Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2143
James Weldon Johnson is best known as the author of the words of what is still sometimes called the Negro national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as well as the oft-neglected but never forgotten novelThe Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), which is included in volume 2 of The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson. Editor Sondra Kathryn Wilson is interested in excavating the writings of a complete public intellectual, a man who, apart from his literary accomplishments, had much to say about politics, religion, American imperialism, literature, and race matters. Though the words and ideas on these pages are not of uniformly high quality, they certainly deserve to be preserved and disseminated. Whether these writings will convince readers to share Wilson’s view that “his [Johnson’s] influence must be subsumed into mainstream twenty-first century American thought” is another matter, but they succeed in her more modest goal of showing Johnson as a mass educator of black and white Americans who had special insights into the race issues of his day.
Johnson (born in 1871) was an activist high school principal of the Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida (the largest black high school in the state), and the first African American member of the Florida bar when, in 1900, he wrote the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, wrote the music). It would come to serve as an uplifting anthem for black schools and organizations for years to come. The following year he was nearly lynched, an event that convinced him to leave the South for New York City. In his thirties, he became a songwriter, musician, and political activist, writing songs for the Teddy Roosevelt campaign. Roosevelt appointed him consul first to Venezuela, in 1906, and later to Nicaragua, in 1909. In 1912, Johnson published the work that remains his best argument for literary permanence, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. After resigning from the consular service, in part because of the racial prejudice he encountered, he was appointed contributing editor of New York Age, one of the most important black newspapers of the day, and two years later he joined the staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the organization he was eventually to lead. Volume 1 focuses on this period of his life, 1914-1923, reprinting and organizing by theme selected editorials from the pages of New York Age.
Casual readers who may or may not have read other African American works from this period, such as W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903) or Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery: An Autobiography (1901), will find these editorials pithy, intelligent, diverting, and occasionally eerie. Some of Johnson’s concerns about violence, police treatment of black men, and the equality and privileges of women could as easily have been written in 1995 as in 1922. Readers who consider themselves serious students of African American literature, political journalism, or American race relations will find these editorials to be absorbing, necessary reading, a lens carefully ground to reveal a small portion of the past in sharp detail.
As a commentator, Johnson was fairly conservative. Letters to the editor would have their grammar, logic, and rhetoric analyzed and corrected before getting a response, regardless of what Johnson thought of the merits of their position. In another vein, he repeatedly criticized Marcus Garvey, ridiculing his plans to arrange a mass exodus of African Americans to Africa and his publicity stunts designed to support this scheme. Johnson did, however, acknowledge Garvey’s ability to stir the imagination of the black population, and his harshest words were reserved for white leaders, not black ones.
Wilson has arranged the reprinted editorials into fourteen thematically grouped sections. The first section, “Race Prejudice and Discrimination,” begins with an editorial attacking Henry Ford for comments on the supposed inferiority of the Negro skull, though Johnson commends Ford for hiring at least a limited number of black men in his factories. In later editorials he attacks D. W. Griffith for his film The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Thomas Dixon for his book The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), on which the film was based. The onset of World War I finds him publicly rebutting any insinuation that American Negroes are in sympathy with the pro-German fringe, while urging his black readership to take advantage of the possibilities that military service offers to prove their value and patriotism. After the war, he fought in the court of public opinion for the respect that black soldiers had earned but were not receiving.
Of black churches, Johnson shows himself to be both a strong supporter and a firm, if loving, critic. In the editorials collected under the topic “religion,” he urges young African Americans to consider the ministry as a profession and urges the church to be entirely worthy of the leadership position it held within the black community. “Union,” he urges church leaders, “is what we need.”
The short, pointed form of the editorial serves Johnson well when he is discussing specific social wrongs and accomplishments, but more unevenly when he turns his attention to literature and music. A July 20, 1918, editorial finds him agreeing with a comment by H. L. Mencken that the South had given birth to only one outstanding writer in its history; Johnson suggests the reason may have been that much of the South’s energy was wasted trying to keep black people down. The desire to defend slavery and Jim Crow separation certainly did degrade much of the southern literature of the time. Mencken’s judgment, however, is ridiculous. The closing decades of the nineteenth century had produced Joel Chandler Harris, Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, and Kate Chopin, among other southern writers; of these, the first three were active, vocal opponents to segregation. Mencken could get away with making outlandish statements; for Johnson to try to build a serious argument around such a statement, however, unwise.
Volume 2 includes much material Johnson wrote while he was active with the NAACP, first as field secretary and later as acting secretary. Subtitled Social, Political, and Literary Essays (somewhat deceptively, as the volume also includes fiction and poetry), volume 2 has a broader focus than the first volume, reprinting as it does material from books, magazines, newspapers, and even Johnson’s college days. The tone and content are far more varied than is the case in the first volume, yet the portrait that emerges is not at all that of a dilettante, but of a man who was passionately interested in debating truth and ideas.
As in the first volume, the organization in volume 2 is thematic. Part 1 reprints articles on social issues from a variety of sources; most are from The Crisis, the official NAACP newspaper. One, titled “Negro Americans, What Now?” was originally published as a pamphlet. Written toward the end of his life, “Negro Americans, What Now?” is a defense of NAACP policies by a man who had been the organization’s director for many years. It was written in the aftermath of the collapse of the Harlem Renaissance and, more specifically, Du Bois’ call for black separatism. Johnson traces the development of various suggested solutions to the problem of race discrimination and rejects most of them. The possibility of mass exodus, he notes, had long been suggested, but he dismisses the suggestion that an exodus of twelve or more million people could peacefully resettle any place on earth. Noting that communism had recently captured the attention of many black people (particularly Richard Wright), Johnson argues that it represents another false promise. According to Johnson, the United States would be far more likely to convert to fascism than to communism. Similarly, he believes that blacks would be foolish to accept any sort of political self-segregation, such as Du Bois had suggested. The only answer is full integration of African Americans into the mainstream political process. To answer his own “what now?” question, he remarks that the days ahead will demand that blacks be willing to both fight and work for their rights, and he offers a pledge that he has tried to keep, which says in part:
I WILL NOT ALLOW ONE PREJUDICED PERSON OR ONE MILLION OR ONE HUNDRED MILLION TO BLIGHT MY LIFE. . . . MY INNER LIFE IS MINE, AND I SHALL DEFEND AND MAINTAIN ITS INTEGRITY AGAINST ALL THE POWERS OF HELL.
Johnson does not expect such a pledge to answer all the complex social and racial problems that he has noted; rather, it is a statement of personal direction that he hopes will help his readers find their way to answers throughout their lives.
Johnson’s novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, the longest single work in either of these volumes, was originally published anonymously in 1912. Although Johnson’s friends, and quite a few other people, knew that he had written it as a novel, it was frequently read and reviewed as an autobiography. This genre confusion is an entirely appropriate reflection of the race confusion that the main character experiences. Born believing himself to be socially as white as his skin, the main character discovers as a boy that both he and his mother have black ancestry and thus, in the world of the South, are considered black. After an initial shock, he embraces this new self-definition. He travels around the country and, thanks to a wealthy sponsor, around the world, learning what it means to be black and becoming a pianist whose forte is translating themes from a ragtime to a classical idiom.
When he returns to the United States, it is with the intention of becoming a professional musician. After he witnesses a brutal lynching, however, he determines never again to present himself as a black man. He marries a white woman and successfully “passes” as white. At the time of the novel’s close, he is filled with regret at what he has missed by not being black but has no determination to pass back over the color line.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is seen by scholars as a work that anticipated both the Harlem Renaissance—especially with its emphasis on jazz music, the street life of New York, and the migration of African Americans out of the South—and, more specifically, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). Johnson’s narrator is, like Ellison’s, a man whose identity is obscured by race. He decides to be a black man, and he is received one way; he decides not to be, and he is received differently. While Ellison ends with his nameless character living literally underground, Johnson’s similarly unnamed character has gone underground in another way, in his retreat from a public self-identification as black. More important, Johnson’s novel (also like Ellison’s) serves as a series of snapshots of the forces and trends that were shaping black life during the time he wrote it. However briefly, the reader gets glimpses of railroad men, black university life, migrations North and back South, ragtime music, the freedom of Europe, and, not least of all, the spiritual cost of “passing.”
Somewhat less successful overall is the poetry included from Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917). The majority of the poems in that original volume were republished in St. Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems (1925). Wilson has published only the unselected poems—the leftovers—in volume 2. The overall quality is, not surprisingly, unequal to Johnson’s best poetry. Even so, the folklore-inspired poetry of “The Temptress” and “The Ghost of Deacon Brown” stand out as poetic successes, and some of his dialect poetry, such as “The Seasons,” “’Possum Song,” and “Nobody’s Lookin’ But de Owl and de Moon,” show that he did more than slavishly imitate his friend Paul Laurence Dunbar when he wrote in this vein.
It is to be hoped that much of Johnson’s best poetic work—his songs and his poetic rendering of well-known black sermons in God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927), not to mention the selection of material included in St. Peter Relates an Incident—will be included in later volumes. The author’s note tells readers that Wilson is preparing another volume of writings by Johnson from his NAACP years. There is no way of knowing what gems she will unearth, but what she has included in these first two volumes indicates that it will be full of wisdom and analysis well worth preserving. The work Wilson is doing can have the effect of bringing James Weldon Johnson’s voice into the twenty-first century. It seems evident that a one-volume collection that includes the very best of Johnson’s prodigious output—and that would be more easily used in classrooms—would be an excellent way to complete her project.
Sources for Further Study
Ebony. L, October, 1995, p. 18.
The Washington Post Book World. XXV, July 23, 1995, p. 13.