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Famous Poet Friday ~ James Weldon Johnson

Posted by Cutter on March 8, 2013 at 8:30 PM

Greetings my friends! Welcome to another edition of Famous Poet Friday! This week we are going to explore another great American master poet that I love the work of, James Weldon Johnson. I want to apologize for not posting last week as I was feeling a little emotionally down but that is not excuse as I have made a commitment to do this and so here I am. Please enjoy and let me know what you think.

 

Early Years

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Born James William Johnson in Jacksonville, Florida, on 17 June 1871 — he changed his middle name to Weldon in 1913 — the future teacher, poet, songwriter, and civil rights activist was the son of a headwaiter and the first female black public school teacher in Florida, both of whom had roots in Nassau, Bahamas. The second of three children, Johnson's interests in reading and music were encouraged by his parents. After graduating from the school where his mother taught, Johnson spent time with relatives in Nassau and in New York before continuing with his education.

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College

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While attending Atlanta University, from which he earned his A.B. in 1894, Johnson taught for two summers in rural Hampton, Georgia. There he experienced life among poor African Americans, from which he had been largely sheltered during his middle-class upbringing in Jacksonville. During the summer before his senior year he attended the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where, on "Colored People's Day," he listened to a speech by Frederick Douglass and heard poems read by Paul Laurence Dunbar, with whom he soon became friends.

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Educator and Songwriter

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After graduating from Atlanta University, Johnson became the principal of the Jacksonville school where his mother had taught, improving education there by adding ninth and tenth grades. In 1895 he founded a newspaper, the Daily American, designed to educate Jacksonville's adult black community, but problems with finances forced it to shut down after only eight months. While still serving as a public school principal, Johnson studied law and became the first African American to pass the bar exam in Florida.

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When Johnson's younger brother, John Rosamond, graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1897, the two began collaborating on a musical theater. Though there attempts to get their comic opera "Tolosa" produced in New York in 1899 were unsuccessful, Johnson's experiences there excited his creative energies. He soon began writing lyrics, for which his brother composed music, including "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which subsequently came to be known as the "Negro National Anthem." The Johnson brothers soon teamed up with Bob Cole to write songs. In 1902, Johnson resigned his post as principal in Jacksonville, and the two brothers moved to New York, where their partnership with Cole proved very successful.

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Diplomat and Poet

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Johnson, though, became dissatisfied with the racial stereotypes propagated by popular music and, in 1903, began taking graduate courses at Columbia University to expand his literary horizons. In 1906 he secured a consulship at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, the position allowing him time to write poetry and work on a novel. In 1909 he was transferred to Corinto, Nicaragua, where a year later he married Grace Nail, the daughter of prosperous real estate developer from New York. While still in Nicaragua he finished his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, which was published anonymously in 1912 in hopes that readers might think it a factual story.

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Unable to secure a more desirable diplomatic post, Johnson resigned his consulship in 1913 and returned to the U.S. After a year in Jacksonville, he moved back to New York to become an editorial writer for the New York Age, in which capacity he was an ardent champion for equal rights. In 1917 he published his first collection of poetry, Fifty Years and Other Poems, the title poem having received considerable praise when it had first appeared in the New York Times.

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Activist and Anthologist

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In 1916, Joel E. Spingarn offered Johnson the post of field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. An effective organizer, Johnson became general secretary of the NAACP in 1920. Though his duties prevented him from writing as much as he would have liked, Johnson found time to assemble three ground-breaking anthologies: The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals(1926).

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Johnson's second collection of poetry, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, appeared in 1927 and marks his last significant creative endeavor. His administrative duties for the NAACP were proving strenuous, and, after taking a leave of absence in 1929, he resigned as general secretary in 1930. During his final years he wrote a history of black life in New York that focuses on Harlem Renaissance entitled Black Manhattan (1930), his truly autobiographical Along This Way(1933), and Negro Americans, What Now? (1934), a book that argues for integration as the only viable solution to America's racial problems.

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Johnson died on 26 June 1938 near his summer home in Wiscasset, Maine, when the car in which he was driving was struck by a train. His funeral in Harlem was attended by more than 2000 people.

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Mother Night

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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.

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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.

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The White Witch

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O brothers mine, take care! Take care!

The great white witch rides out to-night.

Trust not your prowess nor your strength,

Your only safety lies in flight;

For in her glance there is a snare,

And in her smile there is a blight.

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The great white witch you have not seen?

Then, younger brothers mine, forsooth,

Like nursery children you have looked

For ancient hag and snaggle-tooth;

But no, not so; the witch appears

In all the glowing charms of youth.

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Her lips are like carnations, red,

Her face like new-born lilies, fair,

Her eyes like ocean waters, blue,

She moves with subtle grace and air,

And all about her head there floats

The golden glory of her hair.

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But though she always thus appears

In form of youth and mood of mirth,

Unnumbered centuries are hers,

The infant planets saw her birth;

The child of throbbing Life is she,

Twin sister to the greedy earth.

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And back behind those smiling lips,

And down within those laughing eyes,

And underneath the soft caress

Of hand and voice and purring sighs,

The shadow of the panther lurks,

The spirit of the vampire lies.

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For I have seen the great white witch,

And she has led me to her lair,

And I have kissed her red, red lips

And cruel face so white and fair;

Around me she has twined her arms,

And bound me with her yellow hair.

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I felt those red lips burn and sear

My body like a living coal;

Obeyed the power of those eyes

As the needle trembles to the pole;

And did not care although I felt

The strength go ebbing from my soul.

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Oh! she has seen your strong young limbs,

And heard your laughter loud and gay,

And in your voices she has caught

The echo of a far-off day,

When man was closer to the earth;

And she has marked you for her prey.

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She feels the old Antaean strength

In you, the great dynamic beat

Of primal passions, and she sees

In you the last besieged retreat

Of love relentless, lusty, fierce,

Love pain-ecstatic, cruel-sweet.

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O, brothers mine, take care! Take care!

The great white witch rides out to-night.

O, younger brothers mine, beware!

Look not upon her beauty bright;

For in her glance there is a snare,

And in her smile there is a blight.

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Deep in the Quiet Wood

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Are you bowed down in heart?

Do you but hear the clashing discords and the din of life?

Then come away, come to the peaceful wood,

Here bathe your soul in silence. Listen! Now,

From out the palpitating solitude

Do you not catch, yet faint, elusive strains?

They are above, around, within you, everywhere.

Silently listen! Clear, and still more clear, they come.

They bubble up in rippling notes, and swell in singing tones.

Not let your soul run the whole gamut of the wondrous scale

Until, responsive to the tonic chord,

It touches the diapason of God's grand cathedral organ,

Filling earth for you with heavenly peace

And holy harmonies.

 

Categories: POET'S OPEN BLOG, CUTTER'S FAMOUS POET FRIDAY, Cutter

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4 Comments

Reply barbara
10:18 PM on March 8, 2013 
What a fascinating individual!
I love the last poem.
"Here bathe your soul in silence. Listen! Now,
From out the palpitating solitude
Do you not catch, yet faint, elusive strains?"
That just makes me smile. Thank you!
Reply Missy (AKA MRS. Wordmachinist)
1:02 PM on March 9, 2013 
Dearest Cutter, thank you for being here when you can. It is an honor to have you. I absolutely LOVE learning about the lives of the poets that you post about, it adds such light to their work. I really enjoyed this poet. :D
Reply Cutter
7:19 PM on March 11, 2013 
barbara says...
What a fascinating individual!
I love the last poem.
"Here bathe your soul in silence. Listen! Now,
From out the palpitating solitude
Do you not catch, yet faint, elusive strains?"
That just makes me smile. Thank you!


Part of what I love about researching these is finding a poet that I was vaguely familiar with and disovering that they had such enormous souls, huge personalities, so much more depth than I was expecting. Thank you for coming by!
Reply MoonCookee
5:38 PM on March 19, 2013 
Dearest Brother I can always count on you to turn me on to some genius I was not aware of. You prove the gaps in my education and I soak your gifts up with hungry gratitude. He shows me the power of words so I place hand over mouth and forget to breathe. Thank you. How about Bogalusa Louisiana's own Yusef Komunyakaa on a future feature? Love you brother.