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Friday, January 19, 2018

January 19, 2018: MLK Day Figures: James Weldon Johnson

[To celebrate one of my favorite American holidays, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of inspiring African American leaders, starting with my annual post on more fully remembering King himself. And leading up to a special Guest Post from one of my favorite current scholars and writers!]
On the professor, preacher, poet, activist, and novelist who embodies the concept of a Renaissance person.

It strikes me, in thinking back on the Americans on whom I’ve most consistently 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, Hillary Clinton, Micheal Moore, 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 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 LinkedIn template 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.
Special Guest Post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Figures or histories you’d highlight?

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