Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> Titles by James Weldon Johnson >> James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938

Source: From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris Copyright (c) 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938

Johnson, James Weldon (1871-1938), Writer, civil rights leader, diplomat.

To James Weldon Johnson writing was a serious but secondary interest. Johnson's main concern was the NAACP, and he served from 1916 until 1930 as its field secretary. Johnson also had other interests and even a variety of careers.

Born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Fla., he was the principal of a primary school there. He was the founder of The Daily American, the first black daily newsletter, and was admitted to the Florida bar in 1897. Johnson and his brother, Rosamond, wrote successful Broadway musicals; he served as consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua during the administrations of Presidents Roosevelt and Taft. He edited The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) and The Book of American Negro Spirituals (with Rosamond, in 1925), created the seven black sermons in verse that make up God's Trombones (1927), and wrote his autobiography, Along This Way (1933). He also authored The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912). In 1930 Johnson was named the Adam K. Spence Professor of Creative Literature at Fisk University, a position he held until his death in1938.

James Weldon Johnson drew upon both black folklore and his own experiences as a southern black for the subject matter of his writing. Johnson collected spirituals and in God's Trombones clearly suggests southern black church speech through his reproduction of the southern black minister's characteristic rhetorical devices—the repetitions, the alliterations, the pauses, the echoes from the King James Bible, and the folk images. Johnson's ability to create the effect of dialect is one of his greatest skills as an artist.

Johnson's fiction evidences a similar skill. Like earlier black and white southern writers—Cable, Twain, Chesnutt—Johnson dramatized the plight of the mulatto. The central issue confronting the hero of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is his identity in a society where racial caste determines one's identity. In spirit and in form, however, Johnson's work is much closer to Ellison's Invisible Man than it is to anything that preceded it. Ellison's conceit of a narrator who is invisible is a logical extension of Johnson's conceit of a narrator who passes for white. Both chronologically and artistically Johnson stands between earlier writers such as Chesnutt, who were beginning to create a black voice, and later writers, such as Ellison, who fully mastered their instrument.

Ladell Payne
Randolph-Macon College

M. Thomas Inge, Maurice Duke, and Jackson R. Bryer, eds., Black American Writers: Bibliographical Essays, vol. I (1978); Eugene Levy, James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice (1973); W. Augustus Low and Virgil A. Clift, eds., Encyclopedia of Black America (1981).

Titles by James Weldon Johnson available on this site: