Black American Prose Writers: Before the Harlem Renaissance

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview
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James Weldon Johnson

NEITHER OF JAMES WELDON JOHNSON'S parents had been slaves before the Civil War. His father, James, was born free in Virginia in 1830; his mother Helen Duttel was part Haitian, part French, and a member of the Bahamian black middle class. James William ("James Weldon" after 1913) was bom on June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida, after his family escaped the economic depression in Nassau at that time.

In Florida, James, Sr., provided his family with a middle-class life accessible to only a small minority of blacks in the South of the late 1800s. As a teenager, Johnson visited New York and became fascinated with city life. At seventeen he worked as a secretary to a white physician and research scientist, Thomas Osgood Summers, whose character greatly influenced him. Summers saw Johnson as a social equal, encouraging the young man to read and write poetry.

At Atlanta University, modeled after Yale, Johnson received a classical education and wished to pursue public service; he was often an active participant in formal debates on the issue of race. Upon graduation, and after a stint as a principal, Johnson established the first high school for blacks, as well as creating America's first black daily newspaper, the Jacksonville Daily American. Upon its financial collapse, Johnson studied law and in 1896 was admitted to the Florida bar.

Johnson practiced law for part of the year but traveled to New York in the summer months to work with his brother, John Rosamund, and other black performers bound for Broadway and Europe. The Johnson brothers employed popular black imagery but avoided standard racist vocabulary. One of the earliest songs composed by the Johnsons, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," was composed for an Abraham Lincoln birthday celebration in 1900; this song was later adopted by the NAACP as their official song.

Johnson, in his early dialect poems and lyrics, drew upon a genre full of racial stereotypes, but he also accepted the reality of that dialect as an authentic language. He wished to reveal the deeper themes of history and


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