African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

James Weldon Johnson: Author Page

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was a prominent civil rights activist, composer, poet, and editor -- one of the leading lights of the African American civil rights movement in the early 20th century and also undoubtedly a highly influential, singular voice in African American literature. 

Johnson is best known for composing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (1899) sometimes referred to as the "Black National Anthem," but he rose to prominence in the literary world as the author of Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), his first collection of poems, Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917), and his edited collection The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922). The first collection gets its title from Johnson's 1913 poem, "Fifty Years," celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation; that poem was originally published in the New York Times. Johnson's Autobbiography of an Ex-Colored Man, published anonymously in 1912, is a powerfully insightful account of the American race formation, focusing on the experiences of a light-skinned Black man with a white father. (Despite what the title indicates, the novel is not, in fact, autobiographical.) 

In 1927, Johnson published another volume of poetry -- in the forms of verse sermons -- called God's Trombones. A digital edition of that book is available here. It contains "The Creation," a poem Johnson had first published in 1920, and which was widely anthologized during the Harlem Renaissance. 

Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida; his mother had migrated from the Bahamas, and had maternal ancestors who had emigrated from Haiti shortly after the Haitian revolution. For his undergraduate degree (1891-1894), Johnson attended Atlanta University, a Historically Black university.In 1897, Johnson passed the bar exam in Florida, becoming the first African American to be admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction. This legal training served Johnson well in his political career: Johnson was appointed to serve as U.S. consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua between 1906 and 1913 (and this experience is reflected in his writing -- several of his poems engage with Latin American issues, and he occasionally includes original translations in his works). Johnson also occupied a position of prominence with the NAACP, serving as its executive director between 1920 and 1930. 

Alongside his careers as a civil rights activist and poet/editor, Johnson also had a brief career as a songwriter. As is well known, Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, moved to New York together in  the mid-1890s, joining a wave of Black migration commonly known as the Great Migration. Together, the Johnson brothers were active songwriters, composing more than 200 songs, many of which were performed on Broadway. By around 1905, Johnson had decided to step away from this lucrative career, perhaps in part because at least some of his and his brother's early success rested on the caricaturing of African American music and folk culture for predominantly white audiences. That said, there are references to music in many of Johnson's writings, including especially Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, where the protagonist is a gifted pianist who has a career playing African American ragtime music for a mix of white and Black audiences. 

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