The Poetry of James Weldon Johnson During His Birthday Week
The month of June at James Weldon Johnson Park is celebratory for many reasons, among the most meaningful is the birthday of its namesake.
Born in Jacksonville on June 17, 1871, James Weldon Johnson spent his lifetime accomplishing some of the most important things any man could, including being the first African American admitted to the Florida Bar, writing (along with his brother J. Rosamond Johnson) the Negro national anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing, leading the NAACP and acting as one of the founding members of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
Another accomplishment of his 67 years that resonates with the senses today as much as when first created is Johnson’s body of poetry and other writings. Johnson is credited by the Poetry Foundation with bringing “a high standard of artistry and realism to Black literature” during his lifetime.
Johnson’s literary and other writings became a way to positively affect race relations. Harvard researcher Dr. Sondra Kathryn Wilson, considered the foremost authority on Johnson, wrote that he was “a linking agent for black America” through his work.
This ability to connect all races through art is why we begin our ongoing blog series about all aspects of this historical public space by celebrating Johnson’s birth month with a poem a day. Please join us this week as we experience poems that, since publication in the early 1900s, have become an important and memorable part of American literature.
Monday, June 12
Ode to Florida
Florida, fair Florida, land of my birth,
Queen of the continent, gem of the earth.
Land where the skies are blue as the sea,
Where the bright laughing waters are flowing and free.
Land of fair sunlight,
Land of fair starlight,
Land where the moon is queen of the night,
I love thee, I love thee with passionate love.
Thou liest wrapped in the ocean’s arms,
Old Neptune feasts upon thy charms,
And runs to kiss they coral shore,
As a lover speeds to his lady’s bower.
Most favored spot of a favored land.
Sweet land of sweet flowers,
Of soft summer showers,
I love all thy plains, all they rivers and lakes.
I love all they forests, thy marshes and brakes,
Every slow-winding creek,
That flows on to seek
A path to the rivers and thence to the sea,
Is loved by me, fondly loved by me.
The noble St. Johns, thy boast and thy pride,
How may heart flows along on its ceaseless tide,
As in majesty flowing,
It comes from the far, far south to be
Mingled at last with the great open sea.
And that team of a stream,
Through a tropical scene,
Where the sleepy-eyed saurian basks in the sunlight,
And the bright-hued flamingo stalks in the moonlight,
Where the mosses hang low from cypress trees,
And the golden fruit sways in the autumn breeze.
How dear to my heart, my fond heart.
And thy huge Everglades stretching out like a sea,
Brooding in silence and mystery,
Vast and unknown as the fathomless sea,
Is reverenced by me, held in reverence by me.
O, land of my birth, be the land of my death.
May I draw ‘neath thy skies my last fleeting breath,
May my grave be beneath the moss-covered trees,
My requiem sounded by thy tropic seas,
As they beat on the shore.
Tuesday, June 13
I Hear the Stars Still Singing
I hear the stars still singing
To the beautiful, silent night,
As they speed with noiseless winging,
Their ever westward flight,
I hear the waves still falling
On the stretch of lonely shore,
But the sound of a sweet voice calling
I shall hear, alas! no more.
Wednesday, June 14
We to America
How would you have us, as we are—
Or sinking ‘neath the load we bear?
Our eyes fixed forward on a star—
Or gazing empty at despair?
Rising or falling? Men or things?
With dragging pace or footsteps fleet?
Strong, willing sinews in your wings?
Or tightening chains about your feet?
Thursday, June 15
O Southland! O Southland!
Have you not heard the call,
The trumpet blown, the word made known
To the nations, one and all?
The watchword, the hope-word,
Salvation’s present plan?
A gospel new, for all— for you:
Man shall be saved by man.
O Southland! O Southland!
Do you not hear today
The mighty beat of onward feet,
And know you not their way?
’Tis forward, ’tis upward,
On to the fair white arch
Of Freedom’s dome, and there is room
For each man who would march.
O Southland! O Southland!
Then why do you still cling
To an idle age and a musty page,
To a dead and useless thing?
’Tis springtime! ’Tis work-time!
The word is young again!
And God’s above, and God is love,
And men are only men.
Friday, June 16
My heart be brave, and do not falter so,
Nor utter more that deep, despairing wail.
They way is very dark and drear I know,
But do not let they strength and courage fail;
For certain as the raven-winged night
Is followed by the bright and blushing morn,
They coming morrow will be clear and bright;
’Tis darkest when the night is furthest worn.
Look up, and out, beyond, surrounding clouds,
And do not in thine own gross darkness grope,
Rise up, and casting off thy hindering shrouds,
Cling thou to this, and ever inspiring hope:
Tho’ thick the battle and tho’ fierce the fight,
There is a power making for the right.
Saturday, June 17 – James Weldon Johnson’s Birthday
Sonnet- The Secret
O could I send my spirit out to her,
To tell the sweetest secret of my heart,
The secret which it can no longer hear
But still with which it is so loth to part.
Or could I give it to some sighing wind,
To softly whisper it within her ear;
Or to some little fairy good and kind,
Who would on wings of love my secret hear.
Could I but tell it to her with my eyes,
And I breathe it deeply upon her soul,
Would she but read within a lover’s sighs,
The passion I can no longer control.
Ah, no, to such frail hopes too long I’ve clung.
I’ll tell myself and do it with my tongue.
Sunday, June 18 – Father’s Day
A Poet to His Baby Son
Tiny bit of humanity,
Blessed with your mother’s face,
And cursed with your father’s mind.
I say cursed with your father’s mind,
Because you can lie so long and so quietly on your back,
Playing with the dimpled big toe of your left foot,
And looking away,
Through the ceiling of the room, and beyond.
Can it be that already you are thinking of being a poet?
Why don’t you kick and howl,
And make the neighbors talk about
“That damned baby next door,”
And make up your mind forthwith
To grow up and be a banker
Or a politician or some other sort of go-getter
Or — ? — whatever you decide upon,
Rid yourself of these incipient thoughts
About being a poet.
For poets no longer are makers of songs,
Chanters of the gold and purple harvest,
Sayers of the glories of earth and sky,
Of the sweet pain of love
And the keen joy of living;
No longer dreamers of the essential dreams,
And interpreters of the eternal truth,
Through the eternal beauty.
Poets these days are unfortunate fellows.
Baffled in trying to say old things in a new way
Or new things in an old language,
They talk abracadabra
In an unknown tongue,
Each one fashioning for himself
A wordy world of shadow problems,
And as a self-imagined Atlas,
Struggling under it with puny legs and arms,
Groaning out incoherent complaints at his load.
My son, this is no time nor place for a poet;
Grow up and join the big, busy crowd
That scrambles for what it thinks it wants
Out of this old world which is — as it is —
And probably, always will be.
Take the advice of a father who knows:
You cannot begin too young
Not to be a poet.
Monday, June 19 – Juneteenth
The Gift to Sing
Sometimes the mist overhands my path,
And blackening clouds about me cling;
But, oh, I have a magic way
To Turn the gloom to cheerful day-
I softly sing.
And if the way grows darker still,
Shadowed by Sorrow’s somber wing,
With glad defiance in my throat,
I pierce the darkness with a note,
And, sing, and sing.
I brood not over the broken past,
Nor dread whatever time may bring;
No nights are dark, no days are long,
While in my heart there swells a song,
And I can sing.