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The folk creations of the Negro  . . .are no longer racial; they are national;

they have become a part of our common cultural fund.



 Books by James Weldon Johnson

Lift Every Voice and Sing  /  The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man   / God’s Trombones / Black Manhattan / Along This Way

The Creation / The Books of the American Negro Spirituals.  

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Race Prejudice and the Negro Artist

By James Weldon Johnson


In the atmosphere of nativism and xenophobia that followed the war, it was perhaps not surprising that the American Negro continued to be victimized by the social, political, and economic exclusion that had increasingly been his lot since the end of Reconstruction.  The Negro was savagely persecuted in the 1920s and the prosperity of the period passed him by.  Nonetheless, Negroes, began to make their presence felt in the cultural life of the nation:  in literature, drama, and the concert stage.  James Weldon Johnson, poet, professor, and secretary from 1916 to 1930 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, argued, in an article that is reprinted here in part, that this renaissance had softened the prejudice that many Americans felt toward Negroes.


What Americans call the Negro problem is almost as old as America itself.  For three centuries the Negro in this country has been tagged with an interrogation point; the question propounded, however, has not always been the same.  Indeed, the question has run all the way from whether or not the Negro was a human being, down—or up—to whether or not the Negro shall be accorded full and unlimited American citizenship.  Therefore, the Negro problem is not a problem in the sense of being a fixed  proposition involving certain invariable factors and waiting to be worked out according to certain defined rules.

It is not a static condition; rather, it is and always has been a series of shifting interracial situations, never precisely the same in any two generations.  As these situations have shifted, the methods and manners of dealing with them have constantly changed.  And never has there been such a swift and vital shift as the one which is taking place at the present moment; and never was there a more revolutionary change in attitudes than the one which is now going on.

The question of the races—white and black—has occupied much of America’s time and thought.  Many methods for a solution of the problem have been tried—most of them tried on the Negro, for one of the mistakes commonly made in dealing with this matter has been the failure of white America to take into account the Negro himself and the forces he was generating and sending out.  The question repeated generation after generation has been:  what shall we do with the Negro?—ignoring completely the power of the Negro to do something for himself, and even something to America.

It is a new thought that the Negro has helped to shape and mold and make America.  It is, perhaps, a startling thought that America would not be precisely the America it is today except for the powerful, if silent, influence the Negro has exerted upon it—both positively and negatively.  It is a certainty that the nation would be shocked by a contemplation of the effects which have been wrought upon its inherent character by the negative power which the Negro has involuntarily and unwittingly wielded.

A number of approaches to the heart of the race problem have been tried:  religious, educational, political, industrial, ethical, economic, sociological.  Along several of these approaches considerable progress has been made.  Today a newer approach is being tried, an approach which discards most of the older methods.  It requires a minimum of pleas, or propaganda, or philanthropy.  It depends more upon what someone does for him.  It is the approach along the line of intellectual and artistic achievement by Negroes and may be called the art approach to the Negro problem.  

This method of approaching a solution of the race question has the advantage of affording great and rapid progress with least friction and of providing a common platform upon which most people are willing to stand.  The results of this method seem to carry a high degree of finality, to be the thing itself that was to be demonstrated.

I have said that this is a newer approach to the race problem; that is only in a sense true.  The Negro has been using this method for a very long time; for a longer time than he has used any other method, and, perhaps, with farther-reaching effectiveness.  For more than a century his great folk-art contributions have been exerting an ameliorating effect, slight and perhaps, in any one period, imperceptible,, nevertheless, cumulative.  

In countless and diverse situations song and dance have been both a sword and a shield for the Negro.  Take the spirituals:  for sixty years, beginning with their introduction to the world by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, these songs have touched and stirred the hearts of people and brought about a smoothing down of the rougher edges of prejudice against the Negro.  Indeed, nobody can hear Negroes sing this wonderful music in its primitive beauty without a softening of feeling toward them.

What is there, then, that is new?  What is new consists largely in the changing attitude of the American people.  There is a coming to light and notice of efforts that have been going on for a long while, and a public appreciation of their results.  Note, for example, the change in the reaction to the spirituals.  Fifty years ago white people who heard the spirituals were touched and moved with sympathy and pity for the “poor Negro.”  Today, the effect is not one of pity for the Negro’s condition but admiration for the creative genius of the race.

All of the Negro folk-art creations have undergone a new evaluation.  His sacred music—the spirituals; his secular music—ragtime, blues, jazz, and the work songs; his folklore—the Uncle Remus plantation tales; and his dances have received a new higher appreciation.  Indeed, I dare to say that it is now more or less generally acknowledged that the only things artistic that have sprung from American products, are the folk creations of the Negro.  The only thing that may be termed artistic, by which the United States is known the world over, is its Negro-derived popular music.  The folk creations of the Negro have not only received a new appreciation; they have—the spirituals excepted—been taken over and assimilated.  They are no longer racial; they are national; they have become a part of our common cultural fund.

Negro secular music has been developed into American popular music; Negro dances have been made into our national art of dancing; even the plantation tales have been transformed and have come out as popular bedtime stories.  The spirituals are still distinct Negro folk songs, but sooner or later our serious composers will take them as material to go into the making of the great American music” that has so long been looked for.

But the story does not halt at this point.  The Negro has done a great deal through his folk-art creations to change the national attitudes toward him; and now the efforts of the race have been reinforced and magnified by the individual Negro artist, the conscious artist.  It is fortunate that the individual Negro artist has emerged; for it is more than probable that with the ending of the creative period of blues, which seems to be at hand, the whole folk creative effort of the Negro in the United States will come to a close.  All the psychological and environmental forces are working to the end.  

At any rate, it is the individual Negro artist that is now doing most to effect a crumbling of the inner walls of race prejudice; there are outer and inner walls.  The emergence of the individual artist is the result of the same phenomenon that brought about the new evaluation and appreciation of the folk-art creations.  But it should be borne in mind that the conscious Aframerican artist is not an entirely new thing.  What is new about him is chiefly the evaluation and public recognition of the work.

When and how did this happen?  The entire change, which is marked by the shedding of a new light on the artistic and intellectual achievements of the Negro, the whole period which has become ineptly known as “the Negro renaissance,” is the matter of a decade, it has all taken place within the last ten years.  More forces than anyone can name have been at work to create the existing state; however, several of them may be pointed out.

What took place had no appearance of a development; it seems more like a sudden awakening, an almost instantaneous change.  There was nothing that immediately preceded it which foreshadowed what was to follow.  Those who were in the midst of the movement were as much astonished as anyone else to see the transformation.  Overnight, as it were, America became aware that there were Negro artists and that they had something worthwhile to offer.  This awareness first manifested itself in black America, for, strange as it may seem, Negroes themselves, as a mass, had had little or no consciousness of their own individual artists.

Black America awoke first to the fact that it possessed poets.  The awakening followed the entry of the United States into the Great War.  Before this country had been in the war very long there was bitter disillusionment on the part of American Negroes—on the part both of those working at home and those fighting in France to make the world safe for democracy.  The disappointment and bitterness were taken up and voiced by a group of seven or eight Negro poets.  They expressed what the race felt, what the race wanted to hear.  They made the group at large articulate.  Some of this poetry was the poetry of despair, but most of it was the poetry of protest and rebellion.  Fenton Johnson wrote of civilization:

I am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization.

Let us take a rest, M’lissy Jane.


You will let the old shanty go to rot, the white people’s clothes turn to dust, and the Calvary Baptist Church sink to the bottomless pit.


Throw the children into the river; civilization has given us too many.  It is better to die than it is to grow up and find out that you are colored.

Pluck the stars out of the heavens.  The stars mark our destiny.  The stars marked my destiny.

I am tired of civilization.

Joseph Cotter, a youth of twenty, inquired plaintively from the invalid’s bed to which he was confined:

Brother, come!

And let us go unto our God.

And when we stand before Him

I shall say,

“Lord, I do not hate

I am hated.

I scourge no one,

I am scourged.

I covet no lands,

My hands are coveted.

I mock no peoples,

My peoples are mocked.”

And, brother, what shall you say?

But among this whole group the voice that was most powerful was that of Claude McKay.  Here was a true poet of great skill and wide range, who turned from creating the mood of poetic beauty in the absolute, as he had so fully done in such poems as “Spring in New Hampshire,” “The Harlem Dancer,” and “Flame Heart,” for example, and began pouring out cynicism, bitterness, and invective.  For this purpose, incongruous as it may seem, he took the sonnet form as his medium.  There is nothing in American literature that strikes a more portentous note than these sonnet-tragedies of McKay.  Here is the sestet of his sonnet, “The Lynching”:  

Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view

The ghastly body swaying in the sun;

The women thronged to look, but never a one

Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;

And little lads, lynchers that were to be,

Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

The summer of 1919 was a terrifying period for the American Negro.  There were race riots for the American Negro.  There were race riots in Chicago and in Washington and in Omaha and in Phillips County, Arkansas; and in Longview, Texas, and in Knoxville, Tennessee; and in Norfolk, Virginia; and in other communities.  Colored men and women, by dozens and by scores, were chased and beaten and killed in the streets.  And from Claude McKay came this cry of defiant despair, sounded from the last ditch:

If we must die—let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot.


Oh, Kinsmen!  We must meet the common foe.

Though far outnumbered, let us still be brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!

What though before us lies the open grave?

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but—fighting back!

But not all the terror of the time could smother the poet beauty and universality in McKay.  In “America,” which opens with these lines

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,

And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,

Stealing my breath of life, I will confess

I love this cultured hell that tests my youth

He fused these elements of fear and bitterness and hate into verse which by every test is true poetry and a fine sonnet.

The poems of the Negro poets of the immediate post-war period were widely printed in Negro periodicals; they were committed to memory; they were recited at school exercises and public meetings; and were discussed at private gatherings.  Now, Negro poets were not new; their line goes back a long way in Aframerican history.  Between Phillis Wheatley, who as a girl of eight or nine was landed in Boston from an African slave ship, in 1761, and who published a volume of poems in 1773, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, who died in 1906, there were more than thirty Negroes who published volume of verse—some of it good, most of it mediocre, and much of it bad.

The new thing was the effect produced by these poets who sprang up out of the war period.  Negro poets had sounded similar notes in setting up a reverberating response, even in their own group.  But the effect was not limited to black America; several of these later poets in some subtle way affected white America.  In any event, at just this time, white America began to become aware and to awaken.  In the correlation of forces that brought about this result it might be pointed out that the culminating effect of the folk-art creations had gone far toward inducing a favorable state of mind.  

Doubtless it is also true that the new knowledge and opinions about the Negro in Africa—that he was not just a howling savage, that he had a culture, that he had produced a vital art—had directly affected opinion about the Negro in America.  However it may have been, the Negro poets growing out of the war period were the forerunners of the individuals whose work is now being assayed and is receiving recognition in accordance with its worth.

And yet, contemporaneously with the work of these poets, a significant effort was made in another field of art—an effort which might have gone much farther at the time had it not been cut off by our entry into the War, but which, nevertheless, had its effect.  Early in 1917, in fact on the very day we entered the War, Mrs. Emily Hapgood produced at the Madison Square Garden Theater three plays of Negro life by Ridgley Torrence, staged by Robert Edmond Jones, and played by an all-Negro cast.  This was the first time that Negro actors in drama commanded the serious attention of the critics and the general public

Two of the players, Opal Cooper and Inez Clough, were listed by George Jean Nathan among the ten actors giving the most distinguished performances of the year.  No one who heard Opal Cooper chant the dream in the Rider of Dreams can ever forget the thrill of it.  A sensational feature of the production was the singing orchestra of Negro performers under the direction of J. Rosamond Johnson—singing orchestras in theaters have since become common.  The plays moved from the Garden Theater to the Garrick, but the stress of war crushed them out.

In 1920, Charles Gilpin was enthusiastically and universally acclaimed for his acting in The Emperor Jones.  The American stage has seldom seen such an outburst of acclamation.  Mr. Gilpin was one of the ten persons voted by the Drama League as having done most for the American theater during the year.  Most of the readers of these pages will remember the almost national crisis caused by his invitation to the Drama League Dinner.

And along came Shuffle Along; and all of New York flocked to an out-of-the-way theater in West Sixty-third Street to hear the most joyous singing and see the most exhilarating dancing to be found on any stage in the city.  The dancing steps originally used by the “policeman” in Shuffle Along furnished new material for hundreds of dancing men.  Shuffle Along was actually an epoch-making musical comedy.  Out of Shuffle Along came Florence Mills, who, unfortunately, died so young but lived long enough to be acknowledged here and in Europe as one of the finest singing comediennes the stage had ever seen an artist of positive genius.

In 1923 Roland Hayes stepped out on the American stage in a blaze of glory, making his first appearances as soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and later with the Philharmonic.  Few single artists have packed such crowds into Carnegie Hall and the finest concert halls throughout the country as has Roland Hayes, and notwithstanding the éclat with which America first received him, his reputation has continued to increase and, besides, he is rated as one of the best box-office attractions in the whole concert field.  Miss Marian Anderson appeared as soloist with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and in concert at the Lewisohn Stadium at New York City College.  Paul Robeson and J. Rosamond Johnson and Taylor Gordon sang spirituals to large and appreciative audiences in New York and other the country, giving to those songs a fresh interpretation and a new vogue.

Paul Robeson—the most versatile of men, who has made a national reputation as athlete, singer, and actor—played in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun and added to his reputation on the stage, and, moreover, put to the test an ancient taboo; he played the principal role opposite a white woman.  This feature of the play gave rise to a more acute crisis than did Gilpin’s invitation to the Drama League Dinner.  Some sensational newspapers predicted race riots and others dire disasters, but nothing of the sort happened; the played the title role in a revival of The Emperor Jones and almost duplicated the sensation produced by Gilpin in the original presentation.

There followed on the stage Julius Bledsoe, Rose McClendon, Frank Wilson, and Abbie Mitchell, all of whom gained recognition.  At the time of this writing each of these four is playing in a Broadway production.  Paradoxical it may seem, but no Negro comedian gained recognition in this decade.  Negro comedians have long been a recognized American institution and there are several now before the public who are well known, but their reputations were made before this period.  The only new reputations made on the comedy stage were made by women, Florence Mills and Ethel Waters.  In addition there are the two famous Smiths, Bessie and Clara, singers of blues and favorites of vaudeville, phonograph, and radio audiences. …

During the present decade the individual Negro artist has definitely emerged in three fields, in literature, in the theater, and on the concert stage; in other fields he has not won marked distinction.  To point to any achievement of distinction in painting, the Negro must go back of this decade, back to H. O. Tanner, who has lived in Europe for the past thirty-five years; or farther back to E. M. Bannister, who gained considerable recognition a half century ago.  

Nevertheless, there is the work of W. E. Scott, a mural painter, who lives in Chicago and has done a number of public buildings in the Middle West; and of Archibald J. Motley, who recently held a one-man exhibit in New York which attracted very favorable attention.  The drawings of Aaron Douglass have won for him a place among American illustrators.  

To point to any work of acknowledged excellence in sculpture the Negro must go back of this decade to the work of two women, Edmonia Lewis and Meta Warrick Fuller, both of whom received chiefly in Europe such recognition as they gained.  There are several young painters and sculptors who are winning recognition.

But the strangest lack is that with all the great native music endowment he is conceded to possess, the Negro has not in this most propitious time produced a single outstanding composer.  There are competent musicians and talented composers of songs and detached bits of music, but no original composer who, in amount and standard of work and in recognition achieved, is at all comparable with S. Coleridge-Taylor, the English Negro composer.  Nor can the Negro in the United States point back of this decade to even one such artist.  It is a curious fact that the American Negro through his whole history has done more highly sustained and more fully recognized work in the composition of letters than in the composition of music.  It is the more curious when we consider that music is so innately a characteristic method of expression for the Negro.

What, now, is the significance of this artistic activity on the part of the Negro and of its reactions on the American people?  I think it is twofold.  In the first place, the Negro is making some distinctive contributions to our common cultural store.  I do not claim it is possible for these individual artists to produce anything comparable to the folk-art in distinctive values, but I do believe they are bringing something from the store of their own racial genius—warmth, color, movement, rhythm, and abandon; depth and swiftness of emotion and the beauty of sensuousness.  

I believe American art will be richer because of these elements in fuller quantity.

But what is of deeper significance for the Negro himself is the effect that this artistic activity is producing upon his condition and status as a man and citizen.  I do not believe it an overstatement to say the “race problem” is fast reaching the stage of being more a question of national mental attitudes toward the Negro than a question of his actual condition.  That is to say, it is not at all the problem of a moribund people sinking into a slough of ignorance, poverty, and decay in the very midst of our civilization and despite all our efforts to save them; that would indeed be a problem.  

Rather is the problem coming to consist in the hesitation and refusal to open new doors of opportunity at which these people are constantly knocking.  In other words, the problem for the Negro is reaching the plane where it is becoming less a matter of dealing with what he is and more a matter of dealing with what America thinks he is.

Now, the truth is that the great majority of Americans have not thought about the Negro at all, except in a vague sort of way and in the forms of traditional and erroneous stereotypes.  Some of these stereotyped forms of thought are quite absurd, yet they have had serious effects.  Millions of Americans have had their opinions and attitudes regarding their fellow colored citizens determined by such a phrase as, “A nigger will steal,” or “Niggers are lazy,” or “Niggers are dirty.”

But there is a common widespread, and persistent stereotyped idea regarding the Negro, and it is that he is here only to receive; to be shaped into something new and unquestionably better.  The common idea is that the Negro reached America intellectually, culturally, and morally empty, and that he is here to be filled—filled with morality, filled with culture.  In a word, 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 immemorial 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 endowments and that he has long been a generous giver to America.  He is impressing upon the national mind the conviction that he is an active and important force in American life; that he is a creator as well as a creature; that he has given as well as received; that he is the potential giver of larger and richer contributions.

In this way the Negro is bringing about an entirely new national conception of himself, he has placed himself in an entirely new light before the American people.  I do not think it too much to say that through artistic achievement the Negro has found a means of getting at the very core of the prejudice against him by challenging the Nordic superiority complex.  A great deal has been accomplished in this decade of “renaissance.”  Enough has been accomplished to make it seem almost amazing when we realize that there are less than twenty-five Negro artists who have more or less of national recognition; and that it is they who have chiefly done the work.

A great part of what they have accomplished has been done through the sort of publicity they have been secured for the race.  A generation ago the Negro was receiving lots of publicity, but nearly all it was bad.  There were front page stories with such headings as, “Negro Criminal,” “Negro Brute.”  Today, one may see undesirable stories, but one may also read stories about Negro singers, Negro actors, Negro authors, Negro poets.  The connotations of the very word “Negro” have been changed.  A generation ago many Negroes were half or wholly ashamed of the term.  Today, they have every reason to be proud of it.

For many years and by many methods the Negro has been overcoming the coarser prejudices against him; and when we consider how many of the subtler prejudices have crumbled, and crumbled rapidly under the process of art creation by the Negro, we are justified in taking a hopeful outlook toward the effect that the increase of recognized individual artists fivefold, tenfold, twentyfold, will have on this most perplexing and vital question before the American people.

Source:  Harper’s, November 1928. The Annals of America:  1928    Vol. 14

James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1871 and had a distinguished career as an author, lawyer and diplomat. Johnson was educated at Atlanta and Columbia Universities. He collaborated with his brother John Rosamond Johnson to write some 200 songs. Among these was the Negro Anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing. The brother also wrote a musical together.

From 1906 to 1910, Johnson was United States consul to Venezuela. And in 1916 to 1920, Johnson was a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He became the first black executive of the NAACP in 1920. He held this position until 1930. In that same year, Johnson became a professor of creative literature at Fisk University. Soon after, Johnson published his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man under a pseudonym.

Johnson’s most famous literary effort was God’s Trombones published in 1927. God’s Trombones are a collection of poetic sermons written in free verse. It is said the Johnson considered the voice of the black preacher to be a musical instrument “not a piano . . . or trumpet but a trombone. Johnson was also the author of Black Manhattan,  a biography called Along This Way, and  The Books of the American Negro Spirituals.  

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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American Creation

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This subtle, brilliant examination of the period between the War of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase puts Pulitzer-winner Ellis (Founding Brothers) among the finest of America's narrative historians. Six stories, each centering on a significant creative achievement or failure, combine to portray often flawed men and their efforts to lay the republic's foundation. Set against the extraordinary establishment of the most liberal nation-state in the history of Western Civilization... in the most extensive and richly endowed plot of ground on the planet are the terrible costs of victory, including the perpetuation of slavery and the cruel oppression of Native Americans. Ellis blames the founders' failures on their decision to opt for an evolutionary revolution, not a risky severance with tradition (as would happen, murderously, in France, which necessitated compromises, like retaining slavery). Despite the injustices and brutalities that resulted, Ellis argues, this deferral strategy was a profound insight rooted in a realistic appraisal of how enduring social change best happens. Ellis's lucid, illuminating and ironic prose will make this a holiday season hit.— Publishers Weekly /  American Creation (Joseph Ellis interview)

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The White Masters of the World

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Ancient African Nations

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update 11 March 2012




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Related files: God's Trombones    The Negro as Author  Race Prejudice and the Negro Artist     End of African-American Literature?   Negro Artist and Modern Art   About Romare Bearden   Letters of H. L. Mencken

Lumumba: A Biography  Black Girl in Her Search for God  H L  Mencken on Negro Author The Responsibility of the Artist     Responsibility of Blacks in Cyberspace   The Responsibility of a PanAfrican Socialist