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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

James Weldon Johnson
(1871-1938)


James Weldon Johnson was Harlem’s Renaissance Man—gifted with talent and aplomb. He had the ability to deal with the struggles of life as he worked to develop his intellectual and artistic powers in a dual society. Rather than being devastated by the divided consciousness that drove some black leaders to extremes and others to annihilation, he subverted the marginality strain to a victorious stance. His contributions to American culture help to support the premise that marginality may be a requisite for creativity and innovation. So the imperative in his poem “The Creation,” “I’ll make me a world,” bears some relevance to the line of his own destiny in the Western world.

Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, where he attended school at Stanton. His immediate family and acquaintances provided a cultural background and economic security that gave him the chance to pursue his career. These advantages, with his ability to learn, served him well as an Atlanta University student. The professors who taught the classics exerted every effort to make students nobler and higher beings. Johnson worked to become an “all-sided man,” l’homo universale.

Johnson received a B.A. degree at Atlanta University in 1894, his M.A. in 1904. Immediately after graduation he taught at Stanton, but moved up to the level of high school and became principal. In order to hasten the advancement of racial uplift, he helped to found the Daily American in 1895 as the first black daily paper in America. But he made his mark as a journalist when he became a contributing editor of the New York Age, 1914–16, where he used his column as a “strong weapon” in the fight against inequality and injustice.

From 1916 through 1930, Johnson served as an official for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was responsible for building support for the organization in the South and the West. In addition, he investigated America’s misrule in Haiti in 1920, and he successfully lobbied Congress in 1921–22 for passage of the Dyer-Lynching Bill. It was his finest hour as a race leader. But Johnson likewise won acclaim in the diplomatic service. From 1906–20 he served as Consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. In 1929, he was a representative to the Institute on Pacific Relations held in Kyoto, Japan.

Somehow Johnson’s more ardent pursuits led to his early orientation in school life and the arts. Fisk University named Johnson as Adam K. Spence Professor of Creative Writing, a position he filled from 1930 to 1938. At the same time (1934), he became Visiting Professor at New York University. On the day of his death in an automobile accident, June 26, 1938, in Wiscasset, Maine, he had just been appointed Extension Professor of Black Literature at New York University.

Johnson believed that the creation of “pure literature” by a people is their mark of civilization. His first “pure” literary offering is “Sence You Went Away,” a dialect poem in the style of Paul L. Dunbar. His second poem, the standard English lyric “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” was set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond, in 1900, and is still his hallmark as “The Black National Anthem.”

When he joined Bob Cole and his brother in 1901 in New York, where they became successful writers of “Coon songs” and black musical reviews, they (along with Will Marion Cook and others) knew that something was lacking. Their art failed to tap the source-stream of black folk culture and folk art. James Weldon erected a frame: the super-structure of conscious black art must be built on the cultural background of the black folk. Johnson’s canon is limited but each work is vital for its attempt to evoke the black ethos.

As a writer, Johnson was a novelist, poet, literary critic, biographer, cultural historian, revolutionary philosopher, and more. Published anonymously in 1912, signed in 1927, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a sociological treatise as well as a fictive narrative. The theme of this important novel is “passing,” but the hero’s exploits reflect all of the author’s rich experiences up to the year 1912. Of his three volumes of poetry—Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917), God’s Trombones (1927), and St. Peter Relates an Incident (1930)—Trombones is the most innovative. In it he recorded the “sermon sagas” of his people, thus helping to perpetuate the oral tradition.

Five essays play a major role in establishing Johnson as a literary critic: prefaces to the two editions of The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922, 1931); to The First Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925); to The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals (1926); and to God’s Trombones. In them he praises the “creative genius of blacks,” analyzes song-poems as poetry, and isolates the folk sermon as a genre.

Along This Way (1933) is an autobiography that helps to establish Johnson as a precursor to and participant in the Harlem Renaissance. Black Manhattan is a cultural history of Harlem itself with an accurate history of the New York Theatrical Stage. Negro Americans, What Now? (1934) is considered by at least one scholar as a blueprint of the general philosophy of the Black Revolution of the sixties.

Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s New York eulogy is the proper assessment of Johnson’s life and works: “Greatness in a man is a quality that does not know the boundaries of race or creed.”

Arthenia J. Bates Millican
Southern University


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
Lift Every Voice and Sing (1900)
O Black and Unknown Bards (1908)
The Creation (1927)
from Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
      Chapter X (1912)

Other Works
Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917)
God's Trombones (1927)
Black Manhattan (1930)
Along This Way (1933)
Negro Americans, What Now? (1934)
St. Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems (1935)



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Links

The Making of Harlem
(http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/harlem/JohMakiF.html)
Frames version of Johnson's work; may be read as JPEG files.

Timeline
(http://www.afn.org/~sigma1/jwjohn.html)
Chronology of Johnson's life, including Lift Every Voice and Sing.


Secondary Sources

Eugene Levy, James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice, 1973




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