James Weldon Johnson’s 1930 work “Black Manhattan”

Book Cover, Black Manhattan, 1930, Alfred A. Knopf Publisher.

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) has long been a musical friend of mine, even though he was not known primarily as a musician.

He and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson compiled and published in 1940, a representative collection of “American Negro Spirituals.” The two-volume set served as a constant companion to other songs I studied in college and later performed as a professional artist (the term “Negro” is today considered offensive).

Among other endeavors, James Weldon Johnson, American author, politician, diplomat, critic, journalist, poet, anthologist, educator, lawyer, songwriter, and early civil rights activist.

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James Weldon is remembered principally for his crafting novels, works of poetry, and for his diverse folklore collections of folklore. And, he was also one of the first African-American professors at New York University. Later in life, he served as a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University.

J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) was an American composer and singer during the Harlem Renaissance. He and James were born in Jacksonville, Florida, J. Rosamond is the composer of the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which became in the United States known as the “Black National Anthem.”

The collection of songs, many by unknown bards, is not only stirring in content but also reveals the passionate intensity of Afrocentric sacred vocal music. The book’s preface, a ‘must-read,’ is alone as moving as the one hundred and twenty selected spirituals. However, it is my acquisition of a first edition copy of the classic work Black Manhattan, first published in 1930 by James Weldon Johnson that inspired this post.

James Weldon was one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance provides in Black Manhattan, an accounting of the black theatrical and musical world of which Johnson had been apart. More importantly, the book raises questions about African Americans’ struggle to find and secure their identity. “Black Manhattan remains one of the essential books on the black American experience, losing none of its resonance and value after many decades.” – Black Manhattan by James Weldon Johnson. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/170427.Black_Manhattan

Black Manhattan, written in 1930 by James Weldon Johnson, gives a broader perspective of the Harlem Renaissance. It documents the long, painful trek of the Black artist from the reconstruction era up through the post WWI era. As Blacks migrated from the south to New York City in the early 1900s, they found Harlem, a place where they could finally express their culture without fear of reprisal.

In the end, I find that Black Manhattan is as theatrical, passionately moving, and as musically alluring as any ballad, folksong, or aria I’ve ever heard. What’s more paperback editions are readily available.

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