James Weldon Johnson Lifted More Than His Voice

I saw his name for the first time when I walked into a project complex in Harlem.  A sign with huge letters at the front entrance read: “Welcome to the James Weldon Johnson Houses.”  I never heard of him.  I was 27 years old.  Being naturally curious, I looked him up on the internet.  What I read astonished me.

Born in 1871 in Florida, Johnson grew to become a true Renaissance Man.  He taught himself Spanish and became U.S. Consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua.  He became the first Black Executive Secretary of the N.A.A.C.P.  He wrote a novel entitled “The Autobiography of An Ex-Coloured Man,” and published a collective work called “Fifty Years And Other Poems.”  His most well-known work, however, was the poem  that his brother J. Rosemond Johnson put to music.  The piece was entitled “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing,” known by many as “The Negro National Anthem.”

This was all done by a Black man at the turn and early years of the 20th Century.

The more I read about him, and the more I read his work, the more he influenced my thinking.  I was born after the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.  Newly armed with awareness of all this man had accomplished, I could not allow any obstacles in my life to hold me down.  I found that the yearnings I had to explore my creativity and activism were validated by precedent.  I no longer felt strange because of any “lack of focus” on a particular life path.  Given this freedom, I went on to become active in my community, become an administrator in several major public agencies, host a nationally syndicated talk show, express my inner thoughts through poetry and write a collective work on what I’d learned in life under the personal development banner of the company I founded.

I have a role model.  Though he never met me, though he never thought about me personally, James Weldon Johnson has led me to great works.  Even his death in 1938 could not stop his influence on my life.  I have since made it a point to tell people about him whenever I can.  I am sure that if he can lead me to unlock my mind, he can lead others to do the same if they are but aware of him.

James Weldon Johnson is a leader by definition and by fact.  He’s had no authority over me.  He held no title to which I’ve been bound.  Yet his life is the example that developed the man I am.

Thank you sir.  I pray to pass it forward.

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