James Weldon Johnson was an African American poet, novelist, lyricist, historian, educator, activist, and diplomat. He was the eldest son of James Johnson, an American freeman, and Helen Louise Dillett, a native of Nassau, the Bahamas, who was educated in New York. In his autobiography Along This Way (1933), he described his mother’s forebears as Haitians displaced by the years preceding the Haitian Revolution of 1804 and a French army officer in Haiti, who relocated with them to the Bahamas. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson became familiar to America as a lyricist and poet—having written the lyrics to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (also known as the “Negro National Anthem”) and the collection of poetic sermons God’s Trombones—and as an activist in national politics. Johnson served as field secretary and later executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Johnson’s 1906 appointment as American diplomat first to Venezuela and then Nicaragua was the result of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Era administration, which gave some government positions traditionally reserved for whites to a handful of African Americans. As American diplomat to these countries, Johnson gained a comparative perspective on black cultural identity and racial attitudes in the Americas. He noted in particular the different attitudes toward complexion in the diverse black populations and the difference in Venezuelan attitudes toward racial and cultural assimilation. Johnson used some of these observations about the cultural distinctiveness of black culture versus the merits of its assimilation into a national identity in his first book-length work, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), composed mostly during his consular appointment in Venezuela. In this work, Johnson used a narrator who could “pass” as white to explore the cultural meaning of blackness in the American North and South as well as in Europe.
As diplomat to Venezuela and Nicaragua, Johnson also observed these countries’ resistance to American expansionist policies, and worked on behalf of the U.S. government to quell a revolution in Nicaragua. Johnson sought promotion to a consular position in Switzerland, which he was stoutly denied under President Woodrow Wilson’s administration in 1912. Johnson resigned from his post the same year.
Taking up the position of field secretary to the NAACP in 1916, Johnson was responsible for significantly increasing the membership of the fledgling organization, especially in the South, to make the NAACP a national power. In this new position, Johnson became another type of diplomat—one who represented the concerns of black people throughout the world, from African nations to the Caribbean nation of Haiti.
As a correspondent for the NAACP, Johnson investigated American outrages in Haiti under the U.S. Marines’ occupation, initiated by the American government in 1915 and lasting until 1934. The results of his investigation were published in a four-part series called “Self-Determining Haiti” in The Nation (1920). In this and other writings of the World War I era, Johnson reminded his readers of the hypocrisy of the Woodrow Wilson administration’s slogan claiming U.S. participation in the Great War was to “make the world safe for democracy.” Although black troops fought with distinction in the war, they were denied the rights and privileges of full and equal citizenship in their own country. Moreover, they were the victims of what Johnson called the “Red Summer” of 1919, when postwar race riots swept through twenty-two cities and caused the deaths of hundreds of African Americans.
In his investigative writing for the NAACP, Johnson revealed the mentality of the Southern populace that shaped American segregationist and expansionist practices. Johnson described the Haitian situation as one where the ignorance and the racism of the American South were inadvertently exported to Haiti. As the first black nation to gain independence from its French colonizers in 1804, Haiti was a symbol of black pride and self-determinacy to black people throughout the world. In Haiti, he reminded his readers the majority of marines stationed and leading the effort of occupation had been passed over for participation in World War I. These marines were Southern, poorly trained and poorly educated, and steeped in the conviction of race hatred—a hatred that motivated the very instances of extreme brutality that Johnson was investigating.
Here and elsewhere in his diplomacy and writings on behalf of the NAACP, Johnson supported the national outlook and participation in the war, especially the effort to defend democracy. He used the very definitions of American patriotism, however, to alter the policy of excluding African Americans from the nation’s life in art, letters, and politics. In fact, Johnson often argued that African Americans were more American than whites in their artistic and cultural contributions as well as in their patriotism and love of freedom.
In his political activities and in his writing, Johnson was interested in the broad concerns of the black Diaspora—African decolonization, Haitian self-determination, and so on—from a staunchly nationalistic, American perspective. Like many other African American leaders of his day, Johnson rejected the alternative vision of a cultural homeland for blacks that Marcus Garvey provided in his Universal Negro Improvement Association. Johnson saw Garvey’s program of repatriation to Liberia as a threat to the NAACP’s strategies of interracialism and integration as the means to achieving civil rights for African Americans.
Garvey, Marcus; Harlem Renaissance; Literature, African American
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