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Equipped with restless intelligence and abundant energy, James Weldon Johnson crowded almost a dozen occupations into a busy lifetime, excelling in most of them. He was an educator, journalist, lawyer, songwriter, diplomat, novelist, poet, civil-rights crusader, anthologist, and professor. Through his belletristic writing and his anthologies he was both contributor to and preserver of the African-American literary tradition, linking the nineteenth century to the Harlem Renaissance.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Sheltered Youth
James Weldon Johnson was born on June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida. His father, James Johnson, was a self-educated man who, as a waiter, achieved economic security and adopted middle-class values. In New York he met and courted Helen Louise Dillet, a young woman of African-French-English ancestry. She, a native of Nassau who had grown up in New York, received a good education and had developed her musical talent. When Dillet returned with her mother to her native island in 1861, James Johnson followed her and secured a position in a large hotel. They were married in 1864 and for economic reasons then moved to Jacksonville, a rapidly expanding city and tourist center. Here were born James William (changed in 1913 to Weldon) Johnson and, two years later, John Rosamond Johnson.
Growing up in a middle-class home with books and a piano, Johnson was inculcated with strict notions of integrity by his father and with intellectual and artistic interests by his mother. The first black woman to become a public school teacher in Florida, Helen Johnson encouraged a love of learning; she taught piano and reading at home and also instructed her students in the classroom at Stanton School. A precocious child, James read Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, John Bunyan, and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Formal education at Stanton School extended only through the eighth grade, from which James graduated in 1887, but travel and friends had a broadening effect.
Discovering the World Outside
In 1884 he spent a summer in New York with his grandmother and her sister. He recalled feeling that he was born to be a New Yorker, and this cosmopolitan sense of self was reinforced by his friendships with Ricardo Rodriguez Ponce, a Cuban youth from whom he learned Spanish, Judson Douglass Wetmore, the near-white prototype for the protagonist of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man; and, somewhat later, a cultured and widely traveled white physician named Dr. Thomas Osmond Summers, for whom he worked as an assistant and whose library of literary erotica and religious agnosticism expanded Johnson’s interests in additional directions.
Johnson earned an associate’s degree from Atlanta University in 1894—a place where he received an education in racial issues from which he had been somewhat sheltered in Jacksonville. Johnson spent two summers teaching in a black rural school. This proved to be an invaluable experience; he witnessed a mode of African-American life new to him. After his graduation he returned as the principal of Stanton, and added ninth- and tenth-grade courses. In the summer before his senior year he heard the aged Frederick Douglass speak and the young Paul Laurence Dunbar read from his poetry. With Dunbar, who was not yet famous, he quickly initiated a friendship and literary relationship that would continue for many years thereafter.
During his time as principal at Stanton, Johnson studied for a year and a half and became the first black individual to pass the Florida bar, though he did not enjoy working as a lawyer. Stanton was growing restless in Jacksonville, which was too small an arena to contain either his talents or his ambitions. Furthermore, racial restrictions were tightening as the new century began.
Poet and Songwriter
When Johnson’s brother John returned to Jacksonville in 1897, after having studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and completing a tour with a black variety show, the brothers wrote ”Tolosa, or The Royal Document,” a comic opera in a Gilbert-and-Sullivan mode. A trip to New York in the summer of 1899 did not lead to the production of the work, but it did introduce them to some of the key figures of the musical stage, including Oscar Hammerstein and a number of celebrated black theatrical personalities.
The life of black bohemia in New York fascinated Johnson, yet he returned to Jacksonville, where he wrote one of his best dialect poems, the plaintive love lyric ”Sence You Went Away,” [sic] which was published in Century in 1900, the first time the author appeared in print in a national magazine. With his brother he then wrote ”Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which was to become known as the ”Negro National Anthem.” The brothers spent summers in New York, writing songs. The situation was made permanent in the fall of 1902, after a fire destroyed a large area of Jacksonville, including the Stanton School, and after an ugly and dangerous personal encounter with state militiamen brought in to keep order.
Johnson, his brother, and their new collaborator Bob Cole wrote a string of hits. The income these songs brought was welcome, and the life was glamorous, on Broadway and on tours across the United States and in Europe. however, Johnson had serious reservations about such ephemeral work as genuine artistic expression. Reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) in 1900, he became aware of the limitations of what he had been writing, depending as it did on white stereotypes of black life. In his spare time, he began graduate study at Columbia University.
Diplomat and Novelist
Johnson was appointed a United States Consul in Venezuela in 1906. Here he produced many poems and made progress on a novel. His next consular position, a slightly more desirable one in Nicaragua, kept him busier, and he found himself dealing with business affairs, political unrest, and then revolution. In 1910 he took a furlough to marry Grace Nail, the cultivated daughter of a prosperous New York tavern owner and real estate dealer, and he also found time to complete the novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the story of a light-skinned black man who finally crosses the color line and passes as white. It was published anonymously in 1912.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a novel, not an autobiography, but by issuing it anonymously Johnson hoped that it would be read as a true-life story, giving it greater authenticity and impact than a work perceived as mere fiction. Johnson could not pass as white and would not have wanted to. Nevertheless, the sources of the novel lie largely in Johnson’s own experiences and friendships. Confused about his racial and sexual identities, the protagonist, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), lacks even a name, and this makes his grasp of who he is even more tenuous. Despite a failure to resolve artistic and didactic aims, Johnson’s novel is a significant achievement for its time, giving memorable expression to an important theme and preparing the way for the mature fictional art that was to come later in the century.
Politics and Advocacy
Johnson resigned from the diplomatic service in September 1913, spent some time in Florida, and then returned to New York where he wrote editorials pressing for equal rights and racial cooperation. All the while, he was writing poetry and preparing the collection Fifty Years and Other Poems, which was published in 1917 and contained both standard English verse and dialect poetry.
From about the turn of the century Johnson had known Charles W. Anderson, an influential ally of Booker T. Washington, but he had also known W. E. B. Du Bois almost as long. Johnson accepted an offer to become field secretary, then later the director, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which had been organized in 1910 by whites and blacks to provide a more militant vehicle for racial protest than Washington offered. Johnson was to prove extremely effective in organizing local branches throughout the country, and he greatly expanded the membership of the organization. Emphasizing legal action, publicity, and political pressure, he coordinated the most effective movement against racism of its time.
Official duties occupied most of his time, but Johnson managed to compile three important anthologies in the 1920s: The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1922), and The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals(1926), all credited with increased respect for black creativity. It is ironic that Johnson, an avowed agnostic, contributed so significantly to increased respect for the soulful richness of black Christianity, most notably in God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927). Eschewing regularities of meter, rhyme, or length of line, God’s Trombones relies on speech rhythms—especially syncopation—and the Biblical narratives to give structure to the poems. The language of the collection is easy, colloquial, sinewy, yet capable of a vast range of emotion.
Johnson’s writing of the 1930s is more retrospective and historical than creative. Black Manhattan, published in 1930, is a popular historical treatment of African-American life in New York. Along This Way, Johnson’s autobiography, is less revealing of his private personality. The reserve and detachment characteristic of writers of his generation are always maintained. For instance, his wife is not mentioned a single time in the last hundred pages of the work. Even when he discusses religion or politics, he tends to move toward generalization rather than to probe psychological sources. For our sense of the private man then, we have to rely on the covert hints of his fiction and some of his poetry. The book ends with speculation on the future of blacks in America, and he advocates assimilation and education, rejecting separatism.
Johnson’s life came to an abrupt end on June 26, 1938, when his automobile was struck by a train while he was traveling to his summer home in Maine. The accomplishments of his career, literary and otherwise, constitute a major and imperishable part of the history of African-American experience and expression in the early twentieth century.
Works in Literary Context
The Harlem Renaissance
Johnson was one of the leaders of the movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Around the turn of the century, New York blacks migrated in substantial numbers to the uptown neighborhood of Harlem. In the 1920s and 1930s, a confluence of black individuals—writers, poets, musicians, artists and intellectuals—in Harlem found themselves at the center of a movement to both confront racism and create a distinct identity that would encompass the exciting works of art and literature their community was producing and the newfound sense of black identity that was rapidly developing. The movement produced such luminaries as Langston Hughes, and Johnson was one of its principal poets, anthologizers, and intellectual leaders. The poetry and literature of Johnson and his cohorts would influence generations of African-Americans, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gwendolyn Brooks, author of Annie Allen (1950), and United States Poet Laureate Robert Hayden.
Unusually, Johnson wrote two autobiographies—the first was fictional, written more as a political statement than an artistic gesture. The second was his own, magisterial version, which charted his personal story in tandem with the historical events occurring around him. Johnson’s faux version is generally thought to be the more successful of the two, even as it has the tendency to flounder. But in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, there seem to live more instances of genuine truth and humanity. Perhaps through his unnamed character, so similar in so many ways to himself, Johnson was able to express more of his soul than he felt it was possible in the nonfiction version. A frustrated narrator, struggling with his identity, and left nameless by his creator, is a tradition that is carried on by Ralph Waldo Ellison’s groundbreaking novel Invisible Man, and, half a century later, in Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt (2006).
Works in Critical Context
Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man anticipated the work of later writers concerned with the nature of racial identity. While contemporaries considered Johnson’s novel an accurate and revealing sociological document about the lives of black Americans, it is studied today as a complex work providing an ambiguous psychological study of its anonymous title character. As a poet, Johnson is best known for God’s Trombones, a collection of seven poems that captures the rhythmic and spiritual essence of traditional black sermons. In general, Johnson’s efforts to preserve and win recognition for black cultural traditions drew praise from such prominent literary figures as H. L. Mencken and Mark Van Doren and contributed to the spirit of racial pride and self-confidence that marked the efflorescence of black music, art, and literature in the Harlem Renaissance.
God’s Trombones, Johnson’s finest literary achievement, was inspired by sermons—he used them in the same way a composer might make use of a folk tale. Rather than conventional melancholy or plantation stereotypes, Johnson expresses the dignity and depth of the racial religious experience in its own idiom, but in a way that does indeed appeal finally to the universal hunger for spiritual consolation. Ranging from cosmic grandeur to fiery denunciation of sinners to the most tender solicitude for bereavement, the themes of God’s Trombones receive expression that has the inevitability, resonance, and emotional authority of great art. Critics credited the poet with capturing the oratorical tricks and flourishes that a skilled preacher would use to sway his congregation, including hyperbole, repetition, abrupt mood juxtapositions, an expert sense of timing, and the ability to translate biblical imagery into the colorful, concrete terms of everyday life. ”The sensitive reader cannot fail to hear the rantings of the fire-and-brimstone preacher; the extremely sensitive reader may even hear the unwritten ‘Amens’ of the congregation,” declared Eugenia W. Collier in a 1960 essay for Phylon. The book was favorably reviewed by such fellow luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance as Du Bois, White, Alain Locke, and Countee Cullen. Cullen wrote, ”Johnson has blown the true spirit and the pentecostal trumpeting of the dark Joshuas of the race in God’s Trombones, composed of seven sermon-poems and a prayer. The seven sermons are like the seven blasts blown by Joshua at Jericho.” Cullen added, ”There is a universality of appeal and appreciation in these poems that raises them, despite the fact that they are labeled ‘Seven Negro Sermons in Verse’… far above a relegation to any particular group or people.” White poets and critics such as Joseph Auslander, Arthur Guiterman, Harriet Monroe, and Harry Alan Potamkin also reviewed God’s Trombones favorably.
- Bone, Robert A. The Negro Novel in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958.
- Fleming, Robert E. James Weldon Johnson. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
- Levy, Eugene. James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1973.
- Price, Kenneth M., and Lawrence J. Oliver. Critical Essays on James Weldon Johnson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1997.
- Tolbert-Rouchaleau, Jane. James Weldon Johnson. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
- A BriefGuide to the Harlem Renaissance. Retrieved December 14, 2008, from http://www.poets.org/ viewmedia.php/prmMID/5657.
- James Weldon Johnson. Retrieved December 14, 2008, from http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/72.
- Go Ask Alice. Retrieved December 14, 2008, from http://www.snopes.com/language/literary/ askalice.asp.
- Resources for the Study of Beowulf. Retrieved December 13, 2008, from http://greenehamlet.com/.
- The Story of the Stone (The Dream of the Red Chamber). Retrieved December 14, 2008, from http:// www.complete-review.com/reviews/orientalia/ tsots.htm.
- James Weldon Johnson. Retrieved December 14, 2008, from http://www.sc.edu/library/spcoll/amlit/ johnson/johnson.html.
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