James Weldon Johnson


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 and Company), 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. Source


O Sleep, thou kindest minister to man,

Silent distiller of the balm of rest,

How wonderful thy power, when naught else can,

To soothe the torn and sorrow-laden breast!

When bleeding hearts no comforter can find,

When burdened souls droop under weight of woe,

When thought is torture to the troubled mind,

When grief-relieving tears refuse to flow;

'Tis then thou comest on soft-beating wings,

And sweet oblivion's peace from them is shed;

But ah, the old pain that the waking brings!

That lives again so soon as thou art fled!


Man, why should thought of death cause thee to weep;

Since death be but an endless, dreamless sleep?





Literary Movements:

Harlem Renaissance

Anthology Years:



Death & Loss

Poetic Form

Literary Devices:

Iambic Pentameter

a line of verse composed of five iambs– an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (u / u / u / u / u /) commonly used in the Renaissance period


the attribution of human qualities to a non-human thing

Rhetorical Question

a question asked for effect, not necessarily to be answered


correspondence of sound between words or the endings of words, especially when these are used at the ends of lines of poetry