"And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I'm lonely--
I'll make me a world."
(from "The Creation"; James Weldon Johnson)

Born: 1871; Jacksonville, Florida

James Weldon Johnson's poetry and music typically had a strongly religious theme, and he is perhaps best known for having written what was to become the "Negro National Anthem", "Lift Every Voice and Sing", in 1900 for the occasion of Abraham Lincoln's birthday. He tended to use the vernacular to present his poems and writings with a sort of familiar simplicity. He also achieved some degree of fame when collaborating with his brother, a composer, on songwriting for Broadway musicals, as well as in writing (under a pseudonym) the novel The Aubobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which told the story of a musician who had lost contact with his native roots in order to live a life of comfort and materialism in the white world.

Johnson is now considered to be one of the more influential literary contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, especially in the religious sector, as he was the basis from which many others during the period gained their inspiration.

James Weldon Johnson

Composer, Poet, Novelist, Teacher, Diplomat, Leader
  • Born June 17th, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida.
  • Son of James and Helen Johnson, both of Bahamaian extraction. Ms. Johnson was the first black female public school teacher in Florida.
  • Spent two summers teaching poor black chidren in rural Georgia en route to earning an A.B. from Atlanta University in 1894. Himself the child of educated and relatively prosperous immigrants, these two baking red clay seasons under Georgia's summer sun may have been the first time Johnson's nose was rubbed in the reeking underbelly of the Jim Crow south.
  • As the 19th century wound to a close, Johnson served as a school principal, edited a newspaper, and became the first black person to pass the bar exam in Florida.
  • Forming a musical partnership with his brother John Rosamond Johnson and with Bob Cole, Johnson was by 1902 living in Harlem and making formative contributions to the music, poetry, and spirit of the Harlem Renaissance. It can be said that the work of Cole, Johnson, and Johnson was a footing in the foundations of jazz.
  • Going on to serve as diplomatic consul, Johnson, during seven years in South America, wrote much of the poetry he later published and finished a novel, "The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man." Published under a pseudonym, the book was not an autobiography but a vehicle for discussing the black dilemma in early 20th century America.
  • In 1916, his collection Fifty Years and Other Poems was released, the title work having been well received when it first appeared in the New York Times three years previously.
  • From 1916 until 1930, Johnson channeled his talents into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: the still-nascent NAACP. Beginning as a field organizer, by 1920 he was elevated to General Secretary, where he gave his sixth decade to a nation he would never see-- to a future America he dreamed would someday be free from segregation's feral, blank-eyed tyranny.
  • Though his civil rights work kept him very busy during this period, Johnson still found time to compile and publish three very important anthologies, and to set in verse seven classic 19th century sermons:
    The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922)
    The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925)
    The Second Book of Negro Spirituals (1926)
    God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927)
    Each of these works is a priceless archive from a cultural heritage we might otherwise have lost completely. Though Johnson was firmly agnostic, his treatment of these treasures from our spiritual tradition conspicuously lacks the self-conscious disdain that mars so many modern anthologies.
  • After retiring from the NAACP, Johnson added three more works to the end of his bookshelf:
    Black Manhattan (1930); a history of black life in New York
    Along This Way (1933); his true autobiography
    Negro Americans, What Now? (1934); an argument for racial integration
  • Johnson was killed when a train struck his car on June 26th, 1938, nine days after his 67th birthday.

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