James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
Arthenia J. Bates Millican
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Next to James Weldon Johnson's name and date of birth in a biosketch
is the familiar catalog of his accomplishments as educator, journalist,
lawyer, composer, librettist, poet, novelist, editor, social historian,
literary critic, diplomat, fighter for the rights of his people and the
rights of all. Yet, he is remembered today, almost exclusively, as the
author of "Lift Every Voice and Sing"; and to some degree as
the author of the "Creation," the first sermon in God's Trombones.
One mythic error is still in vogue for the less ardent student--and
that is the indictment leveled against the author who "talks black"
but who was never really given to the black ethos. This accusation comes
as an error of identification. Some students assume that Johnson himself
is the protagonist of the novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-colored
Man. Actually, the author's friend, "D_______," Douglas Wetmore,
is model for the protagonist. Thus, one encounters the problem of coping
with an author with name popularity, but who is not known despite his myriad
contributions to American and African-American literary culture.
The writer can best be made accessible to students, first, by introducing
Along This Way, his authentic life story, as well as the history
of the Harlem Renaissance and the rise of Marxist ideology. In the index,
the entry "Johnson, James Weldon" is a reference guide in chronological
order that gives the chance to examine items of choice.
Johnson may stand in clearer relief by using an "exchange"
pattern of image-making. For example, discuss W.E.B.
Du Bois as a "politician" who engaged in "political"
actions at times.
An indirect form of transformation of real life act to art can be traced
in an evolutionary process that produced Trombones. First, Johnson
visited a Jacksonville church during his childhood days where he saw the
African shout. Second, he visited "Little Africa." Third, he
listened to his father as a gospel preacher. And finally, he heard gospel
preachers when he was field secretary for the NAACP. The Kansas City sermon
spurred these recollections and brought on a feeling that gave him import
to black soul, the African communal spirit.
Students usually respond to the following issues:
1. The failure of the "Talented Tenth" to understand the economic
imperatives that would involve all Americans.
2. The failure of the Johnson legacy to maintain itself with the onset
of Marxism and the rise of proletarian literature.
3. The failure of Fisk and Atlanta universities to play a significant
role in building a Johnson file of note.
4. The reason so little is known about J. Rosamond, Johnson's co-editor
5. In a quiet way, Johnson is receiving scholarly interest. Will it
be potent enough to take him into the twenty-first century?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Exemplary themes of major import in the Johnson canon begin with "Lift
Every Voice" and "Bards." They relate to the black presence
in America via the "peculiar institution," slavery, but maintain
relevance to the American Dream, "holy hope," and self-realization.
Typical themes of historical significance are: freedom and authority; liberty
and responsibility; the artist in America; and society and the individual.
On the personal level, in terms of the author's race and his innate concerns,
the theme of historical reference is stressed in order to give credence
to and assess values that originated in Africa. Other themes in the "personal"
category are: men's ways with God; the mystical aura of the creative imagination;
the power, beauty, and "essential rhythm" of indigenous black
folk poetry; justice, liberation, and peace.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Johnson's reputation as a writer rests on his novel and God's Trombones.
His idea that prose should state facts enables him to write a realistic
novel. He treats themes such as namelessness, racial self-hatred, the black
mother's ambiguous role, and the white patron/white liberal who appears
in the modern novel by blacks.
As a poet, he went through a long evolutionary stage of development.
His first poems, Jingles and Croons, are written in the "Dunbar"
tradition of accommodation, imitation, and limitation in terms of the two
emotions allowed: pathos and humor. The plantation and the minstrel stage
are background sources.
When Johnson wrote "Lift Every Voice" in 1900, he had become
imbued with the Victorian conventions of English verse. Rudyard Kipling,
the poet laureate (the court poet), wrote many occasional poems, including
"Recessional," which served as a model for the black national
anthem in form and structure.
Walt Whitman, the
poet who gave birth to a new American poetry, wrote in free verse. Song
of Myself set the stage for the freedom, individual experimentation,
and the new theme of egalitarianism that appear in one aspect of Johnson's
poem "Brothers." He used free verse in Trombones.
The coming of the New Negro to New York in the post-World War I period,
"thoughtwise" and "boywise," combined to form Harlem
as the New Jerusalem for blacks. This city became the place for conscious
black artists who revered their African past and their southern roots.
Trombones is grounded in this tradition. It makes use of African
rhythms; it employs intonations of southern folk idioms, thus enforcing
the power of black speech devoid of the artificial "cant of literary
dialect." Therefore, Johnson set the stage for future poets who desired
to honor the oral tradition in their conscious literary works.
Black literature written in the nineteenth century and in the first
four decades of the twentieth century was written basically for a white
reading audience. At that time there were few if any student audiences
on any level who studied works by blacks. In black schools, great racial
personalities were presented to the students during Negro History Week.
Now there is Black History Month.
Black literature in class is a phenomenon of the 1960s. Black studies
programs became a part of the school curriculum in America. Therefore,
the audience in class is a rather new phenomenon.
The class audiences that began as "black" or "white"
at first might be one now of new minority constitution: women, handicapped
people, elderly citizens, third world students, and/or others. The appeal
of the black work to be valid, then, must have appeal to other ethnic groups,
since the world is now a global village.
For the new class, forums, debates, formal and informal class reports
by individual students may enhance interpersonal communication. For the
dissemination of facts, the wonders effected by technology are countless.
Students may have access to films, recordings, videotapes, and audio tapes
for reviewing material introduced earlier in formal class lectures by the
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Fellow novelists of the Harlem Renaissance who honored the theme of
"passing" (Johnson claimed authorship for The Ex-colored Man
in 1927), such as Walter White in "Flight" (1926), Jessie Fauset
in "Plum Bun" (1928), and Nella
Larsen in Passing (1929), promoted the aesthetic indigenous
to African literature: art for life's sake. The "for-life's-sake"
element is now dated because these authors were intent on presenting the
"better elements" in black life to squelch the ardor of the Nigger
Heaven (1926) vogue fathered by Carl Van Vechten and adhered to even by
Claude McKay in Home
to Harlem (1928).
Stephen Henderson, author of Understanding the New Black Poetry
(1973), has indicated that black speech, black song, black music (if one
can make such distinctions) are imbued with "experiential energy."
On this premise, Johnson, the poet who cultivated his black ethos, is best
compared with Langston Hughes
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Does Johnson's high degree of Euroamerican acculturation deflect
from his African-American altruism?
2. Is he rightfully classed as a Victorian in terms of middle-class
prudery and respectability?
3. Do you agree with George Kent's view that "his cosmopolitanism
always extends his reach and his grasp" (In Blackness and the Adventure
of Western Culture, 1972, p. 30)?
4. The editors of The Conscious Voice (1965) suggest that the
poem is the rendering of experience--which also suggests "the intricacy
of the poet's involvement in the world." Does Johnson use a suitable
aesthetic distance from his subject matter in the poems: "Lift Every
Voice" (1900); "Fifty Years" (1853-1913); and "Saint
Peter Relates An Incident" (1930)? (Refer to outside sources for the
latter two poems.)
5. How can one justify the author's use of the compensatory Christian
ethic in "Lift Every Voice," "Bards," "Listen
Lord"--a prayer--and the sermons in Trombones, when he himself
is an agnostic? (Refer to outside sources for the latter two poems.)
6. Three reigning poets influenced Johnson's development as the second
outstanding African-American poet: Rudyard Kipling, English; Walt
Whitman, American; Paul
Laurence Dunbar, African-American. How?
7. Racial violence in the poem "Brothers" (1916) is attended
with a plea for brotherhood. What is its advantage over literary dialect?
8. How does the longevity of the oral tradition substantiate its worth
in the use of black idiomatic expression in African-American literature?
Suggested paper topics:
Period and Genre: The Color-line Novel
1. Before Johnson (1912)
2. During the Awakening (1915-1920)
3. During the Harlem Renaissance (1920-1930)
4. During the 1960s in Louisiana (Ernest
1. The Influence of the Harlem Renaissance on West African Poets
2. Influence of the African poets, like Leopold Senghor, on African-American
Poets during the 1960s
1. Poetry by "White" Black Authors
2. Protest Poetry
3. The "Coon Song" on Broadway
4. The Folk Sermon as Literary Genre
Copeland, George E. "James Weldon Johnson--a Bibliography."
Master's thesis, School of Library Science at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn,
New York, May 1951.
Davis, Thadious. "Southern Standard-Bearers in the New Negro Renaissance."
In The History of Southern Literature 2 (1985): 291-313.
Fleming, Robert. "Contemporary Themes in Johnson's Autobiography
of an Ex-colored Man." Negro American Literature Forum
IV (1970): 120-24.
Johnson, J. W. "The first and second book of American Negro Spirituals,
1925." God's Trombones, 1927.
Levy, Eugene. James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader Black Voices.
1973. The J. W. Johnson "Prefaces" offer rich critical insight
about his work The Book of American Negro Poetry, 1922, 1931.
Mcghee, Nancy B. "The Folk Sermon." College Language Association
Journal I (1969): 51-61.
Millican, Arthenia Bates. "James Weldon Johnson: In Quest of An
Afrocentric Tradition for Black American Literature." Doctoral dissertation,
LSU, 1972. Chapters 6, 7, and 10 detail facts on the form and structure
of dated poems.