“There are a great many colored people who are ashamed of the cake-walk, but I think they ought to be proud of it.” — James Weldon Johnson

“Nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art.” – James Weldon Johnson, preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922)

It’s his birthday today.

An extremely important figure in 20th century American culture, James Weldon Johnson was born in 1871 and died in 1938. He is often lumped in with the Harlem Renaissance, but he was a little bit older than that generation. His work was not really a precursor; seen in the timeline of events, it’s almost like he was “preparing the space,” he was enlarging the room to include more voices. Those clamorous years of the ‘teens and 1920s were so jam-packed with events it’s hard to tell who was influencing whom, and what came first, but seen with the benefit of retrospect, Johnson’s work was essential to basically laying down the ground rules of the Harlem Renaissance. Things were already happening, things were changing, but his project – to codify, catalog, capture, explain – was very important, because it set the stage, it gathered together voices that had been ignored and dismissed, especially from “genres” like hymns and sermons, not considered literature. Someone had to make the case for the material’s relevance and worth. This was what James Weldon Johnson did.

He did it all. He was a teacher, a civil rights activist, a diplomat, a lawyer, a poet, an editor. He served as secretary for the NAACP. He was the first African-American to be accepted into the Florida bar. He eventually became the first African-American professor at New York University. He also taught at Fisk University, lecturing on literature and art. He grew up with formidable parents, particularly his mother, who was a teacher in a public school and passed on to her two sons a love of education, language, and English literature. Just as Jean Toomer did, he spent time as a teacher in rural Georgia, a crucial experience for him, witnessing the poverty, illiteracy, racism of a backwoods world. He was responsible for extending the education in black schools in the area to the 10th grade, so that kids had options, a place to stay where learning could conceivably continue. He also traveled to Haiti, under occupation by U.S. Marines at the time, and wrote a book about it. He was appointed consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. It’s about 10 lives in one! I haven’t mentioned his collaboration with his composer brother, J. Rosamond Johnson!

The Johnson brothers moved to New York together and began writing songs, James Weldon writing the lyrics, J. Rosamond writing the music. They were very successful, writing some hit stand-alone songs, and also composing the music for Broadway musicals and an opera. One of the shows they worked on was called Sally In My Alley (1902), and one of the songs – “Under the Bamboo Tree” – ended up being featured in Meet Me in St. Louis, 40 years later.

Around this same time, Johnson wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” his most famous poem. He described the genesis of the poem, and its legacy:

A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.

Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.

The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written in 1899. Johnson lived about 10 lifetimes after that. In the early teens he wrote The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. It was about a man who decides to try to pass as white, after witnessing all the horrors of life in the South during the Reconstruction era. The main character ends up composing ragtime music, feeling like he has betrayed his race. Johnson was hesitant about how the book would be received – he was a diplomat at the time, working in the employ of the U.S. government, and didn’t want any negativity to impact his career. He published it anonymously. Eventually he did admit to being the author.

He published his first poetry collection in 1917. He was inspired by the Irish Literary Renaissance in this regard, headed up by Yeats, Lady Gregory, etc. He wanted a similar movement for African-American writers. His poem “O black and unknown bards” celebrates those who – in their sermons, hymns, prayers – created the rich tradition of black vernacular, anonymously.

O Black and Unknown Bards

O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel’s lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?

Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As “Steal away to Jesus”? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
Who heard great “Jordan roll”? Whose starward eye
Saw chariot “swing low”? And who was he
That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,
“Nobody knows de trouble I see”?

What merely living clod, what captive thing,
Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,
And find within its deadened heart to sing
These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?
How did it catch that subtle undertone,
That note in music heard not with the ears?
How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,
Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears.

Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than “Go down, Moses.” Mark its bars
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young.

There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and servile toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You—you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who’ve sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.

You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings;
No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean
Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings
You touched in chord with music empyrean.
You sang far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners’ hungry hearts sufficed
Still live,—but more than this to you belongs:
You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.

Johnson then put together the first anthology of African-American verse, published in 1922, a huge year for 20th century literature – really, one could say the birth of it: T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was published, James Joyce’s Ulysses was published and caused a worldwide uproar, Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows was published. Across the world, legendary Russian poet Anna Akhmatova published a collection of poetry – her final one before decades of persecution and silencing. In 1922, post-World-War I, post Spanish influenza pandemic, the destroyed world brought forth new energies and anxieties. A breaking free from the Victorian/Edwardian/ancien regime/fin de siecle generation. Something was happening, old hierarchies cracking apart. James Weldon Johnson’s The Book of American Negro Poetry was a breakthrough, the first of its kind. 1922 was that kind of year.

Included in the book were poems by Paul Lawrence Dunbar (post here), W.E.B. Du Bois, Jessie Fauset (post here), Claude McKay (post here), and others.

James Weldon Johnson’s life was tragically cut short when his car was hit by a train.


James Weldon Johnson:

An error that confuses many persons in reading or understanding Negro dialect is the idea that it is uniform. An ignorant Negro of the uplands of Georgia would have almost as much difficulty in understanding an ignorant sea island Negro as an Englishman would have.

James Weldon Johnson, preface to first edition of The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922):

What the colored poet in the United States needs to do is something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without, such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation. He needs a form that is freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations, and allow of the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment.

James Weldon Johnson, preface to God’s Trombones, describing his experience listening to a sidewalk preacher:

He brought into play the full gamut of his wonderful voice–what shall I say?– not of an organ, or a trumpet, but rather of a trombone, the instrument possessing above all others the power to express the wide and varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice–and with greater amplitude. He intoned, he moaned, he pleaded–he blared, he crashed, he thundered. I sat fascinated; and, more, I was, perhaps against my will, deeply moved; the emotional effect on me was irresistible. Before he had finished I took a slip of paper and somewhat surreptitiously jotted down some ideas for the first poem, “A Creation.”.. [Preachers are] saturated with the sublime phraseology of the Hebrew prophets and steeped in the idioms of King James English … and Negro idioms…The old-time Negro preacher knew the secret of oratory, that at bottom it is a progression of rhythmic words more than it is anything else. Indeed, I have witnessed congregations moved to ecstasy by the rhythmic intoning of sheer incoherencies… It was from memories of such preachers there grew the idea of this book of poems.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

Wary of degrading stereotypes in much dialect poetry, Johnson preferred a hybrid language made out of a Standard English lexicon syncopated with African American speech rhythms. He grafted various features of the African American sermon–anaphora, climactic momentum, cosumic space (Earth, sun, moon, stars), startling comparisons (God as “a mammy bending over her baby”), and colloquial refrains (“That’s good!”)–onto free verse paragraphs derived from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

James Weldon Johnson, on Claude McKay:

Claude McKay, although still quite a young man, has already demonstrated his power, breadth and skill as a poet. Mr. McKay’s breadth is as essential a part of his equipment as his power and skill. He demonstrates mastery of the three when as a Negro poet he pours out the bitterness and rebellion in his heart in those two sonnet-tragedies, “If We Must Die” and “To the White Fiends,” in a manner that strikes terror; and when as a cosmic poet he creates the atmosphere and mood of poetic beauty in the absolute, as he does in “Spring in New Hampshire” and “The Harlem Dancer.” Mr. McKay gives evidence that he has passed beyond the danger which threatens many of the new Negro poets–the danger of allowing the purely polemical phases of the race problem to choke their sense of artistry.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

By bringing the African American sermon into literary verse, Johnson did for it what Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown would do for jazz and the blues. Given that Johnson was an agnostic, his success in adapting a religious form is all the more remarkable.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

In 1900 he wrote the lyrics for “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song the NAACP would later adopt as the Negro National Anthem.

Eugenia W. Collier, 1960:

“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.”

James Weldon Johnson:

“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.”

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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4 Responses to “There are a great many colored people who are ashamed of the cake-walk, but I think they ought to be proud of it.” — James Weldon Johnson

  1. Melissa Sutherland says:

    I found that film clip of Al Green et al. recently. I was searching for the hymn after hearing it during the June 7 service at the National Cathedral. I’ve been following their service on Sundays. The music is excellent and so is the preaching.

    That short film clip is so stirring. Imagine Roberta Flack singing backup for anybody! And Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were there, too. I’m so glad you brought it here for many to see. Thank you.

    • sheila says:

      Melissa – // I was searching for the hymn after hearing it during the June 7 service at the National Cathedral. //

      Oh wow, that’s so cool!

      and I agree – tripping over that clip was just amazing, and very educational.

  2. Bryan says:

    Beautiful tribute, Sheila.

    I find it fascinating that Johnson took inspiration from Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Synge. It has been ages since I read Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” but I remember being struck by the allusions to Joyce’s “Portrait” and the parallels that he drew between African-American and Irish experience. At the time I more or less assumed that these ideas were original to Ellison, but now I am curious about the extent to which Johnson may have been inspiration.

    I will definitely have to learn more about Johnson now.

    • sheila says:

      Bryan – thank you!

      Yes, there was a lot of connection between the Irish Renaissance and other oppressed groups – since the Irish Renaissance came out of resistance to what we’d call colonialism and all its violence – the stamping out of a language and cultural confidence. Yeats and Lady Gregory made a concerted effort to counter-act that – Irish art for Irish people. So it definitely inspired the community of Americans who felt similarly about their own squashed culture and voices. And Joyce was a huge deal – mainly because his whole thing was “screw the 19th century forms – we need a new universal language.” That’s what Finnegans Wake was all about! But Portrait and Ulysses was also part of that. I think his example also gave confidence to other writers of other cultures who were looking for a way out of forms that didn’t include them. This is a generalization – obviously – but yeah, there’s a lot of connection. I’m sure there have been scholarly papers on this! But this is the general idea of what was going on. It’s so fascinating!!

      Thanks so much for reading and for such a thoughtful comment.

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