Saint Peter Relates an Incident

by James Weldon Johnson

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

Saint Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems and God’s Trombones (1927) mark the culmination of James Weldon Johnson’s poetic work. His most famous poems appear in Saint Peter Relates an Incident, including the title poem, “O Black and Unknown Bards,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

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“Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day,” originally published in 1930, was written in response to the visit by mothers of highly decorated World War I soldiers to their sons’ graves in France. The State Department, which sponsored the visit, sent white mothers in one ship and African American mothers in another, second-class ship. The poem imagines Saint Peter telling the assembled angels of Heaven an incident occurring on Judgment Day. The dead are called from their graves, and white war veterans, among them members of the Ku Klux Klan, gather together in order to escort the Unknown Soldier to Heaven. Once they liberate him from his grave, they are shocked to find that he is black and debate whether they should bury him again. Until the white war veterans knew the Unknown Soldier’s color, they intended to honor him; his color alone turns their admiration into hatred. The Unknown Soldier marches triumphantly into Heaven, while, it is implied, the war veterans dismayed by his skin color end up in Hell. Johnson points out the bitter irony and absurdity of drawing a color line even after death, particularly when death was incurred in the service of one’s country.

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“O Black and Unknown Bards” originally appeared in Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917). The title refers to the unknown creators of the spirituals, a musical form that Johnson regarded as artistic work of the first rank, a point he makes by comparing it to the creations of classical composers. Incorporating titles of actual spirituals, such as “Steal Away to Jesus” and “Go Down, Moses,” into the poem, Johnson pays homage to African American folk art, admiring its spiritual and artistic accomplishments, and bridges the gap between folk art forms and so-called high art.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” perhaps the work which has done most to keep Johnson’s name alive, was originally composed as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and set to music. It is still known as the African American national anthem. Inspirational in nature, the poem makes no direct reference to ethnicity but refers metaphorically to hardships endured by African Americans while also celebrating liberties won in hard struggle. The third and last stanza reminds the listeners to remain faithful to God and ends on a patriotic note, which claims the United States as African Americans’ “native land.”

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