James Weldon Johnson 1920
“The Creation,” which first appeared in the periodical Freeman in 1920, was published in 1927 as part of a volume of poetry entitled God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, and is widely regarded as the best piece in the collection. In Slave Religion, Albert Robateau says that “the symbols, myths and values of the Judeo-Christian tradition helped form the slave community’s image of itself.” In this poem, the author illustrates that idea, telling the Biblical story of Creation in the form of a sermon, with a Negro dialect, thereby treating the story as part of African-American tradition rather than as an account taken directly from Western culture. Johnson follows the structure of the standard version of the tale, using the same order of events and the same technique of repetition that is used in the Bible. But the language God uses, though He speaks only a few times, is easily recognized as southern, as Negro. The implication at the end of the poem is that, since God is Negro and made humans in His image, then Negroes are His chosen people. This would have been a striking lesson during Johnson’s time, considering that in the United States blacks were often segregated from white society and treated as inferior.
Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1871. Both his father James, a resort hotel head-waiter, and his mother Helen Dillet Johnson, a
schoolteacher, had lived in the North as free blacks. James and his brother John grew up in cultured and economically secure surroundings that were unusual among Southern black families at the time. Johnson’s mother stimulated his early interests in reading, drawing, and music, and he attended the segregated Stanton School, where she taught, until the eighth grade. Since high schools were closed to blacks in Jacksonville, Johnson left home to attend both secondary school and college at Atlanta University, where he took his bachelor’s degree in 1894. It was during his college years that he first became aware of the depth of the racial problem in the United States, and Johnson’s experience teaching black schoolchildren in a poor district of rural Georgia during two summers left a deep impression on him. The struggles and aspirations of American blacks form a central theme in the thirty or so poems that Johnson wrote as a student.
In 1894 Johnson was appointed a teacher and principal of the Stanton School and expanded the curriculum to include high school-level classes. He also became an active local spokesman on black social and political issues and in 1895 founded the Daily American, the first black-oriented daily newspaper in the United States. During its brief life, the newspaper became a voice against racial injustice and encouraged black advancement through individual effort—a “self-help” position that echoed the more conservative civil rights leadership of the day. Although the newspaper folded the following year, Johnson’s ambitious effort attracted the attention of such prominent black leaders as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Around this time Johnson also read law with the help of a local white lawyer, and in 1898 he became the first black lawyer admitted to the Florida Bar since Reconstruction. Johnson practiced law in Jacksonville for several years in partnership with a former Atlanta University classmate while continuing to serve as the principal of the Stanton School. He also continued to write poetry and discovered a talent for songwriting, which he pursued in collaboration with his brother.
In 1901 the Johnson brothers set out for New York City to seek their fortune writing songs for the musical theater. In five years they composed some two hundred songs for Broadway and other musical productions. During this time Johnson also studied creative writing at Columbia University and became active in Republican party politics, serving as treasurer of New York’s Colored Republican Club in 1904. When the national black civil rights leadership split into conservative and radical factions—headed by Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, respectively—Johnson backed Washington, who in turn played an important role in getting the Roosevelt Administration to appoint Johnson as United States consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in 1906. With few official duties, Johnson was able to devote much of his time to writing poetry. He also completed his only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, during his three years in Venezuela.
In 1909 Johnson was promoted to the consular post in Corinto, Nicaragua, a position that proved considerably more demanding than his Venezuelan job and left him little time for writing. In 1910 he took a leave from his duties in order to marry Grace Nail, the daughter of a prosperous New York tavern owner and real estate dealer. His three-year term of service in Nicaragua occurred during a period of intense political turmoil, which culminated in the landing of U.S. troops at Corinto in 1912. In 1913, after returning home from Nicaragua to settle his father’s estate, Johnson attempted to secure a more desirable consular position. Failing that, and seeing little future for himself under President Woodrow Wilson’s Democratic administration, Johnson resigned from the foreign service and returned to New York to become an editorial writer for the New York Age, the city’s oldest and most distinguished black newspaper. The articles Johnson produced over the next ten years tended to be conservative, combining a strong sense of racial pride with a deep-rooted belief that blacks could individually improve their lot by means of self-education and hard work even before discriminatory barriers had been removed.
In the summer of 1916, at the invitation of Joel E. Spingarn and with urging from Du Bois, Johnson attended the important Amenia Conference on racial issues. Shortly afterward, Spingard offered him the position of field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which had been organized in 1910 by whites and blacks to provide a more militant vehicle for racial protest than Washington offered. Upon acceptance of the position, Johnson proved effective in organizing local branches throughout the country, greatly expanding the membership. After an investigative trip to Haiti, Johnson exposed the abuses of the American occupation there in a series of articles for the Nation magazine in 1920. Later that year he became general secretary of the NAACP. Emphasizing legal action, political pressure, and publicity, Johnson coordinated the most effective movement against racism of the time.
At the end of 1930, fatigued by the stresses of his job and wanting more time to write, Johnson resigned his position and accepted a part-time teaching post in creative writing at Fisk University. This move allowed him to pursue the literary life that had always competed with activism for his time. Johnson’s distinguished career was brought to an abrupt end in June, 1938, when a train struck the car in which he was riding as he traveled to his summer home in Maine.
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This version of the story of creation offers an image of God who is more like humans than traditional Old Testament portrayals of Him. God is sometimes referred to as “the uncaused cause” or “the prime mover,” indicating that the actions of God cannot be traced to any previous reason, as part of the definition of God. But Johnson gives God human qualities—he speaks in a Southern dialect, He “steps” with feet, and He creates the universe because He is “lonely.” To the reader not trained in theology, the study of religion, these humanistic qualities are familiar and make sense.
Line 5 refers to the “eye of God,” drawing attention to a physical characteristic that this God shares with humans. Cypress trees are trees with dense, hanging foliage that grow in the southern United States, which is also the geographic location of most swamps. The South is also where most Negroes lived in the early part of the century, having descended from slave families, and these references would have been familiar to them.
Lines 10-13 repeat the words “And the” at the beginning of each line. This stylistic trait mimics the Biblical story of creation, in which the phrase “And God said” is repeated consistently throughout the passage. This rhetorical technique is often used in oral text, in speeches and especially in sermons: the repetition helps those audience members whose attention has drifted off reconnect with that the speaker is saying.
In the Old Testament, the separation of light from darkness occurs in a manner similar to the process described here, except that the language is of course more formal: God does not “roll” light into the form of a sun or “fling” the remaining light into the darkness to create the moon and stars. Adding this language is Johnson’s contribution, making the story more active and therefore more interesting to the reader/listener. This sort of concrete imagery is also used in the Bible, to a lesser degree, turning philosophical concepts into experiences. In this section of the poem the technique of repetition is again brought into play, with the word “and” beginning five lines out of twelve, and God’s refrain “that’s good!” being repeated. This phrase expresses the same idea as the familiar phrase “It is good” that is said by God in the Bible, but while the biblical God makes a dispassionate observation, Johnson’s God exclaims his approval with enthusiasm, perhaps even with a little surprise.
Using the vernacular “a-blazing” helps personalize the sermon.
Spangling is another word for sparkling
This section details the body of God, placing the sun, moon and stars around His head and the earth beneath His feet. The shape of the earth’s surface is formed by God’s movements, and not simply because of His will, as the Old Testament version describes it.
God creates the atmospheric conditions through the actions of His body—spitting, clapping, batting His eyes. As in the rest of the poem, God’s physical presence is central to His power of creation. In Line 48, the author breaks from the story of the creation to linger for a moment on the significance of it, adding the idea of “cooling waters” to what Line 46 has already said about rain.
In this section, nature is anthropomorphized, a term that means to give human characteristics to non-human entities. Pine trees are said to have fingers, oaks have arms, lakes cuddle, and the rivers run. The creation of humans is approaching and God approves of these human-like traits. His smile creates a rainbow, recognized as a sign of nature’s beauty. The intimacy between God and nature is made clear as the rainbow curls like a pet about him.
In the Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament, God says, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let the birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens,” and three lines later He says, “Let the earth bring forth creatures according to their kinds....” In shortening this to “Bring forth! Bring forth!” Johnson does away with some of the details of the creation, but he captures a sense of God’s power and His excitement about what He is doing. The pace at which God has been creating things has accelerated to a point where He can hardly speak or move His hand quickly enough to keep up with His thoughts. For the third time, the phrase “That’s good!” is uttered, completing a cycle: storytelling is often paced in thirds, representing a beginning, a middle, and an end. As the next stanza shows, God expected, upon saying “That’s good!” a third time, to be finished with the task of creation.
This is a tranquil passage in the poem, following a frenzy of creation, as God looks over the things He has made. The reader or listener knows that the creation is not complete until humans have arrived, and that the quiet passage here is a lull, not an end. This passage ends with God’s observation that, “I’m lonely still,” which negates the wonders of earth and sky that have just been presented, putting God back in the same predicament he had in the first line.
God thinks in this stanza, and decides to make a man. In the first stanza, upon realizing himself lonely, God did not think, but decided without consideration to create the world. This structure emphasizes how special humans are: as the answer to a perplexing problem, mankind could almost be
- A video cassette titled James Weldon Johnson, part of the Poetry by Americans Series, was released in 1972 by AIMS Media.
called the answer to God’s prayer. It is significant that Line 72 is very specific about the fact that God sat beside a river, describing it as “deep” and “wide”: in African-American mythology, the river is a central image, especially the deep, wide Mississippi river, which ran from the free states of the North to the slave states of the South. This idea is also referred to in Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
As in the previous stanza, the river is emphasized. The reader is given a view of God being humble: in the dust, molding clay, bending “like a mammy” (an archaic African-American word for “mother”). At the same time, though, the author mixes in a reminder, in lines 80-84, of the overwhelming powers of God. Saying that God could create the universe effortlessly but that he takes such loving care in the creation of humans should be a source of pride for the human race. Man’s selfesteem is raised by the close association to God. Line 88 stresses the relationship between God and humans more clearly. For an oppressed people, as the American Negroes were during segregation, the importance of this story would be that all people are God-like and were created to God’s intent. Since God in this poem speaks with an African-American dialect, it is fair to assume that the person He made is African-American.
The actual creation of life, mentioned briefly in lines 89-90, is given much less attention than the structuring of the human body. This poem makes no explicit points about what conclusions its readers should draw from all of this, but ends abruptly with the traditional words for closing a sermon.
Topics for Further Study
- Rewrite a story from the Bible or from some similar source, using the informal language that you use with your friends and objects that you yourself are familiar with.
- What words can you use to describe the tone of this poem? Think of at least ten descriptive words, and explain each one with examples from the work.
- Why do you think Johnson felt it necessary to rewrite this story? Discuss any poems or songs that you know of that do a similar thing—do you think they were done for the same reason Johnson had?
God and Religion
Every religion has a creation myth. If the principle function of religion is to explain mysteries to people who have not developed scientific explanations or who do not believe that the truth can be found by the scientific method, there could be no greater mystery to be explained than the creation of the universe—the origin of existence. As history has progressed, we have come to rely more and more upon carbon dating and astrological data that support scientific theories about how the universe came into existence. At various times in history, religious beliefs have come into conflict with scientific accounts. In 1633, for example, Galileo was forced by the Roman Catholic church to quit supporting Copernicus’ theory that the earth revolves around the sun. To this day, some Christian religions reject the theory that humans are a product of a chain of evolution that traces back to single-celled organisms, noting that it contradicts the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible, which is retold in this poem. The God depicted in “The Creation” created humans in His own image, with great, tender care, after His previous accomplishments had failed to satisfy Him. Many Biblical scholars warn that the stories told in the Bible are not meant to be taken literally, but are meant as symbolic indicators of how things are in relation to one another, pointing for example to the fact that the “first day” mentioned in Genesis could not be a day as we know it because the sun had not been invented yet. It is therefore symbolic. Given this looser interpretation, “The Creation” is not offering us a different story than the traditional Biblical telling, but is presenting an example of God’s concern about the things of this world: all natural phenomena are found good, but man is made with tenderness and care “like a mammy bending over her baby.” To the oppressed African Americans who were not allowed to participate as full citizens in America of the early twentieth century, God’s concern was a reminder of each man’s inherent dignity.
“Anthropomorphism” is the term used when someone ascribes human qualities to something that is not human. Gods are frequently anthropomorphized in stories, particularly stories that are meant to explain their behavior. Gods frequently are talked about as having motives that humans have, such as jealousy, disappointment, or pleasure. Greek mythology, for example, offers a long, intertwined story of gods acting the way humans do. Even religions that worship animals as gods often explain their behavior in terms of what human beings would do. “The Creation” gives us a God who thinks and talks in ways that would be familiar to the poem’s target audience, African Americans of the early twentieth century. As early as the third line, He announces that He is lonely, a sentiment that is less like an all-powerful being than of the people in a preacher’s audience. This God speaks in contractions (“I’m,” “I’ll”) and uses verbal syntax that is specific to black American speech, such as “I’ll make me a world.” The landscape of this poem, too, contains details that Southern blacks would identify with: the “cypress swamp” that defines the darkness was a geographical fixture specific to the southern states, and the use of rivers, although universal, was especially significant to descendants of the slave culture because rivers defined slave territory and provided the most direct travel between slave and non-slave states. This connection between rivers and freedom was not just in the American south: for example, in the Book of Exodus the infant Moses is placed in the river as a slave and comes out a free man.
Both Genesis and Johnson’s “The Creation” have their anthropomorphized God creating man “in His own image,” and thus both stories create a God who resembles man creating man to resemble Himself. In this, we can see the benefit of such a story on an oppressed people: God, the story says, is one of us. This makes the lack of political and economic might respectable, since God’s lack of these same things is clearly by His own choice. With all of His power, this poem tells its listener or reader, God is someone with your concerns.
The most striking aspect of “The Creation” is the stirring, oratorical style of the words. If the poem is read aloud, it sounds like a spirited sermon being recited in a church. Johnson achieves this quality by the way he constructs the lines of the poem. Like a skilled public speaker, he repeats certain words over and over. Many stanzas of the poem begin with the phrase “Then God,” and Johnson also repeats “And” at the beginning of consecutive lines. These repeated words give the poem structure and rhythm, allowing the reader to feel how a preacher might stress the “And” in each line if the sermon were being read in church. The rhythm of the poem is also enhanced by the fact that Johnson arranges almost every line in the same way. First he presents the subject of the line, usually God, then he tells what the subject does. When repeated over and over, this construction, or syntax, makes an almost hypnotic sound and a type of rhythm, or beat, is created. Often, poetry creates its rhythms by arranging stressed syllables in a regular pattern and by making the lines of the poem a certain length. Johnson avoids this approach but creates rhythm through his careful use of syntax. This approach is also used in many books of the Holy Bible. That Johnson borrows a poetic technique from the Bible seems appropriate given that his poem is a type of religious sermon about the world’s creation.
The story of “The Creation” is taken, of course, from the Book of Genesis in the Bible’s Old Testament and, as the poem points out, is in the style of “A Negro Sermon.” This style dates back to before the American Revolution, when, in spite of the traditions and laws that generally kept blacks and whites separated in cultural affairs, black preachers often addressed congregations of mixed ethnicity. When it was pushed out of the mainstream as slavery became more defensive in the early 1800s, and as segregation of races became more strict, the religious fervor of the preacher gave birth to Negro spiritual songs. The Negro preachers were among the most moving and popular orators of their day, known not only for being skilled and lively speakers, but also for their intelligence, which gave them the ability to speak of old familiar stories with verbal precision without reading from texts. They could appear to improvise as they went along, in the same way that the improvisations of jazz or rap music are possible only with extensive preparation, wit, and background knowledge. As with many cultural creations of African Americans, though, the social biases that were necessary to make slavery possible and that remained fixed in the popular thought for almost a hundred years after the Civil War ended in 1865 tainted white society’s appreciation of the preachers. The black preacher became a comic figure: shouting threats about hellfire, repeating and rhyming, and using long, flowery phrases or complex jargon where a simple expression would suffice. To a white society that did not believe Negroes capable of the intelligence needed to consciously use these rhetorical devices, the black preacher sounded like a quicktalking confidence man, stirring up fear of the devil for his personal gain and straining to use “big” vocabulary words that he did not exactly understand. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the idea that Negro folk arts actually did have legitimacy and merit caught on among white intellectuals. Still, the years that the races had been separated from each other by both law and prejudice had made African-American dialect develop separately from the English that was considered to be the standard. Well-intentioned authors, both black and white, tried to capture the sound of black English on paper by writing in dialect. In his first book of poems, Fifty Years(1917), Johnson himself wrote a number of dialect poems, with lines such as “Been a-kind o’ alin’ all de day? / Didn’t have no sperit fu’ to play?” Representing black speech in this way was done with respect, as a way of recognizing the Negro’s individuality, but unfortunately another tradition, the minstrel show, used the same exaggeration of sounds to portray blacks as lazy, ignorant buffoons.
In his introduction to God’s Trombones, the poetry collection that “The Creation” was published in (although it was originally published
Compare & Contrast
- 1920: Women were first given the right to vote: the Republican Party nominated Warren G. Harding, a lackluster but good-looking candidate expected to win women’s votes. He was elected president by a 60 to 34 margin.
1965: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought federal protection to African Americans, whose right to vote had been recognized in the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 but was undone by complex registration requirements in Southern states.
1970: Recognizing the inconsistency in a system where eighteen-year-olds could be sent to war but could not vote for the representatives sending them, the voting age was lowered to eighteen.
Today: America has had a female vice-presidential candidate (Geraldine Ferraro in 1984) but so far neither of the two major parties has run a person of color on the ticket.
- 1920: Prohibition, ratified by the states in 1919, went into effect, making production and sale of liquor illegal.
1925: Criminal activities centered around the high-profit business of selling illegal liquor. Al Capone created an empire in Chicago by waging war on other bootleggers for sole control.
1934: The Eighteenth Amendment, which made Prohibition the law, was repealed.
1984: In expanding the efforts to stop the production and distribution of illegal drugs in the United States, the Reagan administration coined the term “war on drugs.”
Today: In spite of unprecedented growth of the prison population, use of illegal drugs is on the rise.
- 1920: Marcus Garvey, an African-American leader who supported the “back to Africa” movement in the United States, organized a convention of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, with 25,000 delegates from 25 nations attending.
Today: Continuing differences in perception between members of different races have been highlighted by overwhelming black outrage at the verdict in the Rodney King trial in 1993 and white outrage at the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995.
seven years earlier in the periodical Freeman), Johnson explained that he could not justify to himself writing the preacher’s voice in dialect, because dialect had taken on only two meanings in the minds of readers: pathos and humor. Artists using dialect to portray the sorry conditions of Negroes had created as much of a stereotypical reaction in readers as minstrel shows had, so that one thought upon seeing dialect that the character must be either forlorn or goofy. Triggering preconceived ideas in this way works against poetry’s intention of creating meaning with each word. When he first worked in dialect verse, Johnson was a songwriter in New York, and the big movement in popular music was dialect “coon songs.” (Johnson had also been a grammar school principal, founded a small black newspaper, and had been admitted to the Florida bar.) By the time “The Creation” was published, he had also written for a major newspaper, The New York Age; been the Theodore Roosevelt administration’s U.S. Consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela and Nicaragua; and was starting his term as the first black Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Johnson’s choice to use the style of Negro speech for this poem but to not to try to write words out phonetically is clearly a result of his worldly understanding: he knew how blacks were patronized when attention was drawn to their speech patterns, but he appreciated the grace and rhetorical skills of the traditional Negro preacher.
Jean Wagner, in his book Black Poets of the United States, comments on the sermons in God’s Trombones, pointing out that what is effective “in giving these sermons their Negro character are the countless, more or less extensive echoes of actual spirituals with which they are studded.” Ladell Payne, in Themes and Cadences: James Weldon Johnson’s Novel, writes that in God’s Trombones,“Johnson clearly suggests Southern Negro church speech ... he was as conscious of dialectical nuances as was Twain in writing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Faulkner in writing ... The Sound and the Fury. Johnson’s ability to create the effect of dialect without using its typical spellings or illiteracies is one of his greatest skills as an artist.”
Brent Goodman is a freelance writer and has taught at Purdue University and mentored students in poetry. In the following essay, Goodman suggests that retelling the creation story from an African-American point of view was a way of reaffirming the value, place, and importance of the black race in American society at a time in which discrimination was overt.
During the Harlem Renaissance at the beginning of this century, Black Americans challenged the perception and condition of their people for the first time in American history. During this period, James Weldon Johnson established himself as a respected spokesman for Blacks, as well as a noted diplomat, novelist, lawyer, editor, songwriter and poet. In a time when a whole race of people in America were denied basic human rights, Johnson, through his speeches, songs, prose and poetry, helped give a voice back to those who were oppressed. In the poem “The Creation,” he chooses to retell a fundamental story from the Bible’s Book of Genesis, writing in a refreshing and distinct language unique to his cultural background. In this way, Johnson helps bring a traditional creation myth to a race of people often isolated by white society and helps give a new voice to an ancient story.
Judging from the subtitle of this poem, “A Negro Sermon,” Johnson sets up clear distinctions between this telling of the story versus previous accounts. A sermon specifically told by and for the Black people, this poem doesn’t mean to exclude others as much as it means to speak specifically to a people who at that time lacked a strong public voice. For white readers during that time, the title made no excuses and left no questions about the source of this powerful sermon.
In search for both a new voice as well as a new shape for this voice, Johnson lets the changing moods and expression of his subject matter determine the length and sound of each line, unlike traditional verse. “The Creation” is written in free verse, its form growing organically from its content rather than from predetermined rules of how many beats each line should have or where the rhymes should fall. For example, in parts of the poem where the mood is quiet and pensive, as in “Then god smiled, / And the light broke,” Johnson keeps the lines short, less than four words long, to match the tone of the speakers voice. On the other hand, in sections of the poem where the voice builds momentum and power, the lines lengthen out like a train down hill, “He batted His eyes, and the lightning flashed; / He clapped His hands, and the thunders rolled.” Johnson combines this fundamental poetic technique of relating a poem’s form to its content with other techniques throughout in order to craft a distinct and charged piece.
In the original story of Genesis from the Old Testament, God creates man—after making the earth and seas and animals—so man can be a caretaker and name giver, a guardian of all lesser creatures. Johnson, born of a people oppressed by another race under the rationale that it was God’s plan, decides to make the God of his creation story more compassionate, His reasons for creating the world born out of a need for company rather than control. The poem begins, “And God stepped out on space, / And He looked around and said I’m lonely—/ I’ll make me a world.” In these opening lines, Johnson introduces not only a lonely God, but a God who speaks in a vernacular familiar to Blacks during that period. A vernacular is an offshoot of a language specific to people in a certain region or culture. A person from southern Indiana, for example, may say “I did my warsh” instead of “wash.” Similarly, “Black English,” or what some are now calling “Ebonics,” is a vernacular of English no more or less correct than what others call “Proper English.” In the third stanza, rather than God looking at what He’s created and saying “It was Good,” the God of this poem enthusiastically shouts “That’s good!” like a preacher at the pulpit. Throughout his poem, Johnson chooses to give his
What Do I Read Next?
- Johnson’s fascinating life is covered by the author himself in his 1973 autobiography from de-Capo Publishers, Along the Way.
- Johnson also edited the two-volume The Book of American Negro Spirituals, published in 1977.
- Ralph Ellison’s groundbreaking 1952 novel Invisible Man owes much to Johnson’s earlier novel from 1912 entitled The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Both works deal with African Americans looking for identity in a society that would rather forget them.
- The novels of Zora Neale Hurston, a contemporary of Johnson’s, try in the same way he did to capture the dignity of African-American speech without mocking it. In particular, her novel Moses, Man of the Mountain, published in 1939 and again most recently in 1991, translates a familiar story from the Bible into black cadence.
- Langston Hughes is considered to be a poetic successor of Johnson’s, a key figure from the Harlem Renaissance movement. His poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” from The Weary Blues, published in 1926 and reprinted in many anthologies, touches on the same imagery “The Creation” uses and gives the same sense of eternity. Hughes’s later writings about the character Jesse B. Semple walked the thin line between recognizing and mocking uneducated African Americans.
- Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy, by Michael G. Cooke and published in 1984, places Johnson in a chapter between the spoken customs of signifying and the blues and the Harlem Renaissance writers. This book gives an excellent critical analysis of many African-American works and designates where they fit into the overall history of literature.
- C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mimiya’s 1990 study The Black Church in the African-American Experience is a sociological examination that gives scientific data explaining the ideas of the preacher’s powers that Johnson sensed.
- Charles W. Hamilton gives an insightful view of the social authority and scope of influence black preachers held in his 1972 book The Black Preacher in America.
God a language a Black audience could better relate to than the language of the God in Genesis.
In a similar move, the imagery Johnson uses throughout is often familiar to his specific audience. Images are the descriptions poets and writers create using sensory details, or details we can smell, hear, taste, touch or see. While describing a lonely God looking around in empty space, Johnson writes, “Darkness covered everything, / Blacker than a hundred midnights / Down in a cypress swamp.” This comparison to a cypress swamp is distinctly Southern, an image and landscape his readers could relate easily to. Later on in the poem, we see God kneeling on the river bank while making man, “Like a mammy bending over her baby.” Here, too, Johnson uses a familiar language and imagery—“mammy,” a vernacular for “mom”—to convey this previously exclusionary story to his audience.
Johnson elaborates specific details of how God created earth and man throughout, twisting, and in other places outright changing the storyline from the Book of Genesis. More than just making the language and imagery of the creation story his own, Johnson makes up some completely new details to ensure this retelling is more than a mere rehashing of old news. For example, in the fourth stanza, Johnson takes Genesis’ version of how God created the sun and stars one step further, treating God like a character on a stage and giving him action and thought. God rolls “light around in his hands / until He made the sun” and with “what was left from making the sun.... gathered up” the rest in a “shining ball / And flung [it] against the darkness,” making the stars and moon. Two stanzas later, God is stomping around on earth making the valleys from his footsteps and the mountains from where the ground bulged.
As we continue to move forward in this poem, it’s perhaps important to notice how the portrayal of God throughout is different than in this story’s original version. In the Old Testament, God seems to be a rigid and all-powerful being, often pictured as an old man in long robes leaning on a cloud high above the earth; a God who is unapproachable and judgmental. The images Johnson uses throughout his work, however, accumulate to shape a different picture. One of the first things this poem’s God says is “I’m lonely,” showing a vulnerability many readers never considered. When Johnson zooms in on God’s face in the third stanza, God is smiling, revealing a friendly and non-threatening being. These images help soften the typical image of God as a lofty, all-powerful, and angry being, thus allowing readers to feel closer to a previously distant image of the Lord. He actually “steps down” from space to walk around on earth while creating, and, when it comes to making man, kneels right down in the mud and cradles his first person like a mother with a newborn. This image also challenges our conventional perception of God as old man in a robe, replacing “great God Almighty” with a Black mother and her sleeping child.
All of this discussion of how Johnson changed or adapted the creation myth in order to make his own is not to say he completely abandoned all of its original elements. The basic order of creation is retained, although the day upon which each event occurred is not mentioned. Instead, it seems as if this God did everything in one sitting. In this poem, Johnson employs litany, or a listing of lines with the same starting points, such as in “Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky, / Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night, / Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand.” This technique is also common in the Old Testament, and this type of repetition helps writers build a voice with momentum. In addition, the repetition of lines helps create a lulling effect, like the refrain of a child’s song. Perhaps most effective, relating back to the subtitle of this poem, “Negro Sermon,” is Johnson’s use of litany to remind us of prayer, repeating something until not only do we believe it, but it becomes part of us. It is easy to imagine a preacher telling us the story “And the waters above the earth came down, / The cooling waters came down,” and just as easy to imagine responding each time, “Amen. Amen.”
Some readers may ask by the end of this poem, “why retell a story most people already know?” By retelling Genesis from the unique perspective of his cultural background, Johnson established a powerful story for his people during a time when they rarely had a public voice. Retelling a story informed by your own cultural background, in your own language, and with your own unique sense of imagery allows you to become part of a mythology from which you were previously excluded. And what better place to start from than the creation of man, neither black nor white yet, merely the first handfuls of mud from the earth in God’s lonely hands.
Source: Brent Goodman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
In the following excerpt, Wagner reviews Johnson’s poetry and the various influences which affected the poet.
“I recognized his genius, and in a measure regarded myself as his disciple.” This avowal concerning [American poet Paul Laurence] Dunbar was made by Johnson in 1933 in his autobiography. But one could safely wager that those who read Fifty Years and Other Poems in 1917 had no need to await the author’s admission before discovering the full dimensions of his debt to the younger man. There was, indeed, a striking resemblance between the two men, though Johnson rarely achieved the flights of genuine poetry so often incontestably attained by Dunbar in his best poems.
Johnson, like Dunbar, had the soul of an entertainer, at home in show business, eager to please, and always on the alert for a possible success. As a student at Atlanta University he already sang in a vocal quartet that toured New England to raise funds for the university. The repertoire consisted mainly of spirituals, but Johnson also appeared with the guitar and sometimes related a comic anecdote that, he relates, “proved to be a very popular one.” But it was above all from 1897 on, when his brother Rosamond resumed to Jacksonville upon completing his musical education, that jointly with him James Weldon Johnson resolutely set out to provide songs and musical shows whose sole aim it was to conquer Broadway. For seven years his mind was centered upon show business, and a whole section of his first volume of poems is there to remind us that he spent longer as songwriter than as poet.
Poetry in Dialect
Under the collective title of “Jingles and Croons,” the dialect poems make up one-third of die 1917 collection, some of diem previously having been popular hits. Among these were “Sence You Went Away,” “Ma Lady’s Lips Am Like de Honey,” and “Nobody’s Lookin’ but de Owl and de Moon.” Though the first of these pieces had originally been published in The Century, they are all basically commercial pieces, put together with every necessary precaution to ensure monetary success. The following details given by Johnson on the origins of “The Maiden with the Dreamy Eyes” leave no doubt on that score:
In those days the royalties of a writer depended largely upon the young fellow who would buy a copy of the song and take it along with him when he went to call on his girl.... In writing The Maiden With The Dreamy Eyes we gave particular consideration to these fundamentals. It needed little analysis to see that a song written in exclusive praise of blue eyes was cut off at once from about three-fourths of the possible chances for universal success; that it could make but faint appeal to the heart or pocketbook of a young man going to call on a girl with brown eyes or black eyes or gray eyes. So we worked on the chorus of our song until, without making it a catalogue, it was inclusive enough to enable any girl who sang it or to whom it was sung to fancy herself the maiden with the dreamy eyes.
In most of these poems Johnson rather unimaginatively follows Dunbar’s themes and manner; he does not always even bother to change the title of the imitated poems or the names of the characters. Here to be found once again are all the types of song that had been in circulation twenty-five years earlier: the naive, sugary love song, the cradle song with which the black mammy lulls her picaninny to sleep, the story of the rival rural swains, the fable that pays homage to Brer Rabbit, and even, on occasion, a discreet hymning of the good old days and of good oldtime Georgia. Johnson’s portrait of the Negro, in its main lines, still adheres to the minstrel tradition. He is carefree and optimistic, plays the banjo, eats watermelon and ’possum, and steals chickens and turkeys—all traits necessary to arouse an easy sense of superiority in the white public. Of all the poems in this section, only one can boast a certain originality. “Tank,” with the subtitle “A Lecture on Modern Education,” is at the opposite pole from Daniel Webster Davis’s “Stick in’ to de Hoe,” since it tends to demonstrate, in an amusing way, that the race’s social progress must depend to a great extent on progress in its education. When he was writing this poem, Johnson must certainly have recalled his experiences as a onetime teacher in an out-of-the-way Georgia village, where the Negro children attended school only during the summer months when Atlanta University students could earn a little pocket money by teaching school. Tank was the name of one of the dunces in Johnson’s class, and his entirely comprehensible ignorance was of the kind that condemned to wretched poverty and a primitive existence all the black rural folk left destitute on the fringes of the white majority’s culture:
W’en you sees a darkey goin’ to de fiel’ as soon as
Followin’ a mule across it f om de mawnin’ tel de
Wukin’ all his life fu’ vittles, hoein’ ’tween de
W’en he knocks off ole an’ tiah’d, ownin’ nut’n
but his clo’es,
You kin put it down to ignunce, aftah all what’s
done an’ said,
You kin bet dat dat same darkey ain’t got nut’n in
Ain’t you seed dem w’ite men set’n in der awfice?
Don’t you know
Dey goes der ‘bout nine each mawnin’? Bless yo’
soul, dey’s out by fo’.
Dey jes does a little writin’; does dat by some easy
Gals jes set an’ play piannah on dem printin’ press
Chile, dem men knows how to figgah, how to use
dat little pen,
And dey knows dat blue-back spellah f’ om
beginnin’ to de en’.
Dat’s de ’fect of education; dat’s de t’ing what’s
gwine to rule;
Git dem books, you lazy rascal! Git back to yo’
place in school!
In the domain of dialect poetry, it was hard to do better than, or even as well as, Dunbar, and in “Jingles and Croons” Johnson never attains the spontaneity of expression, the vivacious rhythm, or the melodiousness of his distinguished forerunner.
Moreover, Johnson would later repudiate, with as much vehemence as Dunbar had shown, this portion of his work which had enabled him, in the century’s opening years, to win a somewhat superficial popularity on Broadway. Yet some of his poems in standard English are scarcely less conformist than his dialect poems.
Religious and Patriotic Conformism
Since the avowal made in his autobiography five years before his death, we know that all Johnson’s religious poetry came from the pen of an unbeliever.
Under the influence of his maternal grandmother, who would have liked to see him become a minister, from the age of nine he had been forced into religious observances, inappropriate for a child, in the Methodist church which she attended. When she wanted him to be accepted as a fullfledged member, an argument broke out between her and her son-in-law; this aroused anxiety in the child. With it was blended his dislike for certain external religious practices common in the popular Negro churches:
These combined factors at length produced reluctance, doubt, rebellion. I began to ask myself questions that frightened me. I groped within the narrow boundaries of my own knowledge and experience and between the covers of the Bible for answers, because I did not know to whom I could turn ... I was alone with my questionings and doubts.... At fourteen I was skeptical. By the time I reached my Freshman year at Atlanta University I had avowed myself an agnostic.
His openly proclaimed agnosticism led to some friction in Atlanta University, “a missionary founded school, in which playing a game of cards and smoking a cigarette were grave offenses. This experience, in which his frankness was poorly rewarded, may have given rise to the reserve with which he would henceforth surround his metaphysical convictions. Not only did he reveal nothing of his agnosticism in his poetry; quite the contrary, he strewed left and right declarations of trust in God the Creator and in Providence, as though he were speaking on his own account.
One sole feeble echo of his doubts regarding life after death can be heard in the last two lines of the sonnet “Sleep”:
Man, why should thought of death cause thee to
Since death be but an endless, dreamless sleep?
But this is slight, compared to the numerous passages that could convince one of his religious orthodoxy.
Since he did not believe in God, why did he turn to him in prayer? Thus the envoi at the end of the 1917 collection begs the Almighty for inspiration and persuasive force:
O God, give beauty and strength—truth to my
and if that other personal request, “Prayer at Sunrise,” does not expressly invoke the Deity, there can be no doubt that Johnson is thinking of him when he addresses the “greater Maker of this Thy great sun.” How could anyone guess he was an agnostic, hearing him proclaim:
... God’s above, and God is love
or again, when he offers this assurance to Horace Bumstead, president of Atlanta University:
... sure as God on His eternal throne
Sits, mindful of the sinful deeds of men,
The awful Sword of Justice in His hand,—
You shall not, no, you shall not, fight alone.
While maintaining that the universe had no purpose, in “Fifty Years” he nevertheless twice utters the conviction that the Negro’s destiny is a part of God’s great design:
A part of His unknown design,
We’ve lived within a mighty age;
Faith in your God-known destiny!
We are a part of some great plan.
And in the celebrated poem “O Black and Unknown Bards,” the principal merit he discerns in these bards who composed the spirituals is to have converted a race of idolators to Christ:
... the songs
That for your listeners’ hungry hearts sufficed
Still live, —but more than this to you belongs:
You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.
Faced with such categorical declarations, one might feel tempted to conjecture that Johnson’s agnosticism sometimes grew faint along the path, and that there were periods in his life when traditional religiosity gained the upper hand. But nothing authorizes such a supposition, and if we may trust his belated avowal in Along This Way (1933), his agnosticism remained unwavering to the very end.
I have not felt the need of religion in the commonplace sense of the term. I have derived spiritual values in life from other sources than worship or prayer.... As far as I am able to peer into the inscrutable, I do not see that there is any evidence to refute those scientists and philosophers who hold that the universe is purposeless; that man, instead of being the special care of a Divine Providence, is a dependent upon fortuity and his own wits for survival in the midst of blind and insensate forces.
Thus Johnson’s religious poetry does not express his personal feelings; it merely conforms—in a way whose precise meaning is, in our view, most clearly apparent in certain commemorative poems that are semi-official in nature. The first of these, written in 1900, is “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which Black America spontaneously adopted as a Negro national anthem, and which ends with a fervent prayer to a providential God:
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray,
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God,
where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world,
we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand
True to our God,
True to our native.
The last two lines sum up the twin conformity of religion and patriotism that sounds the dominant note in Fifty Years and Other Poems. It is as though Johnson realized that, in a country where the inalienable rights of all men are officially derived from a gift made by their Creator, the Negro could hardly expect to be heard until he had at least formally professed his faith in the existence of this Creator and his loyalty to his country.
God and country are no less closely associated in “Fifty Years,” the commemorative poem written for the fiftieth anniversary of Emancipation and published by the New York Times on that very date: January 1, 1913. In it the liberation of the slaves is presented as God’s handiwork, with Lincoln acting as the instrument of the Divine will:
... God, through Lincoln’s ready hand,
Struck off our bonds and made us men.
On the soil of America, Negroes have undergone a multiple transformation;
Far, far the way that we have trod,
From heathen kraals and jungle dens,
To freedmen, freemen, sons of God,
Americans and Citizens.
One may note, incidentally, the unflattering expressions used by Johnson in his references to Africa. Negroes had been living there in “heathen kraals” or even in dens like animals, from which God chose to remove them out of sheer mercy:
Then let us here erect a stone,
To mark the place, to mark the time;
A witness to God’s mercies shown,
A pledge to hold this day sublime.
The word “mercies” was bound to serve as an unpleasant reminder of that line of Phillis Wheatley’s:
’Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land
—as Johnson probably realized, for in the 1935 edition he put in its place the word “purpose,” and also dropped from the poem the two following stanzas whose humility and submissiveness, both to God and to White America, was absolutely not the right thing, after the swath cut in its stormy passage by the nationalism of the Negro Renaissance:
And let that stone an altar be,
Whereon thanksgivings we may lay,
Where we, in deep humility,
For faith and strength renewed may pray.
With open hearts ask from above
New zeal, new courage and new pow’rs,
That we may grow more worthy of
This country and this land of ours.
As was true of Dunbar, nothing in Johnson evokes rebellion or rebels. The heroes of whom he sings are all loyal, faithful national heroes, and not racial heroes. Most of them, too, are whites: the abolitionists Garrison, Phillips, and Lovejoy; John Brown, of course, and Lincoln the Emancipator. He praises only two blacks: Crispus Attucks, the first to fall in the struggle for the country’s independence, and the humble standardbearer who, though despised by all, loyally gave his life for his country at the battle of San Juan Hill:
Black though his skin, yet his heart as true
As the steel of his blood-stained saber.
Despised of men for his humble race,
Yet true, in death, to his duty.
His attitude toward the South is almost more submissive and sentimental than Dunbar’s. “O Southland! is the humble appeal of a weakling who asks for charity, and one would seek in vain for even the most muted protest against the abominations to which, as Johnson well knew, Negroes were being subjected in his own country.
Must we then brand Johnson a hypocrite? His parade of religious orthodoxy is a paradoxical phenomenon, it must be confessed. Even Dunbar, though he seems to have been less grievously afflicted by doubt than Johnson, had bravely confided to his verses moving accounts of his problems with religious belief. But Johnson does not reveal himself, and speaks rather in the name of the racial or national community without allowing his own emotions to pour out. As for the avowal of his agnosticism, that will be judged opportune only in his declining years.
His behavior might appear to be dictated, in the first place, by a certain discretion, by the desire not to shock majority opinion and to respect its convictions. In any event, the following passage from his autobiography, in which he speaks of his lack of religion, would tend to convey that impression: “But make no boast of it; understanding, as do, how essential religion is to many, many people.”
Nevertheless without making any display of his unbelief, he might have avoided affirming the antithesis of his real convictions and maintained a discreet neutrality. The miming of strong religious feeling was not called for.
Thus the thought arises that he conformed, to a very large degree, for reasons of diplomacy. Like humor in the dialect poems, the facade of religious orthodoxy fulfills the function of dissimulation and self-defense. In either case, the individual hides his real feelings behind ramparts constructed ad hoc, and the outer world, whose hostility must be appeased, is allowed to see only a mask which, in every respect, corresponds to the mythical portrait that prejudice has put together. Since, in the eyes of the majority, the Negro is deemed especially religious, it is better to acquiesce and to put on the externals of religion, if necessary, rather than offend the majority by showing oneself as one is. This is a kind of moral camouflage, or mimicry. As we have already stated, it is in order to strengthen the Negro’s claim to equal treatment that Johnson presents him as absolutely identical with the national ideal, which treats as indivisible belief in God and loyalty to one’s country.
But Johnson’s conformist behavior looks not only to the opinions of the white majority. In the tradition of his own race, too, the themes of religious orthodoxy have always been so closely intertwined with those of race that to separate them is almost unthinkable. Thus the religious themes survive and assert their authority, even after genuine religious feeling has practically evaporated. Involved here is a transfer of values, causing the religious theme to lose its sacral substance and to stand only for one racial theme among many others. The transfer seems to have occurred all the more easily because sacred and profane had been almost indistinguishable in the overall concept of Negro religion. This was true for both the ambivalent language of the spirituals and for the ambivalent figure of the Negro pastor, who was a racial as well as a spiritual leader.
Thus the poet, through the totality of signs constituted by the religious context of his poetry, no longer proclaims his adhesion to a metaphysical notion he had set aside long before. He announces his decision to remain one with a community that is at the same time national and racial. How this finds expression is determined, ultimately, by social constraints no less powerful than those Dunbar had known. As a consequence, the bulk of Johnson’s 1917 volume of poems, constructed around a conventional outlook, appears to us sadly lacking in that “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” which, according to Wordsworth, is the distinctive mark of all good poetry....
Folklore and Race: Their Rehabilitation
No less paradoxical than the religious feeling he displays in his poetry is the strange attraction felt by Johnson the agnostic for the religious folklore of his race. One of the most remarkable poems in Fifty Years already expressed his admiration for the unknown authors of the spirituals, and his amazement that such noble songs could have sprung from the heart of a race so obscure and so despised:
O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel’s lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?
Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than “Go down, Moses.” Mark its bars,
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young.
There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and servile toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You—you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who’ve sung untaught, unknown,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.
Of course, the poet did not share the faith whose expression he admires in the spirituals, and if with evident sincerity he praises their authors for having raised their souls to God, despite their debased condition, this merely proves that he was not narrowly sectarian. But, basically, the religious content of these songs did not interest Johnson except to the extent that it might move the nation’s white majority. If he undertook to make the beauty of Negro folklore better known and appreciated, and with this purpose in mind brought out his two collections of spirituals, it was because he expected that the artistic and religious emotions thus awakened in the public would create a favorable climate likely to shake the foundations of the nation’s prejudices. Significant in this connection is one passage in the preface to The Second Book of Negro Spirituals (1926) where Johnson, speaking of the spirituals, states:
For more than a half century they have touched and stirred the hearts people and effected a softening down of some of the hard edges of prejudice against the Negro. Measured by lengths of years, they have wrought more in sociology than in art. Indeed, within the past decade and especially within the past two or three years they have been, perhaps, the main force in breaking down the immemorial stereotype that the Negro in America is nothing more than a beggar at the gate of the nation, waiting to be thrown the crumbs of civilization; that he is here only to receive; to be shaped into something new and unquestionably better.
This awakening to the truth that the Negro 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 ... is, think, due more to the present realization of the beauty and value of the Spirituals than to any other one cause.
He had said the same thing about Negro poetry four years earlier, in the preface to his anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry:
The final measure of me greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced. The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art. No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior.
The status of the Negro in the United States is more a question of national mental attitude toward the race than of actual conditions. And nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art.
These remarks hold true not only for the spirituals and for written poetry, but also for the sermons in God’s Trombones.
Just as his two volumes of Negro Spirituals were intended primarily to make these songs better known, so it was the main object of God’s Trombones to reveal the existence of the Negro folk sermon to the wider public. “A good deal has been written on the folk creations of the American Negro: his music, sacred and secular; his plantation tales, and his dances; but that there are folk sermons, as well, is a fact that has passed unnoticed.”
This is not the whole truth, however, for even before the earliest collections of slave songs, spirituals, and Negro sermons began to appear in the years following the Civil War, the general public had known of spirituals and Negro sermons, though in strange fashion, through the caricatures and parodies provided by the minstrels on the stage. We have also seen the Negro sermon find its way into popular poetry with Irwin Russell, his example followed by Dunbar and some of his contemporaries. But, like the minstrels, all these poets treated the sermon as funny, with the ill-intentioned stock jokes further underlined by the use of a degraded form of speech baptized “Negro dialect” for the occasion. Thus the Negro sermons in verse of God’s Trombones cannot properly be classified as a revelation, but rather as a rehabilitation—in the first place, of the Negro preacher, who here for the first time is no longer presented as a comic figure, and whose historic role in the service of the black people is thus emphasized:
The old-time Negro preacher has not yet been given the niche in which he properly belongs. He has been portrayed only as a semi-comic figure. He had, it is true, his comic aspects, but on the whole he was an important figure, and at bottom a vital factor. It was through him that the people of diverse languages and customs who were brought here from diverse parts of Africa and thrown into slavery were given their first sense of unity and solidarity. He was the first shepherd of this bewildered flock.
But from the rehabilitation of the Negro preacher it was Johnson’s intention to proceed to that of the whole race. With that in mind, he at once forbade himself the use of Negro dialect, so that the reader would not be induced to adopt any of the unkind mental attitudes that dialect traditionally served to convey. For this reason it is possible, to some extent, to look on the sermons in God’s Trombones as pieces of evidence in the indictment that Johnson, after 1917, took it into his head to pursue against Negro dialect. This consideration had such an influence on the composition of God’s Trombones that we must linger over it for a moment before dealing with the work itself.
The Condemnation of Dialect
Shortly after Johnson had published Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917)—a third of which, let it not be forgotten, was made up of poems in Negro dialect similar to Dunbar’s—he became this idiom’s principal detractor. His new stand seems to have been decided on by 1918, since “The Creation,” which dates from this year and which he placed as the first sermon in God’s Trombones, is not written in dialect. But not until 1922, in the preface to his anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry, did he first formulate his reasons for having come to condemn the dialect. He blamed it especially for being “an instrument with but two full stops, humor and pathos,” and asserted “that there are phases of Negro life in the United States which cannot be treated in the dialect either adequately or artistically.” In these terms, the problem is obviously very poorly stated, and Johnson, as if aware of this, took it up again on the following page, specifying: “This is no indictment against the dialect as dialect, but against the mold of convention in which Negro dialect in the United States has been set.” But if the dialect was to be pronounced innocent the moment it had been accused, why was it brought into the case at all?
The real story behind this about-face may perhaps be found elsewhere. Much had changed since the days when Johnson reveled in his easily won successes on Tin Pan Alley, for now he was on the staff of a New York paper and was secretary general of the N.A.A.C.P, had an “in” with Congress and even the White House, and rubbed shoulders in New York and Washington, not with thespians any longer, but with people in society’s loftiest circles. In a word he had become, as McKay put it, “the aristocrat of Negro Americans.” By repudiating dialect, Johnson at the same time turned his back on a whole segment of his own past and voiced his desire for a respectability whose usefulness, in his new situation, became more apparent every day.
Yet the dialect was too ready an alibi. If he had sought to be entirely sincere with himself, would he not have had to tell himself that he felt far less guilty for having written in dialect than for having presented his fellow blacks as idlers and thieves? What, other than his own ambition, his eagerness to see his name displayed at the entrance of Broadway’s music halls, had locked him into this “conventional mold”? If Dunbar had let himself be pulled in this direction, at least he had the excuse of financial need. But Johnson had never known hunger. He had a college degree, he had become a school principal and a lawyer at the Jacksonville bar, and he had abandoned all that for the vainglory and the royalties offered by the world of song and show business.
These are some personal aspects that must be borne in mind when evaluating Johnson’s attitude toward dialect. He himself unintentionally revealed how inauthentic his attitude was, in the preface to the second edition of The Book of American Negro Poetry, in a passage that discusses the dialect poetry of Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown: “Several of the poets of the younger group, notably Langston Hughes and Sterling A. Brown, do use a dialect but it is not the dialect of the comic minstrel, tradition or of the sentimental plantation tradition; it is the common, racy, living, authentic speech of the Negro in certain phases of real life.” The distinction is valid, of course, but why not say outright that what has changed is not so much the dialect as the writers’ basic outlook, and that in this lies the whole difference between the minstrel tradition of former days and the Negro poetry of the rising generation? The important thing is not any changes that Langston Hughes or Sterling Brown may have made in spelling the dialect, but the fact that they no longer portray other blacks as ignoramuses, lazybones, and thieves; they no longer present them exclusively as clowns who pass their lives laughing and strumming the banjo, but as human beings confronted by life’s many problems—who laugh, of course, but who also weep, struggle, suffer, and die, crushed beneath the weight of injustice and their color. This is what makes good the sin of omission of which the minstrel and plantation traditions were guilty, and which such poets as Dunbar and Johnson, often too lightheartedly, chose to assume. The dialect itself was not evil; instead, it too often was but the innocent vehicle for evil.
Thus Johnson’s thesis can scarcely be defended. As it fumed out, it won him no disciples, and a poet like Sterling Brown briefly but energetically expressed his refusal to participate in any condemnation of dialect.
The Experiment of God’s Trombones
The case thus adjudged, it remains nevertheless that Johnson’s belated antipathy for dialect he’d noteworthy consequences in the free-verse sermons of God’s Trombones, which he succeeded in making a typically Negro achievement while eschewing any use of dialect. Here is his own account of the origins of this experiment:
What the colored poet in the United States needs to do is something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without, such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation. He needs a form that is freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and highest emotions and aspirations, and allow of the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment.
We will not insist on the fact that the dialect itself could have met all these demands, since the work of Sterling Brown is there to prove it. Let us simply examine the means Johnson used to carry out the program he had set himself, and estimate the extent to which his experiment may be considered a success.
His intent in writing God’s Trombones is succinctly expressed in these two sentences from the preface: “The old-time Negro preacher is rapidly passing. I have here tried sincerely to fix something of him.” The original idea was to begin the collection with a portrait of the preacher, “The Reverend Jasper Jones.” Extant is a typewritten manuscript of this poem of twenty-four rhymed couplets with the author’s annotations, but it is so poor a piece that Johnson’s final decision not to use it is easily understood. Thus, but for the references made in the preface, we have no direct portrait of the preacher, and to get an adequate view of him we must turn to the oratorical skills he displays in the opening prayer “Listen, Lord,” and in the following seven sermons.
The conventionality of these eight poems is already apparent from the fact that they are monologues, whereas in reality a part of the sermon, at least, would have consisted of a dialogue between preacher and congregation Here the presence of the latter is not even suggested, as it might have been by appropriate monologue technique—for example, by using the repeated question, as Irwin Russell and Page and Gordon had done. Nor is the monologue able to reproduce the oratorical gestures, always so important for the Negro preacher, who is equally actor and orator.
Thus Johnson, from the outset, imposed limits on his experiment. He had indicated what they were in the preface, and asked the reader to accept them.
In principle, the language of God’s Trombones is normal English, not Negro dialect, but here and there it is possible to note a few minor deviations from the norm. True, the dialect or familiar forms that creep in are for the most part American rather than specifically Negro. They include, for example, the intermittent usage of the double negation and of the gerundive preceded by the preposition “a”—except, however, in these two lines of “Noah Built the Ark,” in which “a-going” is not just typically Negro but directly borrowed from the first line of a spiritual:
God’s a-going to rain down rain on rain.
God’s a-going to loosen up the bottom of the deep.
Another Negro dialect form is the parasitical “a” often used by blacks to introduce a sort of syncopation into the English sentence:
Lord—ride by this morning—
Mount your milk-white horse,
And ride-a this morning—
or, again, in these lines:
And the old ark-a she begun to ride;
The old ark-a she begun to rock;
Yet another Negro dialect form is the redundant recourse to the auxiliary “done,” as in this example:
And now, O Lord—
When I’ve done drunk my last cup of sorrow—
But such forms are exceptional; no more than two or three dozen of them are to be noted in the more than 900 lines of God’s Trombones, and their contribution to the effect Johnson was aiming at is but subsidiary.
Much more effective in giving these sermons their Negro character are the countless, more or less extensive echoes of actual spirituals with which they are studded. Sometimes a mere word or expression that has long been familiar crops up in the sermon and by its own power suddenly evokes in the reader’s mind the whole naive imagery that makes up the religious context of the spirituals, to which the preacher untiringly returns to find subject matter for his sermon. There are the pearly gates and golden streets of the New Jerusalem, mentioned in Revelation, the custom of calling Jesus “Mary’s Baby,” and the warning words to sinners and backsliders that they should repent before it is too late. Elsewhere a line or two (or even an entire stanza) taken over bodily from a spiritual imperceptibly slips in at the end of a sermon. This is the signal awaited by the congregation for their voices to join in with the preacher’s; preaching then yields to song. And, finally, some sermons are constructed from beginning to end upon spirituals, borrowing their arguments and paraphrasing their lines. Thus “The Crucifixion” relies for its details on the spirituals “Look-a How Dey Done My Lord” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” “Let My People Go” is the account of Exodus, related on the lines of “Go Down, Moses,” with its classical parallel between the people of Israel and the black people; whereas in “The Judgment Day,” it is easy to pick out the very expressions used in the spirituals “In Dat Great Gittin’ up Mornin’,” “My Lord Says He’s Gwineter Rain Down Fire,” “My Lord, What a Mornin’,” and “Too Late, Sinnah.” These describe the Last Judgment, particularly the delicate mission of the Angel Gabriel who, with one foot on the mountaintop and the other in the middle of the sea, blows his trumpet gently at first and then “like seven peals of thunder” to awaken the dead and summon them before the Lord’s throne.
Because of their somewhat immoderate resort to the texts of the spirituals, these last three sermons are the least original in the volume. Yet Johnson gives a correct idea of the preacher’s technique, designed to move rather than convince his audience, alternately raising the congregation’s hopes and filling them with terror, and arousing their pity by presenting scenes from Holy Writ as though these were taking place before their eyes. The preacher “sees” what he is describing, and his hearers “see” through his eyes:
Up Golgotha’s rugged road
see my Jesus go.
see him sink beneath the load,
I see my drooping Jesus sink.
When Eve yields to the serpent’s wiles, the preacher is a witness to the scene. Again, together with his parishioners, he relives the betrayal by Judas so vividly that one expects them at any moment to step in so as to change the course of events:
Oh, look at black-hearted Judas—
Sneaking through the dark of the Garden—
Leading his crucifying mob.
Strike him down!
Why don’t you strike him down,
Before he plants his traitor’s kiss
Upon my Jesus’ cheek?
He is present, too, “on that great gettin’ up morning”: he “feels” the earth shudder, “sees” the graves burst open, and “hears” how the bones of those awakened from the dead click together.
The most personal aspect of the preacher’s art is what he creates out of his own fantasy with the aim of stirring the imaginations of his hearers. A ready fabulist, he constantly interpolates in order to supplement the bareness of the biblical narrative. Thus the creation of the world is unfolded before the eyes of the astounded congregation as though it were a fairy tale or a child’s game:
Then God reached out and took the light in his
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
and bulged the mountains up.
... God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
His preaching ever relies on the concrete, with an anthropomorphism that brings down to the human level the Eternal Father, who is addressed as one would speak to a friendly neighbor:
O Lord—open up a window of heaven,
And lean out far over the battlements of glory,
And listen this morning.
Particularly remarkable are the images the preacher uses to make himself understood by all. Witness the reproof administered to the Prodigal Son who has revolted against his Father:
Your arm’s too short to box with God.
... If allowance is made for his borrowings from the Bible, from the spirituals, and from the Negro sermons he had heard, what then is the poet’s share in God’s Trombones’? Johnson was certainly not the creator of these sermons but, as Synge remarked of his own indebtedness to the Irish people, every work of art results from a collaboration. In God’s Trombones the artist is clearly present on every page, and he gives even while he receives. The simplicity and clarity, so striking in these poems, are the fruits of his efforts. His musical sense is manifested in the choice of sonorities for the free-verse line which, in his hands, becomes docile and supple, and adjusts to the preacher’s rhythm as well as to the rise and fall of his voice. Taking what were, after all, the heterogeneous elements of his raw materials, the poet has marked them with the unity and the stamp of his own genius, so that these sermons, as they come from his hands, have undeniably become his own to some degree.
If he deserves any reproach, it might be for his excessive zeal in idealizing and refining—or, in other words, for having thought it necessary to impose too much respectability on essentially popular material whose crudity is one of its charms as it is also a voucher for its authenticity. His sermons are still folklore, perhaps, but stylized folklore.
Johnson’s experiment is not altogether comparable to Synge’s, though this had been his source of inspiration. There was some desire in both cases, no doubt, to rehabilitate a racial community that had long been oppressed and mocked by a more powerful Anglo-Saxon people. Synge’s work forms part of the Irish Renaissance, as Johnson’s belongs to the Negro Renaissance. In each case the writer chose to produce a work that would be typically national or racial, while deliberately discarding the speech of the minority in favor of English. But even apart from the fact that, compared with Synge’s lifework, God’s Trombones is of modest dimensions, its themes were already set and its plots already mapped out, so that the role of inventiveness could only be negligible. Thus the poet’s originality could hardly be exhibited except in his actual treatment of the material. While Synge did not overlook some opportunities for criticizing the Irish character, Johnson frankly aims at writing an apologia. Finally, even the linguistic experiment is not identical in the two writers. While Synge, utilizing the examples of folk speech which he had patiently collected, constructed for himself an extraordinary synthetic, artificial idiom, with intricate phrases and constructions that are his alone, Johnson relied much more widely on the English language’s normal turn of phrase. Though making generous use, in his sermons, of fragments from the spirituals, he almost always provided them first with the respectable externals of standard English. What is Negro in God’s Trombones is not the language as such, but the style and the outlook on life it reflects.
Successful as Johnson’s experiment was, its success nevertheless remained limited and contingent, for it depended in large measure on forces lying outside the work itself and from which, in view of the nature of the theme, it profited. For any subject but this, it would have been hard to find so favorable a combination of circumstances.
This work, furthermore, was the offspring of an outdated mentality. Like its author, the work set out to have a Negro soul, but one garbed in the distinction and respectability of whiteness. Despite appearances, its tendency was at odds with that total coming to awareness marked by the Negro Renaissance, and no more is needed to explain why God’s Trombones remained an isolated venture.
Source: Jean Wagner, “James Weldon Johnson,” in Black Poets of the United States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, translated by Kenneth Douglas, University of Illinois Press, 1973, pp. 356–384.
Payne, Ladell, ‘Themes and Cadences: James Weldon Johnson’s Novel,” The Southern Literary Journal, Vol XI, No. 2, Spring, 1979, p. 43-55.
Fleming, Robert E., James Weldon Johnson and Arna Wendell Bontemps: A Reference Guide, Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1978.
The introduction to this work gives a thorough, compact outline of Johnson’s life and amazing accomplishments, which clearly reflect on the style used in “The Creation.”
Fleming, Robert E., James Weldon Johnson, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.
In this book Fleming analyzes Johnson’s works both individually and in relation to one another. Chapter Three (“Johnson’s Poetry: The Two Voices”) follows Johnson’s progression from early dialect poems to the later free-form style.
Johnson, James Weldon, God’s Trombones, New York: The Viking Press, 1969.
The best explanation of Johnson’s strategy and of the history of the black preacher comes from the author himself, in the introduction to this book.
Levy, Eugene, James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.
This is one of the most thoroughly researched biographies of Johnson available.
Locke, Alan, “The Negro Poet and His Tradition,” in The Survey, Vol. LVIII, No. 9, August 1, 1927, p. 473-74.
In this early review of God’s Trombones, Locke rightly sees the poems as “folk-pictures” and praises Johnson for his ability to apply epic themes to the previously unrecognized talents of the preacher.