A 1913 poem on the Emancipation Proclamation, by African American writer James Weldon Johnson. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was an African American writer, attorney, civic leader, university teacher, and US consul. Johnson, who worked for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People between 1916-1931, was one of its major figures. For further, see Robert E. Fleming, James Weldon Johnson (Boston: Twayne, 1987).
This 104-line poem was the title piece of Fifty Years and Other Poems, published in 1917 and Johnson’s first book of collected poetry. The book consists of a mixture of standard English and dialect poetry. Johnson wrote from the depths of the Jim Crow era, the social context for a poem that proceeds from patriotism towards condemnation of racism in the United States.
“Fifty Years,” a commemorative public poem first published in the New York Times, begins by asking readers to take a longer perspective than the fifty years since the Emancipation Proclamation, to Jamestown three hundred years previous “where a naked, shivering score, / Snatched from their haunts across the seas, / Stood, wild-eyed, on Virginia’s shore.” (lines 10-12) It is from these first African slaves in North America that has “grown a race, ten million strong, / An upward, onward, marching host.” (23-24) Johnson imbues a sense of progessively rising power among African Americans, a strength that will ultimately overcome present civil disabilities. He enjoins readers to seek “New zeal, new courage” (34) and to grow even more worthy of the country.
A nationalism of first right inhabits this poem, one gained by generations of labor and patriotic sacrifice. He asks rhetorically whether African Americans should “Stand back of new-come foreign hordes, / And fear our heritage to claim?” (71-72) In the latter stanzas of the poem, Johnson acknowledges the “brutish might” (81) of racist violence such that causes “hands uplifted in despair.” (88) Against such despair, Johnson concludes by invoking the antislavery spirits of William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Elijah Lovejoy, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln. (93-100)
Johnson produced abridged versions of this poem. This original version contains 26 quatrains; it has 20 stanzas in his anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1922); and 24 stanzas in a 1935 re-edition of Fifty Years.
- Joe Lockard