Public Eye: James Weldon Johnson

Did you ever sing or hear  “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at one point of your elementary school experience? 

I did. It was a very stirring song, musically. It sounded nice sung in a chorus. However, I never did consider what sort of freedom this song was depicting. I hadn’t yet studied  the Civil War or the Reconstruction Era. But I always knew I liked this song. 

This song was co-written by James Weldon Johnson, a man of many talents in a post Civil War America. This man is embedded in the African American Reconstruction culture and period (i.e. Jim Crow South and Harlem Renaissance). He was a scholar much like W.E.B Du Bois and if you search today, you will find a ton of information on him. He was not only a composer, but a poet and prose writer, too! His prose, as well as lectures, focused on racial advancement and civil rights. His only novel, The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man is a memorable and haunting depiction of a light skinned black man passing in America. For several years, he held a leadership position at the NAACP. 

To come back to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song was co-written with his brother. Sung throughout the South and the years to come, the song became quite popular that the NAACP adopted it as the “National Negro Hymn.”

Today, we feature him for his poem “The Awakening”. 

The Awakening

I dreamed that I was a rose
That grew beside a lonely way,
Close by a path none ever chose,
And there I lingered day by day.
Beneath the sunshine and the show’r
I grew and waited there apart,
Gathering perfume hour by hour,
And storing it within my heart,
        Yet, never knew,
Just why I waited there and grew.

I dreamed that you were a bee
That one day gaily flew along,
You came across the hedge to me,
And sang a soft, love-burdened song.
You brushed my petals with a kiss,
I woke to gladness with a start,
And yielded up to you in bliss
The treasured fragrance of my heart;
        And then I knew
That I had waited there for you.

 

FURTHER LOOK:

The imagery: a lonely dejected flower, growing. 

I ran into the same imagery while reading a song/poem published years and years later. I don’t think it’s far-fetched if you read this poem and then take a look at Tupac’s “The Rose that Grew From Concrete.” Actually, if  you read them both, there’s a definite tone of defiance and resilience stemming out of the imagery and diction that appeals greatly to me. Not only is this image old, but it starts to feel like a memory. 

Here see for yourself: 

The Rose That Grew From Concrete

Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s law is wrong it
learned to walk with out having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.

 

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