Authors: James Weldon Johnson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet and novelist

Identity: African American

Author Works

Poetry:

Fifty Years, and Other Poems, 1917

God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, 1927

Saint Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems, 1935

Long Fiction:

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, 1912

Nonfiction:

Black Manhattan, 1930

Along This Way, 1933 (autobiography)

Negro Americans, What Now?, 1934

The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson, 1995 (2 volumes; Sondra Kathryn Wilson, editor)

Translation:

The English Libretto of “Goyescas,” 1915

Edited Texts:

The Book of American Negro Poetry, 1922

The Book of American Negro Spirituals, 1925

The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals, 1926

Biography

The poet, songwriter, novelist, teacher, administrator, social critic, and diplomat James Weldon Johnson deserved the title “renaissance man” often applied to him. His mother, Helen Dillet Johnson, was born in Nassau, in the Bahamas, and grew up in New York City; his father, James Johnson, was born a free man in Richmond, Virginia, and lived for a time in New York, where he met Helen Dillet, and in Nassau, where the couple married. The Johnson family moved from Nassau to escape a depressed economy and prospered in Jacksonville, where Johnson’s mother worked as an elementary-school teacher and his father worked as the headwaiter at a fashionable hotel. Johnson grew up in a cosmopolitan home which offered the boy emotional, physical, and financial security. His father, who taught him Spanish, stimulated Johnson’s interest in languages and developed his sense of tact; his mother, an amateur singer and poet, inspired his interest in music and poetry.{$I[AN]9810001060}{$I[A]Johnson, James Weldon}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Johnson, James Weldon}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Johnson, James Weldon}{$I[tim]1871;Johnson, James Weldon}

James Weldon Johnson

(Library of Congress)

Johnson attended Atlanta University, a school founded and run by Yale University graduates. Johnson’s Yale-influenced higher education reflected late nineteenth century New England attitudes. He never lost the belief that high culture could have a morally elevating effect, and he also believed that racial integration would start with those who shared a love and appreciation of the best in art and literature. Upon graduating from Atlanta University in 1894, Johnson taught at Stanton School (his elementary alma mater) and one year later became its principal. In his spare time he wrote poetry, composed song lyrics, and read law; he was admitted to the Florida bar after passing an unusually stringent oral examination by an all-white panel. He spent summers in New York City composing popular songs with his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, who had become a vaudeville sensation in partnership with the singer-dancer Bob Cole. For a Stanton School graduation exercise the Johnson brothers composed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song so enduringly popular in black communities that it became known as the “Negro national anthem.”

At the turn of the century Johnson read Walt Whitman for the first time and began rethinking his approach to Negro dialect poetry. He also became dissatisfied with the conventional rhymed poetry he had been writing. Johnson discussed his ideas with Paul Laurence Dunbar during the spring of 1901, when Dunbar spent six weeks in Johnson’s home. Dunbar agreed with Johnson that the idiomatic voice of black Americans should be heard in literature.

At the end of the summer of 1901 Johnson decided to remain in New York and become the lyricist for the Cole-Johnson partnership. The resulting songwriting team became internationally famous, but Johnson remained dissatisfied with the nature of the writing he was doing. His opportunity to pursue his own writing came after he helped Charles W. Anderson, an influential black Republican, organize and run a Harlem Republican club. At Anderson’s suggestion, and as a result of Anderson’s influence, Johnson was invited to apply to the newly reorganized consular service, and he was appointed United States Consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in 1906. In 1909 he was transferred to the consulship in Corinto, Nicaragua; he resigned in 1913, after realizing that Republicans would not be promoted in the Woodrow Wilson Administration. During his consular years he was able to complete his only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, which was published anonymously in 1912.

After Johnson left the diplomatic service, Joel Spingarn and W. E. B. Du Bois (who had taught at Atlanta University) persuaded him to become field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); from 1917 to 1931 he was executive secretary (chief administrative officer). The period between 1914 and 1931 was his most active and creative in several fields: He translated the Spanish opera Goyescas; he helped the NAACP expand from sixty-eight to more than three hundred branches; and he campaigned for such causes as Haiti’s independence.

Johnson’s first poetry collection, Fifty Years, and Other Poems, was published in 1917, but he was not satisfied with it. In 1918, at a church gathering where he spoke for the NAACP, he heard a powerful sermon that began with the creation of the world. Johnson’s notes on that occasion eventually became “The Creation,” the first poem in God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. This work was not published, however, until after Johnson had edited three anthologies of poetry and spirituals.

In 1931 Johnson resigned from his NAACP post to be appointed to the Adam K. Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Fisk University, a post he still held when he died in an automobile accident in 1938, while traveling to his summer home in Maine. During his lifetime, he was known primarily as a poet and social critic, but in the 1960’s and 1970’s attention focused increasingly on his novel.

BibliographyBronz, Stephen A. Roots of Negro Racial Consciousness: The 1920’s, Three Harlem Renaissance Authors. New York: Libra, 1964. A discussion of Johnson’s influence on black attitudes of the 1960’s. Also discusses Countee Cullen and Claude McKay. Includes a bibliography.Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary Tradition, 1877-1915. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989. Johnson is placed in the general context of the history and criticism of American and African American literature.Fleming, Robert E. James Weldon Johnson. Boston: Twayne, 1987. An excellent literary biography.Fleming, Robert E. James Weldon Johnson and Arna Bontemps: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. An extensive and useful bibliography.Levy, Eugene. James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. Provides sociological and historical emphasis.Price, Kenneth M., and Lawrence J. Oliver, eds. Critical Essays on James Weldon Johnson. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997. Provides criticism and interpretation of Johnson. Addresses his intellectual place in American letters and the Harlem Renaissance.Stepto, Robert B. Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. A good general study of the history of African American literature, of which Johnson is a big part.Wilson, Sondra K., ed. In Search of Democracy: The NAACP Writings of James Weldon Johnson, Walter White, and Roy Wilkins, 1920-1977. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Provides insight into the history of the NAACP and perspectives from these men on African American history, race relations, and civil rights. Includes a bibliography and index.
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