JAMES WELDON JOHNSON

JAMES WELDON JOHNSON

1871-1938

James Weldon Johnson, writer, musician and member of the NAACP, was bom in Jacksonville, Florida. James attended Atlanta University, from which he graduat¬ ed in 1894, before returning to Jacksonville, where he took the position of principal of the Stanton School until 1901.

In that year, he and his talented brother J. Rosamond Johnson moved to New York City, where they became musical collabora¬ tors on songs like “Since You Went Away” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” They wrote for the stage with Robert Cole and saw their pieces performed on Broadway.

All of this was a precursor to Johnson’s involvement in the Harlem Renaissance, which brought elements of black culture to the forefront of American culture. Along with icons Langston Hughes (see no. 64), Marian Anderson (see no. 63), Claude McKay (see no. 47) and others who were writing and performing in Harlem, James Weldon Johnson became a spokesperson for the African-American experience.

He was one of the artists aware of the econom¬ ic and social problems of post-war America at a time when America was celebrating peace with a lot of patriotism. With new pride and articulate voices, the writers of the Renaissance demanded the respect their obvious artistry deserved.

In 1906, Johnson was President Theodore Roosevelt’s choice for US consul in Venezuela, and in 1909 he was transferred to Nicaragua. In 1912, Johnson’s career as an influential novelist began with the publica¬ tion of The Autobiography ofan Ex-Colored Man, in which he detailed the life of a black man passing for white. In 1913, he became editor for the New York Age, and in 1916, began to use his diplomatic experience to help the NAACP. He became the agency’s secretary and oversaw the organization of new branches throughout the nation, while focusing further attention on the powerful James Weldon Johnson. anti-lynching campaign headed by his asso¬ ciate Ida B. Wells-Bamett (see no. 27).

With the dawn of the Harlem Renais¬ sance, which made Harlem, New York, one of the world’s exciting cultural centers of the 1920s and 30s, Johnson published extensive¬ ly. The Book ofAmerican Negro Spirituals was published in 1925, its sequel in 1926, and God’s Trombones, Seven Negro Ser¬ mons in Verse, Black Manhattan and Negro American, What Now? all before 1935.

One of the first African-Americans to use aesthetics to further diplomatic rela¬ tions between races, Johnson was influen¬ tial in inspiring this nation to finally destroy its dividing lines: “The stereotype is that the Negro is nothing more than a beggar at the gate of the nation, waiting to be thrown crumbs of civilization. Through his artistic efforts the Negro is smashing this immemo¬ rial stereotype faster than he has ever done through any other method he has been able to use. He is making it realized that he is the possessor of a wealth of natural endow¬ ments and that he has long been a generous giver to America….”