(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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.”

“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...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Fleming, Robert E. James Weldon Johnson. New York: Twayne, 1987.

Redmond, Eugene B. Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry. Garden City, N.J.: Anchor Press, 1976.

Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1973.