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

Robert Kerlin, Chapter 2.3 "A Group of Singing Johnsons" (James W. Johnson, Fenton Johnson, Adolphus Johnson, Charles B. Johnson)


In all rosters the name Johnson claims liberal space. Five verse-smiths
with that cognomen will be presented in this book, and there is a sixth.
These many Johnsons are no further related to one another, so far as I
know, than that they are all Adam’s offspring, and poets. Only three of
them will be presented in this chapter: James Weldon Johnson, of
Florida, author of _Fifty Years and Other Poems_ (1917); Charles Bertram
Johnson, of Missouri, author of _Songs of My People_ (1918); Fenton
Johnson, of Chicago, author of _A Little Dreaming_ (1914); _Unions of
the Dusk_ (1915), and _Songs of the Soil_ (1916). The fourth and fifth
are women, and will find a place in another group; the sixth is Adolphus
Johnson, author of _The Silver Chord_, Philadelphia, 1915. The three
mentioned above will be treated in the order in which they have been

_1. James Weldon Johnson_

Now of New York, but born in Florida and reared in the South, James
Weldon Johnson is a man of various abilities, accomplishments, and
activities. He was graduated with the degrees of A. B. and A. M. from
Atlanta University and later studied for three years in Columbia
University. First a school-principal, then a practitioner of the law, he
followed at last the strongest propensity and turned author. His
literary work includes light operas, for which his brother, J. Rosamond
Johnson, composed the music, and a novel entitled _The Autobiography of
an Ex-Colored Man_. Having been United States consul in two
Latin-American countries, he is a master of Spanish and has made
translations of Spanish plays and poems. The English libretto of
_Goyescas_ was made by him for the Metropolitan Opera Company in 1915.
He is also one of the ablest editorial writers in the country. In the
_Public Ledger’s_ contest of 1916 he won the third prize. His editorials
are widely syndicated in the Negro weekly press. Poems of his have
appeared in _The Century_, _The Crisis_, and _The Independent_.


Professor Brander Matthews in his Introduction to _Fifty Years and Other
Poems_ speaks of “the superb and soaring stanzas” of the title-poem and
describes it as “a poem sonorous in its diction, vigorous in its
workmanship, elevated in its imagination, and sincere in its emotion.”
Doubtless this will seem like the language of exaggeration. The sceptic,
however, must withhold judgment until he has read the poem, too long for
presentation here. Mr. Johnson’s poetical qualities can be represented
in this place only by briefer though inferior productions. A poem of
special significance, and characterized by the qualities noted by
Professor Matthews in “Fifty Years,” is the following:


    O Southland! O Southland!
      Have you not heard the call,
    The trumpet blown, the word made known
      To the nations, one and all?
    The watchword, the hope-word,
      Salvation’s present plan?
    A gospel new, for all--for you:
      Man shall be saved by man.

    O Southland! O Southland!
      Do you not hear to-day
    The mighty beat of onward feet,
      And know you not their way?
    ’Tis forward, ’tis upward,
      On to the fair white arch
    Of Freedom’s dome, and there is room
      For each man who would march.

    O Southland, fair Southland!
      Then why do you still cling
    To an idle age and a musty page,
      To a dead and useless thing?
    ’Tis springtime! ’Tis work-time!
      The world is young again!
    And God’s above, and God is love,
      And men are only men.

    O Southland! my Southland!
      O birthland! do not shirk
    The toilsome task, nor respite ask,
      But gird you for the work.
    Remember, remember
      That weakness stalks in pride;
    That he is strong who helps along
      The faint one at his side.

For pure lyric beauty and exquisite pathos, Wordsworthian in both
respects, but no hint of imitation, the following stanzas may be set,
without disadvantage to them, by the side of any in our literature:

    The glory of the day was in her face,
    The beauty of the night was in her eyes,
    And over all her loveliness, the grace
    Of Morning blushing in the early skies.

    And in her voice, the calling of the dove;
    Like music of a sweet, melodious part.
    And in her smile, the breaking light of love;
    And all the gentle virtues in her heart.

    And now the glorious day, the beauteous night,
    The birds that signal to their mates at dawn,
    To my dull ears, to my tear-blinded sight
    Are one with all the dead, since she is gone.

Yet one other poem of this fine singer’s I will give, selecting from not
a few that press for the restricted space. The easy flow of the verse
and the ready rhyme will be remarked--and that supreme quality of good
lyric poetry, austere simplicity.


    Mother, shed no mournful tears,
    But gird me on my sword;
    And give no utterance to thy fears,
    But bless me with thy word.

    The lines are drawn! The fight is on!
    A cause is to be won!
    Mother, look not so white and wan;
    Give Godspeed to thy son.

    Now let thine eyes my way pursue
    Where’er my footsteps fare;
    And when they lead beyond thy view,
    Send after me a prayer.

    But pray not to defend from harm,
    Nor danger to dispel;
    Pray, rather, that with steadfast arm
    I fight the battle well.

    Pray, mother of mine, that I always keep
    My heart and purpose strong,
    My sword unsullied and ready to leap
    Unsheathed against the wrong.

Arduous labors in other fields than poetry threaten to silence Mr.
Johnson’s muse, and that is to be regretted.

2. _Charles Bertram Johnson_

School-teacher, preacher, poet--this is Charles Bertram Johnson of
Missouri. And in Missouri there is no voice more tuneful, no artistry in
song any finer, than his. Nor in so bold an assertion am I forgetting
the sweet voice and exquisite artistry of Sarah Teasdale. Mr. Johnson’s
art is not unlike hers in all that makes hers most charming. Only there
is not so much of his that attains to perfection of form. On pages 52
and 63 were given two of his quatrain poems. These were of his people.
But a lyric poet should sing himself. That is of the essence of lyric
poetry. In so singing, however, the poet reveals not only his individual
life, but that of his race to the view of the world. Another quatrain
poem, personal in form, may be accepted as of racial interpretation:



    So oft from out the verge afar
      The dear dreams throng and throng,
    Sometimes I think my soul a star,
      And life a puls├ęd song.

Born at Callao, Missouri, October 5, 1880, of a Kentucky mother and a
Virginia father, Charles Bertram Johnson attended a one-room school
“across the railroad track,” where--who can explain this?--he was
“Introduced to Bacon, Shakespeare, and the art of rhyming.” It reads
like an old story. Some freak of a schoolmaster whose head is filled
with “useless” lore--poetry, tales, and “such stuff”--nurturing a child
of genius into song. But it was Johnson’s mother who was the great
influence in his life. She was an “adept at rhyming” and “she initiated
me into the world of color and melody”--so writes our poet. It is always
the mother. Then, by chance--but how marvelously chance comes to the aid
of the predestined!--by chance, he learns of Dunbar and his poetry. The
ambition to be a poet of his people like Dunbar possesses him. He knows
the path to that goal is education. He therefore makes his way to a
little college at Macon, Missouri, from which, after five years, he is
graduated--without having received any help in the art of poetry,
however. Two terms at a summer school and special instruction by
correspondence seem to have aided him here, or to have induced the
belief that he had been aided. For twenty-odd years he followed the
profession of teaching. For ten years of that period he also preached.
The ministry now claims his entire energies, and the muse knocks less
and less frequently at his door.

Yet he still sings. In a recent number of _The Crisis_ I find a poem of
his that in suggesting a life of toil growing to a peaceful close is
filled with soothing melody:


    Sit here before my grate,
      Until it’s ashen gray,
    Or till the night grows late,
      And talk the time away.

    I cannot think to sleep,
      And miss your golden speech,
    My bed of dreams will keep--
      You here within my reach.

    I have so much to say,
      The time is short at best,
    A bit of toil and play,
      And after that comes rest.

    But you and I know now
      The wisdom of the soul,
    The years that seamed the brow
      Have made our visions whole.

    Sit here before my grate
      Until the ash is cold;
    The things you say of late
      Are fine as shriven gold.

Even though one be born to sing, if circumstances have made him a
preacher he may be expected to moralize his song. Whether we shall be
reconciled to this will depend on the art with which it is done. If the
moral idea be a sweet human one, and if the verse still be melifluous,
we will submit, and our delight will be twofold--ethical and esthetical.
We will put our preacher-poet of Missouri to the test:


    So much of love I need,
      And tender passioned care,
    Of human fault and greed
      To make me unaware:

    So much of love I owe,
      That, ere my life be done,
    How shall I keep His will
      To owe not any one?

Truth is, Mr. Johnson is not given to preaching in verse any more than
other poets. His sole aim is beauty. He assures me it is truth. Instead
of admitting disagreement I only assert that, being a poet, he must find
all truth beautiful. It is only for relative thinking we need the three
terms, truth, goodness, and beauty.

I will conclude this presentation of the Missouri singer with a lyrical


    Chill the rain falls, chill!
    Dull gray the world; the vale
    Rain-swept; wind-swept the hill;
    “But gloom and doubt prevail,”
    My heart breaks forth to say.

    Ere thus its sorrow-note,
    “Cheer up! Cheer up, to-day!
    To-morrow is to be!”
    Babbled from a joyous throat,
    A robin’s in a mist-gray tree.

    Then off to keep a tryst--
    He preened his drabbled cloak--
    Doughty little optimist!--
    As if in answer, broke
    The sunlight through that oak.

_3. Fenton Johnson_

Dreams and visions--such are the treasures of suffering loyal hearts:
dreams, visions, and song. Happy even in their sorrows the people to
whom God has given poets to be their spokesmen to the world. Else their
hearts should stifle with woe. As the prophet was of old so in these
times the poet. As a prophet speaks Fenton Johnson, his heart yearning
toward the black folk of our land:


    These are my people, I have built for them
    A castle in the cloister of my heart;
    And I shall fight that they may dwell therein.
    The God that gave Sojourner tongue of fire
    Has made with me a righteous covenant
    That these, my brothers of the dusk, shall rise
    To Sinai and thence in purple walk
    A newer Canaan, vineyards of the West.
    The rods that chasten us shall break as straw
    And fire consume the godless in the South;
    The hand that struck the helpless of my race
    Shall wither as a leaf in drear November,
    And liberty, the nectar God has blest,
    Shall flow as free as wine in Babylon.
    O God of Covenants, forget us not!

Fenton Johnson seems to be more deeply rooted in the song-traditions of
his people than are most of his fellow-poets. To him the classic
Spirituals afford inspiration and pattern. Whoever is familiar with
those “canticles of love and woe” will recognize their influence
throughout Mr. Johnson’s three volumes of song. I shall make no attempt
here to illustrate this truth but shall rather select a piece or two
that will represent the poet’s general qualities. Other poems more
typical of him as a melodist could be found but these have special
traits that commend them for this place.


    Mother, must I work all day?
    All the day? Ay, all the day?
    Must my little hands be torn?
    And my heart bleed, all forlorn?
    I am but a child of five,
    And the street is all alive
    With the tops and balls and toys,--
    Pretty tops and balls and toys.

    Day in, day out, I toil--toil!
    And all that I know is toil;
    Never laugh as others do,
    Never cry as others do,
    Never see the stars at night,
    Nor the golden glow of sunlight,--
    And all for but a silver coin,--
    Just a worthless silver coin.

    Would that death might come to me!
    That blessed death might come to me,
    And lead me to waters cool,
    Lying in a tranquil pool,
    Up there where the angels sing,
    And the ivy tendrils cling
    To the land of play and song,--
    Fairy land of play and song.


    Die, you vain but sweet desires!
      Die, you living, burning fires!
    I am like a Prince of France,--
      Like a prince whose noble sires
    Have been robbed of heritage;
      I am phantom derelict,
    Drifting on a flaming sea.

    Everywhere I go, I strive,
      Vainly strive for greater things;
    Daisies die, and stars are cold,
      And canary never sings;
    Where I go they mock my name,
      Never grant me liberty,
    Chance to breathe and chance to do.

_The Vision of Lazarus_, contained in _A Little Dreaming_, is a
blank-verse poem of about three-hundred lines, original, well-sustained,
imaginative, and deeply impressive.

In one of the newer methods of verse, and yet with a splendid suggestion
of the old Spirituals, I will take from a recent magazine a poem by Mr.
Johnson that will show how the vision of his people is turned toward the
future, from the welter of struggling forces in the World War:


    From a vision red with war I awoke and saw the Prince
         of Peace hovering over No Man’s Land.
    Loud the whistles blew and thunder of cannon was drowned
         by the happy shouting of the people.
    From the Sinai that faces Armageddon I heard this chant
         from the throats of white-robed angels:

      Blow your trumpets, little children!
      From the East and from the West,
      From the cities in the valley,
      From God’s dwelling on the mountain,
      Blow your blast that Peace might know
      She is Queen of God’s great army.
      With the crying blood of millions
      We have written deep her name
      In the Book of all the Ages;
      With the lilies in the valley,
      With the roses by the Mersey,
      With the golden flower of Jersey,
      We have crowned her smooth young temples.
      Where her footsteps cease to falter
      Golden grain will greet the morning,
      Where her chariot descends
      Shall be broken down the altar
      Of the gods of dark disturbance.
      Nevermore shall men know suffering,
      Nevermore shall women wailing
      Shake to grief the God of Heaven.
      From the East and from the West,
      From the cities in the valley,
      From God’s dwelling on the mountain,
      Little children, blow your trumpets!

    From Ethiopia, groaning ’neath her heavy burdens I
         heard the music of the old slave songs.
    I heard the wail of warriors, dusk brown, who grimly
         fought the fight of others in the trenches of Mars.
    I heard the plea of blood-stained men of dusk and
         the crimson in my veins leapt furiously:

      Forget not, O my brothers, how we fought
      In No Man’s Land that peace might come again!
      Forget not, O my brothers, how we gave
      Red blood to save the freedom of the world!
      We were not free, our tawny hands were tied;
      But Belgium’s plight and Serbia’s woes we shared
      Each rise of sun or setting of the moon.
      So when the bugle blast had called us forth
      We went not like the surly brute of yore,
      But, as the Spartan, proud to give the world
      The freedom that we never knew nor shared.
      These chains, O brothers mine, have weighed us down
      As Samson in the temple of the gods;
      Unloosen them and let us breathe the air
      That makes the goldenrod the flower of Christ;
      For we have been with thee in No Man’s Land,
      Through lake of fire and down to Hell itself;
      And now we ask of thee our liberty,
      Our freedom in the land of Stars and Stripes.

      I am glad that the Prince of Peace is hovering over No Man’s Land.

4. _Adolphus Johnson_

From the _Preface_ of Adolphus Johnson’s _The Silver Chord_ I will take
a paragraph that is more poetic and perfect in expression than any
stanza in his book. Poetry, I think, is in him, but when he wrote these
rhymes he was not yet sufficiently disciplined in expression. But this
is how he can say a thing in prose:

“As the Goddess of Music takes down her lute, touches its silver chords,
and sets the summer melodies of nature to words, so an inspiration
comes to me in my profoundest slumbers and gently awakens my highest
faculties to the finest thought and serenest contemplation herein
expressed. Always remember that a book is your best friend when it
compels you to think, disenthralls your reason, enkindles your hopes,
vivifies your imagination, and makes easier all the burdens of your
daily life.”

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