by James Weldon Johnson
Voice and Sing /
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man
Along This Way
The Books of the American Negro Spirituals.
* * * *
Prejudice and the Negro Artist
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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,,
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
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
years ago white people who heard the spirituals were
touched and moved with sympathy and pity for the “poor
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.
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
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
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.
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:
am tired of work; I am tired of building up somebody else’s
us take a rest, M’lissy Jane.
will let the old shanty go to rot, the white people’s clothes
turn to dust, and the Calvary Baptist Church sink to the
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.
the stars out of the heavens.
The stars mark our destiny.
The stars marked my destiny.
am tired of civilization.
Joseph Cotter, a youth
of twenty, inquired plaintively from the invalid’s bed to
which he was confined:
let us go unto our God.
when we stand before Him
I do not hate
scourge no one,
covet no lands,
hands are coveted.
mock no peoples,
peoples are mocked.”
brother, what shall you say?
this whole group the voice that was most powerful was that of Claude
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
Here is the sestet of his sonnet, “The Lynching”:
dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
ghastly body swaying in the sun;
women thronged to look, but never a one
sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;
little lads, lynchers that were to be,
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:
we must die—let it not be like hogs
and penned in an inglorious spot.
Kinsmen! We must
meet the common foe.
far outnumbered, let us still be brave,
for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
though before us lies the open grave?
men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
to the wall, dying, but—fighting back!
But not all the terror of the
time could smother the poet beauty and universality in
In “America,” which opens with these lines
she feeds me bread of bitterness,
sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
my breath of life, I will confess
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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. …
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
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.
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
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
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
American art will be richer because of these elements in fuller
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.
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.
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
generation ago many Negroes were half or wholly ashamed of the
term. Today, they have every reason to be proud of it.
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.
The Annals of America:
• 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
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
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man under a pseudonym.
Johnson’s most famous literary effort was
published in 1927.
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.
* * *
* * * * *
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.—
* * *
Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding
of the Republic
By Joseph J. Ellis
brilliant examination of the period
between the War of Independence and the
Louisiana Purchase puts Pulitzer-winner
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
Publishers Weekly /
American Creation (Joseph Ellis
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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