The Creation by James Weldon Johnson

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Remembering James Weldon Johnson (1871 - 1938) and His Poem, 'The Creation'


James Weldon Johnson was born on June 17, 1871 to Helen and James Johnson. His mother was a school teacher and his father...a waiter.  Both of his parents stressed the importance of education to their children.

After graduating from Atlanta University, Johnson became the principal of a school and began studying law.  While principal of the Stanton School, James Weldon Johnson took and passed the bar exam in Florida.  So he had a background and training in education and the law, but his heart was drawn to literature and the arts.  

When his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music, in 1897, they began to write songs and musicals together—with James writing the lyrics and John writing the music.  They actually wrote an opera called Tolosa, but were unable to get it produced.

Their most famous work, however, is the song Lift Every Voice and Sing, which has become known as the Black National Anthem.

James and his brother eventually moved to New York and teamed up with Bob Cole. Between the three of them, they made hundreds of songs for Broadway productions and other entertainment ventures.

Johnson went on to write books such as the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, The Book of American Negro Poetry, and many other works.  

He was appointed U.S. consul in Venezuela and in Nicaragua.  In addition to these diplomatic positions he became field secretary (1916), then executive secretary (1920) for the NAACP.  There he expanded membership and brought attention to current issues such as lynching and racism.

James Weldon Johnson believed that the arts and literature could elevate and reflect the true genius of a people.   His poem, The Creation was written, in his mind, in the tradition of a "Negro sermon.”

THE CREATION (A Negro Sermon)

And God stepped out on space,

And He looked around and said,

"I'm lonely-

I'll make me a world.”

And far as the eye of God could see

Darkness covered everything,

Blacker than a hundred midnights

Down in a cypress swamp.

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Then God smiled,

And the light broke,

And the darkness rolled up on one side,

And the light stood shining on the other,

And God said, "That's good!" 

 

Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,

And God rolled the light around in His hands

Until He made the sun;

And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.

And the light that was left from making the sun

God gathered it up in a shining ball

And flung it against the darkness,

Spangling the night with the moon and stars.

Then down between

The darkness and the light

He hurled the world;

And God said, "That's good!"  

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Then God himself stepped down-

And the sun was on His right hand,

And the moon was on His left;

The stars were clustered about His head,

And the earth was under His feet.

And God walked, and where He trod

His footsteps hollowed the valleys out

And bulged the mountains up.

Then He stopped and looked and saw

That the earth was hot and barren.

So God stepped over to the edge of the world

And He spat out the seven seas;

He batted His eyes, and the lightnings flashed;

He clapped His hands, and the thunders rolled;

And the waters above the earth came down,

The cooling waters came down.  

 

Then the green grass sprouted,

And the little red flowers blossomed,

The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,

And the oak spread out his arms,

The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,

And the rivers ran down to the sea;

And God smiled again,

And the rainbow appeared,

And curled itself around His shoulder. 

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Then God raised His arm and He waved His hand

Over the sea and over the land,

And He said, "Bring forth! Bring forth!"

And quicker than God could drop His hand,

Fishes and fowls

And beasts and birds

Swam the rivers and the seas,

Roamed the forests and the woods,

And split the air with their wings.

And God said, "That's good!"  

Then God walked around,

And God looked around

On all that He had made.

He looked at His sun,

And He looked at His moon,

'And He looked at His little stars;

He looked on His world

With all its living things,

And God said, "I'm lonely still."  

 

Then God sat down

On the side of a hill where He could think;

By a deep, wide river He sat down;

With His head in His hands,

God thought and thought,

Till He thought, "I'll make me a man!" 

 

Up from the bed of the river

God scooped the clay;

And by the bank of the river

He kneeled Him down;

And there the great God Almighty

Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,

Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,

Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;

This Great God,

Like a mammy bending over her baby,

Kneeled down in the dust

Toiling over a lump of clay

Till He shaped it in His own image;  

 

Then into it He blew the breath of life,

And man became a living soul.

Amen. Amen. 

 

©️2016 Danita Smith (poem, 1922, in public domain), Red and Black Ink, LLC

References:

The Book of American Negro Poetry.  Chosen and Edited with an Essay The Negro's Creative Genius by JAMES WELDON JOHNSON, Author of "Fifty Years and Other Poems,” (New York:  Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1922).

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP History:  James Weldon Johnson 1871 - 1938.  Accessed 5/2014.  http://www.naacp.org/pages/naacp-history-James-Weldon-Johnson

University of South Carolina Libraries- Rare Books and Special Collections, James Weldon Johnson.  Accessed 5/2014.

Photos:

Photo from Twentieth Century Negro Literature by D.W. Culp, 1902, Prof. James Weldon Johnson (1871 - 1938).

 

Danita Smith