Teaching James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation”

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Yesterday in my Created and Called for Community (CCC) class at Messiah College we discussed James Weldon Johnson‘s poem “The Creation” (1922). It is one of seven poems in his 1927 collection God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.  Read it here.

My colleague (and Dean) Peter Powers, a scholar of religion and the Harlem Renaissance, writes:

“The Creation”  is found within the collection of God’s Trombones, which Johnson conceived as an interlinked set of sermons modeled on the style of traditional African-American preachers. Johnson thought of these preachers’ voices, with all their power and emotional range, as God’s trombones,” and saw clear links between the preaching, writing, and music-making of African Americans during this time.  All three forms of expression conveyed originality and creativity, and so could serve as wellsprings of African-American aspirations of freedom .

In writing these sermons into poetry, Johnson sought to communicate both authenticity and dignity.  He was troubled by many writers of his time (both white and African American) who used literary conventions and cliched dialect that depicted African American speech as malformed and unintelligent.  Johnson felt such depictions could perpetuate racist stereotypes that African Americans were incapable of significant cultural achievements in written English.  So instead of deliberately using misspellings and outrageous grammatical constructions, Johnson evoked the oral tradition in a more nuanced way through sentence structure, syntax, and word choice.  The aesthetic choice suggests that the oral tradition is high art in and of itself, as well as the basis for producing other great works of art.  This idea–that great art should be rooted in the folk tradition even as it transcends it–became a signature aesthetic of the Harlem Renaissance.                

“The Creation” is a sermon. It is meant to be preached. So I decided to play a reading of the poem by African-American clergyman and vocal artist Wintley Phipps. I asked the students to follow along with the printed text and try not to get caught-up with the images. I wanted this exercise to cultivate the moral imagination.

I asked the students to compare Johnson’s interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 with the actual Old Testament text they read on Monday.  Several students connected Johnson’s poem to the second creation account (Genesis 2:4-2:25), an account that reveals the personal and compassionate nature of God.

We talked about the poem as a product of Jim Crow America.  I wanted the students to see that James Weldon Johnson’s understanding of humanity was more theologically and biblically sound than the views of the Christian defenders of segregation.  We returned to Bruce Birch’s essay and talked again about the Judeo-Christian belief that all human beings are created in the image of God.  Human dignity and worth has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. Johnson knew this.

One student connected Johnson’s poem to Bruce Birch’s distinction between the “ethic of doing” and the “ethic of being.”  In “The Creation,” Johnson writes:

Then God walked around,

And God looked around

On all that he had made.

He looked at the sun,

And he looked at the moon, 

And he looked at the stars; 

He looked at the 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 a man! 

This student noted that before God acted to create humankind, he thought about it.  Johnson says that God “thought and thought” with “his head in his hands.” It was an important reminder that we often need to engage intellectually with the world before we act in the world.

Finally, I told the students that Johnson’s poem serves as a wonderful transition from this week’s focus on the biblical creation story to next week’s conversations about creativity.  Johnson wrote a poem about creation.  But “The Creation” is also a creative work.  Because we are created in God’s image we are called to creativity.  More on this next week.

Follow along here.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport

Touro-Synagogue

The Jewish Cemetery at Newport

How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,
Close by the street of this fair seaport town,
Silent beside the never-silent waves,
At rest in all this moving up and down!

The trees are white with dust, that o’er their sleep
Wave their broad curtains in the south-wind’s breath,
While underneath these leafy tents they keep
The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.

And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown,
That pave with level flags their burial-place,
Seem like the tablets of the Law, thrown down
And broken by Moses at the mountain’s base.

The very names recorded here are strange,
Of foreign accent, and of different climes;
Alvares and Rivera interchange
With Abraham and Jacob of old times.

“Blessed be God! for he created Death!”
The mourners said, “and Death is rest and peace;”
Then added, in the certainty of faith,
“And giveth Life that nevermore shall cease.”

Closed are the portals of their Synagogue,
No Psalms of David now the silence break,
No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue,
In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.

Gone are the living, but the dead remain,
And not neglected; for a hand unseen,
Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,
Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.

How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,
What persecution, merciless and blind,
Drove o’er the sea — that desert desolate —
These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?

They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,
Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire;
Taught in the school of patience to endure
The life of anguish and the death of fire.

All their lives long, with the unleavened bread,
And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,
The wasting famine of the heart they fed,
And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears.

Anathema maranatha! was the cry,
That rang from town to town, from street to street;
At every gate the accursed Mordecai
Was mocked and jeered, and spurned by Christian feet.

Pride and humiliation hand in hand
Walked with them through the world where’er they went;
Trampled and beaten were they as the sand,
And yet unshaken as the continent.

For in the background figures vague and vast
Of patriarchs and of prophets rose sublime,
And all the great traditions of the Past
They saw reflected in the coming time.

And thus forever with reverted look
The mystic volume of the world they read,
Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,
Till life became a Legend of the Dead.

But ah! what once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
And the dead nations never rise again.

The Poet Laureate of the 1969 Miracle Mets

Ed Charles

If you are a New York Mets fan, a general baseball fan, a poet (it’s National Poetry Month), or a student of the African-American experience you must read Gettysburg College historian Tim Shannon‘s recent Penn Live (Harrisburg Patriot-News) piece on Ed Charles.  (I should also add that Shannon will be our guest on Episode 36 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  It drops tonight).

I was too young to see Ed Charles play third base for the Mets (1967-69), but I have fond memories watching him play in the “Miracle Mets” highlight footage that WWOR (Channel 9) used to show during Mets rain delays in the 1970s.

Tim Shannon is one of the few writers who can connect Ed Charles’s poetry to Phillis Wheatley and the Atlantic slave trade.

Here is a taste of his op-ed:

Ed Charles, the third baseman for the “Miracle Mets” team of 1969, died last month at the age of 84.

When the New York Times ran his obituary, it included several photos, including two shots of Charles on the field. One showed him diving for a ball with the agility that earned him his nickname, “The Glider.” 

Another showed him leaping with joy along with pitcher Jerry Koosman and catcher Jerry Grote after the Mets recorded the final out of the ’69 World Series.

These two shots of Charles in action on the diamond were accompanied by a very different one of him taken in the Shea Stadium locker room in 1967, not long after he had been traded to the Mets by the Kansas City A’s. 

Charles sits on stool by his locker, dressed in his uniform, with a pad of paper on his knee and a pen in his hand He looks away from the camera, his eyes raised above the horizon. The photographer, it would seem, has caught “The Glider” in a different kind of action. 

Rather than being in mid-air, he is in mid-thought. 

Charles was a locker room poet. 

Read the entire piece here.  Here is Charles the poet:

cHARLES pOET

 

Wendell Berry: “What I stand for is what I stand on”

Berry BrushWendell Berry has a new book out.  It is a collection of essays, short stories, and poetry titled The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings.  Brian Barth reviews it at Modern Farmer.

Here is a taste:

In his latest book, The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings (available in November from Counterpoint), Berry continues to rage against machines: the laptops and high-tech tractors he believes are causing us to lose touch with each other and our environments. He laments the “dispersed lives of dispersed individuals, commuting and consuming, scattering in every direction every morning, returning at night only to their screens and carryout meals.”

Yes, Berry’s a bit of a curmudgeon, who likens our smartphone obsession to drug addiction and prefers horse-drawn plows to simulated horsepower. He writes longhand before his wife, Tanya, converts the manuscripts on a Royal Standard typewriter. Such anachronistic tendencies, however, point to more than mere nostalgia—namely, a clear-eyed view of the ways in which modern society is wrecking the Earth under the guise of progress. As the journalist David Skinner noted in 2012, “Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times.”

God willing, the times may have finally swung back around to meet the man. Though Berry would no doubt heap scorn upon today’s $8 heirloom tomatoes and $200 farm-to-table dinners, he did participate in the new documentary Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, produced by Robert Redford and Nick Offerman. The reluctant subject never shows his face in the film; rather, he shares selections from his work in powerful low-pitched voiceovers. (Visit lookandseefilm.com for information on how to host a screening.) Not coincidentally, the rare photographs on these pages were captured by his intimates: former students and dear friends.

Read the rest here, including a new Berry poem.

 

George Moses Horton’s Recently Discovered Prose

Horton, George Moses-NCHHMP-H-108a

George Moses Horton was an African-American poet enslaved in Chatham County, North Carolina.  Jonathan Senchyne, a book historian at the University of Wisconsin, has discovered a previously unknown essay by Horton entitled “Individual Influence.”

Learn more about Horton and this new find in Jennifer Schuessler’s piece at The New York Times:

The essay, a roughly 500-word sermonlike meditation called “Individual Influence,” was found at the New York Public Library by Jonathan Senchyne, an assistant professor of book history at the University of Wisconsin. The document, which will be published in October in PMLA — the journal of the Modern Language Association — appears to be the first prose essay in Horton’s handwriting to come to light, and one of only a handful of manuscripts in his own handwriting known to survive.

Today, while Horton is still far from a household literary name, he has been celebrated in a growing body of scholarship; in a children’s book; and in Chapel Hill, where the university renamed a dormitory in his honor, as part of continuing efforts to tell a fuller story of its historical relationship with slavery.

Any new text by Horton, scholars say, is a welcome discovery. “We’re unlikely to find much more from him, given his enslaved status,” said Faith Barrett, an associate professor of English at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, who has written about Horton. “It’s really a wonderful find.”

“Individual Influence” is interesting not just for Horton’s lofty, abstract words about the primacy of divine influence, but for the context in which they were preserved: in a scrapbook of material relating to a prominent scholar who was forced out of the university after publicly opposing slavery.

Read the entire piece here.

Phillis Wheatley: “On Virtue”

Wheatley

Michael Monescalchi is a graduate student in English at Rutgers University.  Over at Common-place he reflects on Phillis Wheatley‘s poem “On Virtue” and her engagement with the theology of Jonathan Edwards.

Monescalchi writes: “Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can ‘guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul.”

Here is a taste of this piece:

In agreement with Edwards, Wheatley argues that Virtue is a divine and “sacred” quality (it is “array’d in glory from the orbs above”). Yet Wheatley additionally alludes to Edwards when she asks Virtue to “embrace” her soul and “guide [her] steps to endless life and bliss.” For in Freedom of the Will, Edwards also claims that one’s soul is capable of influencing the way one walks: “And God has so made and established the human nature . . . that the soul preferring or choosing such an immediate exertion or alteration of the body, such an alteration instantaneously follows. There is nothing else in the actings of my mind, that I am conscious of while I walk . . .” The reason that Edwards is conscious of nothing while he walks is because his newly converted soul has suspended “the actings of [his] mind.” By saying that his body only moves as a result of his soul’s and not his mind’s “preferring or choosing,” Edwards argues that when one undergoes a conversion experience and gives one’s self up to God, one no longer has complete control over one’s own body. Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can “guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul. 

This idea that one’s spiritual status is reflected in the way one walks recurs in black evangelical writing in the early-national period, most especially in Lemuel Haynes’s sermons. Like Edwards and Wheatley before him, Haynes, in his 1776 sermon on John 3:3, argues that a converted man “evidences by his holy walk that he has a regard for the honour of God.” Though she was not a minister, Wheatley was, like Haynes, deeply invested in Edwards’s theology and advanced his theory of conversion. Placing Wheatley’s “On Virtue” in dialogue with the writings of other evangelical ministers, black or white, is one of the many ways that scholars can begin to value Wheatley as a formidable theological thinker in the colonial era.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Forgotten Civil War Poems

Rebecca Weir of Cambridge and Elizabeth Lorang of the University of Nebraska have uncovered and brought together a large collection of poems from the Civil War, which, until now, have only been available in microfilm or from subscription-only online resources. Weir and Lorang found the poems from two New York-based newspapers, The National Anti-Slavery Standard and the Anglo-AfricanHere is a taste of what they’ve uncovered from a post at the Almagest blog:

The poems in the edition reveal contemporary responses to a host of wartime issues and events: emancipation, African American enlistment, diplomatic relations and civilian duty amongst them. Treating love, loss, trauma, hope, despair, and politics, as well as more mundane – yet remarkably symbolic – subjects, such as the passage of time and changing seasons, the poems played a vital role in shaping how Americans experienced the war.
The edition puts to rest popular lingering myths about Civil War literature, especially poetry. In particular, Will not these days unravels the misguided notion that the Civil War produced only a handful of poems worth remembering and studying. In reality, a perhaps unknowable number of poems were written and circulated during the Civil War, and poetry was central to many people’s experience of the war.

Thanks to Megan Piette for her work on this post.