James Weldon Johnson Analysis

Discussion Topics

James Weldon Johnson chooses not to use dialect in his poems. What reason might there be for such a choice?

In what way is the title The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man misleading?

What controversial social phenomenon does Johnson expose in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man? Explain.

In what ways does The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man implicitly question the nature of segregation and discrimination?

Johnson’s poem “Brothers” suggests a subtle kinship between the white man who lynches and the black man who is lynched. Explain.

In what ways is Johnson’s diverse, many-faceted life atypical of that of most African Americans of his day?

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a part of a long tradition of autobiography in African American literature. Explain.

Other literary forms

ph_0111202775-Johnson_J.jpg James Weldon Johnson. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

James Weldon Johnson was known mainly for his poetry, but he also wrote a novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), and an autobiography, Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (1933), as well as numerous essays.


James Weldon Johnson was the first African American in his county—and probably all of Florida—to pass the bar through an open state court examination since Reconstruction. Johnson was Fisk University’s first Adam K. Spence Professor of Creative Writing (1932-1938) and a visiting professor at New York University (1934-1937). He earned honorary degrees from Atlanta University, Talladega College, and Howard University. He received the Spingarn Medal for achievement from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He also earned the W. E. B. Du Bois Literature Prize, the Harmon Gold Award for God’s Trombones (1927), and a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship (1929). While he was principal at the Edwin M. Stanton School in Jacksonville, he began offering high school courses; this curriculum enabled African Americans to graduate from high school in Jacksonville for the first time.

Johnson’s writings brought increased respect to him and to African Americans everywhere. His Lift Every Voice and Sing—set to music by John Rosamond Johnson—became the theme song of the NAACP. In 1990, the Congressional Record entered “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the official African American national hymn. After Johnson’s death, both his “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and his “The Creation” became picture books for children in 1993 and 1994, respectively. Yale University Library opened its James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection in 1950, and the U.S. Postal Service honored Johnson with a twenty-two-cent stamp in 1988.


Bronz, Stephen A. Roots of Negro Racial Consciousness: The 1920’s, Three Harlem Renaissance Authors. New York: Libra, 1964. A discussion of Johnson’s influence on black attitudes of the 1960’s. Also discusses Countee Cullen and Claude McKay. Includes a bibliography.

Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary Tradition, 1877-1915. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. Johnson is placed in the general context of the history and criticism of American and African American literature.

Fleming, Robert E. James Weldon Johnson. Boston: Twayne, 1987. An excellent literary biography.

Fleming, Robert E. James Weldon Johnson and Arna Bontemps: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. An extensive and useful bibliography.

Levy, Eugene. James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. Provides sociological and historical emphasis.

Price, Kenneth M., and Lawrence J. Oliver, eds. Critical Essays on James Weldon Johnson. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997. Provides criticism and interpretation of Johnson. Addresses his intellectual place in American letters and the Harlem Renaissance.

Stepto, Robert B. Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. A good general study of the history of African American literature, of which Johnson is a big part.

Wilson, Sondra K., ed. In Search of Democracy: The NAACP Writings of James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and Roy Wilkins, 1920-1977. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Provides insight into the history of the NAACP and perspectives from these men on African American history, race relations, and civil rights. Includes a bibliography and index.