"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

James Weldon Johnson

This 1943 portrait of James Weldon Johnson by Laura Wheeler Waring hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.
"James Weldon Johnson was a Renaissance man: successful Broadway lyricist, poet, novelist, diplomat, and a key figure in the NAACP. In 1900 he collaborated with his brother to produce 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,' a song that later acquired the subtitle of 'The Negro National Anthem.' President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Johnson consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua, where he served with great distinction. In the 1920s, Johnson became a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, known for his anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry; his work on African American religion, God's Trombones; and Black Manhattan, the first history of African Americans in New York City. As chief operating officer of the NAACP during that same decade, he helped formulate the strategy that would later over­turn American segregation laws. The background of this portrait recalls 'Creation,' Johnson's best-known poem in God's Trombones." -- National Portrait Gallery

James Weldon Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson along with vaudevillian Bob Cole wrote the popular song, “Under the Bamboo Tree” based on the tune of  “Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen.” and published it in 1902. (Read the somewhat embarrassing lyrics here.) 
“Under the Bamboo Tree”
By Cole and Johnson Bros

Joseph R. Fliesher and Paul Carruth tell the story in their 1938 newspaper comic “Birth of a Song”. 

Eva Herrmann in her 1929 book, On parade; Caricatures by Eva Herrmann, edited by Erich Posselt, gives us this caricature of James Weldon Johnson:

For which, Johnson wrote this reflection.
LOOKING at life, it appears to me an absorbing game; a game in which I have been dealt several varying hands, that were not played as well as might have been, but with which I have taken, it seems to me, a shade the best in tricks. This, of course, is purely an emotional reaction and has no reasoned relation to the question of whether or not the game is worth playing or winning. Yet, in spite of rational lapses I find, pardon the mixing of metaphors, that life tastes good. And I find the world, in spite of what this civilization and its predecessors have done to spoil it, as good a place to live in as any I have reliable information about.

Johnson was featured in one of Charles Alston's WWII propaganda posters.


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