James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way (1933): Part One

In these latter years, since I have witnessed and participated in so many hard fights by Negros, through petitions, legal proceedings, and by political action, to secure high schools, I look back with almost unbelief at the simplicity, the assurance and ease with which I accomplished what I set out to do. Scarcely did the school board, to say nothing of the white people in general of Jacksonville, know it was being done. This is all there was to the plan in its beginnings: I first got the members of the class interested in the project; then I persuaded their parents to let them come back in the following year. (275)

In case you need it spelled out, that is a superb example of direct action by—in this case—a school principal. No law suits, no demonstrations, not direct confrontation to the power regimen. When James Weldon Johnson wanted to start a high school for black children, he just did it and dared the school board to stop him. How much of the struggle for racial equality was fought in just this way? Perhaps more than our standard textbook descriptions of the civil rights movement suggests.

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Along This Way is the autobiography of James Weldon Johnson, written five or six years before his death. It is one of the most interesting and compelling autobiographies I had a chance to read. We learn that there was much in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man that was truth. He did learn Spanish from cigar rollers, went to school in Atlanta, had a familiarity with both Florida and New York City, participated in the black cultural life of the turn of the last century. All of this Johnson had in common with his protagonist. Also similar—but I guess this was someone everything in a racially-divided society came to terms with—was the education about racial hierarchy, taught at a young age.

The autobiography is in four parts. Part one focuses on Johnson’s upbringing, early education, intellectual growth, and life in college. Part two covers mostly the period where he was principal of Stanton School in Jacksonville, but this was also a period where he was intensely active in writing music and even operas along with his brother. For a period of years, this activity seemed to take up more of his time and energy than his full-time job as principal. (Parts three and four will be looked at in the next post).

Looking back on his life, Johnson was acutely aware of hierarchy and institutional rules. He experienced this in his family, but also in his education. His college created a very rigid disciplinary system suggesting an effort to control almost every aspect of his life. He recalled one moment when he stole away for a smoke, only to find out the next day the college’s surveillance system (whether it was a direct gaze or informers) revealed his crime to the authorities. Meetings with women were similarly regulated and controlled. We learned earlier in the story, however, that learning to smoke as an important part of his education as any other and was key to his social network in his teenage years. The big rules, however, were those of a racist society and Jim Crow.

We learn that before he was a formal activist for civil rights, he was challenging racism in his everyday life through evasion and sometimes direct confrontation. In one wonderful example, he challenged racial divisions in the train cars by pointing out that he could not stay in the “colored” car because some whites stayed there. (This seemed to be a common crossing of the color line.) He said that if he was to break the law, he would prefer to do it in first class. We learn about Homer Plessy or Rosa Parks, but I suspect incidents like this were actually part of the everyday life in the Jim Crow South. The point of all of this was that the lines were surprisingly fragile. It was because they were so fragile that force had to be so commonly applied. In another example we are presented with, Johnson was merely seen in public with a light-skinned woman and was nearly lynched. He reply to the police was, “The lady with me is white, but no legally so.” (316) His conclusion from this incident is important to reflect on, especially in an age where sexual possessiveness still inspires violence.

Through it all I discerned one clear and certain truth: in the core of the heart of the American race problem the sex factor is rooted; rooted so deeply that it is not always recognized when it shows at the surface. Other factors are obvious and are the ones we dare to deal with; but, regardless of how we deal with these, the race situation will continue to be acute as long as the sex factor persists. Taken alone, it furnished a sufficient mainspring for the rationalization of all the complexes of white racial superiority. It may be innate; I do not know. But I do know that it is strong and bitter; and that its strength and bitterness are magnified and intensified by the white man’s perception, more or less, of the Negro complex of sexual superiority.” (318)

This autobiography had a wonderful start. I expect the second half to deal more with Johnson’s life as an activist and writer. I look forward to thinking on his recollections.

By the way, if you have not hear it. This is “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by Johnson and his brother Rosamond and sometimes called the “Negro National Hymn.”

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