poem index

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 Ev'ry 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, 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, 1922), a major contribution to the history of African-American literature. His book of poetry God's Trombones (Viking, 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

Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917)
God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927)
Saint Peter Relates an Incident (1935)
Selected Poems (1936)
Self-Determining Haiti (1920)
The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson (1995)

Prose

Along This Way (1934)
Black Manhattan (1930)
Negro Americans, What Now? (1934)
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)

Mother Night

James Weldon Johnson, 1871 - 1928

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.

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon Johnson was a national organizer for the NAACP and an author of poetry and nonfiction

by this poet

poem

(A Prayer from God's Trombones)

O Lord, we come this morning
Knee-bowed and body-bent
Before Thy throne of grace.
O Lord--this morning--
Bow our hearts beneath our knees,
And our knees in some lonesome valley.
We come this morning--
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain,
With no merits of our own.
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
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I'm lonely—
I'll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light