James Weldon Johnson personifies the definition of a poet who is a spiritual and political leader. Prophetic, inspirational, and rhetorically elegant, Johnson's poetry resonated in American public life. His poem "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (1900), written to celebrate Abraham Lincoln's birth, became popularly known as the "Negro National Hymn." "Fifty Years" (1913) commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation: It looks back to slavery and pronounces the rightful claim of African Americans to American citizenship. Johnson served, as Arna Bontemps wrote, as the "philosophical onlooker" of the harlem renaissance and rooted the younger generation of poets in a collective tradition by including their work in The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), the first anthology of its kind (vii). As both an editor and a poet, Johnsons work marks a transition away from dialect as the primary characteristic of African-American poetry. In the introduction to the anthology that spans work from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Helene Johnson, he calls for a form "that will express the racial spirit" but is "freer and larger than dialect" (41). Johnsons poetry, which draws from dialect and the more typical features of the 19th-century lyric, insists upon both the continuance and transformation of the African-American oral tradition.
Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1894 he graduated from Atlanta University and gave the valedictory speech, "The Destiny of the Human Race." He would go on to become a poet, journalist, translator, musician, diplomat, educator, novelist, and lawyer. His commitment to civil rights links the wide range of his professional callings. In 1901 he was almost lynched in Jacksonville Park and decided to move to New York. He served as the director of the National Association for the Advancement of colored People (NAACP) (1920-30) and enacted many firsts; among them, he was the first African American to be admitted to the Florida bar, and he was New York University's first African-American professor. His dedication and literary vision were recognized with many honors. In 1925 he received the NAACP's Spingarn Medal for God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, a book of poetry that translates folk sermons of black preachers into written form; Johnson also received a 1928 Harmon Award, and in 1929 Johnson was awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to write Black Manhattan, a history of African Americans in New York City.
"O Black and Unknown Bards" (1935) is an ode to the artists who created spirituals and songs during, and despite, slavery. W E. B. DuBois described this body of work as "The Sorrow Songs," in which "the soul of the black slave spoke to men" (204). Emblematic of
Johnson's poetic work, the speaker is an incredulous and admiring envoy, transcribing these oral pieces into written form, carrying the work into the present, and insisting that they are not forgotten. By describing the poets as "bards" and drawing on a repertoire of images and tropes from the romantic tradition, Johnson places these songs in the canons of Western poetry without sacrificing their experiential and historical specificity. "o Black and Unknown Bards" attests to the work's power to transcend time and transform a people. These slave songs "still live" because the poets "sang a race from wood and stone to Christ." Johnsons poetry envisions an emancipated future inspired by the songs that bear witness to and transcend America's enslaved past.
Bontemps, Arna. Introduction to The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, by James Weldon Johnson. 1912. Reprint, New York: Hill and Wang, 1960, pp. v-ix. DuBois, W E. B. "The Sorrow Songs." In The Souls of Black Folk, by DuBois. 1903. Reprint, New York: Penquin Books, 1989, pp. 204-216. Johnson, James Weldon. The Book of American Negro Poetry.
Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt Brace, 1922. Wilson, Sondra Kathryn. "James Weldon Johnson." Crisis (January 1989): 48-71, 117, 118.
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