James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)

    Contributing Editor:
    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 and collaborator.

    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.

    Original Audience

    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 professor.

    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 (1902-1967).

    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 Gaines)


    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.