MMLA 2016

Sacred Poetry and Aesthetic Uplift in James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones

James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones promotes the artistic value of black “folk” culture, while also advocating for African Americans to produce new, more modern, art. Johnson, thus, deploys cultural heritage discourse to praise ragtime, the spirituals, and folk sermons, but offers an aesthetic version of racial uplift. Although he valued various forms of “low” culture, Johnson argued that only by rivaling whites in “high” culture could African Americans secure equality. Stuart Hall’s conception of cultural identity as constituted in acts of representation, rather than by a stable essence, is useful in analyzing Johnson’s writings. God’s Trombones does not embody a transhistorical black identity, but rather creates one by transforming folk sermons into a more modern idiom. Johnson constructs a black identity for himself and his generation through his representations of the past. Johnson re-tells the past by placing black folk culture at the heart of American artistic production. By claiming that African Americans are the source of much American art and entertainment, Johnson offers a new national myth that puts black people on center stage. Johnson’s desire to demonstrate African Americans’ artistic capabilities and spur black people to create more modern art formed in response to the idea that only white people could achieve the highest levels of aesthetic achievement.