A figure at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance, Johnson fused white and black literary traditions, functioning as "a linking agent for black America," as Sondra Kathryn Wilson describes him in her introduction to an edition of Along the Way: the autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. While many still know Johnson solely as the creator of "Life Every Voice and Sing," the song he wrote with his brother in 1900 and later was adopted as the Black National Anthem, he was a widely-published essayist. In a life of many "firsts" - he was the son of the first female, black teacher in Florida at a grammar school, he was the first African-American admitted to the Florida bar after Reconstruction, Johnson was appointed the first African-American professor at New York University and the first to teach African-American literature there.
Johnson's 1912 book, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, recounts the story of a musician born of a black southern woman and a distant white man who struggles with his identity and is able to "pass." As an honest personal reckoning with the meaning of race, the work is historically specific but with a timeless message. New York figures importantly in the work as a beguiling, if dangerous, landscape in which to cast one's aspirations:
"New York City is the most fatally fascinating thing in America. She sits like a great witch at the gate of the country, showing her alluring white face and hiding her crooked hands and feet under the folds of her wide garments--constantly enticing thousands from far within, and tempting those who come from across the seas to go no farther. And all these become the victims of her caprice. Some she at once crushes beneath her cruel feet; others she condemns to a fate like that of galley slaves; a few she favors and fondles, riding them high on the bubbles of fortune; then with a sudden breath she blows the bubbles out and laughs mockingly as she watches them fall."
Johnson's somewhat sinister characterization of the city confirms a pronounced theme in New York's literary tradition - the city's alluring power to attract and then to whimsically crush its hopeful residents. Though part of a larger and older anti-urban theme in American literature, Johnson's articulation of the power of the city served as a cautionary tale for African-Americans seeking a better life at the outset of the Great Migration.
View James Weldon Johnson's New York and Four Stops in Central Harlem in a larger map
library's website for many public programs and online digital presentations.
this story from the NYT. Harlem's architectural treasures are so vast that they need to be explored on more walks.
Directions: Take to A train to W. 125h and transfer to the B,C to the 135th street stop and walk east.
Images: Photograph of James Weldon Johnson by Carl Van Vechten, 1932. Images of the corner of W. 135th St. and 7th Ave., looking east; Mother AME Zion Church; Schomburg Center; and Astor Row by Walking Off the Big Apple. September 24, 2009.