Thursday, February 3, 2011
February 3, 2011: Ex-tremely Inspiring
It strikes me, in thinking back on the Americans on whom I’ve focused in this space—especially the nominees for the Hall of Inspiration, but certainly many of the other authors and historical figures as well—that many if not most of them would fit the definition of a Renaissance man or woman. While I’m sure that says something about my own ideals and emphases (and perhaps my goals for my own career and life, if I’m being fully honest here), I think it also represents a response to some of our contemporary and national tendencies toward specialization and categorization, our attempts to pin everybody’s identity down and figure out what most defines each of us. Certainly the academy has witnessed that trend over the last couple decades (although we might be moving away from it in gradual but real ways right now), but I think many other parallel trends can be found across our cultural narratives—such as the political need to categorize people as diverse as Barack Obama, Howard Dean, Keith Olbermann, Nancy Pelosi, and Noam Chomsky as all simply “liberals.” For all sorts of reasons, then, Renaissance men and women make particularly good tools with which to complicate (that word again) such oversimplifying scholarly, cultural, and national narratives.
Yet I would hasten to add, both in general and when it comes to the folks on whom I’ve focused here, that there has to be depth as well as breadth—that for a Renaissance man or woman genuinely to inspire, to exemplify the best of our national histories and identities, he or she must have accomplished some meaningful successes in those many arenas, must offer quality as well as quantity. And the subject of my post today, James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), illustrates that balance perfectly. Johnson’s list of professional and personal roles reads like a yellow pages for the late 19th and early 20th centuries: he served as a teacher and principal at one of Jacksonville’s largest public schools; worked in the political and diplomatic realms as a consul (to a couple of Latin American nations) and campaign consultant (for Teddy Roosevelt); edited multiple newspapers, including the very influential African American weekly the New York Age; received one of the first law degrees granted to an African American; published pioneering works of anthropology and sociology, as well as multiple volumes of poetry, collections of sermons and spirituals (he also wrote the music to the popular song “Dem Bones” and various Broadway shows), and a historical examination of Haiti; served for a decade as the first African American president of the NAACP; and left that role in order to become the first Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Nashville’s Fisk University (a position created specifically for him). He excelled at each of those roles, enriching the particular professions and conversations and worlds and leaving them far different and stronger than had he not ventured into them.
Johnson’s most complex and controversial publication only further proves his ability to produce significant, quality work in each of his chosen roles. That work is his one novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), a book that he published anonymously to extremely vocal and divided reception, and for the authorship of which he took credit fifteen years later. Autobiography was controversial for a couple of related and telling reasons: it offered a realistic and compelling account of its unnamed protagonist’s ongoing experience of “passing” for white, nearly two decades before Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance novel of that complex identity and issue; and it was unclear to its first audiences whether it was indeed an authentic autobiography or a novel. If the novel gained initial prominence because of those uncertainties and controversies, it remains a vital American text precisely because of what the uncertainties signal: the novel’s extremely complex, ambiguous, and compelling presentation of questions of fact and fiction, racial and national identity, authorship and narration and audience. As a literary critic, I’m tempted to wish that Johnson had written many more novels, so strong and unique is this one; but as an AmericanStudier, I can’t complain about (and instead, again, have the utmost admiration for) all of the other roles and work that occupied Johnson’s time.
It’s probably not coincidental that many of my inspiring Renaissance Americans, from Du Bois (the subject of my introductory post that I accidentally deleted a while back, and thus someone about whom I’ll definitely write again) to Dewey and Addams and now Johnson, lived and worked in the Progressive era and were closely tied to its many movements; while Glenn Beck sees early 20th century Progressivism as the starting point for all that is wrong in 21st century America, it seems to me to be a period that can offer more inspiration per capita than perhaps any other in our history. But don’t take my word for it—check out Johnson and his works, he won’t disappoint. More tomorrow, on a more exclusively literary figure whose works of fiction nonetheless cover a tremendous amount of national, social, and historical ground.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The full text of Autobiography: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11012/pg11012.html
2) Great website on Johnson and his wife Grace, an equally impressive American for sure: http://www.graceandjamesweldonjohnson.org/
3) OPEN: Any Renaissance men or women I should consider for future posts? (Warning: I might ask you to contribute a guest post on him or her instead!)