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James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) was a prominent African American poet, writer, lawyer, diplomat, professor, and civil rights activist. He is perhaps best known for his leadership in the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and for his writing, which includes poems, novels, and anthems that articulate the complexities and richness of the African American experience.

Literary Background

Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and was educated first at Atlanta University and then at Columbia University in New York. His academic and professional experiences were diverse, including passing the bar in Florida, serving as the U.S. consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and working as an educator and a university professor.

Early Influences

His early influences were the African American oral and folk traditions, the Bible, and the classical poets he read during his education. His mother, a musician and a teacher, exposed him to music and literature from a young age, which combined with his own experiences of racism and segregation, deeply influenced his writing.

Poetic Schools or Movements

James Weldon Johnson's literary work is most associated with the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater, and politics centered in Harlem, New York, during the 1920s and 1930s. He helped to shape this movement and mentored many younger African American writers during this time.

Poetic Oeuvre

Johnson's most famous poem is probably "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, set to music. This song became so influential among African Americans that it earned the nickname "The Negro National Anthem." In terms of published poetry, his most significant work is "God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse" (1927), which captures the rhythm and rhetoric of traditional African American religious oratory.

Themes in Johnson’s poetry include:

*Race and Identity: Johnson explored the complexities of race and identity, the experience of African Americans, and the pervasive impact of racism.

*Double Consciousness: His work often reflects the concept of double consciousness, a term coined by W. E. B. Du Bois to describe the inner struggle experienced by subordinated groups in an oppressive society.

*Spirituality and Religion: The influence of black sermons and spirituals is evident in his poetry, with its rich, rhythmic, and evocative language.

*Cultural Heritage: He celebrated the cultural heritage of African Americans, drawing from both African roots and contemporary black American life.


James Weldon Johnson's influence is felt not only in the sphere of literature but also in the wider context of the civil rights movement and African American culture. His work in founding and leading civil rights organizations, along with his literary achievements, has had a lasting impact on the struggle for racial equality in the United States.


During his lifetime, Johnson received several recognitions for his contributions to literature and civil rights. Posthumously, his legacy has been celebrated with numerous honors. Schools and awards have been named after him, and "Lift Every Voice and Sing" remains an anthem of hope and resilience for the African American community.


James Weldon Johnson's legacy is that of a Renaissance man who used his diverse talents to fight for the rights and uplift the voices of African Americans. As a poet, his work is celebrated for its lyrical beauty, its profound cultural resonance, and its potent articulation of the African American experience. His contributions to American literature and civil rights have made him an enduring figure in American history, one whose works continue to inspire and provoke thought on issues of race, identity, and social justice.

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