James Weldon Johnson, Essays and Poems

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 the status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art. (688)

johnson

With this passage, from his preface to an anthology of black poetry, James Weldon Johnson summarized the politics of documenting and making known black cultural endeavors. Johnson would have said (and this seems to be the case) that it was not so much that the Harlem Renaissance created black cultural traditions in the United States. This had a long history going back to Phillis Wheatley. What he Harlem Renaissance saw was a conscious effort to articulate for white America what that tradition was and what the contribution of blacks was to American cultural life. Sure there were new things going on—ragtime, the impressive contribution of Caribbean writers, an explosion of black nationalism, growing interest in folk lore, and a vibrant debate about how artists should present black life in America—but all of these had suppressed roots. Johnson was eager to reveal those roots.

In the preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, Johnson revisits something he wrote in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, summarizing what he saw as the fundamental cultural contribution of African-Americans to American culture: the “Uncle Remus” stories, slave songs, the cakewalk, and ratime. As he shows, these are really four trees, each with their own branches. In a sense they come down to folklore, music, poetry, and dance. Much of the introduction is devoted to tracing the genealogy of black poetry from the slave songs (the so-called “spirituals”). He returns to the Afro-centric suggestion I wrote about in the last post.

This power of the Negro to suck up the national spirit from the soil and create something artistic and original, which, at the same time, possesses the note of universal appeal, is due to the remarkable gift of adaptability; it is more than adaptability, it is a tranfusive quality. And the Negro has exercised this transfusive quality not only here in America, where the race lives in large numbers, but in European countries, where the number has been almost infinitesimal. (697)

He then goes onto point out the African heritage of Alexander Suma, Alexander Pushkin, and Colerdige-Taylor. The problem in America, holding back an even more fundamental contribution to world culture is the “grueling race-struggle” that consumes all the intellectual energies of both the black and the white South. The Souls of Black Folks is just one piece of evidence suggesting the extent of what was lost. Making matters worse, the black artist has been placed into “a certain artistic niche.” (It is for this reason, it seems, that Johnson refused to write in dialect even when dealing with something as grassroots as religious rhetoric (see “God’s Trombones” below).

A similar mixed feeling comes across in his preface to The Second Book of Negro Spirituals. The spirituals are clearly a major contribution to world literature and culture, but they are also the funnel that so much black creativity was forced through due to centuries of slavery and enforced illiteracy. Even this tradition had been truncated as people simply forgot the songs and poems. “Indeed, the Spirituals taken as a whole contain a record and a revelation of the deeper thoughts and experiences of the Negro in this country for a period beginning three hundred years ago and covering two and a half centuries. If you which to know what they are you will find them written more plainly in these songs than in any pages of history. The Spirituals together with the secular songs—the work songs and the sex songs—furnish a full expression of the life and thought of the otherwise inarticulate masses of the Negro race in the United States.” (731–732) He ends his preface with a suggestion that the “Spirituals” will continue to be a rich source for ragtime and blues composers.

“The Dilemma of the Negro Author” and “Race Prejudice and the Negro Artist” makes distinct but related arguments. Johnson seems to be borrowing from W. E. B. Du Bois’ idea of “double consciousness” and the “veil” when talking about black authors, who must present their works for both a black and a white audience. In fact, catering to either audience is debilitating, but necessary given the realities of racism in America. The long-term consequence of this, however, has been a slow changing of attitudes toward blacks rooted in greater national appreciate for their cultural contributions. Again, Johnson returns to his beloved ragtime as evidence of this change. “In this way the Negro is bringing about an entirely new national conception of himself; he has placed himself in an entirely new light before the American people. I do not think it too much to say that through artistic achievement the Negro has found a means of getting at the very core of the prejudice against him.” (765)

Black Manhattan is one of those works I have come across several times in anthologies, but only in abridged format. Each time I am certain that the whole is very rich indeed, but I have not yet had a chance to look at the entire thing. In the passages included here we are given a street-level perspective on the cultural life of black New York during the Harlem Renaissance. For all the thinking we do about culture it is important to keep in mind the sheer joy involved in consuming culture. I still hope to read the entire thing someday.

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The anthology in my hands (as always the Library of America edition for those not keeping track) includes a sampling of Johnson’s poetry. Some are intimate and beautiful. Some are political and deal with the failures of the American dream for African-Americans. Many begin to explore the African roots of the black experience (this may be of interest of those who want to historicize the philosophy of Afrocentrism). Yet others feed off of black folklore. The pillar in this collection is “God’s Trombone,” which attempts to recreate (although not in dialect) the rhetoric and performance of the “old-time Negro preacher.” I was struck by the use of repetition, which must have been a device used to keep the performativity on high and aid memorization. Clearly the line between song and preaching is fine. Here are two tastes of that:

Young man, come away from Babylon,
That hell-border city of Babylon.
Leave the dancing and gambling of Babylon,
The wine and whiskey of Babylon,
The hot-mouthed women of Babylon;
Fall down on your knees,
And say in your heart:
I will arise and go to my Father. (848)

On Calvary, on Calvary,
They crucified my Jesus.
They nailed him to the cruel tree,
And the hammer!
The hammer!
The hammer!
Rang through Jerusalem’s streets.
The hammer!
The hammer!
The hammer!
Rang through Jerusalem’s streets. (857)

trombone

For anarchists, what is most important in these texts I reviewed today is that they reveal the cultural cost of hierarchy. James Weldon Johnson was clearly not an anarchist, but he knew the impact of racial hierarchy on a people’s intellectual life. In the midst of the celebration of black people’s contribution to American culture, Johnson is constantly mourning the numerous works that were never created, or forgotten, due to slavery and its legacy. Even whites suffered from this, which is why he thinks the white South was incapable of producing artists, too much of its intellectual effort was devoted to propping up power. Is there not truth in that? It is easy to think about how many Mozarts have been lost to the factories and mines. How many Mozarts were lost to the bureaucratic job or the mundane tasks of propping up the ideologies of the power? How much creativity do we squander because high school guidance counselors advise students into business school and toward other “practical” majors? Even if we can begin to measure the cost of government and capitalism in blood and toil, can we even begin to measure its cost in lost creativity?

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