African American man of letters James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was also a teacher, politician, and lawyer. He is best known for his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and a book of poems, God's Trombones.
On June 17, 1871, James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Fla. His father, a restaurant headwaiter, was entirely self-taught; his mother was a musician and school teacher. After taking his bachelor of arts degree at Atlanta University in 1894, Johnson taught in the public school for blacks in Jacksonville. Meanwhile he studied law and helped establish the first daily African American newspaper in his native city.
In 1898 Johnson joined his older brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, in New York City. Collaborating with his brother, a skilled musician, he wrote such hits as "Tell Me, Dusky Maiden," "Nobody's Looking but the Owl and the Moon," and "Oh, Didn't He Ramble." Some of Johnson's early poetry was published in the Century and the Bookman. He took his master of arts degree from Atlanta University in 1904.
Returning from a European theatrical tour in 1904, Johnson joined Theodore Roosevelt's successful presidential campaign and was rewarded with the appointment as U.S. consul at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in 1907. Two years later he went to Nicaragua in this same capacity. There he wrote his only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. First published in 1912, the book established Johnson's concern with the social problems that beset black people and his commitment to finding solutions. He had married Grace Nail in 1910.
In 1916 Johnson joined the staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and, becoming general secretary in 1920, continued there until 1930. He was a militant crusader for black Americans, demanding political and cultural equality. Though his fight for congressional passage of the Dyer Antilynching Bill was unsuccessful, it stirred the South to action to abolish lynching.
Johnson's Fifty Years and Other Poems was published in 1917, and in 1920 a book on politics, Self-determining Haiti, appeared. He presented the Book of American Negro Poetry in 1922. This was a pioneering anthology, like his Book of American Negro Spirituals, which, with piano arrangements by his brother, appeared in 1925. (The two volumes had their ninth printing in 1964). But the book that brought him national attention as a poet was God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927). Here Johnson broke new literary ground by discarding Negro dialect, employing instead the "native idiom of Negro speech" without distortion. Black Manhattan, a kind of memoir, was published in 1930, the year Johnson became professor of creative literature at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. He was also visiting professor of creative literature at New York University from 1934 until his death. His autobiography, Along This Way (1933), went through eight printings in 10 years. His last book, St. Peter Relates an Incident (1935), is a poetic satire on race prejudice.
Johnson won the W. E. B. Du Bois Prize for Negro literature in 1934, the Spingarn Medal twice, and the Harmon Award for distinguished achievement. He died in an automobile accident on June 26, 1938. In 1950 the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters was founded in the Yale University Library.
Further Reading on James Weldon Johnson
Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (1933) is the best factual source. Johnson's Black Manhattan (1930) gives additional material. Sterling A. Brown, Arthur P.Davis, and Ulysses Lee, Negro Caravan (1940), and James A. Emanuel and Theodore Gross, eds., Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America (1968), contain brief critical treatment. More extensive treatment is in Saunders Redding, To Make a Poet Black (1939).
Additional Biography Sources
Egypt, Ophelia Settle, James Weldon Johnson, New York, Crowell 1974.
Johnson, James Weldon, Along this way: the autobiography of James Weldon Johnson, New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 1990.