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

Art vs. Trade

Trade, Trade versus Art,

Brain, Brain versus Heart;

Oh, the earthiness of these hard-hearted times,   

When clinking dollars, and jingling dimes,   

Drown all the finer music of the soul.


Life as an Octopus with but this creed,

That all the world was made to serve his greed;

Trade has spread out his mighty myriad claw,

And drawn into his foul polluted maw,

The brightest and the best,   

Well nigh,

Has he drained dry,

The sacred fount of Truth;   

And if, forsooth,

He has left yet some struggling streams from it to go,

He has contaminated so their flow,

That Truth, scarce is it true.


Poor Art with struggling gasp,

Lies strangled, dying in his mighty grasp;

He locks his grimy fingers ’bout her snowy throat so tender.   

Is there no power to rescue her, protect, defend her?   

Shall Art be left to perish?

Shall all the images her shrines cherish

Be left to this iconoclast, to vulgar Trade?


Oh, that mankind had less of Brain and more of Heart,   

Oh, that the world had less of Trade and more of Art;   

Then would there be less grinding down the poor,   

Then would men learn to love each other more;   

For Trade stalks like a giant through the land,   

Bearing aloft the rich in his high hand,

While down beneath his mighty ponderous tread,   

He crushes those who cry for daily bread.





Literary Movements:

Harlem Renaissance

Anthology Years:




Ars Poetica

Literary Devices:

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


a comparison between two unlike things using the words “like” or “as”