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Life Sketch of James Weldon Johnson and Sample Poems

Life sketches of poets and other writers afford readers a glimpse into the writing process, backgrounding the creativity of each artist.

Note on Usage

In 1988, Rev. Jesse Jackson convinced Americans to adopt the usage of the phrase, "African American." The terms, "Negro," "colored," and "black" remained widely accepted in American English parlance at the time James Weldon Johnson was writing.

Early Life and Education

On June 17, 1871, James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, to James Johnson, a Virginian, who served as the headwaiter at a resort hotel, and Helen Louise Dillet, a Bahamian, who served as the first black, female educator in the state of Florida.

The Weldons raised their son to be a strong and independent. James remained a free-thinking individual as his parents had instilled in him the knowledge that he could achieve any level of success for which he desired to strive.

Johnson attended Atlanta University, and after completing his bachelor’s degree in 1894, he took the position as principal of the Edwin M. Stanton School, in which his mother had served as a teacher. As principal of Stanton, Johnson made vast improvements in the curriculum, and he also added grades 9 and 10.

As Johnson served the school and community as principal, he founded a newspaper, The Daily American, which remained in circulation for only a year, but which, fortunately for his future in activism, provided a platform for bringing the young activist to the attention of the two prominent individuals of the civil rights movement, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.

In 1896, Johnson began a study of the law in Thomas Ledwith’s law office in Jacksonville, Florida. He then passed the bar in 1898, becoming the first black ever admitted to the bar in Florida. He practiced law for only a few years before deciding to pursue other fields of endeavor.

New York City to the Diplomatic Corp

In 1901, James and brother Rosamond relocated to New York City, where they pursued a career in songwriting. They partnered with Bob Cole, winning a publishing contract that paid them a monthly stipend of $1200, a fortune back in the early 20th century.

During the next five years, they wrote and produced about 200 song for Broadway and other formats. Their hits included such titles as "Didn’t He Ramble," "Under the Bamboo Tree," and "The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground."

The Johnson brothers along with Bob Cole garnered a stellar reputation as a musical trio, and they were affectionately labeled, "Those Ebony Offenbachs." While eschewing the practice of creating minstrel show stereotypes, the trio did condescend to create simplified creations of black life of rustics for white audiences who demanded such fare.

But their more important contribution to music included a suite of six songs titled The Evolution of Ragtime, which has remained an important documentary of the black experience in contributing to music.

Living in New York also afforded Johnson the convenience of attending Columbia University, where he studied literature and creative writing in a formal setting. He also began his activism in Republican Party politics.

Serving as the treasurer of New York’s Colored Republican Club, he composed two songs for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 presidential campaign, which Roosevelt won becoming the 26h president of the United States.

After the black national civil rights leadership separated into two factions, one conservative lead by Booker T. Washington and the other radical, headed up by W.E.B. Du Bois, Johnson choose to follow Washington and the conservatives.

Washington’s leadership had exerted just the right influence that helped Roosevelt win the presidency. Thus, that influence was exerted again to have Johnson appointed to the US consulate in Venezuela.

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Johnson’s stint in that South American country afforded him time to write poetry. He composed his beautiful, nearly perfect sonnet, "Mother Night," during this time. Also during this three year of services as consul, Johnson was able to finish his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man.

After Johnson’s stint in Venezuela, he was promoted and relocated to Nicaragua, where his more demanding job meant he had little time for his literary efforts.

Back to New York and the Harlem Renaissance

In 1913, with the inauguration of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Johnson resigned from foreign service and returned to the USA. In New York, Johnson began serving as a writer for New York’s most prestigious black newspaper, the New York Age, where he composed essays touting the importance of education and hard-work.

His conservative stance put him more in line with Booker T. Washington than with radical militant W.E.B. Du Bois. Nevertheless, Johnson managed to remain on good terms with both men, despite the politics that divided them.

In 1916, Johnson took on the role as secretary for the NAACP, after Du Bois suggested that position to Johnson. In 1920, Johnson headed the organization as president.

Despite his heavy activist duties with the NAACP, Johnson began writing full time. In 1917, he brought out his first collection of poems, Fifty Years and Other Poems, which received critical acclaim and helped establish him as an important member of the Harem Renaissance Movement.

He continued his writing and publishing; he also served as the editor for numerous volumes of poetry, including The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals(1926).

Johnson's second book of poems titled God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, was published in 1927, again receiving much praise from critics. Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who was a best-selling author and an activist for education reform, remarked in a letter about Johnson’s style:

. . . heart-shakingly beautiful and original, with the peculiar piercing tenderness and intimacy which seems to me special gifts of the Negro. It is a profound satisfaction to find those special qualities so exquisitely expressed.

In 1900, Johnson composed the hymn, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," for a school celebration of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. His brother, Rosamond, later added a melody to the lyric, and in 1919, the NAACP designated it the "Negro National Hymn (Anthem)."

Back to Teaching

After retiring from the NAACP, Johnson continued his writing and later served as professor at New York University. Again Johnson's stellar reputation preceded him as he joined the NYU faculty, as Deborah Shapiro has testified:

Dr. James Weldon Johnson was already a world-renowned poet, novelist, and educator when he arrived at the School of Education in 1934. His faculty appointment was in the Department of Educational Sociology, yet Johnson’s influence did not end there. As the first black professor at NYU, Johnson broke a crucial color barrier, inspiring further efforts toward racial equality both within and outside the boundaries of Washington Square.

Johnson’s Death

In 1938 at age 67, Johnson was killed in an accident in Wiscasset, Maine, after a train crashed into the automobile in which the poet was a passenger. His funeral was held in Harlem, New York, and was attended by over 2000 people.

Johnson's creative power rendered him a true "renaissance man," who lived a full life, penning some of the finest poetry and songs ever to appear on the American literary scene.

Johnson’s life creed offers an uplifting inspiration after which anyone might want to chisel their life:

I will not allow one prejudiced person or one million or one hundred million to blight my life. I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I shall defend and maintain its integrity against all the powers of hell.

Johnson’s body is interred in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Unconventionally, his body is arrayed in his favorite lounging cape, while his hands are clutching a copy of his God’s Trombones.

Sample Poems: "Fifty Years" and "Creation"

The following sample poems, "Fifty Years" and "Creation" offer a glimpse into the style and subject matter choices of the great poet, James Weldon Johnson. Each poem is accompanied by a commentary.

Introduction and Text of "Fifty Years"

James Weldon Johnson begins his commemorative poem, "Fifty Years," with the epigraph, "(1863–1913) On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation."

The speaker is paying homage to the many abolitionists who helped end slavery. And while many citizens still held the view that their black brothers and sisters should remain second class citizens, the speaker offers the rationale for the blessings of equality and respect among all citizens.

This speaker possesses a cosmic view of historical procedure, and he shares his awareness with his compatriots of all shades of skin color that God is always in control, and freedom must ring for those who seek it and work to maintain it—a view that remains as operate today as it did back in the early twentieth century.

Fifty Years

O brothers mine, to-day we stand
Where half a century sweeps our ken,
Since God, through Lincoln’s ready hand,
Struck off our bonds and made us men.

Just fifty years—a winter’s day—
As runs the history of a race;
Yet, as we look back o’er the way,
How distant seems our starting place!

Look farther back! Three centuries!
To where a naked, shivering score,
Snatched from their haunts across the seas,
Stood, wild-eyed, on Virginia’s shore.

This land is ours by right of birth,
This land is ours by right of toil;
We helped to turn its virgin earth,
Our sweat is in its fruitful soil.

Where once the tangled forest stood,—
Where flourished once rank weed and thorn,—
Behold the path-traced, peaceful wood,
The cotton white, the yellow corn.

To gain these fruits that have been earned,
To hold these fields that have been won,
Our arms have strained, our backs have burned,
Bent bare beneath a ruthless sun.

That Banner which is now the type
Of victory on field and flood—
Remember, its first crimson stripe
Was dyed by Attucks’ willing blood.

And never yet has come the cry—
When that fair flag has been assailed—
For men to do, for men to die,
That we have faltered or have failed.

We’ve helped to bear it, rent and torn,
Through many a hot-breath’d battle breeze
Held in our hands, it has been borne
And planted far across the seas.

And never yet,—O haughty Land,
Let us, at least, for this be praised—
Has one black, treason-guided hand
Ever against that flag been raised.

Then should we speak but servile words,
Or shall we hang our heads in shame?
Stand back of new-come foreign hordes,
And fear our heritage to claim?

No! stand erect and without fear,
And for our foes let this suffice—
We’ve bought a rightful sonship here,
And we have more than paid the price.

And yet, my brothers, well I know
The tethered feet, the pinioned wings,
The spirit bowed beneath the blow,
The heart grown faint from wounds and stings;

The staggering force of brutish might,
That strikes and leaves us stunned and dazed;
The long, vain waiting through the night
To hear some voice for justice raised.

Full well I know the hour when hope
Sinks dead, and ’round us everywhere
Hangs stifling darkness, and we grope
With hands uplifted in despair.

Courage! Look out, beyond, and see
The far horizon’s beckoning span!
Faith in your God-known destiny!
We are a part of some great plan.

Because the tongues of Garrison
And Phillips now are cold in death,
Think you their work can be undone?
Or quenched the fires lit by their breath?

Think you that John Brown’s spirit stops?
That Lovejoy was but idly slain?
Or do you think those precious drops
From Lincoln’s heart were shed in vain?

That for which millions prayed and sighed,
That for which tens of thousands fought,
For which so many freely died,
God cannot let it come to naught.

Reading of "Fifty Years"

Commentary on "Fifty Years"

This speaker of this poem is offering a tribute to the struggle for civil rights in America that began with President Abraham Lincoln proclaiming the end of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation, as he cites several of the most noted abolitionists.

Stanza 1 - Stanza 3: Celebrating 50 Years Since the Emancipation Proclamation

James Weldon Johnson’s narrator of "Fifty Years" is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s affixing his signature to the Emancipation Proclamation, beginning the long process of ending slavery in the United States.

The speaker addresses the sufferers of slavery as well as his own contemporaries, "brothers," many who are the descendants of slaves.

Johnson’s speaker is dramatizing the signing the Emancipation Proclamation, implying that President Lincoln had erased the vicious practice of slavery and raised the status of the slaves to manhood—a status they had been denied.

The speaker looks back in time as he compares those "fifty years" to a "winter’s day." Historically, fifty years is, indeed, short, but this half century has been like a very cold season of winter for this Africans and their descendants.

Johnson then takes the reader/listener even farther back in time with the disconcerting image of the slave standing, "naked, shivering," who were "[s]natched from their haunts across the seas," and who "[s]tood, wild-eyed, on Virginia’s shore."

Stanza 4 - Stanza 6: Proudly Claiming a Heritage

Proudly and rightly, the speaker decrees, "this land is ours by right of birth"; he and his ancestors have developed the fallow earth with their "sweat," which has resulted in "fruitful soil."

Instead of merely,"tangled forest," now, through their labor there are "peaceful wood," cotton, and corn fields yielding valuable products for the American people.

The speaker claims that to turn this nature-wild land into a domesticated home, "[o]ur arms have strained, our backs have burned, / Bent bare beneath a ruthless sun."

Stanza 7 - Stanza 9: Dramatizing Patriotism

The speaker dramatizes the patriotism of his fellows who have died fighting for America even before it recognized them as equal patriots and full citizens. His allusion to Crispus Attuck, the first patriot to die in the American Revolutionary War, offers a stark reminder: "Remember, its first crimson stripe / Was dyed by Attucks’ willing blood."

The speaker highlights the fact that Attuck died willingly for his country, not forced because he was a slave. He stresses that this race of American patriots has always stepped forward to defend America, even in foreign wars.

Stanza 10 - Stanza 12: They Have Already Secured Their Rights

The speaker is adamant in reporting to a land still roiled in racism (Johnson was writing this 1913) that at no time has "one black, treason-guided hand / Ever against that flag been raised."

Because of the genuine qualities that his African American brothers and sisters have demonstrated since the founding of America, the speaker maintains that they do not deserve to "hang [their] heads in shame" or "speak but servile word," or be timid in claiming their heritage as true, patriotic Americans.

Therefore, the speaker demands that his contemporaries, "stand erect and without fear." They have procured the right to their "sonship here," and they have tendered more than should be required of anyone.

Stanza 13 - Stanza 15: Affirmation Despite Adversity

The speaker never makes light of the black experience in America; he knows very well the physical and mental humiliation that his fellow patriots have suffered—as well as the broken spirit. He is aware of the deep levels of discouragement such treatment causes. He understands that there are always times that all one can rely on is prayer.

However, this speaker also understands that such oppression cannot endure. He, therefore, commands his listeners to become fearless and to look forward to the future and retain "[f]aith in your God-known destiny! / We are a part of some great plan."

The speaker then alludes to William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, two strong abolitionists. He inquires, rhetorically, if his fellows believe that the "fire lit by their breath" could be snuffed out.

He further asks if his brothers can imagine that the spirit of John Brown and Elijah Lovejoy has become lifeless and departed. He wants them to consider the death of Abraham Lincoln—did the great emancipator die "in vain"?

The speaker delivers an affirmation that all of those great abolitionists and the great emancipator did not resist only to die in vain.

He insists, "millions have prayed" for and "tens of thousands have fought" for and "many freely died," so that dark-skinned people could know the equality they deserved. And of most importance, he treasures and maintains an abiding faith that, "God cannot let it come to naught."

Introduction and Text of "The Creation"

Johnson's speaker offers an imaginative, dramatic rendering of the origin of creation.

In James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation," the speaker dramatizes Genesis chapter 1, verses 1-25 (King James Version of the Holy Bible, Genesis 1:1-25.). The speaker employs the voice of a Southern preacher, exemplified by the lines, "Down in a cypress swamp" and "Like a mammy bending over her baby."

This poem remains a marvelous example of Johnson's depth of spirituality as well as his skilled craftsmanship at poetry composition.

The Wintley Phipps recitation of James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation" is magnificent. Phipps performs a perfect interpretation of Johnson's poem. The experience of listening to a fine poem always adds a nuance of meaning that a simple quiet reading lacks.

The Creation

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.

Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That’s good!

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.

Wintley Phipps’ recitation of "The Creation"

Commentary on "Creation"

Johnson's speaker offers an imaginative, dramatic rendering of the origin of creation.

First and Second Stanzas: Personification of God

The speaker personifies God, giving the Deity the very human quality of loneliness and having Him "step [ ] out on space," where He observes the vastness and decides, "I'm lonely / I'll make me a world."

The corresponding Genesis verse states,"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." Johnson's speaker gives God anthropomorphic qualities in order metaphorically explain the process of creation as revealed in the Holy Scripture.

In Genesis, the darkness was on the face of the deep, because the world was formless. Johnson's speaker dramatically describes pre-creation as "blacker than a hundred midnights / Down in a cypress swamp." Of course, the speaker knows that his audience, likely his congregation, would be able to visualize that cypress swamp darkness.

Third and Fourth Stanzas: Calling for Light

Genesis reveals that God called for light by heralding, "Let there be light." Johnson's speaker creatively allows that first light to beam when God smiled. In addition, the speaker metaphorically has the light causing the darkness to "roll [ ] up on one side" while "light stood shining on the other."

To all this drama, God says, "That's good!" Johnson's speaker makes God an even more active entity than the Genesis version, where instead of speaking, God's thoughts are exposed: "God saw the light, and it was good." At this point, only God could have had that thought.

The speaker then takes the liberty of having God create the sun by taking light in his hands and rolling the light into a ball and setting the sun "a-blazing in the heavens." Using the light remaining after making the sun, God gathered it up in "a shining ball / And flung it against the darkness / Spangling the night with the moon and stars."

The importance of light motivates Johnson's speaker to elaborate on the creation of the earth's only source of light. And again, as is repeated in Genesis, the speaker has God aver, "That's good!"

Fifth and Sixth Stanzas: The Significance of the Sun

The importance of the sun is further emphasized as the speaker continues his drama. God begins to walk on the earth with the sun "on his right hand / And the moon on his left." And the stars were "clustered about his head."

As God walked on the earth, His feet "hollowed the valleys out / And bulged the mountains up." Genesis more vaguely reveals God's creation process than this speaker, who imaginatively fills in the gaps as he creates his own creation myth.

In Genesis, God separates the heavens from the earth. This speaker has God spitting out the seven seas and after clapping His hands, the thunder begins and rain comes down, "cooling waters came down."

Seventh and Eighth Stanzas: Nature Comes into Being

After the rain, grasses appear, and "little red flowers blossomed. "A pine tree "pointed his finger to the sky." This speaker gives specific details again not found in Genesis. He has the oak "spread out his arms."

He has lakes appearing as they "cuddled down in the hollows of the ground." He has rivers running to the ocean, and God smiling as "a rainbow appeared / And curled itself around his shoulder."

In his eighth stanza, the speaker has God creating "Fishes and fowls / And beasts and birds." God creates by raising His arm and waving His hand and commanding, "Bring forth! Bring forth!" Again, God evaluates His creation, declaring, "That's good!"

Ninth and Tenth Stanzas: A Lonely God

The speaker says that God walked about and observed all that He had created. Nevertheless, just as before He created all these things, God again found Himself lonely. Of course, Genesis does not anthropomorphize God; thus, there are no claims in Scripture that God was ever lonely.

In trying to understand the mind of God, the human mind assigns human qualities to the Deity. As long as one realizes the limitation of such assignment, no problem occurs and much understanding can be gained through metaphor and personification.

God then sits down to think about how to assuage His loneliness. Just as a man would do, He sits by a river with His head in His hands, thinking and thinking, and He finally gets the thought to make a man.

Eleventh and Twelfth Stanzas: Bodies of Clay

The speaker now has God create the first human being by "scoop[ing] the clay from the riverbed." He employs the image of a mammy bending over her baby while she kneeled down in the dust working over a lump of clay. God shaped this lump of clay in his own image, as Genesis says, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness."

Finally, God blew the breath of life into the body of the clay God-like image, and "man became a living soul." At this point, the speaker/preacher concludes his drama/sermon with the traditional, "Amen. Amen."

Sources

James Weldon Johnson - Commemorative Stamp

James Weldon Johnson - Commemorative Stamp

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 08, 2021:

Hi, Louise. Nice to hear from you. Thanks for responding.

One of my very favorite American poets, Johnson always offers his best, polished pieces that uplift the heart and mind. His deep insight into human nature and the ability to create entertaining yet spiritual poems render him one of the most important poets of all time. His activism actually offered useful progress in bringing people together.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 08, 2021:

Thank you, OLUSEGUN.

Johnson is a fascinating poet with unique skills and a wholesome, healthy attitude toward life. His affinity for music further enhances his artistic output. HIs works are always inspirational and yes educational.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on April 08, 2021:

Very interesting Linda. I didn't know about this man. Thankyou. =)

OLUSEGUN from NIGERIA on April 08, 2021:

This is educating.

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