by writing something different, strange, and new that many of the Negro authors of the 'twenties achieved their popularity. Good poetry and fiction often was received no more enthusiastically than the very poor.

Ten years later, with the Renaissance in full swing, Johnson spoke to the same problems, with a somewhat different emphasis. The dilemma of the Negro author, he wrote, is the "problem of the double audience." While most Negro authors try to reach both Negro and white readers, many fall in between and reach neither. The problem arises, he said, because Negro and white readers each read Negro authors with certain preconceptions in mind. Whites, nurtured on Uncle Remus and romantic Southern novels, expect Negro characters to behave like Sambos or low-living hedonists. Negro readers, equally obsessed with the same stereotypes, demand that Negro authors present to white readers only Negroes who belie the stereotypes, heroes with middle-class virtues. Though Johnson did exaggerate—some whites were more knowledgeable and some Negroes, including Johnson himself, were less obsessed with presenting a pleasing image to Whites—the dilemma was a real one, and exerted strong influence on such a writer as Countee Cullen. As Johnson commented: "I judge that there is not a single Negro writer who is not, at least secondarily, impelled by the desire to make his work have some effect on the white world for the good of his race."49

In another critical essay, his introduction to an anthology of Negro poetry, Johnson commented on Negro poets' choices of style and subject. Dunbar, America's first well-known Negro poet, represented the only real tradition Negro authors writing as Negroes possessed. Dunbar, however, writing almost exclusively in dialect, stood for a tradition to rebel from, rather than to emulate. Johnson himself carefully thought out his own reasons for breaking with dialect in his own poetry. Traditional Negro dialect, he said, is inextricably associated with the Sambo image of the Negro, "and by that very exactness it is an instrument with but two full stops, humor and pathos." Hence, he pointed out, dialeet is inadequate for dealing with new social conditions, especially urban life. But language was not a crucial problem in the Negro Renaissance. A handful of poets used traditional dialect, but most wrote in the King's English or in a newer, idiomatic, urban slang. Subject matter, on the other hand, was a crucial issue. Because an author writes most convincingly about material closest to him, Johnson said, Negroes' poems on race problems have far greater "power and artistic finality" than poems dealing with less specifically Negro themes.50

Johnson's final important series of poems, and probably his best, closely followed these precepts. Published in 1927, and printed for the fifteenth time in 1955, God's Trombones, a free verse rendition of a Negro folk-sermon, is steeped in folk imagery yet written in straight English.51 It is distinctly Negro, yet it carries scarcely any explicit propaganda. And it is aimed at Negro audiences rightly proud of their own heritage, and at white audiences who, if they had trouble accepting a Negro as a lawyer, still could appreciate the more familiar figure of the Negro preacher. White readers in the 'twenties, one imagines, expected Johnson's preacher to be a comic figure, but instead were surprised and even awed by the noble, sonorous rhythms of the sermons. Johnson quotes a definition of trombone that not only explains the poem's title, but prepares one for its special kind of music:

trombone: A powerful brass instrument of the trumpet family, the only wind instrument possessing a complete chromatic scale enharmonically true, like the human voice or the violin, and hence very valuble in the orchestra.

The second section of the sermon, "The Creation," begins:

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
Im lonely—
I'll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That's good!

And the beginning of the third section, "The Prodigal Son":

Young man—
Young man—
Your arm's too short to box with God.

After the majesty of "The Creation" and the evangelic fervor of "The Prodigal Son," Johnson turns to engrossing drama in relating the serpent's temptation of Eve, and to shivering poignancy in describing the Crucifixion. Only once does a clear, racially-oriented note of protest manifest itself. It is in the spirited ending of the section on Exodus, made the climax of a dramatization of God's Trombones which opened off-Broadway in December, 1963.

And the waves rushed back together,
And Pharaoh and all his army got lost,
And all his host got drownded.
And Moses sang and Miriam danced,
And the people shouted for joy,
And God led the Hebrew Children on
Till they reached the promised land.

All you sons of Pharaoh.
Who do you think can hold God's people
When he himself has said,
Let my people go?

It is quite possible that God's Trombones was as much compilation from sermons Johnson had heard as original creation, but that question need not bother us, as it doubtless did not bother Johnson. The Negro poet, he wrote,

needs to do … something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without—such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation. He needs a form that is freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form … which will … be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations …52

Johnson was a modest man, and did not mean to imply that God's Trombones made him the Negro's Synge. But he did, it seems clear, mean to guide younger Negro poets towards expressing their own heritage. If the results are not only good poetry, but strengthened pride in being a Negro, so much the better.

For all his urbanity, Johnson could react furiously to injustices that especially piqued him. His capacities for both restraint and anger even seemed to be reflected in his appearance. Johnson was always quietly and carefully dressed, and his face, in later years, was dominated by deep-set, narrow, cat-like eyes which peered out from under bushy eyebrows and a balding head, and over jowled cheeks and a sloping, trim, grey mustache. One infuriating injustice inspired his last major poem, "St. Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day," written in 1930, and published in 1935. In the summer of 1930, Johnson writes in the poem's introduction, he read in a newspaper that the U. S. Government was sending contingents of goldstar mothers to visit the graves of their soldier sons in France. The Negro gold-star mothers, notwithstanding the bond in war and death of the Negro and white soldiers, were to be sent on a separate ship, and second class. The incident, which St. Peter relates in the poem to a group of spell-bound angels, describes the resurrection of the Unknown Soldier. The word went forth that the Unknown Soldier was to be resurrected, and his identity thus revealed. All veteran and patriotic organizations, including the G.A.R., the D.A.R., and the Confederate Veterans, marched to the banks of the Potomac. Led by the Ku Klux Klan, they picked away with shovels at the Unknown Soldier's grave. Finally,

The Klansmen and associates were mortified, but the black Unknown Soldier rose to heaven, singing, "Deep river, my home is over Jordan, / Deep river, I want to cross over into camp-ground." Johnson tells us in his foreward that he wrote "St. Peter" in a single sitting, and there is little reason to question his honesty. The poem is not one of his better efforts; it is far too long, and its irony, because of the unimaginative reaction attributed to the Klansmen, is blunted. Still, it demonstrates that even as late as 1930, Johnson could feel quite bitter towards the adversaries with whom he was trying to deal as calmly as possible.


14 Reprinted in Johnson, St. Peter Relates an Incident (New York, 1935), pp. 101-102.

15 Johnson, Along This Way, pp. 30-31, 154.

16 Johnson, St. Peter Relates an Incident, p. 99; Along This Way, p. 156. See also Ernest Lyon, A Protest against the Title of James Welden [sic] Johnson's Anomalous Poem as a 'Negro National Anthem' as Subversive of Patriotism (1926), and advertisement quoting "Lift Every Voice and Sing" for Mutual Life Insurance Company of Chicago in Johnson Folder, Schomburg Collection.

17"A Negro Speaks for his Race," New York Times, 2 Jan. 1913.

18 Johnson, Fifty Years and Other Poems (Boston, 1917).

19 Johnson, Along This Way. p. 158.

20Ibid., pp. 153-154.

48 Johnson's reply to Floyd Dell's review of Fifty Years and Other Poems, The Liberator, v. 1 (April 1918), p. 43.

49 Johnson, "The Dilemma of the Negro Author," American Mercury, v. 15, no. 60 (Dec. 1928), pp. 477-481.

50 Johnson's "Preface to the Revised Edition" of Johnson, ed., The Book of American Negro Poetry (New York, 1931), pp. 3, 4, 7.

51 Johnson, God's Trombones (New York, 1927). On the poem's origins see Johnson, Along This Way, pp. 335-336.

52 Johnson, St. Peter Relates an Incident, pp. ix, 13-22.

Lynn Adelman (essay date 1967)

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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 1890's, ran unabated until well into the depression years.1 These conditions placed heavy demands on Negro leadership, which was itself torn, at least until 1915, by the bitter split between Booker T. Washington and W. E. DuBois and their followers.

The adult life of James Weldon Johnson spanned approximately these years. Johnson lived from 1871 until 1938. Study of his career yields substantial insight into the period and into the way in which it affected an individual Negro. Johnson's problems and responses were, to be sure, not altogether typical, for he was an unusually gifted and versatile person. But in some ways both his personal career and the nature of the leadership which he provided demonstrate the difficulties the Negro faced and the harsh limitations on the possible approaches to those difficulties.


Johnson had the benefit of an unusual childhood.2 He was born in Jacksonville, Florida, where his family provided a comfortable and culturally stimulating home. His father was a native of New York and held the position of head-waiter at the St. James Hotel. The St. James was a haven for wealthy tourists3 and the Johnson family became familiar, at least as spectators, with an aristocratic way of life. Johnson's mother was the daughter of Stephen Dillet, who was the Postmaster of the city of Nassau and one of the best known Negroes in the Bahamas. She was proud, sensitive, and musically talented; her unique background of Nassau and New York had given her no conception of her "station." From this proud and cosmopolitan home, Johnson gained a deep sense of dignity.

Other factors worked to his advantage. His childhood years were spent in that hazy period in the history of Southern race relations before the violent settlement of the Negro's position had been reached. Systematized discrimination and segregation did not come until later. And in this period—when attitudes had not yet hardened into laws—Jacksonville was considered a particularly good town for Negroes. Thus, Johnson was able to grow up free of the effects of the ghetto or the slum. He never learned to view his Negritude as a burden. When he finally did encounter the problem of race he was able to meet it on a more or less rational level and with an already keen intelligence.

At the age of sixteen Johnson entered Atlanta University. Because of the lack of a Negro high school in Jacksonville, his parents sent him to Atlanta for both his high school and college educations. Thus, he was at Atlanta for practically all of his early manhood and the impact of the school upon him was profound. Atlanta was Johnson's introduction to the problem of race. Awareness of race was pervasive and the subject was constantly discussed. The school sought to foster a sense of mission in its students. It had been founded twenty years before by a white philanthropist whose hope was to develop individual Negro talent, provide inspiration and leadership for Negro communities, and train teachers.4 Johnson began to write poetry with racial themes and he began to think of his purpose in life as one peculiar to a Negro.

So, too, did the school's philosophy of education influence him. Atlanta stressed the classical liberal education. This became central in Johnson's thinking. He would consistently argue that education was the most potent weapon in the Negro's struggle;5 hat the liberal education, in particular, could improve and uplift the Negro. Concerning Booker Washington's emphasis on vocational training, Johnson once pointed out that Washington himself had been liberally educated.6 In stressing academic education, Johnson—who was proud of his own intellectual accomplishments—generalized, in part, from his own experience. This experience may, in some ways, have limited his perspective on the race problem. He seemed sometimes to underestimate the many barriers impeding Negroes from gaining an education. His exhortations, while certainly sensible, occasionally seemed naive as, for example, when he urged Harlem Negroes to spend more time in the library.7


Johnson graduated from Atlanta in 1894. Having by this time become well thought of by the Negroes in Jacksonville, he was offered and accepted the job as principal of Stanton School, which was the elementary school that he had attended and the largest Negro school in Florida. At Stanton he was both a teacher and an administrator and he made a distinguished record. By adding one grade each year, he made Stanton a high school as well as a grade school. His ability was widely recognized, leading, in 1900, to his election as President of the Negro State Teachers Association.

Teaching and school administration, however, were not entirely fulfilling either his ambition or the sense of responsibility to his race which had been developed at Atlanta. These feelings were strong ones and in 1895 they impelled him to start a newspaper. The Daily American, as the paper was called, was aimed primarily at the Negro and was to provide an instrument for the expression of the Negro's feelings. According to one of Johnson's first editorials, the American would champion the rights of the Negro but would criticize him when he deserved it. It would be Republican in politics, objective in its news coverage, and adamant in its fight against wrongdoing, both in personal conduct and in government.8

With the American, for the first time Johnson assumed the role of spokesman for his people and exhorter to them. Alternately he urged the Negro to demonstrate his proven ability9 and to strive to improve himself. Present but less conspicuous in his editorials was the bitter indictment of discrimination and prejudice which would characterize his work for the New York Age twenty years later. The difference in tone was part of the difference in the situations. At the time of the American he was a young man trying to gain support for a new paper, in a time and place where there was virtually no tradition of strong Negro protest.

Johnson was seeking most to increase respect for the Negro in the eyes of both Negroes and whites. The American itself was a symbol of this purpose. Its prosaic style, its puritanical emphasis on clean living and clean government, its explicit attempts at objectivity all were part of his attempt to improve the image of the Negro. Each copy was to be proof that Negroes were not illiterate and irresponsible.

The paper made a good start, but failed after eight months of publication because of insufficient financial support. Johnson himself was not sure whether the failure was because the Negroes of Jacksonville were not yet ready for such a paper, or because of his own failings.10 It was clear that in seeking to provide a voice for the Southern Negro and to encourage pride and self respect Johnson was waging a lonely and uphill struggle. Virtually everything in the Southern system tended to beat against the black man's pride. As Paul Buck has written: "Early in life the Negro child learned the hazards of the color line. It was the lot of every Negro to accept, as most of his race did, the badge of inferiority or to carry within his inner soul an important yet agonizing spark of rebellion against the fateful injustice of his position."11

With the failure of the American, another side of Johnson came to the fore. He decided to take up the study of law and arranged to "read law" in the office of Thomas Ledwith, a young white lawyer whose father had been a prominent Republican. Here was the more conventional aspect of his ambition asserting itself. While he wanted to serve his race, he also wanted to succeed in a way more or less unrelated to race. The tension between these two sides of him would be a consistent theme for many years of his life.

He studied law for eighteen months and then, at the urging of Ledwith, decided to take the Florida bar examination. At that time there were several Negro lawyers in Jacksonville but none had been admitted through open examination in a state court. Johnson's examination was an ordeal, with one of the examiners calling him a "nigger" and walking out, but his answers were right and he managed to pass.

Law, however, was not the career for him. He opened an office, but practiced only for a short time. Although he was not unsuccessful in getting business, he may have seen that opportunities for Negro lawyers in the South were limited. Few were able to devote themselves to practice and fewer appeared in court. For a Negro client, white counsel often was more helpful than the best Negro representation.12

Besides this, he had found a new interest. His brother Rosamond, who was a musician, wanted him to help compose a comic opera. Rosamond was to write the lyrics and James, the words, the ultimate plan being to sell it in New York. Johnson was receptive to the idea. He had been writing verse since college and he was fascinated by the world of theatre and music, which his brother, who had spent seven years studying and working in the North, inhabited.

Together they produced "Toloso," a comic opera satirizing United States imperialism, and in the summer of 1899, set out for New York. Although the opera itself was never produced, the trip was an important one in their lives. "Toloso" served as a passport to the inner circles of the Negro show business world. Johnson was exposed to Negro artists and he saw for the first time the great potentialities of Negro art. His love of New York, which he had visited as a child, was revived. Although he returned to Jacksonville in the fall, it as only a few years later that Johnson left Jacksonville for good. Between 1899 and 1902, he spent his winters at the Stanton School and his summers in New York, writing songs and musical comedies. In the summer of 1900, he and Rosamond formed a combination songwriting-vaudeville team with Bob Cole. And in the summer of 1902, as they became increasingly successful, Johnson resigned from Stanton.

Show business was his fourth new venture in the five years since Atlanta. This darting from one project to another was a commentary on the conditions in which he found himself. A particular kind of identity crisis was involved. There were no clear paths for Johnson to follow. He was a talented and ambitious Negro living in a society which had little place for such types. As the plight of the Negro laborer at this time was poor, so too was that of the Negro aristocrat. As John Hope Franklin has put it: "… the American melting pot, so far as Negroes were concerned, was not boiling; it was hardly simmering." Johnson's desire to be a racial spokesman had been dampened by the failure of the American. Being a lawyer in Florida offered an uncertain future and a high school principalship was not enough for a life's work. One of the few areas of opportunity was the world of show business. It lacked the dignity and the seriousness which were so much a part of him, but it offered glamor and excitement.


In the years between 1900-1906, the team of Cole and the Johnson Brothers flourished. They were among the top composers of American popular music and were signed to a lucrative contract by Klaw and Erlanger, a major theatrical firm. Johnson lived at the Marshall Hotel and was a leading figure in New York's Black Bohemia. He and his partners toured the United States and played the Palace Theater in London. They lived the gay life—in a threemonth stay in Europe they spent some ten thousand dollars and had to borrow money to tip the ship's steward on the return trip.14

Artistically, Johnson's work was less successful. Before becoming a professional songwriter, he had written essentially two kinds of poetry: more or less conventional verse, sometimes with racial themes, and dialect poems. The dialect, at that time, posed a particular problem for an aspiring Negro poet. Dialect, which had first been popularized by white local colorists after the Civil War, consisted mainly of rhymed and metrical misspellings. It was widely accepted as the verse best fitted to describe Negro life, and Negro poets generally wrote in dialect. The subject matter of dialect, however, rarely rose above the stereotype of the harmless plantation Negro.15 It rendered an inaccurate and often insulting picture of the Negro.

Johnson had mixed feelings about the dialect. He liked it because of its particularly Negro quality but he saw its limitations, or as he later wrote, its "artificiality … exaggerated geniality, childish optimism, forced comicality, and mawkish sentiment …"16 Further, he had had some success with conventional form in expressing racial themes. In 1900 he wrote "Lift Every Voice and Sing,"17 a powerful poem which, when set to music, later came to be adopted by Negroes as a Negro National Anthem.

During his tenure in show business, however, he was unable to break away from the dialect. Such a course was made more difficult by the demands of his new profession. As show business represented something of a compromise for him, so his writing saw the same compromise. Negro entertainers were bound largely by the white man's stereotypes and prejudices; the time had not yet come for the Negro rebel, in politics or in art. Johnson, as yet, was no exception.

Even while he continued to write dialect, however, Johnson was able to express more than surface emotions. In "A Banjo Song,"18 for example, he wrote of a plantation bacchanal held not for innocent fun but to forget very real troubles.'19 And he strove consciously to avoid portraying the stereotype of the happy, gluttonous Negro.20

Johnson was never entirely satisfied by show business and these feelings persisted. In 1903 he wrote to the Atlanta University newspaper, reassuring it that he had not given up life's serious pursuits. He also found time to study literature at Columbia, and to head a Colored Republican Club in New York. When he returned from Europe the sense that show business was neither dignified enough nor important enough continued to weigh heavily upon him. He began to consider the suggestion of Charles Anderson, a politician, that he try for a position in the United States Consular Service. Two of his qualifications were fluent Spanish and past service for the Republican Party. He passed the examination, and in 1906 he took the next step in his already staccato career when he received the appointment as United States Consul in Puerto Caballo, Venezuela at a starting salary of $2,000.


Johnson was, of course, not the first Negro in government service. McKinley alone appointed twice as many Negroes to federal positions as had any previous President.21 As a consul his primary duties were to overlook international commercial affairs and to assist American citizens. He found the work enjoyable and sometimes exciting—as when he became at least peripherally involved in the turbulence of Latin American politics—and after a time he began to consider making it his life's work. In 1909 he received a promotion to consul at Corinto, Nicaragua, with a thousand dollar increase in pay. His years in Latin America were productive in other ways. In February of 1910, on one of his trips to New York, he married Grace Nail, who came from a wealthy long-established Negro family in Brooklyn.

Residence in Latin America also had a good effect on his development as an artist. Musical comedy had been a hindrance in many ways. He had been hemmed in by the demands of his audience, and the gay life which he led was not conducive to the expression of deep feeling. In Latin America there was no immediate audience and few distractions. Removed from the American racial scene, he could observe with greater clarity.

Nearly all his poems now were racial in theme. He was able to discard competely the dialect, and the feelings which he expressed were no longer the dialect's "pathos and humor." Particularly noteworthy were such poems as "O Black and Unknown Bards" and "Mother Night." Some of his poems were protests, a note not often heard in Negro poetry since before the Civil War. An example is "O Southland"22 which begins,

O Southland, fair Southland
Then why do you still cling
To an idle page
To a dead and useless thing?

He also found time to write a novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man,23 the story of a Negro who is able to "pass." The hero of the story wanders through the American South, to New York, and to Europe, having adventures and making various observations on the race question. He ultimately marries a white girl and decides to pass permanently. The book was revolutionary in several respects. Its treatment of the miscegenation theme was new in that both parties were aristocrats.24 Further, Johnson portrayed a dimension of Negro life rarely present in stories about Negroes. Consider this description of his hero's life in Black Bohemia:

… my regular time for going to bed was somewhere between four and six o'clock in the morning. I got up late in the afternoon, walked about a little, then went to the gambling house or the club.25

The novel was, in its own way, a statement of racial pride. Johnson's hero leads a life that would make anyone envious and, in the end, he has the last laugh on the white man by intermarrying. The novel was, in fact, frightening to its author. Johnson was worried about its potential shock effect and had no desire, with a possible government career ahead of him, to become controversial. Also, he had hopes that the story would be taken as true. He, thus, chose to publish it anonymously. The book, published in 1912, turned out to be a financial success and received no particular denunciation;26 in 1927 it was republished by Knopf above its author's name.

Johnson's hopes of a career in the foreign service were not to be fulfilled. In 1913, when Woodrow Wilson took office, he was expecting his second promotion and, in fact, had been nominated by President Taft to be Consul to the Azores. When no action was taken on the matter Johnson went to Washington to talk to Secretary of State Bryan. The Wilson Administration's attitude toward the Negro was equivocal, if not hostile; its policy regarding the foreign service was generally to substitute neophyte Democrats for experienced men.27 Bryan was not encouraging and Johnson left feeling victimized by race and politics. Shortly afterward he resigned from the Consulate.28

His frustration was, of course, nothing new. Now forty two, he had come some way since Atlanta University—publisher, educator, lawyer, composer, artist, and diplomat—yet in a way he was back where he began. In none of his pursuits—except the American—had he failed, but each had brought frustration. He had started as a Negro in the South, trying to make his own way and to improve the lot of his race, but his efforts had been blocked by Negro indifference and white prejudice. He had gone North and found that there, too, opportunities were limited. He was a successful songwriter but had to write juvenile and sometimes demeaning verse. The latest roadblock had come in government service. In some ways, he had been a Negro doing white men's work. Not since his short-lived publishing attempt was his work directly related to the Negro struggle. His poems indicated his feelings, but his time had been spent living the good life in Negro Bohemia or being a functionary in Latin America, far away from the turbulence of racial conflict.

After 1913, Johnson turned back to the central issues and identified himself totally with the cause of the Negro. While this course was, in part, forced upon him by the circumstances in which he found himself, he did not choose it reluctantly. His ambition to be a leader and a spokesman had only been in abeyance. None of this was clear to him in 1913. First he went to Jacksonville to gather his thoughts. But Jim Crow signs were more common and Grace Nail Johnson was unhappy. In 1914 they headed for New York and when, several weeks later, he was offered the job as head of the editorial staff of the New York Age, New York's oldest Negro newspaper, Johnson quickly accepted.


Johnson's editorship of the Age thrust him to the forefront of American Negro spokesmen. For the first time he had to face squarely and state his position on the many issues of the day. The outlines of his thought had already been made clear in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Underlying all his ideas was the belief that the race problem was, at root, a question of attitude. The Negro, through years of subjugation, had become apathetic and resigned.29 The problem of white attitudes lay mainly in their misconceptions about the Negro. Johnson realized that the myth of inferiority was often a cover-up for complex emotional forces, but he believed that the first step towards equality was to prove that inferiority was nonsense. Thus, he advocated a two-pronged approach of seeking to awaken the Negro and to enlighten the white.30

Johnson turned with alacrity to his new role as agitator. He wrote a daily column called "Views and Reviews," which contained the strongest race protests he had yet uttered. No longer was he inhibited by worries about a career as a diplomat; his only responsibity now was to the Negro. Johnson passionately defended the Negro and the Negro's ability. No important Negro activity missed his attention. He praised Negro artists and performers and defended the Negro soldier.31 He also berated the Negro for not helping himself in such columns as "Cut Out the Comedy."32

Nor did he hesitate to attack prejudice. Particularly biting were such pieces as "Tom Watson, Apostle of Prejudice"33 and "Staying in the Ditch"34 which opened as follows:

We doubt that Mississippi has ever produced a man who has contributed to the progress of the world.

He could see the debilitating effect of racism on both its protagonists—"The solving of the race problem," he said, "involves in large measure the salvation of the black man's body and the white man's soul."35

The freedom and power evident in his editorials could also be seen in the poetry he was now writing. Besides his own maturity, the spirit of the times was more conducive to militance. People were using the term "New Negro," whose spirit was, perhaps, best represented by DuBois. This new feeling had not yet reached Negro art but Johnson was to lead the way. The Harlem Renaissance was imminent.

The best example of this spirit in Johnson's work is his poem "Brothers—American Drama,"36 written in 1916, about the burning of a Negro by a white mob. It was a thoroughly realistic social justice poem37 and the most vigorous poem yet heard from any Negro poet.38 The horror of the burning is vividly described:

Now let it blaze again. See there!
He squirms! He groans!
His eyes bulge wildly out.

But Johnson's calm wisdom is also present. The act is

Thus, after 1913, Johnson seemed to find himself as a spokesman and a poet. In both media he spoke with increasing strength. His efforts did not go unnoticed. In 1916 Joel Springarn, president of the recently formed NAACP, invited him to attend a conference on questions relating to the Negro at Amenia, New York. The Amenia Conference was an important event both for the Negro and for Johnson. It marked the first time that Negro leadership was more or less united, a unity caused partly by the death of Washington and partly, said DuBois, "by the concentration of effort … which rising race segregation, discrimination, and mob murder were compelling us to follow."39

Johnson according to Arthur Spingarn, "hit it off perfectly with everybody."40 After the Conference the NAACP's Board of Directors, headed by the Spingarns and DuBois, decided they wanted Johnson in the Association. The only problem, both for the Association and for Johnson, involved Johnson's ideological position.41 During the long conflict between Washington and DuBois, Johnson had never really taken sides. His thinking was much closer to that of DuBois, which his editorials, emphasizing full equality and denouncing race prejudice, clearly showed. But Johnson had long been close to Washington and owed him a debt of gratitude; for it was only through Washington's efforts that Johnson had received his appointment in the Consulate.42 And even had he wanted to criticize Washington he would have been prevented by the policy of the Age, which at one time had been partially owned by Washington, of never criticizing Washington in print.43 The Association, not sure of his position but hoping to bring him into their camp, offered him a position. Johnson accepted and, in 1916, assumed the newly created position of Field Secretary, beginning what was to be his major work for the next fifteen years.


Johnson's principal duties as Field Secretary were organization and expansion. His first major contribution was to convince the Board of the importance of organizing a Southern section. In January 1917, he began an organizing tour of the South addressing conferences in every major city. Johnson was encouraged by the response of Negroes at the mass meetings. Walter White, then in his early twenties, described the meeting in Atlanta and Johnson's approach as follows:

The … meeting … was so packed with eager faced Negroes and even a few whites that we had difficulty wedging the platform party through the crowd to enter the auditorium. Mr. Johnson, calm, slender, and immaculate, stood hazardously between the footlights and a painted backdrop … There was none of the sonorous flamboyant oratory of that era in the meeting … only the quiet irrefutable presentation of the facts and the need to wipe out race prejudice before the hate … destroyed both the victims and the perpetrators.44

The sum of Johnson's efforts was an organizational success for the Association. By 1919, there were 155 Southern branches, over half of its total number.45

The general outlook for the Negro at this time, however, was bleak. The War and the migration of Negroes from South to North and from country to city were bringing new racial tensions, tensions which erupted in Coatesville, in East St. Louis, and elsewhere. The Association was also having its problems. It was threatened by the black nationalism of Marcus Garvey, and it was divided internally, mainly by DuBois, who insisted on running the Crisis independently of the Association and who had already caused the resignation of Oswald Garrison Villard. Its leadership was faltering as Executive Secretary, John Shillady, had been frightened since being beaten by a mob in Austin, Texas. Besides this, it had already been branded by many as radical and irresponsible.46

In 1920, these problems were thrown squarely into Johnson's lap. The Board of Directors appointed him to succeed Shillady as Executive Secretary. He was to be the first Negro to hold this position. His first act was characteristic. He accepted; but only on the condition that his salary at least equal Shillady's.47

Johnson was not as sure of himself as his demand to the Board might have indicated. The problems he faced were grave and often he had no answers to them. One of these problems was the Negro laborer, who was just beginning to be heard from. Jobs for unskilled laborers were rare and the Negro was, as the saying went, "the last to be hired, the first to be fired." High wartime wages had only whetted his appetite.

Johnson recognized the problem and was deeply concerned. He saw the grim struggle for existence that was the real, behind-the-scenes story of Harlem.48 He could make, however, no effective response. He advocated a pragmatic, more or less opportunistic policy, stressing organization, if possible, in white unions, otherwise in Negro associations. He also suggested boycotts and an effort to convince whites of the abilities of Negro laborers.

Johnson rarely took any action particularly aimed at helping the Negro laborer. Probably there was little he could have done; but it was also true that he was hard pressed to personally involve himself in the laborers' struggle. He had little in common with the laborer. DuBois pointed out that Johnson, except for isolated incidents, never had any personal contact with the urban laborer.49 Johnson abhorred a working class philosophy. So middle class was his orientation that in a later book on the alternatives facing the Negro, he had to be urged even to mention Communism.50 As an artist and an intellectual, a psychological approach to prejudice appealed to him more than did an economic one.

Another evidence of the difficulties of Johnson's and the NAACP's pragmatic and necessarily long-range approach was the rise of Garveyism in the 1920's. Garvey's effect on the unlettered and inexperienced Negro urban element was magnetic; by 1923 Garvey could legitimately claim at least a half million supporters.51 Johnson could not help but admire Garvey, who had awakened Negroes in a way that he himself could never do. But he had no sympathy for "Back to Africa." Garveyism was to him the "Apotheosis of the Ridiculous."52 He felt no great bond with Africa. Although he felt some cultural unity with the African people,53 he took little interest in plans that included Negroes of the world, such as DuBois's Pan-African Congress.

More than that, he loved America. He felt little of the despair or the bitterness of a DuBois. He tended to generalize from his own life. Wasn't he himself an example of the distance a Negro could go? Whatever his frustrations had been, he was very much at home in a white culture. DuBois even criticized him for too often asking advice from whites.54 He was not only an American Negro, who, as C. Vann Woodward has pointed out, is possessed of a realism bred into his bones and marrow,55 but he was an American Negro for whom that realism was not an unpleasant one.

Johnson was somewhat more successful in other areas. One of the Association's major efforts in the years 1921-24 was to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. Johnson spent much of those years lobbying in the halls of Congress. The bill passed the House in 1922, but succumbed to the Senate in 1924. Although an anti-lynching bill was not passed until 1937, the effort had aroused substantial enthusiasm among American Negroes. Johnson also made an investigation of the brutality of the U. S. Marines and of U. S. imperialism on the island of Haiti. He wrote an expose56 and told the story personally to Warren Harding who later made the problem a campaign issue although he did nothing once elected.

But by far Johhnson's most important contribution as Executive Secretary was in building the NAACP. Here, the qualities which left him helpless in the face of Garveyism served him well. When he began, in 1920, the organization had few funds, faltering leadership, and an insecure reputation. Under his leadership all this changed. He was a masterful fund raiser. From a state of near bankruptcy in 1920 the NAACP was by 1930 a financially stable organization. Johnson's distinguished style and personality were, according to Arthur Spingarn, the Association's greatest selling point.57

Johnson also brought to the NAACP courageous leadership; during his tenure the leadership moved from the Board of Directors to the Executive Secretary.58 The ideology of the Association did not change under him. The objectives remained full political, economic, and social equality. The methods remained lobbying, propaganda, and legal reform. Johnson's contribution was to maintain and implement these principles in a period when the Association could have been destroyed by timidity.

Furthermore, Johnson was the crucial force in maintaining the harmony and integrity of the Association. His mere presence was a cohesive force. Mary White Ovington ascribed to Johnson the quality of "sweet reasonableness." "Given authority," she said, "he knew when and when not to use it."59 Johnson and DuBois, for example, worked well together. "They got along," said Carl Van Vechten, "because Johnson got along with DuBois."60 No other act demonstrated his "sweet reasonableness" more than did his resignation. In 1930 he took a year's leave of absence because of ill health. During his absence he delegated most of his responsibility to Walter White. When Johnson returned he found that White had become accustomed to the job and would be unhappy to give it up. The job was still Johnson's, but he had no desire for a power struggle within the Association.61 Johnson, the reasonable man, stepped down.


Johnson lived seven more years in which he taught and continued to write. The poetry he had written during his years with the NAACP was the finest he had ever done and among the best Negro poetry that had been written. He had found a new form, the idiom, which could express themes and emotions peculiar to the Negro but which, unlike the dialect, was pure and truthful and did not smack of the minstrel stage.62 He had arrived at this form by studying the traditional Negro folk sermons, and in it he wrote such poems as "The Creation," "Go Down Death" and "Let My People Go."63 There were also several books including an autobiography. In 1938 he was killed in an automobile accident in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Johnson had started out to build a life of his own and be an asset to his race. Circumstances limited the life of his own; all had to go to the race. As a race leader there were also limitations. DuBois called Negro leadership in the 1920's both a great success and a colossal failure. But whatever ideological or tactical criticisms one might make of Johnson and others, the most imposing fact about the period is that a foundation was created for the road ahead.


1 C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York, 1955), p. 102.

2 For some of the biographical information about Johnson's early years this paper relies on his autobiography, Along This Way (New York, 1933).

3 Thomas Davis, History of Jacksonville, Florida and Vicinity (Jacksonville, 1925), p. 488.

4 Willard Range, The Rise and Progress of Negro Colleges in Georgia, 1865-1949 (Athens, Ga., 1951), p. 21. 90% of Atlanta graduates became teachers. See. Atlanta University Catalogue, 1877-78 (Atlanta), p. 7.

5 See, e.g., Johnson's class oration at Atlanta in 1892 (James Weldon Johnson Collection, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.).

6 Johnson to Florida Times Union, December 21, 1897 (James Weldon Johnson Collection).

7 See Johnson's editorial, "The Harlem Public Library," New York Age, Nov. 5, 1914 (James Weldon Johnson Collection).

8Daily American, probably May, 1895 (James Weldon Johnson Collection). There are no known extant copies of the American and all references are to clippings in the Johnson Collection.

9 Johnson tried, for example, to persuade the Negroes of Jacksonville to enter a display in the Jacksonville Exposition of 1895. Daily American, probably June, 1895 (James Weldon Johnson Collection).

10 Johnson, Along This Way, pp. 139-40.

11 Paul Buck, The Road to Reunion 1865-1900 (New York, 1959), pp. 300-01.

12 See Gunnar Mydal, An American Dilemma (New York, 1944), p. 326.

13 John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom (New York, 1947), p. 405.

14 Oswald G. Villard, "Issues and Men," The Nation, OXLVII (July, 9, 1938), p. 44.

15 Eugenia Collier, "James Weldon Johnson: Mirror of Change," Phylon, XXI (Winter, 1960), 351.

16 Johnson, Along This Way, pp. 158-59.

17 In Robert Eleazer, Singers in the Dawn (Atlanta, 1934), p. 22.

18 In James Weldon Johnson, Saint Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems (New York, 1935), p. 73.

19 Collier, "James Weldon Johnson: Mirror of Change," loc. cit., pp. 352-53.

20 Sterling Brown, Negro Poetry and Drama (Washington, D. C, 1937). Johnson's pop music is also of relatively high quality; see, e.g., "Mandy," "The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes," "The Congo Love Song" (James Weldon Johnson Collection).

21 Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom, p. 427.

22 The poems mentioned in this paragraph and others are collected in James Weldon Johnson, Fifty Years and Other Poems (Boston, 1917).

23 New York, 1912.

24 Sterling Brown, The Negro in American Fiction (Washington, D. C, 1937), p. 105.

25 Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, p. 113.

26 Interview with Carl Van Vechten, Feb. 11, 1960.

27 Paul Haworth, The United States in Our Own Times 1865-1920 (New York, 1920), p. 23.

28 Johnson, Along This Way, pp. 291-93.

29 Of the lower class Negroes, he wrote, in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, of their "unkempt appearance, the shambling, slouching gait and loud talk and laughter," p. 56.

30 The fullest exposition of Johnson's views on Negro strategy is his Negro Americans, What Now? (New York, 1934).

31 See Bolton Smith, "The Negro in Wartime," with a rejoinder by James Weldon Johnson, 1918 (James Weldon Johnson Collection).

32New York Age, March 3, 1917 (James Weldon Johnson Collection).

33Ibid., Sept. 2, 1915 (James Weldon Johnson Collection).

34Ibid., Feb. 6, 1918 (James Weldon Johnson Collection).

35 Johnson quoted by Walter White, A Man Called White (New York, 1948), p. 34.

36 In Johnson, Saint Peter Relates An Incident: Selected Poems, p. 27.

37 Margaret Just Butcher, The Negro in American Culture (New York, 1956), p. 122.

38 Brown, Negro Poetry and Drama, p. 51.

39 W.E.B. DuBois, Dusk of Dawn (New York, 1940), p. 243.

40 Interview with Arthur Spingarn, March 4, 1961.



43 See Emma Thornbrough, "More Light on Booker T. Washington and the New York Age," Journal of Negro History, XLIII (Jan., 1958), p. 34-49.

44 White, A Man Called White, p. 34.

45 NAACP, Annual Report, 1919, p. 9.

46 Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom, p. 439.

47 Interview with Arthur Spingarn.

48 James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (New York, 1930), p. 161.

49 Interview with W.E.B. DuBois, March 1, 1961.

50 Interview with Arthur Spingarn.

51 Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom, p. 482.

52New York Age, Aug. 19, 1922 (James Weldon Johnson Collection).

53 See James Weldon Johnson, Native African Races and Cultures (Charlottesville, 1927).

54 Interview with W.E.B. DuBois.

55 C. Vann Woodward, "Comment," Studies on the Left, VI (Nov. Dec, 1966), 42.

56 James Weldon Johnson, "Self Determining Haiti,", The Nation, CXI (Sept. 4-Sept. 25, 1920), 2878.

57 Interview with Arthur Spingarn.


59 Mary White Ovington, The Walls Came Tumbling Down (New York, 1947), p. 177.

60 Interview with Carl Van Vechten.

61 Interview with W.E.B. DuBois.

62 Brown, Negro Poetry and Drama, p. 68.

63 These poems and others are collected in James Weldon Johnson, Gods Trombones (New York, 1927).

Richard A. Long (essay date 1971)

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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 represented by the poem "St. Peter Relates An Incident of the Resurrection Day," privately printed in 1930, and republished with a selection of earlier poems in 1935.

The early poetry of Johnson belongs to the late nineteenth century tradition of sentimental poetry in so far as its techniques and verse forms are concerned, seldom rising above the mediocrity characteristic of American poetry in the period 1890-1910, during which it was written for the most part. In purpose, however, Johnson's early verse was a species of propaganda, designed sometimes overtly, sometimes obliquely, to advance to a reading public the merits and the grievances of blacks. In this sense the poetry of Johnson is an integral part of a coherent strain in the poetry of Afro-Americans beginning with Phillis Wheatley:

Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refined, and join th' angelic train.
(Phillis Wheatley, "On Being Brought from Africa to America")

More particularly, we may note the relationship of Johnson's early poetry to that of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, his much admired friend and contemporary. Though they were about the same age, Dunbar was by far the more precocious, and his virtuosity had an obvious impact on Johnson, though little of Dunbar's verse bears any obvious burden of racial protest, in spite of the real personal suffering Dunbar underwent because of misunderstanding and neglect that he ascribed to his color.

Another factor of importance in the early verse of Johnson is his composition of verses to be set to music by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson; the search for euphony and piquancy and the use of devices such as internal rhyme betrays the hand of the librettist.

The division of Johnson's poetry into standard lyrics and dialect verse, as in the case of Dunbar's poetry, reflects a self-conscious distinction made by the author himself. Johnson's first collection of his poetry, which appeared eleven years after Dunbar's death, presents forty-eight standard poems, followed by a segregated group of sixteen "Jingles and Croons." The dialect poems reflect of course a literary tradition of their own since in point of fact the themes and forms of such dialect poetry as was written by Dunbar and Johnson and many others reflect no tradition of the folk who used "dialect." In point of fact, it is useful to remember that the dialect poets learned mainly from their predecessors and employ for the most part uniform grammatical and orthographic conventions which suggest that they did not consciously seek to represent any individual or regional dialect. Johnson himself gives a brief account of the dialect literary tradition in his introductions to Dunbar and other dialect poets in The Book of American Negro Poetry (New York, 1931).

One of Johnson's dialect poems, because of its popular musical setting, is widely known and thought by many to be a genuine folk-product. The low-key sentimentality of "Sence You Went Away" is nevertheless that of the stage and not of real life. The last stanza will illustrate the point:

The other dialect poems in Johnson's first collection which should be classified among the "croons" are "My Lady's Lips Are Like De Honey," "Nobody's Lookin' But de Owl and de Moon," "You's Sweet to Yo' Mammy Jes de Same," "A Banjo Song." The titles are sufficiently indicative of their range and content. The "jingles" are frequently in the form of dramatic monologue, and while they (partly because of their later publication), have never become platform rivals to Dunbar's monologues, "Tunk (A Lecture on Modern Education)" and "The Rivals" can challenge comparison. The first is an exhortation to a truant schoolboy in which the light duties of white folks in offices are contrasted with the labors of black folks in the fields. The second is an old man's reminiscences of a crucial episode in the courtship of his wife. Both poems are written in long line rhyming couplets, Johnson's preferred verse form for his dialect verse, though a variety of stanza forms and rhyme schemes is employed, some with great versatility as the refrain from "Brer Rabbit, You's de Cutes' of 'Em All" illustrates:

"Brer Wolf am mighty cunnin',
Brer Fox am mighty sly,
Brer Terrapin an" Possum—kinder small;
Brer Lion's mighty vicious,
Brer B'ar he's sorter 'spi'cious,
Brer Rabbit, you's de eûtes' of 'em all.'

Of the standard poems of Johnson collected in Fifty Years, at least ten are more and less overtly on the race problem and among these are several of Johnson's most important poems. In contrast, the more generalized poems have hardly more than a passing interest except for a group of six poems "Down by the Carib Sea" in which Johnson treats images from his Latin-American experience as a U.S. consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Unfortunately, even here, conventionality of diction vitiates what might have been a poetic expression of enduring interest and value.

The group of ten race poems includes three of the "appeal" genre in which the black poet addresses his white compatriots and invites an improvement in their attitudes toward the blacks. This genre of Afro-American poetry runs from Phillis Wheatley to Gwendolyn Brooks, and may be said to have been already conventional when Johnson essayed it, though the sincerity with which he takes up the form cannot be doubted. In the short poem "To America" he asks:

How would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking 'neath the load we bear?


Strong willing sinews in your wings?
Or tightening chains about your feet?

"O Southland" makes the poet implore

O Southland, fair Southland!
Then why do you cling
To an idle age and a musty page,
To a dead and useless thing.

And in "Fragment" he declares

See! In your very midst there dwell
Ten thousand blacks, a wedge
Forged in the furnaces of hell.…

The somewhat stern Calvinistic fervor of this poem suggests that the system is foredoomed to divine malediction.

Another genre in the race poems is that of pointing out the virtuous black and inviting sympathy and understanding. "The Black Mammy" and "The Color Sergeant" illustrate this genre. The theme of the Black Mammy who has nursed with tenderness the white child who may some day strike down her own black child has its own kind of immortality, combining as it does the mawkishness of mother love with America's quaint racial customs. "The Color Sergeant" is based on a real incident in the Spanish-American War and may be said to prefigure the Dorie Miller and similar poems of succeeding wars.

A lynching poem is called "Brothers" and is a stilted dramatic exchange between a lynch victim and the mob who burn him alive. The division of objects from the ashes is intended perhaps to recall the casting of lots for Christ's clothes:

"You take that bone, and you this tooth, the chain—
Let us divide its links; this skull, of course
In fair division, to the leader comes."

Still another poem which I classify as a race poem because of its obvious symbolism and because Johnson places it at the end of that group in the arrangement of the poems in Fifty Years could be read simply as a poem of ghostly circumstance. "The White Witch" describes a beauteous apparition who lures young men to their death. The poem's progenitors are the Romantic literary ballads. It is possible that Johnson had heard of the Jamaican ghost legend of the White Witch of Rose Hall, but there is no obvious patterning of his scenario on the legend.

In two of the race poems Johnson addresses black people specifically. One of these is the famous ode to the dead creators of the spirituals, "O Black and Unknown Bards." The harmony and dignity of the poem are fully deserving of the praise it has received. The poet marvels continually:

There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and service toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.

But his conclusion seems timid and apologetic,

You sang far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners' hungry hearts sufficed
Still live,—but more than this to you belongs:
You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.

The bulk of the poems written by Johnson which fall into the two categories just discussed were written before 1910. The poem which serves as the title poem to his first collection is itself a commemorative poem written in 1912 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The poem begins with an apostrophe to his fellow blacks:

O brothers mine, today we stand
Where half a century sweeps our ken.…

He then invokes the scene of the first blacks arriving in Jamestown in 1619. And from these few (aided, as the poet does not note, by the energetic exploitation of the slave trade) have come a race "ten million strong / An upward, onward marching host." He goes on to declare

This land is ours by right of birth,
This land is ours by right of toil;
We helped to turn its virgin earth,
Our sweat is in its fruitful soil.

He cites the labors of blacks and their frequent defense of the flag. He observes that despite these things blacks are maltreated and persecuted, but he urges

Courage! Look out, beyond, and see
The far horizon's beckoning span!
Faith in your God-known destiny!
We are a part of some great plan.

And the poem closes with expression of faith in God's intentions for the best. The poem is in twenty-six octosyllabic quatrains, rhyming a ba a b, in Fifty Years and Other Poems. Johnson abridged it to twenty stanzas for its appearance in The Book of American Negro Poetry. In the 1935 collection it appears as a poem of twenty-four stanzas, with a prefatory note.

One poem, related in tone and character to "Fifty Years," written in 1900, was not included in Fifty Years and Other Poems, but was included in the 1935 collection. This is the famous song lyric "Lift Every Voice and Sing," known far and wide as the "Negro National Anthem." Its heroic language, fully sustained by the harmonies of J. Rosamond Johnson, have played a role in the life of black America that no patriotic song could have fulfilled.

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

The second decade of the twentieth century was a period of innovation and change in American poetry. The establishment of Poetry Magazine, the Imagist manifesto, the appearance of Frost, Masters, Sandburg, Lindsay and Pound all bespeak the new spirit. The annual anthologies of Magazine verse edited by William Stanley Braithwaite beginning in 1913 which were one of the chief forums of the new spirit despite Braithwaite's own conservatism were surely well-perused by his friend James Weldon Johnson. Accordingly, it is not surprising to find a sudden modification in Johnson's poetic practice develop during this decade, for his poem "The Creation" precedes by almost a decade its publication with companion pieces in God's Trombones in 1927. He recounts his immediate inspiration for "The Creation" in the Preface to God's Trombones:

… He [a rural black preacher] strode the pulpit up and down in what was actually a very rhythmic dance, and he brought into play the full gamut of his wonderful voice.… He intoned, he moaned, he pleaded—he blared, he crashed, he thundered. I sat fascinated; and more, I was, perhaps against my will, deeply moved; the emotional effect upon me was irresistible. Before he had finished I took a slip of paper and somewhat surreptitiously jotted down some ideas for the first poem, "The Creation."

"The Creation" was conceived, as it were, in the heat of the moment. Only gradually did Johnson develop the series of poems which constitute the seven sermons and the opening prayer of God's Trombones. The principles he employed in writing these poems, based closely on the practice of the folk preacher, are explained in the Preface. He explains why he did not write them in dialect (in the sense of an attempted indication of folk speech):

First, although the dialect is the exact instrument for voicing certain traditional phases of Negro life, it is, and perhaps by that very exactness, a quite limited instrument. Indeed, it is an instrument with but two complete stops, pathos and humor. This limitation is not due to any defect of the dialect as dialect, but to the mould of convention in which Negro dialect in the United States has been set, to the fixing effects of its long association with the Negro only as a happy-go-lucky or a forlorn figure.…

The second part of my reason for not writing these poems in dialect is the weightier. The old-time Negro preachers, though they actually used dialect in their ordinary intercourse, stepped out from its narrow confines when they preached. They were all saturated with the sublime phraseology of the Hebrew prophets and steeped in the idioms of King James English, so when they preached and warmed to their work they spoke another language, a language far removed from traditional Negro dialect. It was really a fusion of Negro idioms with Bible English; and in this there may have been, after all, some kinship with the innate grandiloquence of their old African tongues. To place in the mouths of the talented old-time Negro preachers a language that is a literary imitation of Mississippi cotton-field dialect is sheer burlesque.

Johnson says in the Preface that "the old-time Negro preacher is rapidly passing." Nothing could have been further from the truth. "Old-time" Negro preaching is not only fully present in 1971 in large churches as well as in store-front meeting rooms, but its eloquence has dominated political forums and civil rights meetings, sometimes to the exclusion of action. This eloquence underlies much of the prose of Ellison and Baldwin as well as that of many writers of the sixties.

The medium Johnson chose for the sermon poems is a cadenced free verse which very effectively reflects the rhythmical speech of the folk preacher. Johnson uses the dash to indicate "a certain sort of pause that is marked by a quick intaking and an audible expulsion of the breath.…" The arrangement of prayer and sermons in God's Trombones is

Listen, Lord—A Prayer
The Creation

The Prodigal Son
Go Down Death—A Funeral Sermon
Noah Built the Ark
The Crucifixion
Let My People Go
The Judgment Day.

"Listen, Lord," "The Creation," "Go Down Death," and "The Crucifixion" are generally of a more exalted interest than the other pieces, but all of them capture effectively the imagery, the intensity, the sly humor, and the hypnotic grandeur of the black sermon tradition. In "Listen, Lord" the blessing of God is invoked on the preacher in these terms

Put his eye to the telescope of eternity,
And let him look upon the paper walls of time.
Lord, turpentine his imagination,
Put perpetual motion in his arms,
Fill him full of the dynamite of thy power,
Anoint him all over with the oil of thy salvation,
And set his tongue on fire.

The actual events of awful moments are iterated in "The Crucifixion":

Jesus, my lamb-like Jesus,
Shivering as the nails go through his feet.
Jesus, my darling Jesus,
Groaning as the Roman spear plunged in his side;
Jesus, my darling Jesus,
Groaning as the blood came spurting from his wound.
Oh, look how they done my Jesus.

In "Noah Built the Ark" Satan is depicted with familiarity:

Then pretty soon along came Satan.
Old Satan came like a snake in the grass
To try out his tricks on the woman.
I imagine I can see Old Satan now
A-sidling up to the woman.
I imagine the first word Satan said was:
Eve, you're surely good looking.

After the story of the exodus is told in "Let My People Go" the preacher concludes with a magnificent coda:

All you sons of Pharaoh.
Who do you think can hold God's people
When the Lord God himself has said,
Let my people go?

The general technique developed by Johnson for God's Trombones constitutes a giant leap from his archaizing early poetry. Unfortunately the many pressures of his life as a public man and as a cultural mentor prevented him from utilizing his new freedom in a substantial body of work, though the continuing popularity of God's Trombones since its initial publication and its appeal to a broad stratum of readers have given this slim volume an importance in American poetry enjoyed by few other works of comparable scope.

A special irony of Johnson's creations is that they have often themselves reentered the folk stream they were intended to fix and commemorate, and have in turn sustained through countless recitations the continuation of a living tradition.

While Johnson expressed no overt ideological objectives concerning his verse sermons, it is significant that they were not offered either in the spirit of his early standard verse or of his "jingles and croons." The sermons are an assertion of black pride and black dignity with no reference to perspectives and standards of others.

A further direction in his poetic practice was revealed by Johnson in the long satirical poem "St. Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day." Johnson describes the genesis of the poem in the third person in his 1935 foreword:

… The title poem of this volume was originally printed in 1930, in an edition of 200 copies for private distribution. In the summer of that year the author was busy on the manuscript of a book. He read one morning in the newspaper that the United States government was sending a contingent of gold-star mothers to France to visit the graves of their soldier sons buried there; and that the Negro gold-star mothers would not be allowed to sail on the same ship with the white goldstar mothers, but would be sent over on a second and second-class vessel. He threw aside the manuscript on which he was working and did not take it up again until he had finished the poem, "Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day."

The poem, arranged in six sections of varying length, presents St. Peter, long after Resurrection Day, recounting to some of the heavently host the unburying of the Unknown Soldier. The discovery that the man who had been honored by generations of Americans in his magnificent tomb was black is the O'Henryesque reversal in the poem. The limpidity of Johnson's handling of the theme in quatrains of rhyming couplets, a favorite meter for narration and monologue with him in his earlier verse, is illustrated by his description of the reaction to the Klan's suggestion that the soldier be reburied:

The scheme involved within the Klan's suggestion Gave rise to a rather nice metaphysical question: Could he be forced again through death's dark portal, Since now his body and soul were both immortal?

The publication of "St. Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day" in 1935 provided the occasion for Johnson to issue a new selection of his poems. Thirtyseven poems, including eight in dialect, from Fifty Years and Other Poems were reprinted, as well as "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Four additional poems were a sonnet "My City," a celebration of Manhattan, and "If I were Paris," a lyric of twelve lines, both in his earlier manner; a free-verse poem "A Poet to His Baby Son" written in a later colloquial manner; and a translation from the Cuban poet Placido, "Mother, Farewell!" a sonnet which Johnson had published in the 1922 edition of The Book of American Negro Poetry and again in the 1931 revised edition. Fifty Years and Other Poems had included the translation of another poem of Placido.

An untitled envoy, the last poem in Fifty Years and Other Poems, contains the following lines, central to its thought:

… if injustice, brutishness and wrong
Should make a blasting trumpet of my song;
O God, give beauty and strength—truth to my words.…

Eighteen years later a revised and now titled "Envoy" closes the second and final selection of Johnson poems:

… if injustice, brutishness, and wrong
Stir me to make a weapon of my song;
O God, give beauty, truth, strength to my words.

In this revision two important points are presented in capsule. Johnson continued to revise and modify his poems, a fact which should be taken account of in any future study devoted primarily to the texts. The second point is that Johnson's conception of the function of the poet, the black poet particularly, had evolved from the apologetic tradition, in which racial justice is implored and in which an attempt to show the worthiness of blacks is made by showing their conformism, to a militant posture, in which the poet uses his talent as a weapon with concern only for beauty, truth and strength. In both phases, Johnson was a poet who recognized the propriety of propaganda. His earlier concern was with influencing opinion ("a blasting trumpet"); his later concern was asserting the verities, with a willingness "to make a weapon of my song."

Jean Wagner (essay date 1973)

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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 age of nine he had been forced into religious observances, inappropriate for a child, in the Methodist church which she attended. When she wanted him to be accepted as a full-fledged member, an argument broke out between her and her son-in-law; this aroused anxiety in the child. With it was blended his dislike for certain external religious practices common in the popular Negro churches:

These combined factors at length produced reluctance, doubt, rebellion. I began to ask myself questions that frightened me. I groped within the narrow boundaries of my own knowledge and experience and between the covers of the Bible for answers, because I did not know to whom I could turn … I was alone with my questionings and doubts…. At fourteen I was skeptical. By the time I reached my Freshman year at Atlanta University I had avowed myself an agnostic.30

His openly proclaimed agnosticism led to some friction in Atlanta University, "a missionary-founded school, in which playing a game of cards and smoking a cigarette were grave offenses."31 This experience, in which his frankness was poorly rewarded, may have given rise to the reserve with which he would henceforth surround his metaphysical convictions. Not only did he reveal nothing of his agnosticism in his poetry; quite the contrary, he strewed left and right declarations of trust in God the Creator and in Providence, as though he were speaking on his own account.

One sole feeble echo of his doubts regarding life after death can be heard in the last two lines of the sonnet "Sleep":

Man, why should thought of death cause thee to weep,
Since death be but an endless, dreamless sleep?32

But this is slight, compared to the numerous passages that could convince one of his religious orthodoxy.

Since he did not believe in God, why did he turn to him in prayer? Thus the envoi at the end of the 1917 collection begs the Almighty for inspiration and persuasive force:

O God, give beauty and strength—truth to my words,33

and if that other personal request, "Prayer at Sunrise," does not expressly invoke the Deity, there can be no doubt that Johnson is thinking of him when he addresses the "greater Maker of this Thy great sun."34 How could anyone guess he was an agnostic, hearing him proclaim:

… God's above, and God is love35

or again, when he offers this assurance to Horace Bumstead, president of Atlanta University:

… sure as God on His eternal throne
Sits, mindful of the sinful deeds of men,
—The awful Sword of Justice in His hand,—
You shall not, no, you shall not, fight alone.36

While maintaining that the universe had no purpose, in "Fifty Years" he nevertheless twice utters the conviction that the Negro's destiny is a part of God's great design:

A part of His unknown design,
We've lived within a mighty age;37

Faith in your God-known destiny!
We are a part of some great plan.38

And in the celebrated poem "O Black and Unknown Bards," the principal merit he discerns in these bards who composed the spirituals is to have converted a race of idolators to Christ:

Faced with such categorical declarations, one might feel tempted to conjecture that Johnson's agnosticism sometimes grew faint along the path, and that there were periods in his life when traditional religiosity gained the upper hand. But nothing authorizes such a supposition,40 and if we may trust his belated avowal in Along This Way (1933), his agnosticism remained unwavering to the very end.

I have not felt the need of religion in the commonplace sense of the term. I have derived spiritual values in life from other sources than worship or prayer.…

As far as I am able to peer into the inscrutable, I do not see that there is any evidence to refute those scientists and philosophers who hold that the universe is purposeless; that man, instead of being the special care of a Divine Providence, is a dependent upon fortuity and his own wits for survival in the midst of blind and insensate forces.41

Thus Johnson's religious poetry does not express his personal feelings; it merely conforms—in a way whose precise meaning is, in our view, most clearly apparent in certain commemorative poems that are semi-official in nature. The first of these, written in 1900, is "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which Black America spontaneously adopted as a Negro national anthem, and which ends with a fervent prayer to a providential God:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray,
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand
True to our God,
True to our native land.42

The last two lines sum up the twin conformity of religion and patriotism that sounds the dominant note in Fifty Years and Other Poems. It is as though Johnson realized that, in a country where the inalienable rights of all men are officially derived from a gift made by their Creator,43 the Negro could hardly expect to be heard until he had at least formally professed his faith in the existence of this Creator and his loyalty to his country.

God and country are no less closely associated in "Fifty Years," the commemorative poem written for the fiftieth anniversary of Emancipation and published by the New York Times on that very date: January 1, 1913. In it the liberation of the slaves is presented as God's handiwork, with Lincoln acting as the instrument of the Divine will:

… God, through Lincoln's ready hand,
Struck off our bonds and made us men.44

On the soil of America, Negroes have undergone a multiple transformation;

Far, far the way that we have trod,
From heathen kraals and jungle dens,
To freedmen, freemen, sons of God,
Americans and Citizens.45

One may note, incidentally, the unflattering expressions used by Johnson in his references to Africa. Negroes had been living there in "heathen kraals" or even in dens like animals, from which God chose to remove them out of sheer mercy:

Then let us here erect a stone,
To mark the place, to mark the time;
A witness to God's mercies shown,
A pledge to hold this day sublime.46

The word "mercies" was bound to serve as an unpleasant reminder of that line of Phillis Wheatley's:

'Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land47

—as Johnson probably realized, for in the 1935 edition he put in its place the word "purpose," and also dropped from the poem the two following stanzas whose humility and submissiveness, both to God and to White America, was absolutely not the right thing, after the swath cut in its stormy passage by the nationalism of the Negro Renaissance:

And let that stone an altar be,
Whereon thanksgivings we may lay,
Where we, in deep humility,
For faith and strength renewed may pray.

With open hearts ask from above
New zeal, new courage and new pow'rs,
That we may grow more worthy of
This country and this land of ours.48

As was true of Dunbar, nothing in Johnson evokes rebellion or rebels. The heroes of whom he sings are all loyal, faithful national heroes, and not racial heroes. Most of them, too, are whites: the abolitionists Garrison, Phillips, and Lovejoy; John Brown, of course, and Lincoln the Emancipator.49 He praises only two blacks: Crispus Attucks,50 the first to fall in the struggle for the country's independence, and the humble standard-bearer who, though despised by all, loyally gave his life for his country at the battle of San Juan Hill:

Black though his skin, yet his heart as true
As the steel of his blood-stained saber.


Despised of men for his humble race,
Yet true, in death, to his duty.51

His attitude toward the South is almost more submissive and sentimental than [Paul Laurence] Dunbar's. "O Southland!"52 is the humble appeal of a weakling who asks for charity, and one would seek in vain for even the most muted protest against the abominations to which, as Johnson well knew, Negroes were being subjected in his own country.

Must we then brand Johnson a hypocrite?53 His parade of religious orthodoxy is a paradoxical phenomenon, it must be confessed. Even Dunbar, though he seems to have been less grievously afflicted by doubt than Johnson, had bravely confided to his verses moving accounts of his problems with religious belief. But Johnson does not reveal himself, and speaks rather in the name of the racial or national community without allowing his own emotions to pour out. As for the avowal of his agnosticism, that will be judged opportune only in his declining years.

His behavior might appear to be dictated, in the first place, by a certain discretion, by the desire not to shock majority opinion and to respect its convictions. In any event, the following passage from his autobiography, in which he speaks of his lack of religion, would tend to convey that impression: "But I make no boast of it; understanding, as I do, how essential religion is to many, many people."54

Nevertheless, without making any display of his unbelief, he might have avoided affirming the antithesis of his real convictions and maintained a discreet neutrality. The miming of strong religious feeling was not called for.

Thus the thought arises that he conformed, to a very large degree, for reasons of diplomacy. Like humor in the dialect poems, the facade of religious orthodoxy fulfills the function of dissimulation and self-defense. In either case, the individual hides his real feelings behind ramparts constructed ad hoc, and the outer world, whose hostility must be appeased, is allowed to see only a mask which, in every respect, corresponds to the mythical portrait that prejudice has put together. Since, in the eyes of the majority, the Negro is deemed especially religious, it is better to acquiesce and to put on the externals of religion, if necessary, rather than offend the majority by showing oneself as one is. This is a kind of moral camouflage, or mimicry. As we have already stated, it is in order to strengthen the Negro's claim to equal treatment that Johnson presents him as absolutely identical with the national ideal, which treats as indivisible belief in God and loyalty to one's country.

But Johnson's conformist behavior looks not only to the opinions of the white majority. In the tradition of his own race, too, the themes of religious orthodoxy have always been so closely intertwined with those of race that to separate them is almost unthinkable. Thus the religious themes survive and assert their authority, even after genuine religious feeling has practically evaporated. Involved here is a transfer of values, causing the religious theme to lose its sacral substance and to stand only for one racial theme among many others. The transfer seems to have occurred all the more easily because sacred and profane had been almost indistinguishable in the overall concept of Negro religion. This was true for both the ambivalent language of the spirituals and for the ambivalent figure of the Negro pastor, who was a racial as well as a spiritual leader.

Thus the poet, through the totality of signs constituted by the religious context of his poetry, no longer proclaims his adhesion to a metaphysical notion he had set aside long before. He announces his decision to remain one with a community that is at the same time national and racial.55 How this finds expression is determined, ultimately, by social constraints no less powerful than those Dunbar had known. As a consequence, the bulk of Johnson's 1917 volume of poems, constructed around a conventional outlook, appears to us sadly lacking in that "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" which, according to Wordsworth,56 is the distinctive mark of all good poetry.

Johnson and the New Spirit

If Johnson's lack of lyric upsurge and spontaneity leaves most of the poems in Fifty Years and Other Poems lagging behind Dunbar's work, an exception must nevertheless be made for a few poems which are characterized by a more mature racial consciousness, a less rudimentary critical sense, and a firmer tone with respect to White America. It is permissible, on the strength of these poems, to see in Johnson an immediate forerunner of the Renaissance.

Yet one must not follow John Hope Franklin57 and base this assertion on "Fifty Years," in which the poet comes nowhere near the spirit that would imbue the New Negro. It contains fleeting references to Africa that are hardly laudatory, the estimate of the race's progress since reaching American shores seems excessively optimistic, and declarations of humility and loyalty far outweigh protest. This attitude was deliberate, for the poet thought it more appropriate to the celebration of Emancipation's fifty years than were the despairing stanzas that originally had concluded the manuscript poem, and which Johnson suppressed prior to publication.58 Yet his dignity and moderation do not hinder his roundly denouncing injustice and servitude, with no attempt to minimize them, nor his restating forcefully the black race's right to an equitable share in the national heritage:

For never let the thought arise
That we are here on sufferance bare;
Outcasts, asylumed 'neath these skies,
And aliens without part or share.

This land is ours by right of birth,
This land is ours by right of toil;
We helped to turn its virgin earth,
Our sweat is in its fruitful soil.59

Johnson was not the man to throw down the gauntlet to America. He preferred to appeal to its reason and to persuade it that, since blacks and whites are irrevocably destined to live in association, the welfare of one group can only be maintained through assuring the welfare of the other. "To America" tries to convince America that it has the choice of making the black minority an element of strength for the nation or, on the contrary, a brake on its progress:

How would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking 'neath the load we bear?


Strong, willing sinews in your wings?
Or tightening chains about your feet?60

But the question arises whether, in the poet's mind, the hour of this choice has not already passed. That, at least, is the conclusion one might derive from "Fragment," which offers a vision of the future hopelessly bogged down in past mistakes. While the country persisted in its prejudices and injustice, Johnson argues, its black population had unnoticeably been transformed for it into a divisive factor, a wedge inserted ever more deeply until the day came when, the split completed, the two halves of the nation rose against each other in bloody conflict:

See! In your very midst there dwell
Ten thousand thousand blacks, a wedge
Forged in the furnaces of hell,
And sharpened to a cruel edge
By wrong and by injustice fell,
And driven by hatred as a sledge.

A wedge so slender at the start—
Just twenty slaves in shackles bound—
And yet, which split the land apart
With shrieks of war and battle sound,
Which pierced the nation's very heart,
And still lies cankering in the wound.61

The wound in the nation's heart has not been cured thereby, the valor of the combatants has been expended in vain, and Johnson predicts that America's sin against its black minority will continue to weigh upon the future generations until it is at last expiated.…

Folklore and Race: Their Rehabilitation

No less paradoxical than the religious feeling he displays in his poetry is the strange attraction felt by Johnson the agnostic for the religious folklore of his race. One of the most remarkable poems in Fifty Years already expressed his admiration for the unknown authors of the spirituals, and his amazement that such noble songs could have sprung from the heart of a race so obscure and so despised:

O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel's lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?


Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than "Go down, Moses." Mark its bars,
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young.

There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and servile toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You—you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who've sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.78

Of course, the poet did not share the faith whose expression he admires in the spirituals, and if with evident sincerity he praises their authors for having raised their souls to God, despite their debased condition, this merely proves that he was not narrowly sectarian. But, basically, the religious content of these songs did not interest Johnson except to the extent that it might move the nation's white majority. If he undertook to make the beauty of Negro folklore better known and appreciated, and with this purpose in mind brought out his two collections of spirituals, it was because he expected that the artistic and religious emotions thus awakened in the public would create a favorable climate likely to shake the foundations of the nation's prejudices. Significant in this connection is one passage in the preface to The Second Book of Negro Spirituals (1926) where Johnson, speaking of the spirituals, states:

For more than a half century they have touched and stirred the hearts of people and effected a softening down of some of the hard edges of prejudice against the Negro. Measured by lengths of years, they have wrought more in sociology than in art. Indeed, within the past decade and especially within the past two or three years they have been, perhaps, the main force in breaking down the immemorial stereotype that the Negro in America is nothing more than a beggar at the gate of the nation, waiting to be thrown the crumbs of civilization; that he is here only to receive; to be shaped into something new and unquestionably better.

This awakening to the truth that the Negro is an active and important force in American life; that he is a creator as well as a creature; that he has given as well as received … is, I think, due more to the present realization of the beauty and value of the Spirituals than to any other one cause.79

He had said the same thing about Negro poetry four years earlier, in the preface to his anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry:

The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced. The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art. No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior.

The status of the Negro in the United States is more a question of national mental attitude toward the race than of actual conditions. And nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art.80

These remarks hold true not only for the spirituals and for written poetry, but also for the sermons in God's Trombones.

Just as his two volumes of Negro Spirituals were intended primarily to make these songs better known, so it was the main object of God's Trombones to reveal the existence of the Negro folk sermon to the wider public. "A good deal has been written on the folk creations of the American Negro: his music, sacred and secular; his plantation tales, and his dances; but that there are folk sermons, as well, is a fact that has passed unnoticed."81

This is not the whole truth, however, for even before the earliest collections of slave songs, spirituals, and Negro sermons began to appear in the years following the Civil War, the general public had known of spirituals and Negro sermons, though in strange fashion, through the caricatures and parodies provided by the minstrels on the stage.82 We have also seen the Negro sermon find its way into popular poetry with Irwin Russell, his example followed by Dunbar and some of his contemporaries. But, like the minstrels, all these poets treated the sermon as funny, with the ill-intentioned stock jokes further underlined by the use of a degraded form of speech baptized "Negro dialect" for the occasion. Thus the Negro sermons in verse of God's Trombones cannot properly be classified as a revelation, but rather as a rehabilitation—in the first place, of the Negro preacher, who here for the first time is no longer presented as a comic figure, and whose historic role in the service of the black people is thus emphasized:

The old-time Negro preacher has not yet been given the niche in which he properly belongs. He has been portrayed only as a semi-comic figure. He had, it is true, his comic aspects, but on the whole he was an important figure, and at bottom a vital factor. It was through him that the people of diverse languages and customs who were brought here from diverse parts of Africa and thrown into slavery were given their first sense of unity and solidarity. He was the first shepherd of this bewildered flock.83

But from the rehabilitation of the Negro preacher it was Johnson's intention to proceed to that of the whole race. With that in mind, he at once forbade himself the use of Negro dialect, so that the reader would not be induced to adopt any of the unkind mental attitudes that dialect traditionally served to convey. For this reason it is possible, to some extent, to look on the sermons in God's Trombones as pieces of evidence in the indictment that Johnson, after 1917, took it into his head to pursue against Negro dialect. This consideration had such an influence on the composition of God's Trombones that we must linger over it for a moment before dealing with the work itself.

The Condemnation of Dialect

Shortly after Johnson had published Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917)—a third of which, let it not be forgotten, was made up of poems in Negro dialect similar to Dunbar's—he became this idiom's principal detractor.84 His new stand seems to have been decided on by 1918, since "The Creation," which dates from this year and which he placed as the first sermon in God's Trombones, is not written in dialect. But not until 1922, in the preface to his anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry, did he first formulate his reasons for having come to condemn the dialect. He blamed it especially for being "an instrument with but two full stops, humor and pathos,"85 and asserted "that there are phases of Negro life in the United States which cannot be treated in the dialect either adequately or artistically."86 In these terms, the problem is obviously very poorly stated, and Johnson, as if aware of this, took it up again on the following page, specifying: "This is no indictment against the dialect as dialect, but against the mold of convention in which Negro dialect in the United States has been set."87 But if the dialect was to be pronounced innocent the moment it had been accused, why was it brought into the case at all?

The real story behind this about-face may perhaps be found elsewhere. Much had changed since the days when Johnson reveled in his easily won successes on Tin Pan Alley, for now he was on the staff of a New York paper and was secretary general of the N.A.A.C.P, had an "in" with Congress and even the White House, and rubbed shoulders in New York and Washington, not with thespians any longer, but with people in society's loftiest circles. In a word he had become, as McKay put it, "the aristocrat of Negro Americans."88 By repudiating dialect, Johnson at the same time turned his back on a whole segment of his own past and voiced his desire for a respectability whose usefulness, in his new situation, became more apparent every day.

Yet the dialect was too ready an alibi. If he had sought to be entirely sincere with himself, would he not have had to tell himself that he felt far less guilty for having written in dialect than for having presented his fellow blacks as idlers and thieves?89 What, other than his own ambition, his eagerness to see his name displayed at the entrance of Broadway's music halls, had locked him into this "conventional mold"? If Dunbar had let himself be pulled in this direction, at least he had the excuse of financial need. But Johnson had never known hunger. He had a college degree, he had become a school principal and a lawyer at the Jacksonville bar, and he had abandoned all that for the vainglory and the royalties offered by the world of song and show business.

These are some personal aspects that must be borne in mind when evaluating Johnson's attitude toward dialect. He himself unintentionally revealed how inauthentic his attitude was, in the preface to the second edition of The Book of American Negro Poetry, in a passage that discusses the dialect poetry of Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown: "Several of the poets of the younger group, notably Langston Hughes and Sterling A. Brown, do use a dialect; but it is not the dialect of the comic minstrel tradition or of the sentimental plantation tradition; it is the common, racy, living, authentic speech of the Negro in certain phases of real life."90 The distinction is valid, of course, but why not say outright that what has changed is not so much the dialect as the writers' basic outlook, and that in this lies the whole difference between the minstrel tradition of former days and the Negro poetry of the rising generation? The important thing is not any changes that Langston Hughes or Sterling Brown may have made in spelling the dialect, but the fact that they no longer portray other blacks as ignoramuses, lazybones, and thieves; they no longer present them exclusively as clowns who pass their lives laughing and strumming the banjo, but as human beings confronted by life's many problems—who laugh, of course, but who also weep, struggle, suffer, and die, crushed beneath the weight of injustice and their color. This is what makes good the sin of omission of which the minstrel and plantation traditions were guilty, and which such poets as Dunbar and Johnson, often too lighteartedly, chose to assume. The dialect itself was not evil; instead, it too often was but the innocent vehicle for evil.

Thus Johnson's thesis can scarely be defended. As it turned out, it won him no disciples, and a poet like Sterling Brown briefly but energetically expressed his refusal to participate in any condemnation of dialect.91


29 The definition of his agnostic attitude will be found in Along This Way, pp. 413-14. On his religious experience at home, see ibid., pp. 21-31.

30Ibid., p. 30.


32Fifty Years, p. 50.

33Ibid., p. 93. In the 1917 edition this poem does not bear the title "Envoy," which is to be found only in Saint Peter Relates an IncidentSelected Poems by James Weldon Johnson (1935), p. 103.

34 "Prayer at Sunrise," Fifty Years, p. 51.

35 "O Southland!" stanza 3, line 7, ibid., p. 9. This passage may be compared with the last line of "Fragment," ibid., p. 18: "God is not love, no, God is law."

36 "To Horace Bumstead," ibid., p. 10.

37 "Fifty Years," stanza 5, lines 1-2, ibid., p. 1.

38Ibid., stanza 23, lines 3-4, p. 4.

39 "O Black and Unknown Bards," ibid., p. 8.

40 Except, perhaps, for this detail: during the summer of 1888, when there was an epidemic of yellow fever in Jacksonville, Johnson was in the employ of a local medical man, Dr. Summers. In the doctor's library he read Some Mistakes of Moses and The Gods and Other Lectures, but also The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine. This recollection, together with that of Ingersoll, may have helped to lend a slight tinge of deism to his agnosticism. But this influence, if indeed it ever existed, must have been minimal. See Along This Way, pp. 94ff.

41Ibid., p. 413. To round out Johnson's confessions as contained in his autobiography, let us point out the existence of an essay on the foundations of morals, "The Origin of Sin," to the best of our knowledge never published, consisting of a six-sheet typescript preserved in the James Weldon Johnson file of the Negro Collec-tion in Atlanta University. After making the arbitrary declaration that the origin of sin remains one of theology's mysteries, Johnson in this essay reaches the conclusion that the notion of sin was invented by man to enhance the natural pleasure he took in certain acts by adding that of the forbidden fruit. In the course of his argument he deplores the existence of a moral sense which, by bringing man into conflict with himself, is in large part responsible for making him unhappy. In a certain way, too, his moral sense makes man inferior to the animals. Johnson illustrates this point by citing Walt Whitman ("Song of Myself" 32, lines 1-5); but the way in which the problems are tackled awakens the impression that another influence was that of Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger.

42 "Lift Every Voice and Sing, " Saint Peter Relates an Incident, p. 102. Though this poem was written as early as 1900, it is not included in the 1917 collection.

43 Declaration of Independence, par. 2.

44 "Fifty Years," stanza 1, lines 2-3, Fifty Years, p. 1.

45Ibid., stanza 4. In the 1935 edition, the second line has been changed to read: "From slave and pagan denizens." Stanzas 4 and 7 have also changed places.

46Ibid., stanza 7 (italics added).

47 See above, Ch. 1.

48 "Fifty Years," stanzas 8 and 9, Fifty Years, p. 2.

49Ibid., stanzas 24 and 25, p. 5.

50Ibid., stanza 14, p. 3.

51 "The Color Sergeant," ibid., p. 11.

52Ibid., pp. 8-9.

53 Johnson's own view was that the prayer meetings held at Atlanta University encouraged students in a hypocritical, conformist attitude: "I doubt not that there were students who enjoyed their prayer meetings and were spiritually benefited, but I believe the main effect was to put a premium on hypocrisy or, almost as bad, to substitute for religion a lazy and stupid conformity" (Along This Way, p. 81). For a similar remark on prayer, see ibid., p. 44.

54Ibid., p. 413.

55 An analogous intention should probably be seen behind Johnson's gesture of agreeing, not long before he left for Fisk University, to become a deacon of Saint James Presbyterian Church in Harlem. On other occasions Johnson was a severe critic of the Black Church, which he charged with pretentiousness, corruption, inefficacy in practical matters, and a purely formal morality. On this, see Negro Americans, What Now? pp. 20-26.

56 William Wordsworth, preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800 ed.).

57 John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom, p. 493.

58 On the writing of this poem, see Along This Way, pp. 289-91, where Johnson speaks of fifteen discarded stanzas. In Fifty Years and Other Poems, the poem has been cut down from 41 stanzas to 26 stanzas, and in the 1935 edition only 24 will remain.

59 "Fifty Years," stanzas 10 and 11, Fifty Years, p. 2.

60 "To America," ibid., p. 5.

61 "Fragment," stanzas 2 and 3, ibid., pp. 17-18.

78 "O Black and Unknown Bards," stanzas 1, 4, 5, Fifty Years, pp. 6-7. The "great German master" of the text is probably Joseph Haydn.

79 Pp. 18-19.

80 P. 9 in the 1931 ed.

81God's Trombones, p. 1.

82The Book of American Negro Spirituals, pp. 13-14.

83God's Trombones, p. 2.

84 For Johnson's attitude to dialect, see The Book of American Negro Poetry, pp. 3-5, 40-42; The Book of American Negro Spirituals, pp. 42-46; God's Trombones, pp. 7-9; Along This Way, pp. 159, 336; Saint Peter Relates an Incident, pp. 69-70.

85The Book of American Negro Poetry, p. 41.


87Ibid., p. 42.

88 See note 1 above.

89 See Sec. 2 above, "Dunbar's Disciple: Poetry in Dialect."

90The Book of American Negro Poetry, p. 4.

91 Brown, Negro Poetry and Drama, p. 77.

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

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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 produce sentimental songs like Johnson's own "Sence You Went Away":

Seems lak to me dat ev'ything is wrong,
Seems lak to me dat day's jes twice es long,
Seems lak to me de bird's forgot his song,
Sence you went away.

Or he could write quaintly comic lyrics like Paul Laurence Dunbar's lines in "When De Co'n Pone's Hot":

He could, in other words, write what in the case of the black writer was indeed a loaded term: local color literature.…

As Dunbar's friend James Weldon Johnson reported, "Often he said to me: 'I've got to write dialect poetry; it's the only way I can get them to listen to me.'" In so saying, Dunbar spoke for all his fellow black writers. Anyone who would seek to understand the poetry and prose of black Americans must keep in mind one central truth: that almost every line they wrote, until comparatively recently, was written to be read by an audience not of other blacks, but of white people.…

What was … to be achieved, … was the discovery of a language whereby the black poet could render the particular subtleties and urgencies of black American life. James Weldon Johnson, who was almost two years older than Dunbar, … composed his earlier poetry very much in the two modes that Dunbar used: dialect and literary English. Like Dunbar, Johnson felt the inadequacy of stereotyped dialect very keenly, but he also recognized, without yet knowing what to do about it, the limitations of the ornate literary language of genteel poetry as well. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson was, unlike Dunbar, a highly educated and widely read man. After teaching high school and qualifying for the Florida bar, he collaborated with his brother Rosamond, a talented musician, in writing popular songs and musical comedy lyrics. Johnson's words to such songs as "Under the Bamboo Tree," "Oh, Didn't He Ramble," and "The Congo Love Song" are still popular.

Dissatisfied with his poetry, Johnson knew that something was lacking, not only in his poems but in Dunbar's and those of all other black poets as well. (Apparently Johnson did not see the potentialities in the several free verse poems that W. E. B. DuBois was publishing at this time.) Johnson became intrigued with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass: "I was engulfed and submerged by the book, and set floundering again," he recollected many years later in his brilliant autobiography, Along This Way. When Dunbar came to visit Johnson in Jacksonville, he showed him poems he had written after the manner of Whitman. Dunbar "read them through and, looking at me with a queer smile, said, Ί don't like them, and I don't see what you are driving at.'" Taken aback, Johnson got out his copy of Leaves of Grass and read him some of the poems he most admired: "There was, at least," he wrote, "some personal consolation in the fact that his verdict was the same on Whitman himself."

Apparently Johnson acquiesced in Dunbar's verdict, for as late as 1917, when he published his own first book of verse, Fifty Years and Other Poems, he included in it no work that seems especially akin to the poetry of Walt Whitman. That volume did contain his memorable "O Black and Unknown Bards," however, in which, writing in the formal literary English of the day, he achieved an almost classic precision and simplicity of utterance. There was also skillful dialect poetry. But Johnson was still dissatisfied. As he wrote in his introduction to The Book of American Negro Poetry, "Negro dialect poetry had its origin in the minstrel traditions, and a persisting pattern was set. When the individual writer attempted to get away from that pattern, the fixed conventions allowed him only to slip over into a slough of sentimentality. These conventions were not broken for the simple reason that the individual writers wrote chiefly to entertain an outside audience, and in concord with its stereotyped ideas about the Negro."

What was needed was what Johnson discovered while in Kansas City in 1918, when he was engaged in field work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. On a Sunday evening, after having already given four talks to Negro church groups, he heard a famed black evangelist give a sermon:

He was a dark brown man, handsome in his gigantic proportions. I think the presence of a 'distinguished visitor' on the platform disconcerted him a bit, for he started in to preach a formal sermon from a formal text. He was flat. The audience sat apathetic and dozing. He must have realized that he was neither impressing the 'distinguished visitor' nor giving the congregation what it expected; for, suddenly and without any warning for the transition, he slammed the Bible shut, stepped out from behind the pulpit, and began intoning the rambling Negro sermon that begins with the creation of the world, touches various high spots in the trials and tribulations of the Hebrew children, and ends with the Judgment Day. There was an instantaneous change in the preacher and in the congregation. He was free, at ease, and the complete master of himself and his hearers. The congregation responded to him as a willow to the winds. He strode the pulpit up and down, and brought into play the full gamut of a voice that excited my envy. He intoned, he moaned, he pleaded—he blared, he crashed, he thundered. A woman sprang to her feet, uttered a piercing scream, threw her handbag to the pulpit, striking the preacher full in the chest, whirled round several times, and fainted. The congregation reached a state of ecstasy. I was fascinated by this exhibition; moreover, something primordial in me was stirred. Before the preacher finished, I took a slip of paper from my pocket and somewhat surreptitiously jotted down some ideas for my … poem.

Johnson saw now that he had been looking in the wrong place for his idiom. The place to find the diction and pattern of imagery and idiom for a poetry that could embody the experience of black Americans was not in the convention of dialect poetry, for that was not black experience, but a caricature of it written to fulfill the expectations of a white audience. Neither was the literary English of the poetry of idealism a suitable vehicle; its demands, expectations, and vocabulary were alien to the racial idiom. The model must instead be the folk tradition of black America itself, with its own cadences and metaphors. As he declared a few years afterward in his introduction to The Book of American Negro Poetry: "What the colored poet in the United States needs to do is something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without, such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation. He needs a form that is freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations, and allow of the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment."

The poem that Johnson produced as the result of what he discovered that evening in Kansas City was "The Creation," published in The Freeman for December 1, 1920, and later the basis for his book of seven black sermons, God's Trombones (1927). The first three stanzas authoritatively set the mood and tone:

And God stepped out on space
And he looked around and said:
I'm lonely—
I'll make me a world.

As far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything.
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That's good!

In place of the singsong rhymings and the contrived semiliteracy of cotton-field dialect, here was the flowing, pulsating rise and fall of living speech, making its own emphases and intensifications naturally, in terms of the meaning, not as prescribed by an artificial, pre-established pattern of singsong metrics and rhyme. Here indeed was the influence of Walt Whitman, not woodenly imitated but used creatively and freely. Instead of abstract rhetorical platitudes couched in ornate literary English, there was colloquial speech—"I'll make me a world." Colloquial in the true sense, however, because drawn from the actual language of men and women, not the self-conscious cutenesses of dialect. Nor was there any self-imposed limitation on emotion: "Blacker than a hundred midnights / Down in a cypress swamp" was language and metaphor that was at once expansive and natural. The diction, the cadence, the range of feeling permitted a freedom of metaphor and a flexibility of language and imagery that allowed him to express his meaning in a voice that could move from formal intensity to colloquial informality and then back again, without confusion or incongruity:

And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image …

To realize the potentialities and possibilities of the new form that Johnson discovered with "The Creation," one need only compare such a stanza with lines from several of the poems in Fifty Years and Other Poems. Here are the opening lines of "Prayer at Sunrise":

O mighty, powerful, dark-dispelling sun,
Now thou art risen, and thy day begun.
How shrink the shrouding mists before thy face.
As up thou spring'st to thy diurnal race!

The contrived stiffness of diction of this poem, with its ornate literary idiom, its forced imagery and sententious attitudinizing, seems artificial and lifeless by comparison with the far greater force and natural intensity of "The Creation." Contrast "Now thou art risen, and thy day begun" with "Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky"; not only is the metaphor of God lighting the sun as if it were a lantern far more striking than anything in the other line, but the desired sense of power and vastness comes across far more convincingly.

Now compare the lines from "The Creation" to these lines of an early dialect poem by Johnson entitled "A Plantation Bacchanal":

W'en ole Mister Sun gits tiah'd a-hangin'
High up in de sky;
W'en der ain't no thunder and light'nin' a-bangin'
An'de crops done all laid by …

The need to make the idea picturesque and quaint by referring to "ole Mister Sun" who "gets tiah'd" robs it of almost all potentiality for dramatic intensity and wonder. The fact that the speaker must express himself in folksy images designed to exhibit his unlettered, primitive status thoroughly dissipates any chance for serious commentary. The best that can be managed with such a speaker is homely philosophizing. By contrast, the language of "The Creation" can permit simple and authentic colloquial diction—"the most far corner of the night," "Like a mammy bending over her baby"—while also allowing for great intensity—"Who flung the stars," "Toiling over a lump of clay."

With "The Creation," Johnson had indeed achieved a momentous breakthrough in the search of the black American poet for his proper language. Here at last was a way to deal with the unique particularities of black experience, while at the same time achieving the dignity and intensity of imaginative literary utterance. In his own way, Johnson had pointed the way toward a discovery for the black poet fully as useful as that which the Chicago poets and, more importantly, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were making for American poetry in general: he had found the idiom for writing important poetry about the circumstances of twentieth-century American life.

Though Johnson went on, in the middle and late 1920s, to add six more sermons to "The Creation" and complete the book he entitled God's Trombones, it cannot be said that he himself chose to follow up and develop the implications of what he had been first to discover. Johnson was never a full-time poet; he wrote verse only intermittently, and by far the greater part of his energies was devoted to his work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Feeling as he clearly did that his formidable intellect and irrepressible energies could best be utilized in leading the legal and moral fight to ameliorate conditions under which the vast majority of black Americans were forced to live as second-class citizens in a nation in which Jim Crow laws still went almost unchallenged, Johnson had little time for the writing of verse. Save for the six-part poem he entitled "St. Peter Relates an Incident," and a few other shorter poems, he produced no additional poetry. It would be left to other and younger men and women to create the poetry of twentieth-century black America. But it was Johnson, more than any other man, who opened the path, and the achievement that followed was in an important sense possible because of what he first demonstrated. The leading poets who came afterward—Toomer, Hughes, Toison, Hayden, Brooks, Le-Roi Jones—can truly be said to have followed along James Weldon Johnson's way.

Saunders Redding (essay date 1975)

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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 conceived of the pastoral as a "device for literary inversion," a method for "putting the complex into the simple," and of expressing, in whatever literary genre, "complex ideas through simple personages" and dramatizing these ideas through the imitation of actuality and the representation of the concrete and the real: "Any work in any genre which sets forth the simple against the complicated, especially to the advantage of the simple, is a pastoral."

If one accepts this definition—and in view of the topic of our discussion one must accept it—it is scarcely to be argued that much if not all of the fiction and a good deal of the poetry of the South is pastoral. Applied to the one novel and practically all of the verses of James Weldon Johnson, this critical proposition should not need to be documented. But unfortunately it does, and for the reason that Johnson's use of Negro dialect has struck some critics as the only defining characteristic of his verse, while other, kindlier critics, hoping to redeem Johnson from the pejorative designation "dialect poet" which so embittered one of his well-known contemporaries, have ignored Johnson's work in dialect and focused upon such pieces as "Lift Every Voice and Sing," "My City," "Fifty Years," "The Glory of the Day Was On Her Face," and the seven Negro sermons in verse in God's Trombones.

In the beginning Johnson did not seem to want to be redeemed. He deliberately set out to write dialect verse, with, as he tells us in his autobiography, "an eye on Broadway." If he judged these pieces to be somewhat trite and trivial, he nevertheless declared himself "fully satisfied" with the recognition they brought him. And he wrote many "coon songs" and pastoral lyrics in dialect, some of which his brother Rosamond set to music for the stage, and some of which he included in a section entitled "Croons and Jingles" in his first volume of poetry, Fifty Years and Other Poems, published in 1915. In his own estimation the best of these was "Sence You Went Away":

But by 1915 he had come to the realization of a vexing problem, and that was the problem of trying to depict Negro life and the Negro character in a language taken to be distinctly expressive of the Negro, but which at the same time communicated the wide range of human experiences and values. Dialect was limited and, as Dunbar had discovered, could not do this. Dialect was expressive of the pastoral component in Southern Negro life, but it had also been employed to reflect the cultural abasement of Negro life in the city; and wherever Negro life was lived, the acceptable mythology represented it as basically simple, irresponsible, mimetic, and, even in moments of pathos, amusing. The mythology was not created by the Negroes themselves. It was created largely, but, considering Washington Irving and J. F. Cooper, not exclusively, by Southern whites, among them J. P. Kennedy, Edgar Allan Poe, William Gilmore Simms, and Thomas Nelson Page; and it had been kept current by a host of lesser writers who, like those already named, used the mythology to justify an amused contempt for the Negro people. In short, the myths projected a life and life styles that encouraged the concept of the Negro as a lower species of the human animal. And this posed a problem for certain black writers which Johnson called "the author's dilemma," and which he defined in terms of the duty of the black writer to appeal to and to promote the receptive disposition of two audiences, one white and the other black. Dialect had been used primarily to appeal to the white audience, and it was not altogether a failure in appealing to the black, which had the heaven-sent capacity for recognizing and finding amusing the limitations dialect suggested. This audience's amusement derived from its knowledge that whites were incapable of perceiving the essence and the spirit which underlay the dialect. It was in-house amusement, coterie humor, nurtured by an ironic perception. But Johnson, who by this time—circa 1910—had passed the point of apprehending literature merely as entertainment, wanted to get at the white audience with the deeper truths of Negro life while avoiding giving direct offense to that audience's preconceptions.

But how was this to be done? His friend and early contemporary, Paul Dunbar, had tried to do it with dialect and to a degree had succeeded, but his approach was on the level of sentimentality, of humor and pathos, and when, pitching his appeal to higher levels of emotional and intellectual perception, he employed standard English to this end, he was rebuffed.

Johnson, too, had tried as a novelist in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, his only work of fiction, and he smashed into a stone wall of white indifference and even resistance to the recognition of the Negro as a complicated human being, all of whose problems could not be solved by the emotional and moral equivalent of a stick of peppermint candy. The Autobiography was the story of the development of a Negro youth from pastoral simplicity to complex sophistication through his experiences in some of the great cities of the world. Published in 1912, it sold fewer than 500 copies. And when his volume of poetry, Fifty Years and Other Poems, was published seven years later, the few white critics who commented on it fixed their attention on the "Croons and Jingles" section and virtually ignored all the rest. Johnson wrote:

What the colored poet in the United States needs to do is something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without, such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation. He needs a form that is freer and larger than dialect … and which will … be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations [of the Negro] and allow of the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment. Negro dialect is at present a medium that is not capable of giving expression to the varied conditions of Negro life in America, and much less is it capable of giving the fullest interpretation of Negro character and psychology. This is no indictment against the dialect as dialect, but against the mold of convention in which Negro dialect in the United States has been set.2

By 1926 Johnson thought he had found what he sought—a form or language that held the racial flavor but which was also capable of "voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations" and allowing for the treatment of Negro life and experience in all of its great variety. He thought he had found it in the Southern Negro idiom, with its syntactical and metaphorical peculiarities. He was laboring under this illusory discovery when he wrote "The Seven Negro Sermons in Verse" already referred to, which do indeed voice deep emotions and high aspirations, but which do not define the character of nor encompass the experience of Negroness in America. In this regard the Negro idiom is nearly as limited as Negro dialect. And the irony is that Johnson the poet's use of the idiom was a contradiction of all that Johnson the social and political being believed and fought to establish practically all of his life: the validity of the concept of the Negro as man, motivated by the same forces and responding to life's circumstances and experiences like any other man. The Negro is not different from other Americans except in the color of his skin, Johnson declared in his book, Negro Americans, What Now?, and in another place, "the sooner they write American poetry, the better."

Finally, Johnson both as poet and sociopolitical man would have been appalled by what is happening now in Negro writing and in the mind of the Negro community. The concept and the current use of so-called Black English would have dismayed him, although he was the unwitting godfather of the concept, and although it in great part succeeds in doing what he failed to make dialect and idiom do: it holds the racial spirit by symbols from within; and it is more flexible, versatile and truer than both dialect and idiom. Johnson would have decried it, and the more especially because it is the instrument of communication between Negro and Negro; because it is employed as a kind of thieves' jargon to express the delusory differences of perception and response between Negro and white, and because it is a reflection of the contemporary Negro masses' conscious wish to keep the white man at arm's length and to reject so-called white values.

Johnson was all for promoting the receptive disposition of whites, for promoting understanding between the races; in short, he was for integration. And the present crop of Negro writers and poets—Imamu Baraka, Don Lee, Nikki Giovanni, etc.—are cultural and national separatists. They want no part of Whitey and they say so in a language that Whitey is scornfully challenged to understand. Johnson would have prayed for the day he prayed for all his life, the day when black Americans would write "American" poetry and make their contribution to the whole corpus of American literature.


1 (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions Books).

2 "Preface," The Book of American Negro Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922).

Susan J. Koprince (essay date 1985)

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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 terms of the literary characters which occur in them. A study of the women in Johnson's sermons, for example, not only reveals the poet's attitude toward the female sex, but, in a broader sense, helps to explain his enchantment with Harlem during the 1920s—the same Harlem which Johnson evokes so vividly in his cultural treatise Black Manhattan (1930).

Several poetic sermons in God's Trombones make clear Johnson's view of women as powerful temptresses. The poem "Noah Built the Ark" introduces the figure of Eve, the archetypal temptress "With nothing to do the whole day long / But play all around in the garden" (p.32) with her consort, Adam. Although Eve disobeys God out of vanity ("You're surely goodlooking," Satan tells her, offering her a mirror), Adam does so out of uxoriousness and a fatal desire for this beautiful, sensuous woman. "Back there, six thousand years ago," says Johnson, "Man first fell by woman— / Lord, and he's doing the same today" (p. 33).

Johnson describes the temptress even more explicitly in his sermon "The Prodigal Son." Here the prodigal son journeys to the great city of Babylon, where he associates with "hot-mouthed" and "sweet-sinning" women (pp. 24-25). Dressed colorfully in yellow, purple, and scarlet, and adorned with bright jewelry, the women are "Perfumed and sweet-smelling like a jasmine flower," and their lips are "like a honeycomb dripping with honey" (p. 24). Much in the manner of Eve, these temptresses usher a man into a world of sin and profligate living, confounding his powers of reason with their sexual allure and bending him completely to their will.

But Johnson also presents a different image of women in God's Trombones: that of the saintly mother, the sympathetic and loving comforter. In his sermon "The Crucifixion," for instance, Johnson pictures the Virgin Mary at the scene of her son's death, weeping as she watches "her sweet, baby Jesus on the cruel cross" (p. 42). In "Go Down Death," the poet celebrates the simple human dignity of Sister Caroline, a wife and mother who has "borne the burden and heat of the day" and "labored long in [God's] vineyard" (p. 28). When at last it is Sister Caroline's turn to be comforted, Death takes her in his arms like a baby and then places her "On the loving breast of Jesus" (p. 30). This last image, it should be noted, transfers the maternal role from Sister Caroline to Christ; and the Savior Himself becomes her eternal comforter:

And Jesus took his own hand and wiped away her tears,
And he smoothed the furrows from her face,
And the angels sang a little song,
And Jesus rocked her in his arms,
And kept a-saying: Take your rest,
Take your rest, take your rest.
(p. 30)

The deification of maternal love is likewise evident in Johnson's well-known poem "The Creation," where the act of divine creation is compared to a scene of maternal devotion, and where God Himself is portrayed as the tenderhearted mother of mankind:

This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
(p. 20)

In the poet's view, motherhood is sacred, partly because the earthly mother shelters and nurtures her offspring, but also because, like the Divine Maker Himself, she has the power to create new life.

So important for Johnson is this dichotomy between the sensual and the spiritual, between the whorish and the maternal, that he employs it not only to describe the women of God's Trombones, but to depict Harlem of the twenties in his cultural study Black Manhattan. Just as Johnson tends to divide women into two extreme types—the sexual temptress and the saintly mother—so does he picture Harlem as a city containing the extremes of sensuality and spirituality. For Johnson, Harlem is at once a voluptuous temptress and a spiritual mother—a force which inspires both amorous passion and creative genius—a city which is seductive and vibrant.

Thus, like the "sweet-sinning" women of Johnson's poems, Harlem is "farthest known as being exotic, colorful, and sensuous."3 The city is noted not only for its flashy night life, with music, dancing, and laughter, but for its underworld "of pimps and prostitutes, of gamblers and thieves, of illicit love and illicit liquor, of red sins and dark crimes" (p. 169). Just as the prodigal son in Johnson's poem is tempted to "[waste] his substance in riotous living" (p. 24), so may the visitor to Harlem "nose down into lower strata of life" (p. 160). He may become initiated, explains the author, "in all the wisdom of worldliness" (p. 169). This black metropolis entices "the pleasure-seeker, the curious, the adventurous, the enterprising, the ambitious, and the talented of the entire Negro world"; indeed, "the lure of it, " says Johnson, "has reached down to every island of the Carib Sea and penetrated even into Africa" (p. 3; italics added).

Yet Harlem of the twenties is also a life-giving force, a kind of spiritual and artistic mother. The city can boast, for example, of an abundance of churches, which serve as a crucial stabilizing force in the community. Like mothers, these churches provide their members with a sense of identity and belonging, offering not only spiritual inspiration, but the feeling of being part of an extended family.4 Harlem's ability to bring about the "birth of new ideas"(p. 231) and "opportunities for the nurture and development of talent" (p. 226; italics added) is also a maternal characteristic. As the center of the Negro Renaissance and the repository of a new black culture, Harlem possesses a truly regenerative force. The spiritual (or maternal) side of Harlem comprises more, in other words, than mere religiosity. According to Johnson, Harlem encourages black people to believe in their own potential and to discover for themselves their unique powers and abilities. Like a mother, this black city ultimately builds self-confidence; it gives a new hope and vitality to the individual creative artist.5

Although Johnson's image of women in God's Trombones can indeed be compared with his image of Harlem in Black Manhattan, one distinction should be kept in mind; whereas Johnson divides women into two different roles—temptress and mother—he unites these two roles in the city of Harlem itself. Harlem thus resembles not an individual woman, but womankind, for it expresses all aspects of femininity, from gaiety and sensuous charm to spiritual emotion and creative vigor. Like a temptress, Harlem lures the black man, exhilarates him, and overwhelms him; but like a mother, it also shelters him, inspires him, and gives him his identity. For James Weldon Johnson, Harlem of the twenties was much more, therefore, than a place to which to "jazz through existence" (p. 161); it was the scene of the black people's cultural rebirth—the home of their racial awakening.


1 See, for example, Jean Wagner, Black Poets of the United States, trans. Kenneth Douglas (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1973), pp. 377-84; and Richard A. Long, "A Weapon of My Song: The Poetry of James Weldon Johnson," Phylon, 32 (Winter 1971), 374-82.

2 James Weldon Johnson, Pref., God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (New York: Viking, 1927), p. 2. Future references are to this edition.

3 James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (1930; rpt. New York: Atheneum, 1968), p. 160. Future references are to this edition.

4 According to Johnson, a Harlem church is really much more than a place of worship: "It is a social centre, it is a club, it is an arena for the exercise of one's capabilities and powers, a world in which one may achieve self-realization and preferment" (p. 165).

5 In his preface to Black Manhattan (New York: Atheneum, 1968), Allan H. Spear emphasizes that "Johnson's vision of Harlem was more a dream than a reality." By 1930 the city was already largely transformed from a "community of great promise" to a saddened ghetto.

Robert E. Fleming (essay date 1987)

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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 and magazines, and worked for his race as secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Always a political realist, he campaigned among black voters for the election of Theodore Roosevelt, and after Roosevelt's election he gladly accepted diplomatic appointments as U.S. consul in Venezuela and later in Nicaragua. Through all these careers, Johnson also found time to write prose, poetry, and song lyrics. His first major poem to find a large audience was the occasional poem "Fifty Years," a work that still represents Johnson in many anthologies of Afro-American literature. "Fifty Years" serves as an example of the side of Johnson to which many modern readers object. Written to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, "Fifty Years" traces the history of the black race from slavery to freedom, noting its accomplishments in clearing and settling the new nation and in defending its principles from the Revolutionary War on. Implicit in the poem is the idea that the black population should be content to be assimilated into American culture and to wait patiently for full citizenship to be granted. In only three of the twenty-six stanzas of the poem does Johnson suggest that black Americans are still held down by law and custom:

More typical of the tone of the poem are lines that stress the gradual nature of the process of assimilation and the necessity for black people to grow into the new roles to which they aspire:

Especially during the years of the "black is beautiful" movement, such sentiments, like those expressed in Phillis Wheatley's "On Being Brought from Africa to America," seemed to accept a second-class citizenship for the black race and thus alienated the black reader.

Reading the poem as it was published, first in the New York Times of 1 January, 1913, and later in Johnson's first collection of poetry, Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917), it is hard to disagree with Johnson's biographer Eugene Levy, who says that the poem is "much closer in spirit to Up from Slavery than to The Souls of Black Folk."2 Yet Johnson had to overcome deep feelings of bitterness before he was able to produce a poem full of so much sweet reasonableness. A study of the manuscript drafts of "Fifty Years" in the Beinecke Rare Book Room and Manuscript Library, Yale University, shows that Johnson's first efforts to write the poem resulted in a diatribe against racial bigotry and would probably have shocked his white readers and created a mood of despair among his black readers. Four drafts and a number of fragments exist in the collection of autograph manuscripts of "Fifty Years," but the entire first draft of nine stanzas was scrapped by Johnson and never found its way into the published poem because, as Johnson reflected some twenty years later, the omitted portion would have "nullified the theme, purpose, and effect of the poem as a whole."3

Nevertheless, an examination of Johnson's first draft helps to clarify not only Johnson's mental attitude, but the state of black morale in the first years of the twentieth century. Johnson wrote "Fifty Years" in the American consulate in Nicaragua, where he was enjoying his reward for his political efforts on behalf of the Republican Party. If he was tempted to despair while assessing the racial progress since the Emancipation, what must have been the attitude of black people who were less fortunate than he?

Draft one begins not at the beginning of the poem as published, but at the end. The first lines that came to Johnson were the stanzas with which he would close the poem, to bring "into view the other side of the shield, and [end] on a note of bitterness and despair."4 Having planned to recount the history of the fifty years just past, Johnson asks if the strides that have been made will truly lead to the goal the race has been striving for:

But, Oh, my brothers, if the tears
You've shed, the fight that you have fought,
The grueling struggle of the years,—
If none of these should count for ought,

If what you've built in faith and hope,
To make you worthy of this Land,
Is sneered at by the misanthrope,
And struck down by the bigot's hand


If on the ladder you would climb,
They force you downward rung by rung,
Into the quagmire and the slime,
Back down into the dirt and dung,

Then loose your hold, your grip let free,
No longer strain, no longer try,
Slip back where they would have you be
And wallow where you're forced to lie.
(11, 1-8, 13-20)5

These lines refer not only to the losses suffered by formerslaves following their first successes after the Civil War, but to some particularly disturbing developments shortly before Johnson wrote the poem: Thomas Dixon's The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden, 1865-1900 had appeared in 1902, and was soon followed by Dixon's The Clansman (1905). Both books enjoyed widespread popularity. Johnson saw in the attitudes which Dixon's books epitomized an American tendency to turn away from the former slaves, or as he put it, to "refuse your need of help and love, / And balk each effort made to rise" (11, 11-12).

In an apparent allusion to Paul Laurence Dunbar's famous poem "We Wear the Mask" (1896), Johnson ironically urges his black readers to

Drop off the shamming mask of man,
Go backward, downward, grovelling,
Till you are more than they would plan,
A vile, polluted, dying thing.
(11, 25-28)

At the end of the century, the prevailing strategy of Booker T. Washington, like that of Johnson's alma mater, Atlanta University, was to put on the best possible face for the white race, a strategy which Johnson had personally adopted in making his way through careers in education, law, musical comedy, and politics. Here, however, he found himself suggesting, though rhetorically, that black people deliberately display to whites the negative side of human nature, to show to what depths humanity can fall if it is forced to respond always to the most adverse conditions.

The final lines of Johnson's first draft reveal how this degradation of the black race will affect the rest of the nation.

Then one more struggle—Leap the length
Of one last goal before your eyes,
And with your all remaining strength
Up to your trembling feet arise.

Stretch out your hands, leprous and lean,
One curse, one last despairing cry!
Touch them, and leaving them unclean,
Sink back, and die!
(11, 29-36)

Far from ending in a positive, conciliatory way, "Fifty Years" would have anticipated Claude McKay's lines in "If We Must Die":

What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
(11, 12-14)6

But Johnson, even though he needed to purge these bitter feelings from his system, was not ready to abandon his moderate approach. As he later stated in his autobiography, Along This Way, "I saw that I had written two poems in one," and his "artistic taste and best judgement" caused him to cut the bitter stanzas from the poem.7 He set aside the section of the poem that he had excised, intending to use it as the basis for another poem someday, but he never wrote a poem using those exact lines. Their main idea, however, appears in the poem directly following "Fifty Years" in Johnson's first collection. In "To America," first published in The Crisis in 1917, Johnson rhetorically asks his country:

How would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking 'neath the load we bear?
Our eyes fixed forward on a star?
Or gazing empty at despair?

Rising or falling? Men or things?
With dragging pace or footsteps fleet?
Strong, willing sinews in your wings?
Or tightening chains about your feet?8

It is a sign of the times in which Johnson lived that even this cool literary spokesman of black America should have been haunted by racism to the extent that he was. Like his contemporary, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Johnson learned to stifle his anger so that he might produce art acceptable to a broad audience and affirm the positive side of life in America. But the lost stanzas of "Fifty Years" show that Johnson's placid exterior concealed a raging awareness of the wrongs committed against his race.


1James Weldon Johnson, "Fifty Years," in Fifty Years and Other Poems (Boston: Cornhill Publishers, 1917), p. 4. All subsequent references to "Fifty Years refer to this edition and appear in parentheses.

2Eugene Levy, James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 144.

3James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (New York: Viking Press, 1933), p. 290.

4James Weldon Johnson, St. Peter Relates an Incident (New York: Viking Press, 1935), p. 91.

5Draft I of "Fifty Years" is in the Collection of American Literature, the Beinecke Rare Book Room and Manuscript Library, Yale University, item + 206. It is a pencil draft on 81/2 χ 14 unlined paper.

6Claude McKay, Selected Poems of Claude McKay (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Would, 1953), p. 36.

7Along This Way, p. 290.

8The Crisis 15 (1917): 13.

Robert E. Fleming (essay date 1987)

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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 handed down from early protest writers such as George Moses Horton and Frances Watkins Harper. During the 1920s, however, Johnson began to experiment with more modern forms, eventually producing in God's Trombones (1927) a free verse form calculated to recall the style and rhythm of the southern black minister. These later poems are the ones most likely to appear in literary histories, despite the popularity of some early poems such as "Lift Every Voice and Sing."


Characteristic of Johnson's early poetry is a Petrarchan sonnet, "Mother Night," that he wrote while serving as consul in Venezuela. The night is personified as "a brooding mother" out of which the universe evolved and to which it will return. In the sestet Johnson applies the lesson of the universe to the life of the individual:

Another poem of the same type is the English sonnet called "Sleep" in Fifty Years and "Blessed Sleep" in St. Peter Relates an Incident. Reminiscent of Sir Philip Sidney's Sonnet 39 from Astrophel and Stella, "Sleep" praises the value of sleep, its ability to "soothe the torn and sorrow-laden breast." But near the end the poem diverges from Sidney's theme, reflecting on the fact that pain "lives again so soon as thou art fled." The final couplet moves on to another form of sleep: "Man, why should thought of death cause thee to weep; / Since death be but an endless, dreamless sleep?" (FY, 50). While he wrote several of these conventional poems, which display the sort of competence and deftness with rhyme and meter that made him a successful songwriter, Johnson would probably never have merited a place in literary history for any of this class of poetry. Even in his early period, however, he did write a number of poems whose racial themes gained them a place in Afro-American literary history. Certain of his occasional or commemorative poems are widely anthologized, while some protest poems produced between 1893 and 1917 deserve to be better known than they are.

The fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation was the occasion for "Fifty Years," the well-known title poem of his first volume of verse. Johnson begins his long poem by recalling how far the race has come, not only in the fifty years since Emancipation, but since its introduction to America three centuries earlier:

He asserts the rights of America's black citizens to equal partnership with white citizens because "this land is ours by right of toil," and he details the contributions of black men and women to clearing the land and making it productive. Johnson also points out that from the martyrdom of Crispus Attucks to his own day black Americans had rallied to the flag in times of war; he forcefully concludes this section, "We've bought a rightful sonship here, / And we have more than paid the price" (FY, 4). The black American, then, has no need to take a position inferior to that of the newly arrived European immigrant who, black leaders such as Booker T. Washington feared, might replace black workers in the desirable jobs in the industrialized North. On the other hand, "Fifty Years" acknowledges that black people are still persecuted and that many have grown discouraged. Johnson ends the poem, therefore, with an exhortation to the black reader to maintain his courage, to look beyond the present:

"Fifty Years" appeared in the New York Times on 1 January 19132 and has been frequently anthologized since, but it is more noteworthy for the sentiments it expresses than for the excellence of the poetry itself. While at times genuine emotion breaks through its formality, the modern reader may be inclined to read it more as a social document than as a great poem.

Similar to "Fifty Years" is "Father, Father Abraham," written on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth and first published in the Crisis in February 1913. Johnson pays tribute to the Great Emancipator, a traditional hero of the race, in a prayerlike poem of sixteen lines. As the biblical Abraham gave birth to the Jewish people, Lincoln is viewed as the spiritual progenitor of the black race. Furthermore, Lincoln's death is seen as an act of martyrdom to "ransom" the black race. The poem not only offers a tribute to the statesman, but also contains an inspirational note:

Also in this category is "Lift Every Voice and Sing," a poem which Johnson's brother Rosamond set to music. Designed to be sung by a large chorus of school children. "Lift Every Voice" was first performed at a celebration of Lincoln's birthday in Jacksonville in 1900. In later years it was adopted by the NAACP and became known as the "Negro National Hymn" or the "Negro National Anthem." Like "Fifty Years," "Lift Every Voice" looks back to the hardships faced by the race in the past—"stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod"—and also looks forward to "the rising sun of our new day begun."3 While he details some of the pains of slavery, Johnson's emphasis is on the moderate course: the race should learn from the "dark past," should persevere in its faith in God and the nation, and should never cease to press toward its eventual victory.

Less artificial and more moving than the public poems discussed above is Johnson's "O Black and Unknown Bards," a commemoration of the anonymous composers of the spirituals. In this justly popular poem Johnson allows his honest emotion to break through the conventional diction of turn-of-the-century popular verse and pays a beautiful tribute to the folk poets who produced the spirituals. He opens the poem by posing an unanswerable question:

O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel's lyre?
(FY, 6)

Throughout the poem he weaves lines from the actual spirituals—"Steal Away to Jesus," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Go Down, Moses," and others—marveling at the ingenuity of the composers, who produced their works without any training and under the worst possible conditions. And it is not merely as artistic successes that Johnson views the songs, but as signs of the spiritual depths of their creators. Himself an agnostic, Johnson nevertheless empathizes with the "hungry hearts" of the listeners for whom the songs were composed. Implicit in the poem is a recognition of the importance of religion in helping an enslaved people to survive with their spirits intact.

Like many black poets, Johnson frequently turned to the writing of protest poetry. At times the protest is mild, as in "O Southland," where his love for the South is mingled with his desire to see it progress toward racial harmony to the benefit of both races. More typically, however, his protest poems display a bitterness and a militancy that are surprising in the poetry of a man who normally took moderate stands on civil rights issues. The earliest published poem of this type, "A Brand," appeared in 1893 during Johnson's junior year at Atlanta University. The poet describes a despised wanderer:

Yet, at the end of a miserable life, the wanderer faces his God and is admitted to heaven because of his pure heart. Johnson progressed from the mild protest of "A Brand" to a warning in "To America" that the fate of the nation itself is tied to the fate of its black population. Hardly militant, "To America" states that if black people are kept "sinking 'neath the load we bear," the race will throw chains about the feet of their country instead of helping the nation to prosper (FY, 5).

Protest poems such as "Brothers" and "The White Witch" go a step further by addressing the twin southern problems of lynching and miscegenation. "Brothers" begins with words spoken by a member of the lynch mob, observing a victim "more like brute than man" and asking if this creature is from the same "docile, child-like, tender-hearted race" that has served southern whites for three centuries. The victim replies that he is "the bitter fruit… of planted seed" and details the "lessons in degradation, taught and learned," that have been the lot of the race through fifteen generations of slavery and oppression: the slaves separated from their families, the murders and the rapes he has seen. The poem then shifts from dramatic dialogue to detailed description of the lynching itself as the mob refuses to hear more accusations. The fire is built carefully so that it will not burn too fast and deprive the watchers of the joy of watching their victim die slowly. When it begins to burn too vigorously, they throw water on it. At last the black man dies, and the crowd comes forward for grisly souvenirs of the burning: "You take that bone, and you this tooth; the chain— / Let us divide its links; this skull, of course, / In fair division, to the leader comes." Finally, their brutal actions over, the members of the mob have time to ponder the last words of the dying man, but they fail to unlock the riddle. His words, in the last line of the poem, are "Brothers in spirit, brothers in deed are we" (FY, 14-17). Although much of the dialogue of this poem is artificially formal, given the heated context, the poem on the whole makes a powerful statement about violence and brutality begetting more brutality.

"The White Witch" is more subtle, though it is unlikely that any black reader would mistake its message.5 "The White Witch" appears to be a fanciful supernatural ballad, in which a vampirelike witch threatens to lure away young men and kill them. Beneath the surface, however, it is clear that Johnson is treating black-white sexual relations, the complex of psychological ills that accompany the thought of miscegenation, and the very real physical danger to the black man who succumbs to the lures of white women. The white witch is described by one who speaks, perhaps from the grave, about his own temptation and fall. He warns his younger brothers not to test their strength against the witch or even to look at her, "For in her glance there is a snare, / And in her smile there is a blight" (FY, 19). The witch is not like the witches the boys have heard of in children's stories; this is no "ancient hag" with "snaggled tooth," but a beautiful woman "in all the glowing charms of youth." The third and fourth stanzas create a portrait of her as the archetypal white woman: "her face [is] like new-born lilies fair," her eyes are blue, and her hair is golden. Although she appears young, "unnumbered centuries are hers" (FY, 19); her origins go back to the beginning of the universe.

The speaker then tells his brothers how he has been trapped by the witch. At first he enjoyed the kisses from her unnaturally red lips and the bondage of her white arms and the golden hair that entangled him. But then a transformation took place, and the red lips began to "burn and sear / My body like a living coal" (FY, 20). The temptress has led her victim to the stake, and the glow of her beauty becomes the glow of the lynch mob's fire. What motivates the white witch? In anticipation of much later works such as Calvin C. Hernton's Sex and Racism in America (1965) or Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice (1968) her victim answers:

She feels the old Antaean strength
In you, the great dynamic beat
Of primal passions, and she sees
In you the last besieged retreat
Of love relentless, lusty, fierce,
Love pain-ecstatic, cruel-sweet.
(FY, 21)

The poem ends with the repeated warning to the younger brothers not to be enticed by the witch. Johnson operates with considerable subtlety in this poem. Nowhere is it stated that the speaker and his brothers are black, but given the imagery of the white enticer and the nature of the speaker's fate, it is apparent that the poem is a social fable on one level even though it may be read on another.

Although Johnson's later experiments with free verse in God's Trombones were extremely successful, he never completely abandoned traditional verse. Just three years after the publication of God's Trombones, a news story that caught Johnson's eye provided the occasion for another poem. As he tells the story in his foreword to St. Peter Relates an Incident, he read about a contingent of gold-star mothers being sent to France to visit their sons' graves. White mothers were to travel on one ship and black mothers on another, the latter being a "second-class vessel" (SP, ix). Johnson laid aside the manuscript that he had been working on and began to compose the long satirical title poem of his last collection of poetry.

In the 161 lines and six sections of "Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day" Johnson uses various stanza forms, rhyme schemes, and meters, but most of the work is in quatrains made up of rhyming couplets. The first two sections set up the framework for the tale itself: to enliven the cloying sameness of heaven, St. Peter tells the assembled angels and saints a story. On the day of the resurrection all of the living and dead members of the various patriotic groups of the United States, including the Ku Klux Klan and Confederate veterans, gathered in Washington to honor the Unknown Soldier and escort him to heaven. Since the tomb of the Unknown Soldier is so massive, he could not emerge immediately, and the assembled masses had to dig him out. For his part, the Unknown Soldier worked from inside, until at last

He, underneath the débris, heaved and hove
Up toward the opening which they cleaved and clove;
Through it, at last, his towering form loomed big and bigger—
"Great God Almighty! Look!" they cried, "he is a nigger!"
(SP, 18)

The crowd debated the best way to handle the situation. The Klan suggested reburying the soldier, but skeptics argued that divine will would not be foiled by mere concrete. While they were discussing him, the Unknown Soldier climbed to heaven, singing "Deep River." St. Peter recalls:

I rushed to the gate and flung it wide,
Singing, he entered with a loose, long stride;
Singing and swinging up the golden street,
The music married to the tramping of his feet.
(SP, 20)

The poem ends with the heavenly perspective on the incident as the assembled host disperses while making a noise "that quivered / 'twixt tears and laughter" (SP, 22). Characters and incident, meter and rhymes—all contribute to the humorous effect of the poem.

In addition to the title poem, Johnson's last collection of poetry contains four other poems not included in Fifty Years, all but one of which revert to conventional verse forms. In his formal traditional poetry he breaks no new ground, but his poetry is competent, and, because of the unique racial perspective from which it approaches life, it is worth reading. One further contribution that Johnson made to black poetry of his period is a body of dialect verse.


When Johnson began his poetic career in the 1890s, dialect poetry was in fashion. One well-known black poet of the period, Paul Laurence Dunbar, had been encouraged to create dialect verse by the influential novelist and critic, William Dean Howells. When Johnson moved to New York, the conventions demanded dialect in the songs and shows that he wrote for the stage. It is not surprising, then, that of the poems in Fifty Years and Other Poems, the last sixteen are grouped under the heading "Jingles & Croons," meaning dialect poems. As he read and edited poetry during the early twentieth century, however, Johnson began to have reservations about dialect in poetry; by the time he published his last collection of poetry, he had already experimented with an alternative to the stylized dialect he and Dunbar had earlier used, and he no longer believed that dialect was a proper part of the black poet's repertoire. Accordingly, St. Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems reprinted only eight of the sixteen dialect poems that had appeared in Fifty Years. Furthermore, Johnson prefaced these poems with a two-page statement of his later position on dialect poetry.

By the middle of the 1930s, Johnson says, dialect poetry as it was known in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth was a dead form, never used by black writers. If black poets of the thirties used dialect at all, it was "thé racy, living speech of the Negro in certain phases of contemporary life." Modern black poets, including Johnson, had left behind the "smooth-worn stereotype" of "contented, childlike, happy-go-lucky, humorous, or forlorn 'darkies' with their banjos, their singing and dancing, their watermelons and possums …" (SP, 69). He regrets the tainted origins of conventional black dialect, which came to the black poet via the white minstrel show and the plantation tradition, for that dialect could be used powerfully, as when it was used by folk poets who were composing unselfconsciously, "solely to express and please themselves" (SP, 69). Had black poets "been the first to use and develop the dialect as a written form, … to work it in its virgin state, they would, without doubt, have created a medium of great flexibility and range, a medium comparable to what Burns made of the Scottish dialect" (SP, 70). But the form came to the black poet too heavily freighted with old associations and conventions, and he was never able to break it free from its past. The future, Johnson predicts, would have to see a new idiom evolve to capture the spontaneity and "racial flavor" that dialect poets attempted to convey.

Johnson had been hesitant about including any of his own dialect poems in his last collection, but he reflects that some great poems had been written in dialect: "To take Dunbar's dialect poetry out of American literature would cause both a racial and a national loss" (SP, 70). The same might be said of some of Johnson's dialect poems, such as "Sence You Went Away," which has often passed for a genuine folk poem, and even "Brer Rabbit, You's de Cutes' of 'Em All," which is indebted to the plantation tradition.

"Sence You Went Away" laments a lost love. The speaker finds all of nature wanting now that his loved one has left him:

Although Johnson employs the sort of conventional dialect Dunbar used, "Sence You Went Away" is restrained in its tone and contains none of the malaprops that cause some dialect poems to belittle the speaker. The persona created by the speaking voice is dignified in his grief, and, dialect aside, the poem speaks to and for anyone who has lost a lover.

Another sort of tenderness is captured in "De Little Pickaninny's Gone to Sleep," which Johnson published in Fifty Years but omitted in the final volume of his poetry. The speaker is a worried father who fears that something is wrong with his child:

Cuddle down, ma honey, in yo' bed,
Go to sleep an' res' yo' little head,
Been a-kind o' ailin' all de day?
Didn't have no sperit fu' to play?
Never min'; to-morrer, w'en you wek,
Daddy's gwine to ride you on his bek,
'Roun' an' roun' de cabin flo' so fas'—
Der! He's closed his little eyes at las'.
(FY, 83)

But the father's relief gives way to uneasiness as the child sighs and groans in his sleep, and when the father goes to the trundle bed to reassure himself, he finds that the child has died. Johnson may have omitted the poem from his final book believing that it was too sentimental, but the sorrow expressed by the poem is understated:

Wat's dat far-off light dat's in his eyes?
Dat's a light dey's borrow'd f'om de skies;
Fol' his little han's across his breas',
Let de little pickaninny res'.
(FY. 83)

The rest that the father had wished for his child has become the eternal rest.

More typical of dialect poetry from the turn of the century is "Tunk," a dramatic monologue based on Johnson's conception of one of his students in the rural Georgia school. The speaker is an angry mother who has tried to do the best thing for her son Tunk, only to have him refuse to cooperate in his education:

Heah I'm tryin' hard to raise you as a credit to dis race,
An' you tryin' heap much harder fu' to come up in disgrace.

Dese de days w'en men don't git up to de top by hooks an' crooks;
Tell you now, dey's got to git der standin' on a pile o' books.
(FY, 66-67)

Tunk's mother warns him that a "darkey" has to work hard from first light in the morning to sundown, never earning more than he needs to stay alive, and never owning more than his clothes. On the other hand, she naively sees the lives of white workers as ideal. Not only do they work a much shorter day, but their work seems easy:

Dey jes does a little writin'; does dat by some easy means;
Gals jes set an' play piannah on dem printin' press machines.
Chile, dem men knows how to figgah, how to use dat little pen,
An' dey knows dat blue-back spellah fom beginnin' to de en'.
(FY, 67-68)

While the moral of the poem, that black youth needs education to be upwardly mobile, is unassailable, the portrait of the mother that emerges from her speech is unflattering. She attempts to motivate Tunk for the wrong reasons, seeing education as a license to practice a life of idleness. Her naivete about the lives of white people and her acceptance of the term "darkey" for her race suggest a condescension on the poet's part that was far from Johnson's true attitude. Yet, as Dunbar's rise proves, such an image of the southern Negro fit white America's stereotypes, as conditioned by the plantation school, and Johnson was not immune to the effects of the stereotypes and conventions that he found established in dialect poetry when he began to write it.

No such social questions arise to spoil the enjoyment of another class of Johnson dialect poems—works like "Possum Song" and "Brer Rabbit, You's De Cutes' of 'Em All." The first of these is a comic warning to "Brudder Possum" that fall is coming and with it hunting season. The second, a more complex poem, praises not only the physical "cuteness" of the traditional black trickster figure, but also the acute instinct for survival that made Brer Rabbit a folk hero since the days of slavery. The creatures of the wilderness have a meeting to determine "Who is de bigges' man?" An owl is appointed judge and renders his decision in an oracular formula:

"Brer Wolf am mighty cunnin',
Brer Fox am mighty sly,
Brer Terrapin an' 'Possum—kinder small;
Brer Lion's mighty vicious,
Brer B'ar he's sorter 'spicious,
Brer Rabbit, you's de eûtes' of 'em all."
(FY, 81)

When each of these animals except Brer Rabbit claims to have won the competition, the wily rabbit "jes' stood aside an' urged 'em on to fight" until all of the other animals were exhausted, then "he jes' grabbed de prize an' flew" (FY, 82), proving that he was the "cutest" in more than one sense.

While Johnson's achievements in traditional rhymed verse and in dialect poetry are not remarkable, he was among the foremost black poets of his day. If his work seems dated, so does much of the work of his famous contemporary Dunbar. But Johnson lived longer than Dunbar, lived to observe the experimentation in poetry that occurred during his lifetime and to modify his own writing accordingly.


Johnson's greatest contribution to Afro-American poetry was nearly ten years in the making. In 1918, while lecturing in Kansas City, he was invited to speak at a black church, where he was to follow a visiting minister who had a considerable reputation as a preacher. It was late in the evening, and the prepared sermon began prosaically, but when he sensed that the attention of the congregation was wandering, the visiting preacher

stepped out from behind the pulpit and began to preach. He started intoning the old folk-sermon that begins with the creation of the world and ends with Judgment Day. He was at once a changed man, free, at ease and masterful. The change in the congregation was instantaneous.… It was in a moment alive and quivering; and all the while the preacher held it in the palm of his hand.… He strode the pulpit up and down in what was actually a very rhythmic dance, and he brought into play the full gamut of his wonderful voice, a voice—what shall I say?—not of an organ or a trumpet, but rather of a trombone, the instrument possessing above all others the power to express the wide and varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice.… Before he had finished I took a slip of paper and somewhat surreptitiously jotted down some ideas for the first poem [of God's Trombones], "The Creation."6

Published in the Freeman in 1920, that first poem elicited favorable responses and was reprinted in several anthologies. However, the press of his work with the NAACP was so great that, in spite of some false starts on new free-verse poems, it was seven years before Johnson completed a second poem for God's Trombones, "Go Down Death."7

The book published in 1927 consists of seven free-verse sermons introduced by a preface in which Johnson explained the origin of the poems and the language in which they were written; he added a prayer, also in free verse, such as might have been offered in a real congregation before the sermon. He considered and discarded the notion of writing God's Trombones in dialect, he says in his preface, first because dialect verse is "a quite limited instrument.… with but two complete stops, pathos and humor" (GT, 7). Second, when they were preaching, the black preachers the poems attempt to capture did not really use black dialect but an elevated form of language, "a fusion of Negro idioms with Bible English" (GT, 9), and it is this language that Johnson set down in his verse sermons. In Along this Way he explained his use of free verse by saying that he chose "a loose rhythmic instead of a strict metric form, because it… could accommodate itself to the movement, the abandon, the changes of tempo, and the characteristic syncopations of his material" (A, 336).

"Listen, Lord," the opening prayer, gives a sort of preview of what is to come in the sermons. The inspiration that is called down upon the minister is couched in earthy, figurative language:

Hang him up and drain him dry of sin.
Pin his ear to the wisdom-post,
And make his words sledge hammers of truth—
Beating on the iron heart of sin.


Put his eye to the telescope of eternity,
And let him look upon the paper walls of time.
Lord, turpentine his imagination.
Put perpetual motion in his arms,.…
(GT, 14)

Because of the unexpected nature of some of these images, they strike the reader with a force that recalls Edward Taylor's use of metaphysical conceits—such as "Who in this bowling alley bowled the sun?"—to approach religious subjects. Such language does not cause the reader to find an intellectually inferior speaker ridiculous but makes him admire the daring and strength of the basic metaphors.

This technique continues into "The Creation," although the diction of the first sermon is elevated appropriately above that of "Listen, Lord." God's motivation for the creation is human, basic, and understandable: "I'm lonely— / I'll make me a world" (GT, 17). The actual mechanics of creation are treated in detail chosen to form a mental picture of real activity in the mind of the listener:

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
(GT, 17-18)

One can easily imagine a preacher miming such actions. In the creation of Man a specifically black image is created.

This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
(GT, 20)

The anthropomorphic God who appears in these lines is maintained consistently throughout the poem. He is not the remote, formal, all-knowing God of the Scriptures so much as an approachable, questioning, evolving Being with whom the listener could identify. Creation is an act of problem-solving, as God seeks to remedy the loneliness that has plagued Him; thus He is not only an understanding but an understandable Being. The use of long and short lines suggests the changing tempo of the preacher's speech, and the occasional dashes indicate "a certain sort of pause that is marked by a quick intaking and an audible expulsion of the breath …" (GT, 10-11). On the whole, "The Creation" is a dignified poem whose tone and diction are appropriate to its solemn subject.

In later sermons, where the object is to sway the emotions of the congregation and to foster repentance, Johnson's preacher becomes more earthy and his idiom more colloquial, as in the second, fourth, and seventh sermons: "The Prodigal Son," "Noah Built the Ark," and "The Judgment Day." In "The Prodigal Son," after the famous opening of "Your arm's too short to box with God," the preacher immediately makes clear the central analogy of the parable:

A certain man had two sons.
Jesus didn't give this man a name,
But his name is God Almighty.
And Jesus didn't call these sons by name,
But ev'ry young man,
Is one of these two sons.
(GT, 21)

The preacher paints a rather specific picture of the prodigal son's debauchery, detailing the charms of

… the women of Babylon!
Dressed in yellow and purple and scarlet,
Loaded with rings and earrings and bracelets,
Their lips like a honeycomb dripping with honey,
Perfumed and sweet-smelling like a jasmine flower.…
(GT, 24)

But he reminds his congregation that, like the prodigal son, each man must someday face the end of riotous living. "But some o' these days, some o' these days, / You'll have a hand-to-hand struggle with bony Death, / And Death is bound to win" (GT, 25). This grim metaphor leads him to the obvious conclusion: like the prodigal son, his listeners will do well to mend their ways and return to their Father before it is too late.

"Noah Built the Ark" and "The Judgment Day" are similar warnings. The former sermon traces the origins of sin back to the Garden of Eden and then on to Noah's time, lightening the sermon with an occasional touch of humor: when Noah warns of the deluge to come, "Some smart young fellow said: This old man's / Got water on the brain" (GT, 35). The preacher leaves the moral of his tale to God, who "hung out his rainbow cross the sky" and warned that the next time He will "rain down fire" on mankind (GT, 37). This same image of fire raining down is the beginning of the final sermon of the book, "Judgment Day." Here no humor relieves the solemn descriptions: the graves yielding up their dead to the sound of "the clicking together of the dry bones" (GT, 54), the division of the sheep from the goats, and the casting of the damned into hell. The poem, as well as the volume, ends on this somber note: "Sinner, oh, sinner, / Where will you stand / In that great day when God's a-going to rain down fire?" (GT, 56). Thus, in nearly half of the verse sermons Johnson emphasizes the fire-and-brimstone messages delivered by the old-time preachers.

But the sermons in God's Trombones can comfort the flock as well as threaten it with reminders of God's wrath. "Go Down Death—A Funeral Sermon" offers consolation to the "heart-broken husband," the "grief-stricken son," and the "left-lonesome daughter" of a woman who has died. The preacher dramatizes God's reaction when, looking down into the world, He sees "Sister Caroline, / Tossing on her bed of pain" (GT, 27) and orders Death to report to Him. Death is described in terms that are not so much fearful as majestic: his horse's hooves strike sparks from the golden streets of Paradise as he rides to the throne of God, and he leaves a trail like that of a comet in the sky as he embarks on his mission. Though the arms that he puts around Sister Caroline are cold, they soothe the pain she has felt, and Death looks "like a welcome friend" (GT, 29). Receiving the dead woman into heaven, Jesus

… smoothed the furrows from her face,
And the angels sang a little song,
And Jesus rocked her in his arms,
And kept a-saying: Take your rest.…
(GT, 30)

If Death is not the mother of beauty, at least it is a welcome sleep after a lifetime of pain, a concept with which black congregations of the 1920s and even Johnson's more sophisticated black readers could empathize.

Although "The Crucifixion" also ultimately treats the salvation of mankind in its last lines, most of the poem deals in heartrending detail with the passion and death of Christ. At first there is no attempt to relate the sufferings of the Savior to those of the black people of the United States—sufferings of which Johnson was all too aware after his years of service with the NAACP—but a black congregation hearing such a sermon, like the black reader, would not need to be reminded of the parallel. However, after the preacher has taken his listeners through the mental anguish of Gethsemane and on through the trial, he incorporates the black folk belief about the race of Simon of Cyrene as Jesus carries the cross up to Golgotha:

I see my drooping Jesus sink.
And then they laid hold on Simon,
Black Simon, yes, black Simon;
They put the cross on Simon,
And Simon bore the cross.
(GT, 41)

Now the connection has become explicit, and, along with Jesus, the black listener could shudder at the sound of the hammer and feel the pain being inflicted.

The preacher reaches his high point in the poem as he dwells on the agony of Christ during the crucifixion; the repetition of key words and the alternate pattern of the lines relates this section of the poem to traditional litanies.

Jesus, my lamb-like Jesus,
Shivering as the nails go through his hands;
Jesus, my lamb-like Jesus,
Shivering as the nails go through his feet.
Jesus, my darling Jesus,
Groaning as the Roman spear plunged in his side;
Jesus, my darling Jesus,
Groaning as the blood came spurting from his wound.
Oh, look how they done my Jesus.
(GT, 42)

The end of the poem again separates the identities of listener or reader from that of the martyred Jesus as the preacher reminds his congregation, echoing the words of a familiar spiritual, how awesome was the sacrifice that redeemed them:

It causes me to tremble, tremble,
When I think how Jesus died;
Died on the steeps of Calvary,
How Jesus died for sinners,
Sinners like you and me.
(GT, 43)

Yet Jesus the scapegoat is also "King Jesus" in the poem, and "The Crucifixion" implicitly reminds its audiences—the fictional listener and the real reader—that the downtrodden do not remain down forever. A transfiguration awaits Jesus and may await His most humble follower.

"Let My People Go" also appeals to the black audience through identification of black people with the enslaved children of Israel in Exodus. Here Johnson draws on a traditional association between the two peoples of which, as a collector of spirituals, he was well aware. But the sermon "Let My People Go" depends little on the song of the same name, merely sharing a few lines with it. The preacher begins his account of Moses with the prophet's first encounter with God in the burning bush. The preacher's God soon shows Himself to be a Being of plain speech:

And God said to Moses:
I've seen the awful suffering
Of my people down in Egypt.
I've watched their hard oppressors,
Their overseers and drivers;
The groans of my people have filled my ears
And I can't stand it no longer;
So I'm come down to deliver them.…
(GT, 46)

The terminology is that of slavery—overseers and drivers as opposed to the term "taskmasters" in the King James Bible—and God's double negative marks Him as having proletarian sympathies. He then delivers his order to Moses in nearly the same words as in the spiritual: "tell Old Pharoah / To let my people go" (GT, 46). The preacher relates the plagues and the death of the Egyptian firstborn that led to the release of the children of Israel, but he reserves his greatest power for the end of his sermon. In great detail he tells of the mighty army called up by Pharoah to pursue the fleeing slaves, picturing for his congregation the multitude of chariots raising dust "that darked the day" (GT, 51), and emphasizing the earthly power assembled against God's chosen people.

But all this power is useless when Pharoah and his hordes attempt to cross the Red Sea:

Old Pharoah got about half way cross,
And God unlashed the waters,
And the waves rushed back together,
And Pharaoh and all his army got lost,
And all his host got drownded.
(GT, 52)

The broader implications of the biblical story are clear when the preacher warns metaphorical "sons of Pharaoh" that they can never hold the people of God, a meaningful message to black people of the 1920s, who had been subjected to mistreatment ranging from discrimination to lynching, and who had seen the widely publicized Dyer antilynching bill killed by the 67th Congress early in the decade. "Let My People Go" is in many ways the most powerful work in God's Trombones; treating as it does the theme of God's rescue of the enslaved and the downtrodden, the poem strikes an old and responsive note in black literature.


Johnson's first book of poetry was largely ignored by the literary establishment, perhaps understandably. When Fifty Years appeared under the imprint of the Cornhill Company of Boston, Johnson was relatively unknown, having produced, in addition to his anonymously published novel, only a little more than a dozen poems, some of which appeared in periodicals of very limited circulation. Nevertheless, William Stanley Braithwaite, the black critic and poet who reviewed Fifty Years for the Boston Evening Transcript, stated that Johnson had proved himself to be the heir to Dunbar's position as "the most important poet of the race,"8 and even suggested that Johnson was superior to Dunbar intellectually. Brander Matthews, Johnson's teacher at Columbia, praised the poet in the introduction he wrote for the volume, singling out the title poem as an example of superior diction, imagination, and craftsmanship. Benjamin Brawley, reviewing the volume for the Journal of Negro History, especially liked "Mother Night," "O Black and Unknown Bards," "The White Witch," and "The Young Warrior."9 While some half-dozen other periodicals noted the publication of Fifty Years and Other Poems from 1917 through 1919, these favorable opinions did not prevail in the marketplace—the book sold slowly—or in the critical opinions of others, for the book was ignored by most reviewers. This is not to say that Johnson had no reputation as a poet. The popularity of some of his works, especially the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," gave him a sort of underground reputation among black people that is impossible to quantify. Maya Angelou tells, for example, of the pride she felt in 1940 when she and her classmates replied to the segregationist speech of a white politician by singing the "Negro National Anthem" as an assertion of their dignity and their determination to endure.10

God's Trombones, on the other hand, was very well received by the literary press. Unlike Fifty Years, it was published by a major firm, Viking Press, and its author was by 1927 perhaps the most visible black American alive. In literature he had made a name for himself as a critic of poetry with his anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), and as an expert on spirituals with his two collections published in 1925 and 1926. His novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was republished under Johnson's name in the same year that God's Trombones came out.

However, the reception of God's Trombones was not just a response to the reputation of its author, but a recognition of the excellence and originality of the poetry itself. Harriet Monroe, reviewing God's Trombones for her journal Poetry, had some reservations about the success of individual poems but felt that, on the whole, readers "should be grateful for this book,"11 while the anonymous critic for Saturday Review of Literature felt that no student of black literature could afford to miss the book. The New York Times Book Review praised God's Trombones for its "sensitivity, artistic judgment, and a sustained emotional beauty."12 Thomas Munroe, in the New York Herald Tribune Books, found "The Creation" to be "almost Miltonic" although he felt that some of the other poems might have been helped by the inclusion of dialect.13

Among black critics, Johnson fared even better than in the mainstream publications. Opportunity not only published a favorable review by Joseph Auslander but also awarded Johnson its first prize in literature for 1928.14 Poet Countee Cullen, writing for the Bookman, felt that the attempt to replace dialect was successful and called "The Creation" and "Go Down Death" magnificent.15 W. E. B. DuBois agreed with Cullen about the success of Johnson's attempt to convey the black idiom through means other than conventional dialect and identified Johnson as a trailblazer in black poetry, while Alain Locke termed Johnson a major poet.16 Of the black critics reviewing God's Trombones, the faintest praise came from satirist Wallace Thurman, who lumped Johnson with Dunbar in the category of important minor poets. Yet even Thurman had to acknowledge that the free-verse sermons were among the best poems written by black poets.17

Half a century after its publication God's Trombones is recognized as Johnson's best poetry, and its influence on later black poets has been widely noted. Eugene B. Redmond, in Drumvoices, calls God's Trombones "one of the most precious [volumes] in the annals of Afro-American writing" and sees Johnson as an influence on Margaret Walker, Langston Hughes, and Sterling Brown.18 Arthur P. Davis recognizes Johnson as "a pioneer influence" and suggests that "because of its folk undergirding, God's Trombones, in all probability, will outlast the rest of Johnson's poetry."19 Blyden Jackson and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., conclude that "it was Johnson, more than any other man, who opened the path [to the creation of a new black poetry], and the achievement that followed was in an important sense possible because of what he first demonstrated. The leading poets who came afterward—Toomer, Hughes, Toison, Hayden, Brooks, LeRoi Jones—can truly be said to have followed along James Weldon Johnson's way."20

So Johnson, who had abandoned early poetic ambitions in order to work in the fields of politics, journalism, and race relations, returned to poetry at various times during his life, and with considerable success. While only a few of his early poems merit inclusion in a list of significant works of Afro-American literature, God's Trombones is clearly his crowning achievement as a poet and will be remembered for its influence on later poets as well as enjoyed for the freshness and beauty of its imagery and language.


1Fifty Years and Other Poems (Boston: Cornhill Co., 1917), 22; hereafter cited in parentheses in the text as FY with page number.

2New York Times, 1 January 1913, p. 16, columns 5-6.

3St. Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems (New York: Viking Press, 1935), 101; hereafter cited in parentheses in the text as SP with page number.

4Bulletin of Atlanta University, no. 44 (March 1893):1.

5 However, Richard Long, in "A Weapon of My Song: The Poetry of James Weldon Johnson," Phylon 32 (Winter 1971):377, feels it necessary to defend the inclusion of "The White Witch" in the category of "race" poems.

6God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (New York: Viking Press, 1927), 6-7; hereafter cited in parentheses in the text as GT with page number.

7Along This Way, 336-37. See also Levy, Johnson, 306.

8 William Stanley Braithwaite, "The Poems of James Weldon Johnson," Boston Evening Transcript, 12 December 1917, part 2, p. 9.

9 Benjamin Brawley, review of Fifty Years and Other Poems, Journal of Negro History 3 (April 1918):202-3.

10 Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Random House, 1969), 178-79.

11 Harriet Monroe, "Negro Sermons," Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 30 (August 1927):29.

12 "Poetry and Eloquence of the Negro Preacher," New York Times Book Review, 19 June 1927, p. 11.

13 Thomas Munroe, "The Grand Manner in Negro Poetry: God's Trombone {sic}," New York Herald Tribune Books 5 June 1927, p. 3.

14 Joseph Auslander, "Sermon Sagas," Opportunity 5 (September 1927):274-75.

15 Countee Cullen, "And the Walls Came Tumblin' Down," Bookman 66 (October 1927):221-22.

16 W. E. B. DuBois, "The Browsing Reader," Crisis 34 (July 1927): 159; Alain Locke, "The Negro Poet and His Tradition," Survey 58 (1 August 1927):473-74.

17 Wallace Thurman, "Negro Poets and Their Poetry," Bookman 67 (July 1928):555-61.

18 Eugene B. Redmond, Drumvoices: A Critical History (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976), 187, 189.

19 Arthur P. Davis, From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900 to 1960 (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974), 29.

20 Blyden Jackson and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Black Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretation (Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1974), 26.

Robert E. Fleming (essay date 1992)

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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 been assumed that Faulkner, as a Southerner, needed no sources for his successful black characters. He grew up among black people and had ample opportunity to observe their speech and mannerisms. However, comparing the Easter service at Dilsey's church with James Weldon Johnson's book of African-American sermons in verse, God's Trombones (1927), suggests that Faulkner knew the book and used it in his depiction of Reverend Shegog, the visiting preacher from St. Louis.

God's Trombones was the culmination of nearly a decade of experimentation in which Johnson attempted to capture the idiom of the black Southern preacher without resorting to the usual dialect spellings associated with the comic "darkies" of the white minstrel show. In 1920 he published "The Creation" in The Freeman, and over the next seven years worked sporadically, as his duties with the NAACP permitted, on the remaining six poems that would make up God's Trombones. Faulkner, in touch with Sherwood Anderson's New Orleans literary set, could hardly have been unaware of a book that was reviewed in the Saturday Review, the New York Times Book Review, Bookman, The Nation, and Poetry. Also, Faulkner was corresponding with black poet and critic William Stanley Braithwaite in 1927.2 Braithwaite, a friend of Johnson's, might easily have called God's Trombones to Faulkner's attention.

Looking for a metaphor for what he termed the "full gamut of [the] wonderful voice" of the Negro preacher, Johnson finally decided that it most resembled not the sound of "an organ or a trumpet, but rather of a trombone, the instrument possessing above all others the power to express the wide and varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice—and with greater amplitude. He intoned, he moaned, he pleaded—he blared, he crashed, he thundered."3 Johnson, who knew his music, notes that the trombone possesses a complete chromatic scale, "enharmonically true, like the human voice or the violin" (7). While Faulkner does not mention the trombone, he too uses the image of the wind instrument. Rev. Shegog's voice, once he gets warmed up, is "as different as day and dark from his former tone, with a sad, timbrous quality like an alto horn, sinking into their hearts and speaking there again when it had ceased in fading and cumulate echoes."4 Again as Shegog grows more engrossed in his preaching, Faulkner refers to his voice ringing "with the horns" (295) as his scholarly air is stripped away.5

The whole presentation of Shegog echoes the tone of Johnson's introduction to God's Trombones, which insists that, although the black preacher may be personally ridiculous, his rhetoric allows him to transcend his personal limitations. Johnson tells the story of how a black preacher read a cryptic biblical passage and then announced: "Brothers and sisters, this morning—I intend to explain the unexplainable—find out the undefinable—ponder over the imponderable—and unscrew the inscrutable." (4-5) Faulkner's Rev. Shegog does not make himself ridiculous by anything that he says, but his appearance is all against him as Frony notes when she says, "En dey brung dat all de way fum Saint Looey" (293). Beside the congregation's regular preacher, who is a large, light-colored man of "magisterial and profound" bearing, the visitor appears disappointing:

The visitor was undersized, in a shabby alpaca coat.… And all the while that the choir sang again and while the six children rose and sang in thin, frightened, tuneless whispers, they watched the insignificant looking man sitting dwarfed and countrified by the minister's imposing bulk, with something like consternation. They were still looking at him with consternation and unbelief when the minister rose and introduced him in rich, rolling tones whose very unction served to increase the visitor's insignificance. (293)

What happens when Rev. Shegog begins to preach is almost exactly what Johnson reports having witnessed in Kansas City while he was a guest at a black church. Johnson recalled that he had arrived at a church where he was to speak for the NAACP following the service. The congregation had been lulled nearly to sleep by an "exhorter" who had concluded a dull sermon just as Johnson arrived. After two more short sermons, the visiting minister rose to speak.

He appeared to be a bit self-conscious, perhaps impressed by the presence of the "distinguished visitor" [Johnson himself] on the platform, and started in to preach a formal sermon from a formal text. The congregation sat apathetic and dozing. He sensed that he was losing his audience and his opportunity. Suddenly he closed the Bible, stepped out from behind the pulpit and began to preach. He started intoning the old folk-sermon that begins with the creation of the world and ends with Judgment Day. He was at once a changed man, free, at ease and masterful. The change in the congregation was instantaneous.…(6)

Faulkner's treatment of the parallel scene in The Sound and the Fury is strikingly similar to Johnson's account of the transformation of the visiting preacher in Kansas City. When Rev'un Shegog begins to speak, his performance seems as disappointing as his appearance, and although his manner is impressive in a scholarly sense, it does not appeal to his audience:

When the visitor rose to speak he sounded like a white man. His voice was level and cold. It sounded too big to have come from him and they listened at first through curiosity, as they would have to a monkey talking.… They even forgot his insignificant appearance in the virtuosity with which he ran and poised and swooped upon the cold inflectionless wire of his voice, so that at last, when with a sort of swooping glide he came to rest again beside the reading desk with one arm resting upon it at shoulder height and his monkey body as reft of all motion as a mummy or an emptied vessel, the congregation sighed as if it waked from a collective dream and moved a little in its seats. (293-94)

The performance seems to be over, and Frony's low expectations seem to be fulfilled. But the visitor is not done. Like Johnson's preacher, he recaptures his audience with his "Brethren and sisteren.… I got the recollection and the blood of the Lamb!" (294). He becomes more mobile, walking "back and forth before the desk, his hands clasped behind him.…" The congregation has sat quietly during his scholarly delivery of the formal, prepared sermon, but now, he is answered by "a woman's single soprano: 'Yes, Jesus!'" As the preacher further departs from his Northern persona, his speech becomes more earthy:

"Breddren en sistuhn!" His voice rang again.… "I got de ricklickshun en de blood of de Lamb!" They did not mark just when his intonation, his pronunciation, became negroid [sic], they just sat swaying a little in their seats as the voice took them into itself. (295)

He goes on to preach a sermon that, while devoid of any continuity or organization, enthralls the congregation and leaves it emotionally drained when he is finished.

The power of the preacher is attested to by several members of the congregation as they leave the church:

"He sho a preacher, mon! He didn't look like much at first, but hush!"

"He seed de power en de glory."

"Yes, suh. He seed hit. Face to face he seed hit." (297)

There are few direct word-by-word parallels between what Johnson's preachers and Faulkner's say, but both share the theme of the coming of Judgment Day: Johnson's first six sermons on such topics as the Prodigal Son, the death of the individual, and the Flood pave the way for a treatment of the last judgment in the seventh; likewise, Faulkner has been building toward the notion of a day of reckoning throughout The Sound and the Fury. Thus, a recurring theme in each work is, "There comes a time, / There comes a time" (God's Trombones 22), or "dey'll come a time" (Sound and Fury 295) when the individual will be judged. Both preachers call for salvation by the faithful washing "their robes in the blood of the Lamb" so that they are "clothed in spotless white" (God's Trombones 55) or urge "de ricklickshun en de blood of de Lamb!" (Sound and Fury 295). And Dilsey's final pronouncement, "I've seed de first en de last" (297) mirrors the structure of God's Trombones, which begins with the Creation and ends with Judgment Day.

What is more striking than verbal echoes is the outline of Rev'un Shegog's sermon. The seven-verse sermons of God's Trombones are:

"The Creation""The Prodigal Son""Go Down Death—A Funeral Sermon""Noah Built the Ark""The Crucifixion""Let My People Go""The Judgment Day."

Faulkner employs allusions to five of the seven within Rev'un Shegog's sermon of less than 500 words. "Go Down Death" is echoed by Shegog's reminder that "dey'll come a time. Po sinner saying Let me lay down wid de Lawd, lemme lay down my load" (295). The Flood is referred to by Shegog when he says, "I sees de whelmin flood roll between; I sees de darkness en de death everlastin upon de generations" (296). The crucifixion is treated in a paragraph which calls up "Calvary wid de sacred trees … de thief en de murderer … [and] de wailin of women en de evening lamentations" (296). Shegog reminds the congregation of those who "passed away in Egypt … de generations passed away" (925) just as Johnson's preacher has done in "Let My People Go." And as previously mentioned, Shegog's sermon begins and ends with reminders of the subject of Johnson's last poem: Judgment Day.

Although one recent critic sees a resemblance between Shegog and Johnson's portrait of the black preacher but sees more contrasts than similarities and pronounces Faulkner's sermon "not completely successful,"6 a comparison of the two preachers and their sermons justifies a more positive conclusion. The success of both sermons depends heavily on the dramatic shift in style by each preacher, a shift that elicits a corresponding change in the reaction of the congregation—and of the reader. In spite of the obvious stylistic difference caused by the facts that Johnson elected not to use dialect and Faulkner did use it, the sermons are remarkably similar in both style and substance, and Faulkner's description of the reaction to Rev'un Shegog closely echoes Johnson's account of the reaction of the Kansas City congregation in his preface to God's Trombones.

James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones appears to have exerted a significant influence on Faulkner as he completed one of his most important novels. Admittedly, Rev'un Shegog is a minor character in The Sound and the Fury, and Johnson's influence extends to no more than some five pages. However, that influence is important in that Rev'un Shegog's sermon has been called "an extraordinarily memorable event in American fiction that, with a readily acknowledged power and poignancy, brings to a climax the agony and the ecstasy of The Sound and the Fury.…"7

While the success of Shegog's sermon has been questioned by some critics, the fact that Faulkner was influenced by James Weldon Johnson in the creation of a significant black character and a scene characteristic of black life is both noteworthy and suggestive. Faulkner, whose commitment to the black race has sometimes been suspect among black readers and critics, showed a willingness and ability to achieve insights denied to white observers by consulting the work of a respected black author of his day and in doing so strengthened the final section of one of his best works.


1 See, for example, Charles H. Nilon, Faulkner and the Negro (New York: Citadel, 1965); Lee Jenkins, Faulkner and Black-White Relations: A Psychoanalytic Approach (New York: Columbia UP, 1981); Thadious M. Davis, Faulkner's "Negro": Art and the Southern Context (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983); and Richard Beards, "Parody as Tribute: William Melvin Kelley's A Different Drummer and Faulkner," Studies in Black Literature, 5 (Winter 1974), 25-28.

2 Joseph Blotner, Selected Letters of William Faulkner (London: Scholar Press, 1977) pp. 35-36.

3 James Weldon Johnson, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (New York: Viking, 1927), pp. 6-7. Future references are to this edition and appear parenthetically in the text.

4 William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, New, Corrected Edition (New York: Random, 1984), p. 294. Future references are to this edition and appear parenthetically in the text.

5 Shegog's effective use of the black oral tradition and Faulkner's skill at conveying that tradition have been treated by Bruce A. Rosenburg, "The Oral Quality of Reverend Shegog's Sermon in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury," Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht, 2 (1969), 73-88, and Andre Bleikasten, The Most Splendid Failure: Fulkner's The Sound and the Fury (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1976), p. 200.

6 Davis, p. 122.

7 Arthur F. Kinney, introd., Critical Essays on William Faulkner: The Compson Family (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982), p. 2. See also Irving Howe, William Faulkner: A Critical Study (New York: Random, 1962), p. 48; Arthur Geffen, "Profane Time, Sacred Time, and Confederate Time in The Sound and the Fury," Studies in American Fiction. 2 (1974), 175-97; Joseph R. Urgo, "A Note on Reverend Shegog's Sermon in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury," NMAL. 7, No. 1 (1984), item 4; and Bleikasten, p. 197.

Holly Eley (review date 1993)

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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.

Johnson was born in 1871, in Florida, the son of a waiter and a schoolmistress, and church was an influential part of his upbringing. Extraordinarily energetic and highly disciplined, by the age of twenty-three he had become principal of a segregated school and, a year later, the founding editor of the Daily American, the first national US newspaper for blacks. He then qualified as a lawyer (the first black to be admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction), and wrote memorable songs for Broadway such as "Under the Bamboo Tree" and "O Didn't He Ramble," while avoiding involvement in the racially exploitative minstrel shows of the time.

In 1906, on the advice of Booker T. Washington, who had just delivered the black vote to the Democrats, Theodore Roosevelt appointed Johnson to the US Consulate in Venezuela. Soon afterwards, he was made consul in Nicaragua. He served with distinction in both postings, but found time to write his only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. His truer autobiography, Along This Way, was written in the 1930s; it emphasizes his achievements and makes light of the near-impossibility of reconciling loyalties to his race and to the political and cultural policies of his country. Johnson was active in the NAACP, and in the aftermath of the First World War, made sure that black commitment to the American cause was at least minimally rewarded with jobs in industry.

But literature had always seemed to him likely to be the main conduit through which black culture would reach the wider world. When, as an adolescent, he first addressed himself to it, he wrote dialect verse, a form he was soon to discard and too much of which has been included in this new selection. His political crusades are better reflected in protest poems such as the 1916 "Brothers," a dialogue between a lynch mob and its victim, and the sardonic poem from which the selection takes its title, "St Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day," in which the Unknown Soldier, symbol of America's heroic war dead, turns out, having been given a Washington state funeral attended by the Daughters of the American Revolution and other diagnitaries, to have been a nigger.

As a writer, Johnson is best remembered for his religious poetry. God's Trombones: Seven negro sermons in verse (in which he captures the rhythm, sentence structure and repetitions of the illiterate folk-preacher without the distortions and limitations of dialect) was published in 1927, during the Harlem Renaissance. He was not as much appreciated by the niggerati and their white avant-garde supporters as he should have been; his free verse sermon poems (only one is included in this volume) precede the acclaimed innovations of folkloric poets such as Sterling Brown. Apart from "Steal Away to Jesus," his most successful poem, also included here, is "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Written in 1900, and set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, it is known today as the African-American national anthem.


James Weldon Johnson Poetry: American Poets Analysis