James Weldon Johnson
Four Holograph Poems
Johnson wrote poetry throughout his life. Shown here are some of the treasures from the Augusta Baker Collection — four holograph manuscripts by James Weldon Johnson. These manuscripts reveal Johnson's skill as a poet in working with more traditional verse forms. Three of the manuscripts — "Moods," "The River," and "Man" — are fair copies, copied from the originals in the author's own handwriting. The fourth, "The Miser" (also called "Let Down Your Hair"), is in three drafts, each initialed by the author, showing changes in rhymes, vocabulary, and even title.
The accompanying images are provided to give a sense of the visual appearance of the Johnson manuscripts; previously unpublished textual elements remain copyright.
Following his resignation from the consular service in September 1913, Johnson decided to become a full-time writer. In that year he published The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, which, despite its misleading title, is a novel concerning a black man who passes for white. Now a classic of African-American literature, the novel offers a vivid portrait of the black experience in early twentieth-century America. In 1927 Knopf reprinted the work as part of its Blue Jade Library series with a glowing introduction by novelist Carl Van Vechten.
Johnson's second book was a collection of sixty-five poems, of which ten had previously been published in periodicals. The title poem, "Fifty Years," celebrates the progress in American race relations since the Emancipation Proclamation and was warmly praised when it first appeared in the 1 January 1913 issue of theNew York Times. This particular copy, which was purchased for the library by the Thomas Cooper Society, has been inscribed by Johnson.
Even while traveling, lecturing, and lobbying, Johnson made time to pursue his literary interests. In 1922 he produced the first edition of The Book of American Negro Poetry, an anthology of contemporary African-American verse that included such writers as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claud McKay, and W. E. B. Dubois. (The second edition of the collection, published in 1931, added nine more poets, including Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes.) In the preface, Johnson stated one of his best-known beliefs: "the final measure fo the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced." By presenting the literary achievements of African Americans, Johnson hoped to change the perceptions of white America about the inferiorty of his race.
As a poet, Johnson began to experiment with the free verse form, producing what may be his best-known work, God's Trombones. Though a comitted agnostic, Johnson used the work to pay tribute to the black preachers he remembered from his childhood. Each poem presents in lyrical but colloquial language a version of a classic sermon, such as "The Prodigal Son" or "Noah Built an Ark." Johnson rejected the use of broad Negro dialect as comic and derogatory and revealed the old-time black preacher as a folk figure of dignity and eloquence.
This collection reprints Johnson's bitter and satirical poem "Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day," first published in 1930. In this poem, Saint Peter tells the assembled heavenly host about the resurrection of the Unknown Soldier, who horrifies the G.A.R., the D.A.R., Confederate veterans, and the Ku Klux Klan by being black. Johnson wrote the poem after learning that black and white gold-star mothers would not be allowed to travel on the same ship taking them to France to visit the graves of their sons slain in the Great War. Most of the other poems were selected from Fifty Years and Other Poems, originally published in 1917.