To be honest, I first became acquainted with the works of James Weldon Johnson rather late in life. It was while attending Yale’s Divinity School in a preaching class. Most of those that where in the class with me had long histories of preaching to lean on – not me, I had been a salesman – selling terminals, printers, calculators and such. Not that standing before an audience was new – but to stand in front of practiced preachers and preach was. The assignment that most sticks out in my mind was where we each had to pick a parable as the basis of a ten minute sermon – I chose the Prodigal Son.
I chose it over Ezekiel.1-14: Vision of the valley of dry bones – because I saw and still see myself in the context of the prodigal son. The Ezekiel choice reminds of the miracle of breathing life to a people needing to come together (the same kind of sprit that I sense coming from Obama) and the assumption of responsibility of the minister to lead the process of healing after a time of great tribulation. Instead I wanted to practice the rhythmic telling of a story – my own personal story.
My story, like most ex-colored people leads forward from isolation through integration on to realization – realization that my color is my problem, that is, if I make it a problem.
Don’t worry; this post is simply a tribute to a poet – one that has given me much joy and one of his works that I see still as having relevance for me and the world that I see taking shape every day.
I grew up on the East side of Detroit – the second son of two. The way I describe my family connection is that my parents had two only children – being that my brother is 13 years my senior. They both worked at what was then – good paying jobs – my father was a crane operator for Ford and my mother a clerk for the Post Office. I was “baby Levy” back then and I got whatever I wanted, absent my one wish was another younger brother. My mother did try to provide surrogates – even to the point that if she took me shopping for clothes she would buy the same outfit for whichever of my friends happen to come with us.
I was treated like a young prince – my mother had many of clothes custom made – sweaters from around the world – curiosity of my brother’s far flung travels and postings. He was a teacher on military bases for the Defense Department – later he became a Principal of several schools in different parts of Europe and Asia.
You get the picture – I did not have the tormented struggle of living in the “projects” – though I knew and hung out with some of those kids – but I did it by choice not necessity. This brings me back to the Prodigal Son –wondering around was by choice, like mine. We both lamented what was far away from where we knew was comfortable and sane for the wilds of the unknown.
In the story, the youngest son heads off to the City – the city in my case was the temptation of drugs, fast living, and behavior not becoming the up bringing I had received. This was at a very tumultuous time of the sixties – a confession I can make now that I was not so much a part of the Civil Rights scene as I was up for the fight. So with that I in mind I aligned myself much closer to Malcolm and Rap Brown then with MLK. The suffering servant never made much sense to me, but being a man among men did and still does.
There are lots of other features that fit between my life – thus far – and the poem, but I’ll leave those for another time.
There are a few points I’d like to bring out about the poem itself and its intent. The poem is part of a collection entitled God’s Trombone which was first published in 1927. James Weldon Johnson was a much acclaimed political commentator, author, poet and lecturer.
For those of you unfamiliar with his work and thought this aside will provide a point of reference to this thought and place in American history. For this I turn to my teacher – Cornel West – who describes in Prophesy Deliverance taxonomy of responses to American’s degradation of the African descended population into four intellectual traditions: exceptionalist, assimilationist, marginalist, and humanist.
- Exceptionalist tradition lauds the uniqueness of Afro-American culture and personality – It claims a Sui genris status for Afro-American life in regard to form and content. It stresses what qualitatively distinguishes Afro-Americans from the rest of humanity, especially what sets them apart from white Americans.
- Assimilationist tradition view is one of self-hatred, shame, and fear. Afro-Americans are viewed as morbid subhuman monsters. This tradition posits Afro-American inferiority, not against everyone, but specifically to white Americans.
- Marginalist tradition promotes a self-image of confinement and creativity, restriction and revolt. It encompasses a highly individualistic rebellion of Afro-Americans who are marginal to, or exist on the edges of, Afro-American culture and see little use in assimilating into the American mainstream. It expresses a critical disposition toward Afro-American culture and American society.
- Humanist tradition describes an Afro-American that holds a self-image that is one neither of heroic super humans untouched by the experience of oppression nor of pathetic sub humans devoid of a supportive culture. Rather, Afro Americans are viewed as both meek and belligerent, kind and cruel, creative and dull – in short, as human beings.
James Weldon Johnson is described as an example of a strong exceptionalist as such for his notion of the unique creativity of Afro-Americans. In the famous preface to his well-know anthology of Afro-American poetry, he claimed that the true greatness of a civilization should be measured by its creative powers in the arts. He then added.
“The Negro has already proved the possession of these powers by being the creator of the only things artistic that have yet sprung from American soil and been universally acknowledged as distinctive American products.”
Johnson attributed these creative powers to the “racial genius” of Afro-Americans … us who are warmed by the poetic blood of Africa – old, mysterious Africa, mother of races, and rhythmic-beating heart of the world. This same genius is still held and demonstrated in the likes of Mos Def, Common and others.
Johnson took his inspiration as many Blacks do in public communication from the old-time Negro preacher of parts was above all an orator, and in good measure an actor. He knew the secret of oratory, that at bottom it is a progression of rhythmic words more than it is anything else. Indeed, I have witnessed congregations moved to ecstasy by the rhythmic intoning of sheer in coherencies. They are masters of all the modes of eloquence, not logic.
For it was just one of those moments that Johnson describes as the genius for this piece – such a preacher moving from prepared – stale text – suddenly he closed the Bible, stepped out from behind the pulpit and began to preach. He started intoning the old folk-sermon that begins with the creation of the world and ends with Judgment Day. He was at once a changed man, free, at ease and masterful. The change in the congregation was instantaneous. An electric current ran through the crowd.
There only two or three things I need to say about the poem itself:
- Gender was not the issue in 1927 as it is today – so all the pronouns refer to men
- The idea of the City as a place of sin and deprivation – it is to me simply an express of temptation
- Lastly, the women of the City are mere examples of the many temptations available to seek
The Prodigal Son
Your arm’s too short to box with God.
But Jesus spake in a parable, and he said:
A certain man had two sons.
Jesus didn’t give this man a name.
But his name is God Almighty.
And Jesus didn’t call these sons by name,
But ev’ry young man,
Is one of these two sons.
And the younger son said to his father,
He said: Father, divide up the property,
And give me my portion now.
And the father with tears in his eyes said: Son,
Don’t leave you father’s house.
But the boy was stubborn in his head
And haughty in his heart,
And he took his share of his father’s goods,
And went into a far-off country.
There comes a time,
There comes a time
When ev’ry young man looks out from his father’s house,
Longing for the far-off country.
And the you man journeyed on his way,
And he said to himself as he traveled along:
This sure is an easy road,
Nothing like the rough furrows behind my father’s plow.
Smooth and easy is the road
That leads to hell and destruction.
Down grade all the way,
The further you travel, the faster you go.
No need to trudge and sweat and toil,
Just slip and slide and slip and slide
Till you bang up against hell’s iron gate.
And the younger son kept traveling along,
Till at night-time he came to a city.
And the city was bright in the night-time like day,
Brass bands and string bands a-playing,
And ev’rywhere the young man turned
There was singing and laughing and dancing.
And he stopped a passer-by and he said:
Tell me what city is this?
And the passer-by laughed and said: Don’t you know?
This is Babylon, Babylon,
The great city of Babylon.
Come on, my friend, and go along with me.
And the young man joined the crowd.
You’re never lonesome in Babylon.
You can always join a crowd in Babylon.
You can never be alone in Babylon,
Alone with your Jesus in Babylon.
You can never find a place, a lonesome place,
A lonesome place to go down on your knees,
And talk with your God, in Babylon.
You’re always in a crowd in Babylon.
And the young man went with his new-found friend,
And brought himself some brand new clothes,
And he spent his days in the drinking dens,
Swallowing the fires of hell.
And he spent his nights in the gambling dens,
And he met up with the women of Babylon.
Oh, the women of Babylon!
Dressed in yellow and purple and scarlet,
Loaded with rings and earrings and bracelets,
Their lips like a honeycomb dripping with honey,
Perfumed and sweet-smelling like a jasmine flower;
And the jasmine smell of the Babylon women
Got in his nostrils and went to his head,
And he wasted his substance in riotous living,
In the evening, in the black and dark of night,
With the sweet-sinning women of Babylon,
And they stripped him of his money,
And they stripped him of his clothes,
And they left him broke and ragged
In the streets of Babylon.
Then the young man joined another crowd—
The beggars and lepers of Babylon.
And he went to feeding swine,
And he was hungrier than the hogs;
He got down on his belly in the mire and mud
And ate the husks with the hogs.
And not a hog was too low to turn up his nose
At the man in the mire of Babylon.
Then the young man came to himself—
He came to himself and said:
In my father’s house are many mansions,
Ev’ry servant in his house has bread to eat
Ev’ry servant in his house has a place to sleep;
I will arise and go to my father.
And his father saw him afar off,
And he ran up the road to meet him.
He put clean clothes upon his back,
And a golden chain around his neck,
He made a feast and killed the fatted calf,
And invited the neighbors in.
When you’ve mingling with the crowd in Babylon—
Drinking the wine of Babylon—
You forget about God, and you laugh at Death.
Today you’ve got the strength of a bull in your neck
And the strength of a bear in your arms,
But some o’ these days, some o’ these days,
You’ll have a hand-to-hand struggle with bony Death,
And Death is bound to win.
Young man, come away from Babylon,
The hell-border city of Babylon,
Leave the dancing and gambling of Babylon,
The wine and whiskey of Babylon,
The hot-mouthed women of Babylon;
Fall down on your knees,
And say in your heart:
I will arise and go to my Father