Tuesday, March 8, 2011


When we look at a life as luminous as that of James Weldon Johnson’s, there are countless ways we might discuss his enduring contributions to the literary culture and political life of this nation, but perhaps one appropriate starting point for describing this multi-dimensional man straddling the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the place that will help us most at the dawn of a new millennium, is by acknowledging that he was in the truest, the noblest, and purest sense of the phrase an American “Renaissance man.” (The pun is intentional, of course, given the pivotal role he played during the Harlem Renaissance.) But how does one become a Renaissance individual? Does his capacious life and character contain some truth about the art of living in a multi-racial world that is useful to our children and ourselves?

 In other words, what was there about this man, born just eight years after the Emancipation Proclamation, that enabled him to create so prolifically and serve so widely during the era of Reconstruction, then in the most entrenched period of American apartheid---the 1920s and 1930s---when the opportunities for black people were so painfully circumscribed, when a Great Depression fueled European fascism, the rise of racial eugenics, and black lynchings throughout the South? How in such a racially restrictive world could Johnson confess that he once had an “unconscious race-superiority complex”?

Happily for us, Johnson provides in his oeuvre a few tantalizing clues from which we might coax an answer. Surely it helped that while he had friends of many races, he was “reared free from undue fear of or esteem for white people as a race,” and possessed a profoundly felt spiritual faith, as revealed in the words of his best-known creation, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Added to which, and of equal importance, when he was a student at Atlanta University, “The ideal constantly held up to us was of education as a means of living, not of making a living. It was impressed upon us that taking a classical course would have an effect of making us better and nobler, and of higher value to those we should have to serve. An odd, old-fashioned, naïve conception? Rather.”

But perhaps the wisdom at the heart of this pedagogical model that urged students to be life-long learners so that they could unselfishly serve others, to value the contributions of those who came before them, and to see themselves as being capable of similar achievements, is not as odd or naïve as Johnson claims. In his time, as well as ours, anyone belonging to a racial and ethnic minority in a predominantly white, Eurocentric society must learn at a very early age to “read” all manner of phenomenon from the nuanced and polyvalent standpoint of a bi-fold consciousness. Lately, I have been calling this an “Aleph consciousness.” I borrowed this term from Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Aleph,” where he describes the aleph as “the place where…all the places of the world, seen from every angle, coexist.” It is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and of its shape Borges says that it “is that of a man pointing to the sky and the earth, to indicate that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher.” From its vantage point, Borges says, one can see “simultaneously night and day.”  

 The biographies of our most preeminent and intellectually impressive black predecessors---“Race” men like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Martin Luther King Jr.---disclose how they developed this expansive vision and catholicity as their existential posture before the world. It is an antidote to everything that racism, intolerance and bigotry represent: the narrowly parochial, the culturally provincial, and at its core this posture is unabashedly integrationist, implicitly honoring the interconnectedness of all life. 

Those who embraced an Aleph consciousness were determined that  nothing of significance in our world would be lost on them. Despite racial discrimination, they saw all endeavors as their real possibilities, and the global achievements of the past as their inheritance. Never complaining about their studies not being “black” enough or relevant to the lives of African Americans, they learned how to absorb the products of the Greek and the Judaic, the Roman, French,  British and, unlike their white counterparts, the black American and African as well.  To emotionally empathize and project themselves behind the eyes of ancestors as diverse as Homer and the Beowulf poet, Goethe and Synge, Olaudah Equiano and Paul Laurence Dunbar. (Little wonder, then, that Johnson briefly had a “race superiority complex.”) For children of color, an Aleph consciousness  has always been not only necessary for daily survival in a predominantly white country, enabling them to navigate successfully through America’s institutions---schools, jobs, social situations---but also for a broadly humanistic path to personal and professional excellence.  In it there is something delightfully Emersonian, a feeling that, “It is our duty to be discontented with the measure we have of knowledge & virtue, to forget the things behind & press toward those before.” It is difficult for me to believe that anyone can encounter Johnson’s biography, which reads like the life story of two or three men, and not immediately recall Emerson’s celebration in “Self-Reliance” of the distinctly American character represented by “the sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet.” 

In all his works, James Weldon Johnson, that sturdy lad from Jacksonville, Florida,  prodded us to reflect deeply on how we, as Americans, might bring the wisdom and rich legacy he has left us into a dangerous yet promising new century.

(The above is my foreword for The Essential Writings of James Weldon Johnson, edited by Rudolph P. Byrd, The Modern Library, 2008.)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for keeping JWJ in our present consciousness, connecting us to the second ago, which was his century, as we "press toward those before."