Grace and James Weldon Johnson

Along this Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson

An Introduction to Along This Way:  The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson

By Dr. Sondra Kathryn Wilson

       Few men and women have been privileged to live the philosophy of life that James Weldon Johnson recounts in Along This Way.  Johnson's personal narrative provides one of the richest sources available for those seeking insight into the literary and general history of this nation.  Historian John Hope Franklin wrote that "It is difficult to imagine the Harlem Renaissance without James Weldon Johnson.  It is impossible to understand the place of African Americans in the life of this country without Along This Way."  Johnson's autobiography relates his times as a leading champion of a race's struggle for freedom, and reveals his own triumphs over a system of institutional racism to become a man of recognized distinction in numerous fields.  As an educator, lawyer, diplomat, newspaper editor, lyricist, poet, novelist, essayist, and reformer, Johnson illustrates through his multiple careers the full context of the black struggle.  And these myriad careers can also be viewed within the framework of his roles as cultural and race leader.
       Some historians have written that Johnson's contribution to his race was most effectively expressed through his literary works.  Conversely, some assert that his greatest contribution was made in the arena of civil rights.  In working to uplift his race, through one means or the other, Johnson often used both concomitantly.  The fact that he could simultaneously be a leader of the Harlem Renaissance and of the NAACP illustrates how closely the two movements conformed. It is this duality that distinguishes Johnson as one of the exceptional figures of the twentieth century and beyond.
       Johnson thought many white Americans were oblivious to the harsh physical, economic, and psychological effects of racial prejudice on black Americans.  He surmised that if white America could look beyond the stereotypes and realize the enormous burdens of racial discrimination, they would want to do something about this egregious injustice.  Johnson accepted the double challenge of interpreting and extolling black literature and leading the fight for social and political justice.  My aim here, therefore, is to discuss what Johnson conceptualized and communicated in his dual role as cultural and race leader.

       NAACP officials hosted a black tie dinner in the elegant ballroom of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City on the evening of Thursday, May 14, 1931, to honor James Weldon Johnson upon his retirement as leader of the civil rights organization.  This affair, probably the most remarkable of its kind in the 1930s, included a diverse gathering of many of the most distinguished and talented people from practically every professional community in America.  The power of Johnson's personality and the range of his achievements were commemorated by those who came to honor him and were evidenced in the tributes they paid.  The literary critic Carl Van Doren said of the guest of honor:  "He is an alchemist-he transformed baser metals into gold."  Van Doren's pronouncement was befitting because Johnson had indeed used his brilliance and racial heritage to transform some of the most obscure expressions of black culture through literature.  He elevated and brought those aspects of the black experience into American life and world culture.
       One of the best representations of Johnson as an "alchemist" is his most famous work God's Trombones:  Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, published in 1927.  In this collection of sermons, Johnson revealed to the world the creative genius of the unlettered black preachers.  To the degree that these sermons were thought of as literature, they were perceived by some to be at the bottom of the cultural barrel.  The old-time sermonizers were shunned and rebuked even by many of their own race.  Johnson understood that many African Americans were ashamed of the so-called "ignorant" preacher and his exhortations.  In his preface to God's Trombones, Johnson wrote the following:
       The old-time Negro preacher has not yet been given
       the niche in which he properly belongs.  He has been
       portrayed as a semi-comic figure.  He had, it is true, his
       comic aspects, but on the whole he was an important
       figure and at bottom a vital factor.

The following are some lines from the sermon "Prodigal Son," in God's Trombones:

               Young man-
               Young man-
               Your arms too short to box with God.
               But Jesus spake in a parable, and he said:
               A certain man had two sons,
               Jesus didn't give this man a name,
               But his is God Almighty.
               And Jesus didn't call these sons by name,
               But every young man,
               Every where,
               Is one of these two sons…

Johnson transformed the folk sermons of the old-time preacher into beautiful and inspiring poetry.  These poems represent the first successful presentation by any poet, black or white, of a people's religious exhortations.  By preserving a race's oral history, Johnson single-handedly made these powerful sermons an important part of American literature.
       We can also see Johnson as an alchemist in his preface to The Books of American Negro Spirituals.  In this seminal work, published in 1925 and 1926, Johnson adroitly delineates the origin, artistic character, and historical significance of the spirituals.  The noted poet Carl Sandburg described Johnson's interpretation of this African American art form as "the best statement and explanation of the singing of the spirituals that I have ever seen."  Johnson writes, "But from whom did these songs spring-these songs unsurpassed among the folk songs of the world and, in the poignancy of their beauty, unequaled?...this music which is America's only folk music and…the finest distinctive artistic contribution she has to offer the world."  He understood the power of the Negro spirituals to change the attitude of white America.  Of this study of the spirituals, he wrote, "I was in touch with the deepest revelation of the Negro's soul and that has yet been made, and I felt attuned to it."  When white America first heard the spirituals, they felt sympathy for the "pitiful Negroes."  By the 1920s, however, white Americans felt not pity but deference for the creative genius of the race.
       Because James Weldon Johnson was able to bring white and black America together through his literary and other writings, I have called him a linking agent for black America.  He reduced and overcame many of the barriers that had made communication across the races so difficult, and had long prevented the smooth and efficient transfer of knowledge.  Johnson's ability to be an effective linking agent was due to his deftness at blending two cultures in his literary works.  For example, in God's Trombones he built a premise that, although lacking vociferousness in its appeal, allowed him to fuse two traditions; the English tradition with the "developing black ethos."  This fusion enabled him to found a tradition that had not existed before-what he called conscious art-reared on the foundation of black folk art.  He wrote, "when a Negro author does write so as to fuse white and black America into one interested and approving audience, he has performed no slight feat, and has most likely done a sound piece of literary work."  The noted philosopher Alain Locke maintained that Johnson's literary works were racial in substance but universal in appeal.
       A further testament to Johnson's role as linking agent between white and black America are his numerous essays published in white journals and newspapers, including The New York Times, The Nation, Century,  Harper's, Mercury; and The Tribune. Concurrently, his writings were apprearing in black journals and newspapers, including The Crisis, The New York Age, and The Opportunity.  Johnson's role as linking agent is further evidenced by his appointment as New York University's first African American professor.  This position made him the first of his race to teach African American literature at a white university.  When he died in 1938, officials at New York University had developed a special program that would have enabled Johnson to teach black literature at other universities on behalf of New York University.  Thus, had he lived, African American studies would have begun in the 1930s rather than the 1960s.
       His personal narrative also reveals his role as linking agent.  Along This Way was the first autobiography by an African American to be reviewed in The New York Times.  Carl Van Doren called it a book any man might be proud to have written about a life any man might be proud to have lived.
       As linking agent, Johnson attempted to connect all Americans through literature by debunking the stereotypes about his people.  Further, he used literature to call attention to the urgent political and social plight of black Americans.  For example, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, published in 1912, relates the life of a character of mixed ancestry who passes for white.  It purports to be the true revelation of its narrator's feelings and thoughts of the burdensome secret of his life-that although he lives as a white man, he is by ancestry an African American.  Addressing the issue of "passing" was not Johnson's major objective.  Rather, he was addressing the social and political injustices that made "passing" a way out.  Johnson wanted to emphasize in this novel that, in America, the very fact that a person is black is adequate information to determine what should be thought of that individual and how he should be treated.  Moreover, he wanted to make the point that white America sees little need to find out who a black person is, or what his talents, interests, ambitions, and thoughts might be.  In 1917 Johnson produced his first book of poetry, Fifty Years and Other Poems.  This volume establishes him as the second most important African American poet since Paul Laurence Dunbar.  In this work, he includes poems in dialect and poems in the English tradition.  His literary mentor, Columbia University's Brander Matthews, describes this book as "cry for recognition, for sympathy, for understanding, and above all, for justice."
       Johnson's second volume of poetry, Saint Peter Relates an Incident (1935), is an observance of black patriotism as well as an indictment of racial inequities.  These poems can be viewed with two distinct contexts.  The first consists of poems built upon racial themes but having some universal appeal-mainly protest poems and poems in dialect.  The second context is comprised of themes expressing entirely universal sentiments.
       Johnson edited the first black anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry, in 1922.  This volume consists of a collection of poems by African American poets from 1750 to the 1920s.  It reveals the undeniable creative genius of black artists and their irrefutable contribution to American literature.  Black Manhattan, a later work of Johnson's published in 1930, discusses the history of African Americans in New York City from the seventeenth century to the triumphant Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
       W.E. B. Du Bois is generally given credit for having settled the question of whether the African American was even a human being; but it is James Weldon Johnson who must be credited with revealing the creative genius of African Americans.  No doubt the foundation of the African American tradition in American literature has its paternity more in James Weldon Johnson than in anyone else.  As poet-writer Sterling Brown once said, "His interpretations of Negro poetry and music, by his occasional essays on the problems of Negro writers, and by his own creative works, James Weldon Johnson succeeded more than any predecessor in furthering the cause of Negro artists."  Alain Locke postulated that "Mr. Johnson brought, indeed, the first intellectual substance to the content of our poetry."  In 1935 Johnson's NAACP successor Walter White wrote:  "There is hardly a Negro artist who is not indebted to him {Johnson} for spiritual and material assistance."
       Johnson advanced a theory that supported the worth of black literature and art.  Citing such music as spirituals, ragtime, blues, and jazz, as well as other art forms, he contended that "it is more or less generally acknowledged that the only things artistic that have sprung from American soil and been universally recognized as distinctively American products are the folk creations of the Negro."  Today, acclaimed black art such as gospel, rhythm and blues, and rap music further substantiate Johnson's pronouncement. No one can deny his forecast regarding what a literary movement could do for the status of African Americans in national and international life.  It is a fact that today black literature and art have been amalgamated into world culture.
     Although Johnson was a giant in sophisticated literary circles, he accomplished even more.  As leader of the NAACP during the 1920s, he sat at the center of black thought and action while giving direction and voice to the association's burgeoning movement of racial uplift.
       Political disenfranchisement, economic insecurity, lynchings, and mob violence, and inadequate educational opportunities were the backdrop of Johnson's fourteen-year NAACP tenure.  In short, blanket segregation had permeated the social and political fabric of American life.  An anomaly of his legacy is that out of these bitter conditions came his brilliant and beautiful literary creations.  Concurrently, these same conditions served as the basis of the NAACP civil rights agenda.
       In order to conceive Johnson's role as leader of the largest and most powerful civil rights organization in the nation, we must first regard his role as editorial writer for The New York Age.  It was in this role that Johnson first became visible as a national race leader.  And it was in the pages of The Age that his political and social philosophy first emerged.
       He accepted the position as editor of The New York Age in 1914 at the age of forty-three.  For nearly ten years, his weekly column appeared beneath the masthead, "View and Reviews."  He had achieved wide recognition in a number of careers, having been principal, songwriter on Broadway, lawyer, newspaper publisher, and United States Consular.  He had also published a volume of poetry and a novel.  As Age editorial writer, he could, for the first time, identify and articulate his positions on the contemporary issues related to black life.  Working directly for the black cause, we see him document the most powerful protest voice he had yet revealed.  He articulated the purpose of his editorials in his second column.  "Black papers are not simply newspapers," he proclaimed.  "…they are race papers.  They are organs of propaganda."  He also made it known in his early columns that he favored protest for justice tied to as much unyielding political and economic pressure as black people could muster.  It is in these writings that we see Johnson generating public opinion to build the early civil rights movement in America.
       I have called his Age editorials a colossal rebuttal against the absurdity of American race prejudice.  He used his power as a writer to present race prejudice as such a foolish and absurd thing that even those who practiced it should have been compelled to see that it was ridiculous.  For example, by his trenchant focus on lynching and mob violence, he ingeniously revealed to his readers the contradictions between white America's actions and the aims of the United States Constitution.  He articulated, too, that it was "the Negro" who believed the Constitution meant exactly what it said.  This led him to conclude that, in a large extent, blacks were being better Americans than many white citizens.
       The New York Age had close ties to W. E. B. Du Bois's adversary, Booker T. Washington.  After Washington's death in 1915, his confidents-Emmett Scott, Charles Anderson, and Age editor Fred R. Moore-still opposed the policies of Du Bois and the NAACP.  Nevertheless, Johnson's column was being read on a steady basis by liberal philanthropist J. E. Spingarn, who served as the chairman of the board of the NAACP.  Other NAACP officials such as Du Bois, Mary White Ovington, and Oswald Garrison Villard were also studying Johnson's words in The Age.  Spingarn and NAACP Secretary Roy Nash believed the association needed among its leadership a man with Johnson's credentials and skills. Nash wrote to Spingarn that "Johnson is a good talker with a social bent," and "would offend no group or audience."  Spingarn noted with apparent delight that it would be a "coup d'etat" to bring into the NAACP a man from The New York Age, a paper with such close ties to Booker T. Washington's men.  Johnson joined the staff of the NAACP in December 1916, in the position of field secretary.  His responsibilities in this position included establishing branches for the organization.
       The literary critic William Stanley Braithwaite has asserted that God made James Weldon Johnson a creative artist, but that he made himself a race leader.  Braithwaite's pronouncement is relevant because a careful scrutiny of Johnson's rise to leader of the NAACP uncovers his own role in that accomplishment.  He had indeed made himself a race man.  Throughout the 1920s, we see him in full light; first the brilliant creative artist and then the consummate race leader, and time and time again, we see both sides of the man simultaneously.
       In Along This Way, Johnson devotes only scant space to his role in the rise of black empowerment in the NAACP.  Nevertheless, by 1920 he had strategically garnered enough power through the NAACP membership to trump the board of directors and become the organization's first African American leader.
       When Johnson joined the staff of the NAACP in 1916, the organization was in its seventh year.  It became crystal clear that the NAACP would wither on the vine unless it made a deeper foray into the black community.  This meant establishing more branches.  Only seventy branches had been formed by then and most of them were dormant and in the North.  Membership totaled around 9,000.  The organization's small yearly income was $14,000, and a small portion of this came from membership dues.  Johnson and Du Bois were the only two African Americans in administrative positions at the organization's Fifth Avenue headquarters.  Du Bois was the lone African American board member.
       From its inception in 1909 to 1920, the first four secretaries of the NAACP were white had barely been effective.  There were charges of white paternalism both from within and outside the organization.  Although this issue and the sensitivity surrounding it may have caused some debilitation of leadership for the secretaries and the entire organization, the board remained adamant in its decision to keep its members mainly white and continue with a white executive secretary.
       Despite this controversy, in these early years of the association, the white board members were indispensable to the organization's purpose because of their affluence and expertise.  Moreover, these spirited reformers believed they could give greater legitimacy and prestige to such a developing movement.
       During his first years with the NAACP, Johnson compiled a list of black ministers, heads of schools, and fraternal groups throughout the nation as a first step in linking the association to the community in order to expand membership.  In his travels he never missed an opportunity to give a talk about the work of the NAACP.  Roy Freeman Nash, a white progressive who had headed an NAACP branch in North Carolina, was executive secretary in 1916.  When Nash resigned in 1917, the board, although still unwilling to name a black man as Nash's replacement, did appoint Johnson acting executive secretary; but the following year a white social worker, John R. Shillady, was hired for the permanent position, taking Johnson's place.  Walter White was added to the staff as assistant secretary.  After an ineffective two-year tenure as executive secretary, Shillady resigned.
       Du Bois complained ardently inside the forum of the NAACP about the need for a black leader.  Johnson, however, was peacefully seeking another strategy.  By 1920, he had spent four years building branches across the North and in the difficult South.  He had strategically used his position as field secretary in those years to quietly gather the forces in the field.  For the first time, ninety-five percent of the association's funding came from black memberships.  Not only had Johnson been adroit at building a strong base in the black community, but the significant administrative work was now being planned and executed by him and Walter White.  Johnson and White represented the NAACP in Washington lobbying congressmen, senators, and cabinet officers.  In other words, they bore the chief public responsibility for the work of the NAACP, thereby proving themselves effective leaders in the eyes of their race.
       In the face of Johnson's achievements, the board of directors remained determined to keep the leadership white.  Nevertheless, the directors now had to contend with a burgeoning black NAACP constituency that was growing increasingly impatient with the white-dominated civil rights organization.  During this time, NAACP branch director Robert Bagnall said, "Found every branch I visited clamoring for the ratification of Johnson as secretary."  Johnson understood that he had been the weaker player against the stalwart board until the expanding and aggressive black membership he had reared as field secretary began to shift the balance of power.  With such an ardent and incensed base of support and no one else contending, the board named Johnson executive secretary in the fall of 1920.  Now the chief executive officer of the NAACP, Johnson had solid support among black membership, which provided him with a power base that was, at the very least, tantamount to that of the board of directors.
       The most critical challenge Johnson faced during his fourteen years with the NAACP was the eradication of lynching, a goal that he called the saving of black America's bodies and white America's souls.  During his leadership, most of the NAACP's resources were used to fight for passage of a federal anti-lynching bill.  Although Johnson never secured an anti-lynching law, through widespread publicity and his intense congressional lobbying efforts, he presented to the American people the facts of the crime as they had never seen them before.  Therefore Johnson, as much as anyone, must be credited with the vast reduction in lynchings that occurred by the time he resigned as secretary of the NAACP in 1930.
       Historian Nathan Irvin Huggins has said that "Along This Way is one of the finest American autobiographies written in {the twentieth century}.  James Weldon Johnson's rich and varied life was at the center of Afro-American life and culture…."  Huggins's assessment is correct because Johnson's personal narrative does indeed create a relevant and dynamic present by providing a unique opportunity for the re-examination of many of the unsettled questions of the past.  Moreover, the real challenge in this volume is for readers to view the ideas and stratagems of James Weldon Johnson in light of the present African American experience and discover for themselves that his timeless insights are essential to this nation's ongoing discussion on race.

*This introduction appears in Along This Way:  The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson.   New York:  Penguin Classics, 2008.  It was updated for this website by the author on June 17, 2009.

--The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of Negro Arts and Letters, Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
--The James Weldon Johnson Papers in Special Collections, The Woodruff Library, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.
--The Grace and James Weldon Johnson Family Collection by Dr. Sondra Kathryn Wilson, New York City and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.