When April rolls around, along with National Poetry Month, daily poems fill my inbox–and I realize that it’s a great opportunity to look for a lawyer-poet to celebrate in the blog.
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was a polymath, working in a broad range of fields including poetry and law. After graduating from Atlanta University, he started his career as the principal of Jacksonville’s Stanton School, an African-American primary school that he successfully worked to expand to be the first public high school for African-Americans in Florida (Byrd, p. 3). While working as Stanton’s principal, Johnson studied law. In 1898 he became the first African-American admitted to the Florida bar, post-Reconstruction. Throughout this time, he wrote plays, poems and songs. In 1900, he and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote the work for which Johnson is most famous: “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The song was later made the official hymn of the NAACP in the 1920s, when Johnson was the head of the organization. Written to uplift and celebrate the African-American experience in the style of traditional gospel songs, Johnson’s lyrics have since been re-arranged to be sung and played as an anthem, a spiritual, pop music and jazz.
Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
In 1902, Johnson moved to New York, where he wrote light opera, more poetry, over 200 Tin Pan Alley hits, and formed a musical trio with J. Rosamond Johnson–and Bob Cole called Cole and the Johnson Brothers (Byrd, 4).
Johnson continued to pursue his creative work and enrolled in the Master of Arts program at Columbia University in 1903, while also getting involved in politics. In 1906, he was named consul general of Venezuela by President Roosevelt, and later served as consul in Nicaragua. These positions gave him extra time to write and publish poetry, as well as to work on a novel. In 1912 he anonymously published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. He worked for the NAACP beginning in 1916, focusing on the key issues of racism, lynching, and segregation, until he left his post there as Executive Secretary in 1930 to devote more time to his writing and to teach at Fisk University. In the 1920s, he published the compilations The Book of American Negro Spirituals; The Second Book of Negro Spirituals; and, his best-known poetry work, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. He also reissued The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man under his own name. In the 1930s he was more prolific, producing Black Manhattan (1930), his autobiography Along This Way (1933), and Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day (1935). He was a key member of the Harlem Renaissance and influenced a number of writers in that movement.
Some of Johnson’s earlier poems were written in dialect, similar to the style of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s work (see Johnson’s “Sence You Went Away”). Later he moved away from dialect, but continued to capture the African-American culture of the time in literature and verse. Just as Zora Neale Hurston recorded folktales in the field and later expanded them into her own novels, Johnson collected and preserved spirituals, and created poetry based on his imagination and experiences. His poetry volume, God’s Trombones, comprises seven folk sermons in verse, as Johnson believed they would be expressed by a traditional African-American preacher. The book was tremendously popular, as well as critically acclaimed, and inspired oratory contests in which speakers recited entire poems from memory (Byrd, 145). When Johnson died in an automobile accident in 1938, his funeral was attended by over 2,000 mourners–a testimony to the impact of his work.
Source: The Essential Writings of James Weldon Johnson, edited and with an introduction by Rudolph P. Byrd. New York : The Modern Library, 2008.