Read an Excerpt
From Noelle Morrissette’s Introduction to The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Other Writings
Poet, novelist, lyricist, historian, editorialist, educator, activist, and diplomat James Weldon Johnson was born in 1871 to James Johnson, an American freeman, and Helen Louise Dillett, of Nassau, the Bahamas. Johnson, who spent the bulk of his first thirty years in Jacksonville, Florida, became familiar to Americans both as a lyricist and poet and as an activist in national politics. His first work of prose fiction, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), has had a lasting appeal to audiences since its reissue in 1927, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance.
Educated in Jacksonville and later in Georgia at Atlanta University, Johnson described his permanent move to New York City at the turn into the twentieth century as part of the great black migration. For almost thirty years, Johnson did not write or speak about the defining event that propelled him to leave Jacksonville, where he had made a career for himself as principal of the all-black Stanton School. He had raised the quality and level of education offered to its students, helping to provide a resource—secondary-level education—that had been unavailable. (Johnson had had to leave the state to obtain secondary-level education, at Atlanta University.) As he related years later in his autobiography, Along This Way (1933), one event propelled Johnson northward: In 1901, as Jacksonville was placed under martial law after a great fire had swept through the city, he was nearly lynched by a mob of militiamen. Johnson, a noted local official representing the concerns of Jacksonville’s black population, had arranged to meet a journalist from an out-of-town newspaper seeking details of the impact of the fire and subsequent martial law on conditions for local blacks. Initially meeting in a public place, Johnson and the fair-skinned woman reporter walked to the park to conduct their interview, where he was pursued by a group of militiamen who mistakenly thought the reporter was white. While he had accomplished a great deal as principal of Stanton School, and had previously viewed Jacksonville, as a southern town, as atypically hospitable to blacks, this experience demonstrated to Johnson that he could not advance in the South.
Johnson abandoned his position as principal to collaborate as a lyricist with his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and Bob Cole on musical comedy and off-Broadway productions in New York City. He had been writing lyrics with Rosamond and spending his summers in New York City since 1899; with this step, he made New York his permanent home. The move was the first of several pivotal career shifts for Johnson. He would later take up an appointment as American consul to Venezuela and then Nicaragua. Resigning from diplomatic service, he moved to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he eventually became executive secretary. As he observed in his autobiography, accompanying each of these career changes was a fresh perspective on what he considered his main vocation: writing. From lyric writing, Johnson would shift his focus to poetry and prose (both fiction and nonfiction) that advanced positive images of black Americans.
As a lyricist, Johnson was a participant in and active shaper of the wave of black art in New York City that preceded the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Located in the Tenderloin District (roughly the area of mid-Manhattan bounded on the north and south by Forty-second Street and Twentieth-third Street and on the east and west by Fifth Avenue and Seventh Avenue), Black Bohemia, as it was called, served as the center of black musical and theatrical talent from the turn into the twentieth century well into 1915. Johnson observed that there were clubs of all sorts in Black Bohemia, those catering to boxers and jockeys, and to performers; and those that resembled “the modern night club,” catering to all and tolerating white sightseeing patrons and theatrical performers. Among these clubs, one stood out as the most “professional” and the most popular: Ike Hine’s. According to Johnson, the main-floor parlor, outfitted luxuriously, contained photographs and lithographs of accomplished, well-known blacks—in fact, the walls were entirely covered. There was space for entertainers and for dancing in the back parlor. Johnson used Ike Hine’s club as the basis for the “Club” in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. In Johnson’s “Club,” the minstrel “never essayed anything below a reading from Shakespeare,” and the audience of black fellow performers—as well as the “audience” of photographs of “every colored man in America who had ever ‘done anything’”—encouraged a kind of art that was not yet permitted outside of its walls. Yet “no manager could imagine that audiences would pay to see Negro performers in any other role than that of Mississippi River roustabouts” because of the limiting taste for stereotype among mainstream American audiences.
The Marshall Hotel, which served as Johnson, his brother, and Cole’s headquarters, became the next artistic center for aspiring black artists. It drew them uptown from Black Bohemia, an event that in Johnson’s opinion marked the beginning of a new generation of black art. The Marshall, run by black proprietor Jimmie Marshall, was located on West 53rd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. It served good food and had an excellent four-piece orchestra, and according to Johnson, brought about a palpable change: The black clientele transformed itself to match the standard of The Marshall’s surroundings, elevating its self-concept. The visual aspect—of well-dressed black men and women socializing, listening to music, drinking coffee—was not just inspiring, it was “unprecedented,” as Johnson recalled in his autobiography Along This Way. Johnson and his brother rented rooms there that served as a social hub for some of the most notable performers, composers, and poets of the day: Harry T. Burleigh, Will Marion Cook, Theodore Drury, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Bob Cole, who lived just a few doors away from the hotel. In their conversations, they often considered their roles as artists in changing the world of music and theater and thereby advancing the status and regard of black people as a whole. Their positions were unique and diverse (and there were clashes), yet the diversity of opinion demonstrated a vital intellectual culture. According to Johnson, the group agreed on the importance of convincing managers that a black company could play a first-class theater—in other words, on Broadway. This exceptional group of young men—individuals who had burgeoning talent, ambition, and optimistic plans to alter, through art, the mainstream white perceptions of blacks as a people—was faced with regulations limiting the dissemination of black art and with the social reality of widespread racism and violence against black people that characterized early-twentieth-century life in America.