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On "The Creation" and God's Trombones

EXPLANATION: "The Creation"

Lines 1-4

This version of the story of creation offers an image of God who is more like humans than traditional Old Testament portrayals of Him. God is sometimes referred to as "the uncaused cause" or "the prime mover," indicating that the actions of God cannot be traced to any previous reason, as part of the definition of God. But Johnson gives God human qualities — he speaks in a Southern dialect, He "steps" with feet, and He creates the universe because He is "lonely." To the reader not trained in theology, the study of religion, these humanistic qualities are familiar and make sense.

Lines 5-13

Line 5 refers to the "eye of God," drawing attention to a physical characteristic that this God shares with humans. Cypress trees are trees with dense, hanging foliage that grow in the southern United States, which is also the geographic location of most swamps. The South is also where most Negroes lived in the early part of the century, having descended from slave families, and these references would have been familiar to them. Lines 10-13 repeat the words "And the" at the beginning of each line. This stylistic trait mimics the Biblical story of creation, in which the phrase "And God said" is repeated consistently throughout the passage. This rhetorical technique is often used in oral text, in speeches and especially in sermons: the repetition helps those audience members whose attention has drifted off reconnect with that the speaker is saying.

Lines 14-25

In the Old Testament, the separation of light from darkness occurs in a manner similar to the process described here, except that the language is of course more formal: God does not "roll" light into the form of a sun or "fling" the remaining light into the darkness to create the moon and stars. Adding this language is Johnson's contribution, making the story more active and therefore more interesting to the reader/listener. This sort of concrete imagery is also used in the Bible, to a lesser degree, turning philosophical concepts into experiences. In this section of the poem the technique of repetition is again brought into play, with the word "and" beginning five lines out of twelve, and God's refrain "that's good!" is repeated. This phrase expresses the same idea as the familiar phrase "It is good" that is said by God in the Bible, but while the biblical God makes a dispassionate observation, Johnson's God exclaims his approval with enthusiasm, perhaps even with a little surprise.

Line 17

Using the vernacular "a-blazing" helps personalize the sermon. 

Lines 26-33

This section details the body of God, placing the sun, moon and stars around His head and the earth beneath His feet. The shape of the earth's surface is formed by God's movements, and not simply because of His will, as the Old Testament version describes it.

Lines 34-41

God creates the atmospheric conditions through the actions of His body — spitting, clapping, batting His eyes. As in the rest of the poem, God's physical presence is central to His power of creation. In Line 48, the author breaks from the story of the creation to linger for a moment on the significance of it, adding the idea of "cooling waters" to what Line 46 has already said about rain.

Lines 42-50

In this section, nature is anthropomorphized, a term that means to give human characteristics to non-human entities. Pine trees are said to have fingers, oaks have arms, lakes cuddle, and the rivers run. The creation of humans is approaching and God approves of these human-like traits. His smile creates a rainbow, recognized as a sign of nature's beauty. The intimacy between God and nature is made clear as the rainbow curls like a pet about him. 

Lines 51-60

In the Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament, God says, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let the birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens," and three lines later He says, "Let the earth bring forth creatures according to their kinds. . . ." In shortening this to "Bring forth! Bring forth!" Johnson does away with some of the details of the creation, but he captures a sense of God's power and His excitement about what He is doing. The pace at which God has been creating things has accelerated to a point where He can hardly speak or move His hand quickly enough to keep up with His thoughts. For the third time, the phrase "That's good!" is uttered, completing a cycle: storytelling is often paced in thirds, representing a beginning, a middle, and an end. As the next stanza shows, God expected, upon saying "That's good!" a third time, to be finished with the task of creation.

Lines 61-69

This is a tranquil passage in the poem, following a frenzy of creation, as God looks over the things He has made. The reader or listener knows that the creation is not complete until humans have arrived, and that the quiet passage here is a lull, not an end. This passage ends with God's observation that, "I'm lonely still," which negates the wonders of earth and sky that have just been presented, putting God back in the same predicament he had in the first line.

Lines 70-75

God thinks in this stanza, and decides to make a man. In the first stanza, upon realizing himself lonely, God did not think, but decided without consideration to create the world. This structure emphasizes how special humans are: as the answer to a perplexing problem, mankind could almost be called the answer to God's prayer. It is significant that Line 72 is very specific about the fact that God sat beside a river, describing it as "deep" and "wide": in African American mythology, the river is a central image, especially the deep, wide Mississippi river, which ran from the free states of the North to the slave states of the South. This idea is also referred to in Langston Hughes's poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

Lines 76-88

As in the previous stanza, the river is emphasized. The reader is given a view of God being humble: in the dust, molding clay, bending "like a mammy" (an archaic African American word for "mother"). At the same time, though, the author mixes in a reminder, in lines 80-84, of the overwhelming powers of God. Saying that God could create the universe effortlessly but that he takes such loving care in the creation of humans should be a source of pride for the human race. Man's self-esteem is raised by the close association to God. Line 88 stresses the relationship between God and humans more clearly. For an oppressed people, as the American Negroes were during segregation, the importance of this story would be that all people are God-like and were created to God's intent. Since God in this poem speaks with an African American dialect, it is fair to assume that the person He made is African American. 

Lines 89-91

The actual creation of life, mentioned briefly in lines 89-90, is given much less attention than the structuring of the human body. This poem makes no explicit points about what conclusions its readers should draw from all of this, but ends abruptly with the traditional words for closing a sermon.

Source: Exploring Poetry, Gale. © Gale Group Inc. 2001. All Rights. Online Source.

David Perkins

The work for which Johnson is most remembered is God's Trombones, which caused a sensation when it was published in 1927. Impressed with the power of the imagination and speech of the Irish peasantry, Johnson wished to create a similar monument—and literary movement—for his own race. God’s Trombones consists of seven sermons by a black preacher. Though Johnson did not use dialect, his free-verse paragraphs are in the rhythms of this indigenous oratory and his imagery caught the simplicity and grandeur of the preacher's imagination, nurtured on the Bible:

And now, O Lord--
When I've done drunk my last cup of sorrow—
When I've been called everything but a child of God
When I'm done travelling up the rough side of the mountain--
O--Mary's Baby—
When I start down the steep and slippery steps of death—
When this old world begins to rock beneath my feet—
Lower me to my dusty grave in peace
To wait for that great gittin' up morning.

The use of the redundant auxiliary ("done"), the biblical, concrete imagery ("cup of sorrow"), the anaphora ("When I've . . . When this . . ."), and the allusion to well-known spirituals ("Mary Had a Baby, Yes, Lord" and "In Dat Great Gittin' up Mornin’") are typical of Johnson's style in this work. In an actual church sermon the last line would be a signal to the congregation to break into singing the spiritual.

From A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode. Copyright © 1976 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Joseph T. Skerritt, Jr.

James Weldon Johnson"s major contribution to the Harlem Renaissance explosion of black American writing was his book of poems, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, published in 1927. For almost ten years Johnson worked on these folk sermons in verse whenever the demands of NAACP work relented enough to make writing possible. "The Creation" was published in 1918, and two others were published in magazines during the mid-1920s. In this work he followed the principles he had developed in writing the long preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry:

What the colored poet in the United States needs to do is something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than symbols from without, such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation. . . . He needs a form that is freer and larger than dialect . . . a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar terms of thought and distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro. (Quoted in Johnson’s introduction to God’s Trombones)

The completed book presents seven sermons—"The Creation," "The Prodigal Son," "Go Down Death--A Funeral Sermon," "Noah Built the Ark," "The Crucifixion," "Let My People Go," and "The Judgment Day"--preceded by an opening poem, "Listen, Lord--A Prayer." While the book as a whole does not have a narrative structure, as the sermons stand independent of one another, the sermons as poems bring together the narrative element of the stories from the Bible on which they are each based, the narrative/dramatic moment of the sermon, and the lyric quality of the folk preachers language.

[. . . .]

While remaining connected to the late Romantic dramatic monologue form that Paul Laurence Dunbar and other black American poets had long favored, Johnson here admits the free verse tradition of Walt Whitman to mingle with the rhetorical imagery and verbal excitement of the folk preacher. Not forced to represent speech rhythms with mechanical metrics or distracting rhymes, Johnson is able to focus attention on the metaphoric and ironic creativity of the African American oral tradition. His preacher connects a world of Bible-based ideas to the congregation/reader's mundane reality.

Johnson is remarkably successful in creating a poetic equivalent of the language of what he calls in the introduction "the old time Negro preacher." In "The Creation," the first and most famous of these poems, he creates that old-time preacher’s voice as a mixture of vibrant folk idiom, King James version grandeur, and apt metaphor. Thus God makes man of the clay from the riverbed while kneeling "like a mammy bending over her baby." The rather abstract and distant creator of the Bible text is humanized by the preacher’s narrative details and poetic touches.

The imagery and rhetoric of the poems draw upon the traditions of sacred song as well as sermons. In "Let My People Go" Johnson echoes his favorite spiritual, while at the same time addressing both black readers and white.

Commonly accepted as James Weldon Johnson's highest achievement in poetry, God's Trombones demonstrated in art the dignity and power of African American folk culture. With its illustrations by Aaron Douglas, the collection has enjoyed continuous popularity among scholars and general readers alike.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright © Oxford University Press.

Michael North

When Alain Locke, instigator and editor of the landmark anthology The New Negro, wanted an example of "the newer motive" in African-American literature, he turned to "The Creation," the first of Johnson's sermons to be published. In this "interesting experiment," says Locke, is to be seen one of the "modernistic styles of expression" coming into being in the 1920s. "The Creation" hardly seems "modernistic" in comparison to its exact contemporary Sweeney Agonistes: it has no contemporary references, no stylistic tricks, nothing overtly "experimental." But it could seem modern in the context of The New Negro simply by avoiding certain nearly inescapable stereotypes suggested by its subject, stereotypes Eliot had naturally drawn upon for his character the Reverend Hammond Aigs. As Van Vechten put it, "The Creation" was the poem that "broke the chain of dialect which bound Paul Laurence Dunbar and freed the younger generation from this dangerous restraint."

Van Vechten's metaphor tells the whole story of the difference between these two modernisms. Linguistic imitation and racial masquerade are so important to transatlantic modernism because they allow the writer to play at self-fashioning. Jazz means freedom to Jakie Rabinowitz partly because it is fast and rhythmically unrestrained but also because it is not ancestrally his: to sing it is to make a choice of self, to do his own dubbing, as it were. For African-American poets of this generation, however, dialect is a "chain." In the version created by the white minstrel tradition, it is a constant reminder of the literal unfreedom of slavery and of the political and cultural repression that followed emancipation. Both symbol and actuality, it stands for a most intimate invasion whereby the dominant actually attempts to create the thoughts of the subordinate by providing it speech.

Even more ironically, when a younger generation of African-American writers attempted to renew dialect writing by freeing it from the clichés Johnson criticized, fashionable white usage of the same language stood in their way as a disabling example. Locke hoped that the interest of certain white modernists in plain and unvarnished language would help to make a wider audience for writers like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay. At one point, he actually envisioned an alliance between an indigenous American modernism and the younger Harlem writers, to be based on a mutual interest in the language of the folk. But these hopes were to be disappointed, and the younger writers found, as Johnson had, that white interest in African-American language and culture was, if anything, more dangerous than indifference.

Thus two different modernisms, tightly linked by their different stakes in the same language, emerge between 1922 and 1927. Houston Baker, Jr., has argued that Anglo-American modernism is dangerously irrelevant to the movement that was born at about the same time in Harlem. In another sense, Anglo-American modernism is dangerous in its very relevance to the Harlem Renaissance because its strategies of linguistic rebellion depended so heavily on a kind of language that writers like Johnson rejected. For this reason, however, it is impossible to understand either modernism without reference to the other, without reference to the language they so uncomfortably shared, and to the political and cultural forces that were constricting that language at the very moment modern writers of both races were attempting in dramatically different ways to free it.

From The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, and Twentieth-Century Literature. Copyright © 1994 by Michael North.

James Smethurst

A crucial distinction among those African-American writers who attempted to represent and recreate the folk voice during the1930s is that between the writers whose works were essentially elegiac in nature and those whose works were not. Many, perhaps most, writers of the New Negro Renaissance who attempted to recreate, or at least invoke, the folk voice did so with the sense that the voice issued from a dying, if oppositional, subculture that was disappearing under the pressures of modern life, particularly mass culture. In the case of James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones, this passing is seen as the inevitable result of genuine progress. In Jean Toomer's Cane, the African-American folk culture of the South is also pictured as doomed, but in this instance the results, the deracinated and impotent human products of modern society, are tragic. This elegiac approach to the folk voice in somewhat modified form remained a powerful influence through the 1930s and beyond. As noted in chapter 2, the work of Sterling Brown, particularly Southern Road, had a strongly elegiac cast resembling that of Cane, but without the overt primitivist aspect. The powerfully corrupting influence of modern society, identified as mass culture by Brown, on the folk culture is rendered in both Toomer's work and that of Brown as a generational split, suggesting the doomed, if heroic, nature of the rural folk. Interestingly, as the dominant construction of the African-American folk, or "people," is transformed during the course of the 1930s from rural to urban, such an elegiac approach remains powerful. Even a poet as commonly, if wrongly, seen as opposed to vernacular African-American language as Melvin Tolson, a product of the literary and political movements of the 1920s and 1930s who published his first collection in the 1940s, saw his neomodernist epic The Harlem Gallery (1965) as an attempt to "fix" (to use James Weldon Johnson’s term) a vision of African-American community that is seen, like Johnson's "old-time preacher" in God's Trombones, with a certain sadness and affection stemming from its inevitable passing in a better, more egalitarian future.

From The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African-American Poetry, 1930-11946. Copyright © 1999 by Oxford University Press.

Jean Wagner
The Experiment of God's Trombones

Johnson's belated antipathy for dialect had noteworthy consequences in the free-verse sermons of God's Trombones, which he succeeded in making a typically Negro achievement while eschewing any use of dialect. Here is his own account of the origins of this experiment:

What the colored poet in the United States needs to do is something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without, such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation. He needs a form that is freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and, highest emotions and aspirations, and allow of the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment.

We will not insist on the fact that the dialect itself could have met all these demands, since the work of Sterling Brown is there to prove it. Let us simply examine the means Johnson used to carry out the program he had set himself, and estimate the extent to which his experiment may be considered a success.

His intent in writing God's Trombones is succinctly expressed in these two sentences from the preface: "The old-time Negro preacher is rapidly passing. I have here tried sincerely to fix something of him." The original idea was to begin the collection with a portrait of the preacher, "The Reverend Jasper Jones." Extant is a typewritten manuscript of this poem of twenty-four rhymed couplets with the author's annotations, but it is so poor a piece that Johnson's final decision not to use it is easily understood. Thus, but for the references made in the preface, we have no direct portrait of the preacher, and to get an adequate view of him we must turn to the oratorical skills he displays in the opening prayer "Listen, Lord," and in the following seven sermons.

The conventionality of these eight poems is already apparent from the fact that they are monologues, whereas in reality a part of the sermon, at least, would have consisted of a dialogue between preacher and congregation. Here the presence of the latter is not even suggested, as it might have been by appropriate monologue technique - for example, by using the repeated question, as Irwin Russell and Page and Gordon had done. Nor is the monologue able to reproduce the oratorical gestures, always so important for the Negro preacher, who is equally actor and orator.

Thus Johnson, from the outset, imposed limits on his experiment. He had indicated what they were in the preface, and asked the reader to accept them.

In principle, the language of God's Trombones is normal English, not Negro dialect, but here and there it is possible to note a few minor deviations from the norm. True, the dialect or familiar forms that creep in are for the most part American rather than specifically Negro. They include, for example, the intermittent usage of the double negation and of the gerundive preceded by the preposition "a" - except, however, in these two lines of "Noah Built the Ark," in which "a-going" is not just typically Negro but directly borrowed from the first line of a spiritual:

God's a-going to rain down rain on rain.
God's a-going to loosen up the bottom of the deep.

Another Negro dialect form is the parasitical "a" often used by blacks to introduce a sort of syncopation into the English sentence:

Lord -- ride by this morning --
Mount your milk-white horse,
And ride-a this morning --

or, again, in these lines:

And the old ark-a she begun to ride;
The old ark-a she begun to rock;

Yet another Negro dialect form is the redundant recourse to the auxiliary "done," as in this example:

And now, O Lord --
When I've done drunk my last cup of sorrow --

But such forms are exceptional; no more than two or three dozen of them are to be noted in the more than 900 lines of God's Trombones, and their contribution to the effect Johnson was aiming at is but subsidiary.

Much more effective in giving these sermons their Negro character are the countless, more or less extensive echoes of actual spirituals with which they are studded. Sometimes a mere word or expression that has long been familiar crops up in the sermon and by its own power suddenly evokes in the reader's mind the whole naive imagery that makes up the religious context of the spirituals, to which the preacher untiringly returns to find subject matter for his sermon. There are the pearly gates and golden streets of the New Jerusalem, mentioned in Revelation; the custom of calling Jesus "Mary’s Baby," and the warning words to sinners and backsliders that they should repent before it is too late. Elsewhere a line or two (or even an entire stanza) taken over bodily from a spiritual imperceptibly slips in at the end of a sermon. This is the signal awaited by the congregation for their voices to join in with the preacher’s; preaching then yields to song. And, finally, some, sermons are constructed from beginning to end upon spirituals, borrowing their arguments and paraphrasing their lines. Thus "The Crucifixion" relies for its details on the spirituals "Look-a How Dey Done My Lord!" and "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord." "Let My People Go" is the account of Exodus, related on the lines of "Go Down, Moses," with its classical parallel between the people of Israel and the black people; whereas in "The judgment Day," it is easy to pick out the very expressions used in the spirituals "In Dat Great Gittin' up Mornin’" "My Lord Says He’s Gwineter Rain Down Fire," "My Lord, What a Mornin’," and "Too Late, Sinnah." These describe the Last Judgment, particularly the delicate mission of the Angel Gabriel who, with one foot on the mountaintop and the other in the middle of the sea, blows his trumpet gently at first and then "like seven peals of thunder" to awaken the dead and summon them before the Lord's throne.

Because of their somewhat immoderate resort to the texts of the spirituals, these last three sermons are the least original in the volume. Yet Johnson gives a correct idea of the preacher's technique, designed to move rather than convince his audience, alternately raising the congregations hopes and filling them with terror, and arousing their pity by presenting scenes from Holy Writ as though these were taking place before their eyes. The preacher "sees" what he is describing and his hearers "see" through his eyes:

Up Golgotha's rugged road
I see my Jesus go.
I see him sink beneath the load,
I see my drooping Jesus sink.

When Eve yields to the serpent’s wiles, the preacher is a witness to the scene. Again, together with his parishioners, he relives the betrayal by Judas so vividly that one expects them at any moment to step in so as to change the course of events:

Oh, look at black-hearted Judas --
Sneaking through the dark of the Garden –
Leading his crucifying mob.
Oh, God!
Strike him down!
Why don't you strike him down,
Before he plants his traitor's kiss
Upon my Jesus' cheek?

He is present, too, "on that great gettin' up morning": he "feels" the earth shudder, "sees" the graves burst open, and "hears" how the bones of those awakened from the dead click together.

The most personal aspect of the preacher's art is what he creates out of his own fantasy with the aim of stirring the imaginations of his hearers. A ready fabulist, he constantly interpolates in order to supplement the bareness of the biblical narrative. Thus the creation of the world is unfolded before the eyes of the astounded congregation as though it were a fairy tale or a child's game:

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
. . . . .
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
and bulged the mountains up.
. . . . .
. . . God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas –
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed --
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled --

His preaching ever relies on the concrete, with an anthropomorphism that brings down to the human level the Eternal Father, who is addressed as one would speak to a friendly neighbor:

O lord -- open up a window of heaven,
And lean out far over the battlements of glory,
And listen this morning.

Particularly remarkable are the images the preacher uses to make himself understood by all. Witness the reproof administered to the Prodigal Son who has revolted against his Father:

Young man --
Young man --
Your arm's too short to box with God.

Naive, homely, and extravagant in turn, but always direct and forceful, these images have no compunction about blending in with those of the Bible so unexpectedly at times as to be almost grotesque, as in this prayer uttered by the pastor for himself:

And now, O Lord, this man of God,
Who breaks the bread of life this morning –
Shadow him in the hollow of thy hand,
And keep him out of the gunshot of the devil.
Take him, Lord -- this morning --
Wash him with hyssop inside and out,
Hang him up and drain him dry of sin,
Pin his ear to the wisdom-post,
And make his words sledge hammers of truth –
Beating on the iron heart of sin.
Lord God, this morning --
Put his eye to the telescope of eternity,
And let him look upon the paper walls of time.
Lord, turpentine his imagination,
Put perpetual motion in his arms,
Fill him full of the dynamite of thy power,
Anoint him all over with the oil of thy salvation,
And set his tongue on fire.

If allowance is made for his borrowings from the Bible, from the spirituals, and from the Negro sermons he had heard, what then is the poet’s share in God's Trombones? Johnson was certainly not the creator of these sermons but, as Synge remarked of his own indebtedness to the Irish people, every work of art results from a collaboration. In God's Trombones, the artist is clearly present on every page, and he gives even while he receives. The simplicity and clarity, so striking in these poems, are the fruits of his efforts. His musical sense is manifested in the choice of sonorities for the free-verse line which, in his hands, becomes docile and supple, and adjusts to the preaches rhythm as well as to the rise and fall of his voice. Taking what were, after all, the heterogeneous elements of his raw materials, the poet has marked them with the unity and the stamp of his own genius, so that these sermons, as they come from his hands, have undeniably become his own to some degree.

If he deserves any reproach, it might be for his excessive zeal in idealizing and refining -- or, in other words, for having thought it necessary to impose too much respectability on essentially popular material whose crudity is one of its charms, as it is also a voucher for its authenticity. His sermons are still folklore, perhaps, but stylized folklore.

Johnson's experiment is not altogether comparable to Synge's, though this had been his source of inspiration. There was some desire in both cases, no doubt, to rehabilitate a racial community that had long been oppressed and mocked by a more powerful Anglo-Saxon people. Synge’s work forms part of the Irish Renaissance, as Johnson's belongs to the Negro Renaissance. In each case the writer chose to produce a work that would be typically national or racial, while deliberately discarding the speech of the minority in favor of English. But even apart from the fact that, compared with Synge's lifework, God's Trombones is of modest dimensions, its themes were already set and its plots already mapped out, so that the role of inventiveness could only be negligible. Thus the poet's originality could hardly be exhibited except in his actual treatment of the material. While Synge did not overlook some opportunities for criticizing the Irish character, Johnson frankly aims at writing an apologia. Finally, even the linguistic experiment is not identical in the two writers. While Synge, utilizing the examples of folk speech which he had patiently collected, constructed for himself an ordinary synthetic, artificial idiom, with intricate phrases and constructions that are his alone, Johnson relied much more widely on the English language's normal turn of phrase. Though making generous use, in his sermons, of fragments from the spirituals, he almost always provided them first with the respectable externals of standard English. What is Negro in God's Trombones is not the language as such, but the style and the outlook on life it reflects.

Successful as Johnson's experiment was, its success nevertheless remained limited and contingent, for it depended in large measure on forces lying outside the work itself and from which, in view of the nature of the theme, it profited. For any subject but this, it would have been hard to find so favorable a combination of circumstances.

This work, furthermore, was the offspring of an outdated mentality. Like its author, the work set out to have a Negro soul, but one garbed in the distinction and respectability of whiteness. Despite appearances, its tendency was at odds with that total coming to awareness marked by the Negro Renaissance, and no more is needed to explain why God's Trombones remained an isolated venture.

From Black Poets of the united States: From Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Arnold Rampersand

Probably the best known of these quickly became "The Creation" ("And God stepped out on space, / And he looked around and said: / I'm lonely"). With its intrinsic drama, its flashing changes of rhythm, its rousing images now awe-inspiring, now tender, "The Creation" soon became popular as a recitation piece, especially in the mouth of Johnson himself, who was a remarkable reader of verse. Building steadily to its climax, the poem finds God ("Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky, / Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night, / Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand"), scooping up clay and kneeling down by the bank of a river:

Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;

From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Eds. Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.

Robert E. Fleming

God’s motivation for the creation is human, basic, and understandable: "I'm lonely-- / I'll make me a world." The actual mechanics of creation are created in detail chosen to form a mental picture of real activity in the mind of the listener:

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.

One can easily imagine a preacher miming such actions. In the creation of Man a specifically black image is created.

This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.

The anthropomorphic God who appears in these lines is maintained consistently throughout the poem. He is not the remote, formal, all-knowing God of the Scriptures so much as an approachable, questioning, evolving Being with whom the listener could identify. Creation is an act of problem-solving, as God seeks to remedy the loneliness that has plagued Him; thus He is not only an understanding but an understandable Being. The use of long and short lines suggests the changing tempo of the preacher's speech, and the occasional dashes indicate "a certain sort of pause that is marked by a quick intaking and an audible expulsion of the breath. . . ." On the whole, "The Creation" is a dignified poem whose tone and diction are appropriate to its solemn subject.

From James Weldon Johnson. Copyright © 1987 by G. K. Hall and Company.

George Hutchinson

Again and again in recent years critics have taken Johnson to task for abandoning "dialect"; but to abandon "dialect," as Johnson had known it, was not to abandon vernacular. It was Johnson, before any other black poet, who broke the barrier between "dialect" and Standard English--specifically in this poem. Rather than invidiously comparing Johnson's with Hurston's renderings of sermons or Sterling Brown's of ballads (a decade later), we ought to have a look at the kind of literary model Johnson had to work from, such as Dunbar's "An Antebellum Sermon":

Now ole Pher'oh, down in Egypt,
    Was de wuss man evah bo'n,
An' he had de Hebrew chillun
    Down dah wukin' in his co'n;
'T well de Lawd got tiahed o' his foolin',
    An' sez he: "I'll let him know--
Look hyeah, Moses, go tell Pher'oh
    Fu' to let dem chillun go."

What a distance to a stanza like this one from Johnson:

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 me a man."

Such a stanza was virtually unthinkable in 'poetry' until Johnson wrote it. It is still ahead of where either Hughes or Hurston was in 1925, as Locke would later point out in a fine review of Sterling Brown's Southern Road.

As Hughes, Hurston, and Brown would all recognize, Johnson was after an idiomatic vernacular poetics, recognizing that a break with the "dielect" tradition was prerequisite to a more variously self expressive poetry. "The Creation" shows, better than anything by Dunbar, the black folk preacher as a superior verbal artist--a virtuoso word-crafter and image-maker; it recuperates precisely the sort of syncretic linguistic feats that had been a butt of humor in the minstrel show:

And God stepped out on space,
And He looked around and said,
"I'm lonely
I'll make me a world

How can anyone say that such writing "only passes for ‘colored’"? This is a stanza that rives the walls of genteel dialect poetry. As Louis D. Rubin has pointed out, most convincingly, Johnson had demonstrated the possibility of moving back and forth between "formal intensity" and "colloquial informality"; just as important, the lessons of free verse are applied to make each line correspond to a breath: "Here was the flowing, pulsating rise and fall of living speech, making its own emphases and intensifications naturally, in terms of the meaning, not as prescribed by an artificial, pre-established pattern of singsong metrics and rhyme." Gayl Jones backs up Rubin's point with the authority of someone who has studied the matter with an eye to getting work done: "Johnson maintains the syntax and expressive language and rhythms of the folk orators and seems to presage more contemporary ways of transcribing dialect or folk speech as a self-authenticating language."

From The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Copyright © 1995 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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