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About this poet

Born on June 17, 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon Johnson was encouraged by his mother to study English literature and the European musical tradition. He attended Atlanta University, with the hope that the education he received there could be used to further the interests of African Americans. After graduating, he took a job as a high school principal in Jacksonville.

In 1900, he wrote the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing" on the occasion of Lincoln's birthday; the song was immensely popular in the black community, and became known as the "Negro National Anthem." Johnson moved to New York in 1901 to work with his brother Rosamond, a composer; after attaining some success as a songwriter for Broadway, he decided in 1906 to take a job as a U.S. consul to Venezuela. While employed by the diplomatic corps, Johnson had poems published in The Century Magazine and The Independent.

In 1912, Johnson anonymously published his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (French & Co.), the story of a musician who rejects his black roots for a life of material comfort in the white world. The book explores the issue of racial identity in the twentieth century, a common theme for the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

With his talent for persuading people of differing ideologies to work together for a common goal, Johnson became the national organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1920. He edited The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt Brace, 1922), a major contribution to the history of African-American literature. His book of poetry God's Trombones (Viking Press, 1927) was influenced by his impressions of the rural South, drawn from a trip he took to Georgia while a freshman in college. It was this trip that ignited his interest in the African American folk tradition.

James Weldon Johnson died on June 26, 1938.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
Complete Poems (Penguin Books, 2000)
The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson (Oxford University Press, 1995)
Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day (Viking Press, 1930)
God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (Viking Press, 1927)
Fifty Years and Other Poems (The Cornhill Company, 1917)

Prose
Negro Americans, What Now? (Viking Press, 1934)
Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (Viking Press, 1933)
Black Manhattan (Alfred A. Knopf, 1930)
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (French & Co., 1912)

Mother Night


Eternities before the first-born day,
Or ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame,
Calm Night, the everlasting and the same,
A brooding mother over chaos lay.
And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay,
Shall run their fiery courses and then claim
The haven of the darkness whence they came;
Back to Nirvanic peace shall grope their way. 
  
So when my feeble sun of life burns out,
And sounded is the hour for my long sleep,
I shall, full weary of the feverish light,
Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt,
And heavy-lidded, I shall softly creep
Into the quiet bosom of the Night.

From The Book of American Negro Poetry, edited by James Weldon Johnson, published in 1922. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on August 18, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

From The Book of American Negro Poetry, edited by James Weldon Johnson, published in 1922. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on August 18, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson, born in Florida in 1871, was a national organizer for the NAACP and an author of poetry and nonfiction. Perhaps best known for the song "Lift Every Voice and SIng," he also wrote several poetry collections and novels, often exploring racial identity and the African American folk tradition.

by this poet

poem

How would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking 'neath the load we bear?
Our eyes fixed forward on a star?
Or gazing empty at despair?

Rising or falling? Men or things?
With dragging pace or footsteps fleet?
Strong, willing sinews in your wings?
Or tightening chains about your

poem

 (A Funeral Sermon)

Weep not, weep not,
She is not dead;
She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.
Heart-broken husband--weep no more;
Grief-stricken son--weep no more;
Left-lonesome daughter --weep no more;
She only just gone home.

Day before yesterday morning,
God was looking down from his great,
poem

Now thou art risen, and thy day begun.
How shrink the shrouding mists before thy face,
As up thou spring’st to thy diurnal race!
How darkness chases darkness to the west,
As shades of light on light rise radiant from thy crest!
For thee, great source of strength, emblem of might,
In