James Weldon Johnson: Contribution as American Poet

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      James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) poet certainly deserves a place as a pivotal figure in African American writing at the dawn of the twentieth century. Born and educated in Florida, he was one of the most influential black writers of his day. While practicing Law in Florida (i.e., he was the first black person to be admitted to the Bar during the Civil War). He collaborated with his brother in writing popular songs and spirituals. One of these is “Lift every voice and sing” became known as black anthem. It was reissued in his own name in 1927, the year he published God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in verse and Black Manhattan (1930). It is the black history of New York in poetry.

      Johnson, autobiography Along the Way (1933) tells clearly about his so called political activities as US consul in Nicaragua and Venezuela (1906-1912) and of his vital role in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Other volumes of his poetry are - Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917), St Peter Relates an Incident at the Resurrection Day (1930) and the Selected Poems (1935) - He also edited a pioneering anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922).

      He found inspiration for poetry in African-American spirituals. His poem “O Black and Unknown Bards” (1917) asks: “Heart of what slave poured out such melody, As “Stella Away to Jesus? On its strains, His spirit must have nightly floated free, Though still about his hands he felt his chains.” Of mixed white and black ancestry, Johnson explored the complex issue of race in his fictional work, Autobiography of an ExColored Man (1912), about a mixed - race man who “passes” (is accepted) for white. The book effectively conveys the black American’s concern with issues of identity in America.

     The most powerful poetic realization of the quest, however, was God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927), a series of poems using polyrhythmic cadences, vivid diction and a technique of intensification by repetition. The most powerful prose realization is his Autobiography which was first anonymously published and later, it was reissued in his name at the height of the ‘Harlem Renaissance,’ to become a model for later novelists ranging of from Hurston to Ellison. The narrator, born of a black mother and white father, he saw only twice in his lifetime. The secret is of that it is a ‘colored’. Later in school, the narrator, learned that he was accustomed to be called a ‘nigger’. The narrator is sadly contracted the alien hero. His autobiography is said to be the first of its kind in African-American writings. It captures the inner truths of the black community within its picaresque form.

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