Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

The Ever-Expanding South: James Weldon Johnson and the Rhetoric of the Global Color Line

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

The Ever-Expanding South: James Weldon Johnson and the Rhetoric of the Global Color Line

Article excerpt

The influence of Latin America on James Weldon Johnson, as an author, an activist, and as the leader of the NAACP, is often overlooked despite a seven-year career as an American consul in Central and South America. Indeed, Johnson begins his autobiography, Along This Way (1933), by locating the origins of his family history not in the United States, as most African American autobiographies do, but in the Caribbean.1 And, while predominately defined by his struggle for African American civil rights, Johnson and his writings continually and consistently reflect a cosmopolitan engagement with Latin American concerns. His parallel interests in civil rights in the United States and in the politics of the larger hemisphere offer an opportunity to move beyond a strictly national perspective in examining race at the turn of the twentieth century. His body of work reveals how the international dynamics of racial oppression operate when placed in a hemispheric context. As Latino/a critics Edna Acosta-Belén and Carlos E. Santiago argue in "Merging Borders: The Remapping of America" (1998), there is a need for greater efforts to "extend the cultural parameters of analysis beyond those already imposed by spurious geographic national frontiers or constructed boundaries" as a way to explore "the cultural and racial diversity of the Americas - North and South - two intricate multicultural and multiracial spheres where we find diverse populations bound by a shared legacy of colonialism, racism, displacement, and dispersion."2 Therefore, by focusing on Johnson's connections to Latin America, his writings offer a lens with which to view the rhetoric of racial politics in the United States, while helping to displace the dominant North-South approach to studying Jim Crow segregation that often underrates the global impact of United States racism.

In his only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Johnson synthesized his experiences with Latinos and Latin Americans to question the predominately binary discussion of race by making Latinos central to the racial landscape. Johnson's later essays build upon his early interrogation of race to reveal the connections between racism and imperialism in Latin America and the Caribbean that culminate in Johnson's dedication to the liberation of Haiti, a nation he viewed as an important symbol of black self-determination. Though his rhetorical strategies vary from a hesitant embrace to outright denunciation of perialism, and his presentation of interethnic cooperation moves from hostile to collaborative, Johnson's underlying commitment to black rights determined his willingness to promote internationalist ideas at various points in his career.

At the same time, though he was deeply committed to defeating racism, Johnson's relationship to U.S. imperialism was vexed. Despite concerns about actions abroad after the Spanish- American War, he actively engaged in furthering national military and economic interests in Latin America when he served in the United States consulates. In 1906, using his knowledge of Spanish to further his career ambitions and with the help of Booker T. Washington, Johnson became the U.S. consul in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. In 1909, the consulate transferred him to Corinto, Nicaragua, where he played a role in protecting American interests during the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1912; Johnson's handover of Corinto to U.S. marines marked the beginning of three decades of occupation of the country. While Johnson himself served as an agent of American imperialism, his attitudes toward U.S. intervention were complicated and often contradictory.

Before joining the consulate, Johnson, with his brother Rosamond, wrote a comic opera called Tolosa about an American naval officer who romances a native girl on an island in the Pacific while attempting to annex it. Speculating on why the opera, was never produced, Johnson wrote in his autobiography: "the managers were a bit afraid of it; the SpanishAmerican War had just closed, and they may have thought that authences would consider a burlesque of American imperialism as unpatriotic. …

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