James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is one of the most significant works of fiction by an African American author and one of the preeminent works of the Harlem Renaissance (although it was published first in 1912 and...
James Weldon Johnson was one of the preeminent African American men of letters in the 20th century. He distinguished himself in the arena of civil rights as the first African American executive secretary of the NAACP, and became a celebrated writer with his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Although Autobiography was published before the Harlem Renaissance technically began, scholars and historians still consider it one of the most significant pieces of literature about the "New Negro". Johnson was also a poet, teacher, lawyer, journalist, and diplomat.
James Weldon Johnson was born on June 17th, 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida. His brother was a composer. He was educated first by his mother and then at the Edwin M. Stanton School. His father worked as the head waiter at the St. James Hotel, a luxury establishment in Jacksonville. Johnson was an avid reader and a talented musician in his youth and matriculated to Atlanta University at the young age of 16. He was a member of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity and completed his B.A. in 1894.
During college, Johnson spent a summer teaching in a rural district in Georgia where the children had no textbooks. This period of his life, he wrote in his autobiography Along this Way, "marked also the beginning of my knowledge of my own people as a 'race'". This experience was significant in his development since he had spent his youth surrounded by other middle class African Americans.
After finishing college, Johnson became the principal of Stanton School, edited his own newspaper, and studied for and passed the Florida State Bar in 1891. In 1901, he decided to join his brother in New York to write songs and librettos in collaboration with a performer named Bob Cole. "Cole and the Johnson Brothers" had many Broadway hits and became very popular in New York. In many of these songs, Johnson utilized African American stereotypes and dialect for comedic effect.
In New York, Johnson mingled with the upper echelon of African American society and in Brooklyn, he met his future wife, Grace Nail. He enrolled in a few classes at Columbia University, which is where he started to write what would become The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.
In 1906, Johnson entered the diplomatic service, an exciting new career that took him to Venezuela and Nicaragua. While he traveled, he continued to write and publish articles and poems. He married Grace in 1910. Autobiography was published anonymously in 1912 to positive reviews and lackluster sales. Later, the ascendance of a Democratic president in 1912 and the lack of money to support his new wife led Johnson to quit diplomacy. In 1913, he took over as editor of the famed African American weekly New York Age. Broadminded and fair, Johnson's writing during this time unified differing perspectives on the race question and celebrated African American leaders across the ideological spectrum.
In the fall of 1913, Johnson was asked to become the national organizer for the NAACP. There, he helped to organize mass tactics to protest against violent race riots in the North and lynchings in the South. In 1920, he was asked to lead the organization, which he did for a decade. He resigned to accept the Adam K. Spence Chair of Creative Literature and Writing at Fisk University. He was chosen for this position because of his literary accomplishments during the Harlem Renaissance, especially his editing of the anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922). In this seminal collection, Johnson celebrated African American culture, covering slave songs, spirituals, and the cakewalk, among other pertinent topics. He held his post at Fisk until his death.
Johnson died in an automobile accident in 1938. Over 2000 people attended his funeral in Harlem. He is honored with a feast day on the liturgical Episcopal calendar on June 25th.