Profiles in Africana Religion – James Weldon Johnson: Lifting Voices of Praise and Protest
Of late, the song Lift E’vry Voice and Sing has reached a level of mass appeal never before experienced. Politicians have held hands swaying to the song, while certain sporting and public events have adopted the song as a rallying cry against the continuing state sanctioned murders at the hands of local and state police. This has come about in the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders and the flood of protests that have followed. To be fair, the song has been sung in Black churches, at marches and African American social/political events for decades, it is only recently that its popularity has grown amongst supposed well-meaning whites and other ally-minority communities. However, it is likely that those who have lifted their voices to sing the song written by James Weldon Johnson know little about the song and its history and know even less about its author, his life or his catalogue (body of work). For that reason, this essay will review the life of James Weldon Johnson and his extremely important body work that has help to shape Black America.
Johnson’s lineage is one that exemplifies the girth of Pan-Africanism in the Western Hemisphere. To explain, his mother, Helen Louis Dillet, was a native of the Bahamas, while his father, James Johnson, was US born. His maternal great grandmother left Haiti just before the Haitian Revolution. Her and her children relocated to the Bahamas where the family stayed until Johnson’s mother moved to Jacksonville, Florida where Johnson was born. Johnson’s father was born free in the Virginia Commonwealth during the antebellum period. He eventually moved to New York before the Civil War, avoiding much of the horrors of the conflict. After emancipation was declared, Johnson’s father relocated back to the South, this time to Florida where he worked as a free man for a prominent hotel. Johnson’s education and his skill as a writer were first nurtured by his mother, who was herself a teacher in Jacksonville’s largest Black high school. James and his brother John were both instilled with a deep love for music and English literature by their mother and other teachers within the community who served the Black families of Jacksonville proudly. James excelled in school, earning his way into Atlanta University at the age of 16. At AU, he developed a sense of purpose, in that he would devote himself to the upliftment of his race through his writing and his leadership. He graduated from AU in 1894 with a Bachelor’s degree, but he also took some time to take a number of graduate courses.
After completing his education Johnson became very active in political, social and civic matters through his involvement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With the NAACP, Johnson helped to grow the membership as well as necessary financial support. However, politically and socially, he was arguably most impactful in his work against lynching. Like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Johnson felt that lynching was one of the most pervasive problems facing Black America. Though his white colleagues at the NAACP wanted to center the focus of the organization on more uplifting elements of Black life, Johnson felt it imperative that the organization address lynching as an American cancer. “Publicity exposing the brutality of lynching was an important weapon in the association’s arsenal, and Johnson believed in using it fully to bring pressure to bear on t local and national political leaders. He had no patience with a member of the NAACP’s board of directors who in 1921 complained there was too much emphasis on the horrors of lynching and not enough on the ‘the good things done to bring the races together.’” Clearly African Americans have been dealing with a toxic mixture of well-meaning whites and their fragility for over a century, as this comment clearly demonstrates. Unfortunately, members of the NAACP board were more concerned with feeling good about their efforts then actually seriously addressing the specific horrors of Black life. Johnson did not accept this approach. Instead, he bared down in the fight against lynching by helping to draft and fight for anti-lynching legislation (the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill) with the NAACP.
Despite his admirable work against lynching, colorism was likely an issue for Johnson that he may have never fully reconciled. This is made clear through his attention to race in his novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which depicts the life of a Black man passing in white society. In addition, he may have used the fact that he could speak Spanish and therefore pass as a Latin American to his advantage in many parts of the South. This allowed him a measure of freedom not usually extended to African Americans. As well, Levy remarks that, “Johnson had little sympathy for black-only movements, such as Marcus Garvey’s. As much as he extolled black culture and achievements, the did not believe blacks could gain both their full rights and economic opportunity without the aid of whites.” This is not to say that Johnson was not a proud Black man, because the historical evidence suggests that he in fact was. Instead, Johnson’s ambiguity could be best understood as a Black man wrestling with the dynamics of being black, educated, and of Latin American descent in the US. This is not to excuse him for any sins of colorism he may have committed, but instead to place in him in the time and space in which he lived.
Johnson’s political efforts by themselves makes him a giant in African American history, however his most lasting impact would be artistically, as a writer during the Harlem Renaissance. The arts were a significant element of Johnson’s growth and maturation. As an adult, he worked closely with his brother to create a number of hits that served as the sound of the Harlem Renaissance. But, their most enduring work was the composition of Lift E’vry Voice and Sing, a song he initially wrote to honor Booker T. Washington at an observance of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Though it was not the original intent for the song, over the years and generations Lift E’vry Voice and Sing has become the Black National Anthem. So, with this, the question becomes: how did Johnson’s homage to Booker T. Washington become the touted Black National Anthem? According to Johnson, him and his brother first sung the song as a school in Jacksonville, Florida in 1900. They were proud of their work but didn’t regard it as a particularly special piece of music. The audience at the Florida school thought differently. Johnson states: “My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children. Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country.”
Though the song took 20 years to become viral (an eternity by modern standards) it has inspired entire generations to continue the good fight for African American liberation. The tune of the song is a joyful melody with hints of melancholy and lyrics which inspire vigilance and determination, very indicative the modality of African American life at the time of its composition. As well, despite the intention behind the song being rather humble, the inspirational gravity of the tune carried it from the mouths of children to the hearts of African Americans throughout the South and eventually to the souls of Black folk across the entire nation. The song has not yet earned a place in the hearts and minds of Africans across the globe, however as the freedom struggle in America rages on, the ballad may still reach the lips and ears of Africans continuing to struggle on t
 James Weldon Johnson and Sondra Kathryn Wilson. Along this way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. (Penguin Group USA, 1990).
 John Hope Franklin and August Meier. Black Leaders of the 20th century. (University of Illinois Press, 1982), 86.
 Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (2nd ed.). (New York, Norton, 2004), 791-792. To be specific, the Johnson’s were close to their music teacher, who was likely a great influence in their respective careers.
 James Weldon Johnson. Harmon Collection. Smithsonian Institute.
 John Hope Franklin and August Meier. Black Leaders of the 20th century. (University of Illinois Press, 1982), 90. He began as field secretary and eventually work his way up to be the head of the organization.
 Ibid., 95.
 Ibid., 95.
 Ibid., 102.
 Ibid., 101. “The Harlem Renaissance represented to him an ‘awakening’ on the part of some whites and many blacks to the fact that blacks, both during the slave era and in the quasi-free decades since, had through their artistic efforts profoundly shaped American culture.”
 Randy Peterson. Be Still, My Soul: The Inspiring Stories behind 175 of the Most-Loved Hymns. (Tyndale House Publishers, 2014).
 The Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46549/lift-every-voice-and-sing. Accessed July 31, 2020.
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