James Weldon Johnson, Editorials and Essays

In 1914, James Weldon Johnson became an editor of the newspaper The New York Age, a major African-American activist origin with its roots in the nineteenth century. He would spend the next ten years writing daily editorials for the newspaper. In addition to these editorials, Johnson was an active essay writer and book editor. His work in these areas seems to fall into roughly two areas: articles about African-American cultural or artistic expressions, and articles that can best be defined as propaganda for black activists. Both of his areas of interest remain of interest, but I suspect his work on black culture will have a longer shelf-life.

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As you would expect, many of the New York Age editorials take on the political issues of the day, such as Wilson’s expansion of Jim Crow policies into Washington D.C., the production of The Birth of a Nation¸ the Great Migration, the 1919 Race Riots in Chicago, and service in World War I. As far as I can tell, most of his positions on these issues line up pretty closely with W. E. B. Du Bois. The black nationalist argument against serving in the military in World War I was rejected by both because they saw it as a way to reaffirm the importance of black America to the nation. Johnson’s criticism of Marcus Garvey is also similar. In their opinion, Garvey was a megalomaniac who undermined the struggle for social equality by fighting for separation. The Great Migration is an expression of the cultural, social, and economic strength and autonomy of black America, not a deep desire to flee the South or seek separation from America (although perhaps from the white South). There articles are interested to look at and actually provide a good summary into this strain of early twentieth century black thinking.

I would like to talk more about Johnson’s cultural logic, because it is where he seems to really shine and where he goes beyond propaganda and politics. His starting point is the fundamental creativity of black people—and it seems all non-whites. It is not just that blacks made a measurable contribution to American cultural life (the narrator in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man lists four), suitable to be recognized and “celebrated.” Johnson argues instead for an almost Afrocentric position. In an article on “the poor white musician,” he wrote:

The truth is, the pure white race has not originated a single one of the great, fundamental intellectual achievements which have raised man in the scale of civilization. The alphabet, the art of letters, of poetry, of music, of sculpture, of painting, of the drama, of architecture; numbers, the science of mathematics, of astronomy, of philosophy, of logic, of physics, of chemistry; the use of metals and the principles of mechanics were all invented or discovered by darker and, what are, in many cases, considered inferior, races. (619)

Of course, Johnson lived in an era where racial thinking was dominant and it is forgivable that he extends the artificial concept of race to pre-modern achievements (this seems to be the major sin of Afrocentrism).

He makes the same point about contemporary black writers, writing a bold defense and celebration of Claude McKay. (“No Negro poet has sung more beautifully of his own race than McKay and no Negro poet that equaled the power with which he expresses the bitterness that so often rises in the heart of the race.” (647)) If he is defending McKay, he is certainly seeing a deeper purpose of art than mere political propaganda.

Aside from the a collection of the editorials, the Library of America anthology has seven essays and a few chapters from Black Manhattan, Johnson’s exploration of New York after the Great Migration. These were all published between 1919 and 1930. Three of them—“The Riots,” “Self-Determining Haiti,” and Lynching—America’s National Disgrace”—are best looked at as political tracts on some of the major racial issues of the period, specifically colonialism and racial violence. “The Riots” is a succinct argument for the virtue of self-defense against violence, especially when the government fails to protect people through the law. The right of self-defense then falls to the people. “The Negroes saved themselves and saved Washington by their determination not to run, but to fight—fight in defense of their lives and their homes. If the white mob had gone on unchecked—and it as only the determined effort of black men that checked it—Washington would have been another and worse East St. Louis.” (658) This is an important article for the people of Ferguson to re-read today.

“Self-Determining Haiti” is the only essay in this collection that deals directly with US colonialism in the Caribbean, which has been a long-standing question for African Americans since the days of Toussaint. Here, Johnson focuses on the 1914 US occupation. Johnson argues that while there are numerous economic and political causes of the invasion, the root of all US imperialism was racial prejudice. Important for us is the reminder of the collaboration of financial interests and racism. He writes: “And this is the people whose ‘inferiority,’ whose ‘retrogression,’ whose ‘savagery,’ is advanced as a justification for intervention—for the ruthless slaughter of three thousand of its practically defenseless songs, with the deaths of a score of our own boys for the utterly selfish exploitation of the country by American big finance, for the destruction of America’s most precious heritage—her traditional fair play, her sense of justice, her aid to the oppressed.” (687) Notice with me how his language works to fit his own position and his own advocacy within the American tradition.

Johnson’s interest in lynching is about its role in souring race relationship, more than to make an argument for a need for greater legal order. It is takes for granted that lynching is outside of the law, but the solution is not necessarily more law. In fact, there was no shortage of courts in the early twentieth century South. No one was lynched because of a court backlog. If anything lynching was a weapon of white supremacy, which was itself backed by the institutional power of states. Nevertheless, Johnson concludes that the solution to lynching is “good government,” but perhaps that means a bit more than a new anti-lynching bill.

In the next post, I will look at Johnson’s cultural writings and poetry in more depth.

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Charlest Chesnutt, “The House Behind the Cedars” and “The Marrow of Tradition”

“As a matter of fact, substantially all of my writings, with the exception of The Conjure Woman, have dealt with the problems of people of mixed blood, which, while in the main the same as those of the true Negro, are in some instances and in some respects much more complex and difficult of treatment, in fiction as in life.” (910-911)  The Library of American collection of Charles Chesnutt’s writings ends with his essay “Post-Bellum-Pre-Harlem”, which considered the black literary scene in American in the later 19th century and is semi-autobiographical (Chesnutt being one of the first generation of black writers after the war – and the first to seriously explore the short story).  I through this quote up, in part to justify my comparatively terse treatment of Chesnutt’s work.  In truth, I am behind on my schedule, but I am not sure I would have much more to stay if I spread this out over two posts.  So, here I will consider Chesnutt’s two major novels The House Behind the Cedars and The Marrow of Tradition.  They look at the dilemma of the color line the personal level (House Behind the Cedars) and the institutional (The Marrow of Tradition).

House

The first novel tells the story of a young biracial woman, who goes with his brother to a new city in order to “pass” as whites.  While there, her brother, a promising lawyer, moves into the various circles of society.  Eventually, the young woman, Rena, meets a white man who courts her.  They fall in love and set to marry.  This engagement, if not the feelings the suitor has for Rena, falls apart when Rena’s secret is exposed.  Complicating Rena’s life are the pressures of her family and community that hope she will marry a locally influential “widower” (he was indeed abusive).  Her cousin and best friend, Frank, secretly loves her as well.  In a rather too sentimental ending, Rena collapses from the pressures of her disastrous love life and soon dies, ending the novel.  The novel does do a nice job of discussing the difficulty of passing – in respect to one’s hometown and culture.  Locally, Rena’s family had marriage plans for her.  In order to pass as white she would have had to abandon forever the society of her birth.  Her failure to turn her back on tradition (understandable to be sure) is what exposes her secret.  Chesnutt reminds us that the color line is as much a product of education as of color.  Other biracial characters cannot “pass” due to their education.  When Rena’s white suitor breaks off the engagement, he tells Rena’s brother that he “shall never be able to think of you as other than a white man,” largely due to his education and success (369).  This makes the color line ridiculous and suggests there was a deeper line of culture that intersected at certain points the line of tradition.

I found The Marrow of Tradition, a bit more thematically interesting mostly because it deals with the institutions of racial oppression.  It seems to me, that any struggle for liberty must take on institutionalized power.  No matter of personal growth is adequate.  (Even Rena’s suitor evolved in his views on the color line, but this did little to avert tragedy.  The marriage was institutionally impossible.)   The Marrow of Tradition is set in the context of the efforts to institutionalize white supremacy in disfranchisement laws.  It is set in Wellington (based on Wilmington North Carolina). To aid this efforts to institutionalize racism, one of the novel’s major characters Major Carteret uses his newspaper to ferment racial hatred.   His own family has close ties to the local black community, through the history of slavery, employment, and his wife’s father who remarried a black woman and gave birth to some biracial children.  These connections complicate the plot in interesting ways.  We are constantly reminded that there are not two separate communities in Wellington, but rather one integrated society rife with internal contradictions.  However, Carteret’s racism is on display throughout the novel.  When his son requires surgery for a throat obstruction, he calls in a Pennsylvania doctor, who brings with him a young black doctor, Miller, who is returning to his hometown anyway.  Carteret does not allow the black doctor to perform the surgery.  Miller’s wife, Janet, is actually Mrs. Carteret’s half-sister through their father.  Later in the novel, an older white woman Polly Ochitree is killed by Tom Delamere, over gambling debts.  He successfully frames Sandy, a long-time black servant of the Delamere family.  A lynching of Sandy is narrowly averted by the intervention of the patriarch of the Delamere family, who seems to be a man of integrity, even as his family profited from racial oppression.  His defense of Sandy is rooted in white privileged and a belief that “his servants” raised by his family could never commit a crime as vile as murder.

A lynching adverted, the novel continues with the efforts of Carteret to implement white supremacy by using the media to stir up racial hostilities.  These efforts reach their climax in a race riot that leaves several blacks dead, including Miller’s child. As the novel ends, Carteret’s child is again stricken ill and requires surgery.  Miller first refuses to treat him.  Only with Mrs. Carteret convinced her half-sister, does Dr. Miller treat the child.

Chesnutt describes the theme of the novel as the power of tradition.  He believed that only by confronting tradition could the problem of the color line be resolved.  “Tradition made the white people masters, rulers, who absorbed all the power, the wealth, the honors of the community and jealously guarded this monopoly, with white they claimed to be divinely endowed, by denying to those who were not of their cast the opportunity to acquire any of these desirable things.  Tradition, on the other hand, made the Negro a slave, an underling, existing by favor and not by right, his place the lowest in the social scale, to which, by the same divine warrant, he was hopelessly confined.  The old order has passed away, by these opinions, deeply implanted in the consciousness of two races, still persist, and The Marrow of Tradition seeks to show the efforts of the people of a later generation to adjust themselves in this traditional atmosphere to the altered conditions of a new era.” (872)  Yet, when reading the novel, I am struck by how difficult racial supremacy was to maintain.  Given this tradition, Carteret still had to apply violence, the media, economic oppression, legal injustices, and even a lynch mob to implement his vision of racial supremacy.  This is not to say that tradition is not powerful, but it alone cannot maintain chains.

Image from the Wilmington Race Riot

Image from the Wilmington Race Riot