James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) wrote the words for “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for Lincoln’s Birthday in 1900. (His brother John wrote the music for that and various ragtime songs for which James wrote the lyrics.) It became the “African American national anthem”. He was executive director of the NAACP, and a professor of creative literature at Fisk University, best known as the author of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (originally published anonymously in 1912).
He grew up hearing and appreciating what he called in the preface to his 1927 book God’s Trombones “old-time Negro preacher.” Black churches were the first black-led and black-run institutions in the United States, “provid[ing] the first sphere in which race leadership might develop and function. These scattered and often clandestine groups have grown into the strongest and richest organizations among colored American,” Johnson wrote in 1927. They became a major base of the civil rights movement (most famously Nobel Prize-winner Martin Luther King, Jr.). The sonorities of the vocabulary of King James translation of the Old Testament rang out in sermons in “the old-time religion,” with Africanate syncopation of the most “high-faluting” lexicon and polysyllabic Old Testament names (though Johnson’s Biblical stories tend to the monosyllabic ones like Noah and Eve.
Johnson chose the trombone as his musical metaphor, because in his view it is “the instrument possessing above all others the power to express the wide and varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice – and with greater amplitude.” Johnson considered transliterated dialect as “an instrument with but two complete stops, pathos and humor” and rejected writing the sermons in dialect. “The old-time Negro preachers, though they actually used dialect in their ordinary intercourse, stepped out from its narrow confines when they preached,” he wrote. “They were all saturated with the sublime phraseology of the Hebrew prophets and steeped in the idioms of King James English, so when they preached and warmed tot heir work they spoke another language, a language far removed from traditional Negro dialect. It was really a fusion of Negro idioms with Bible English; and in this there may have been, after all, some kinship with the innate grandiloquence of their old African tongues
Following reflections by Henry Louis Gates, Maya Angelou, and Johnson’s own preface, the collection opens with call to prayer, “Listen, Lord.” The first of the seven sermons is a vernacular account of “The Creation” (and, for me, begging the question of what was good about populating the world with mosquitoes, ticks, etc.). The last is a very folk account of “The Judgment Day” jettisoning most of the detail of the book of Revelations. In between are four Bible stories, “The Prodigal Son”, “Noah Built the Ark”, “The Crucifixion”, and “Let My People Go,” the story of the plagues visited on Egypt as its pharaoh refused the demands conveyed by Moses and Aaron from the god of the Israelites, to let them leave Egypt. The wild card is “Go Down Death – a Funeral Sermon,” a lyrical celebration of the death of an elderly female believer in Georgia for whom God dispatches the white rider on the white horse (Death) to Georgia to carry to glory (the bosom of Jesus). Though also very narrative, this is the one that seems most like a sermon to me.
“Noah Built the Ark” begins in the Garden of Eden with special emphasis on Satan flattering Eve’s vanity:
I can see Old Satan now
A-sidling up to the woman.
I imagine the first word Satan said was:
Eve, you’re surely good looking.
I imagine he brought her a present, too,-
And, if there was sucha thing in those ancient days,
He brought her a looking-glass.
…. Man first fell by woman-
Lord, and he’s doing the same today.
In his (real!) autobiography, Along the Way (1933), Johnson recalled that “the poem that gave me the hardest work was ‘The Crucifixion.’ I realized that its effectiveness depended upon a simplicity which I found more difficult to achieve than the orotundity of ‘The Creation’ and ‘The Prodigal Son’ or the imagery of “Go Down, Death’ and ‘The Judgment Day.'” It seems to me that the device he (over)relied on in it was repetition.
The “sermons” all seem clipped-necessarily shorn of the congregation’s encouraging responses, but also not going on very long, even when read aloud as they were intended to be. And dare I find the theology and theodicy very crude? As Johnson noted in his preface, the preachers put forth “a personal and anthropomorphic God, a sure-enough heaven and a red-hot hell.”
I also have to note that Gates’s introduction about “what makes a classic?” specifically an African American literary classic, for the Penguin Classics series is of dubious relevance. The parts of it that aren’t are superfluous (though by appearing first, they make Johnson’s statements seem redundant, though they were written more than eighty years earlier). Maya Angelou’s foreword is less superfluous than counter-productive, forcing the template of slavery onto what Johnson heard after the abolition of slavery before his birth.
There are multiple editions of the book available, including 1976 and 1999 Penguin ones that preserve Johnson’s layout of the text.