Reading Through the Stacks: 7. Religion and Rhythm

Reading through the Oakland Public Library’s poetry collection.

Today we’re talking about James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) was a writer during the Harlem Renaissance period as well as a prominent member of the NAACP. He’s most famous for writing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” He also served in a diplomatic position under Theodore Roosevelt in Venezuela and Nicaragua, worked as a professor at NYU and Fisk University. He was also known for collecting Black oral histories and cultural records.

Which brings us to this particular book first published in 1927. In the preface for the book, Johnson discusses the sermons he remembers being delivered by African American preachers, the patterns they followed and the importance of these all Black spaces:

“The old-time preacher brought the establishment of these independent places of worship and thereby provided the first sphere in which race leadership might develop and function.”

James Weldon Johnson, preface p. 4

By giving people separate spaces for worship, preachers made it possible for people to gather and seek community, tell their stories, come together, and plan for a better future. Johnson emphasizes the intelligence of these preachers, who often memorized huge sections of the King James Bible, particularly the Old Testament but the text was a leaping off point–not the main substance of a sermon.

Johnson also emphasizes the rhythm and mastery of language that preachers called upon:

“He [the preacher] 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 incoherencies. He was a master of all the modes of eloquence. He often possessed a voice that was a marvelous instrument, a voice he could modulate from a sepulchral whisper to a crashing thunderclap.”

James Weldon Johnson, preface p. 5

Johnson discusses at length his reasons for not using dialect to try and capture African American speech patterns and emphasizes the way it has been used in American culture and literature to create pathos or humor. Neither is what the poet seeks to convey here. He is interested in capturing rhythms, ideas, and a time and place in American culture that he feels is disappearing.

Although I’m not normally a huge fan of religious poetry (as you’ll know if you read my last post), I feel differently about this work with its careful attention to rhythm, improvisational and captivating as jazz (which I’m a big fan of) and it’s detailed language–so rich and evocative. Also, although I don’t believe that Bible stories are true, there is no denying that when told well they are excellent stories. As a lover of fairy tales, folklore, and history, I was swept away by the language in this book. Here’s a sample from the section on creation, where a few lines in the Bible are expanded:

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 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.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

James Weldon Johnson, from “The Creation,” p. 17-18.

In Johnson’s hand religion becomes the stuff of wonder and poetry. I read through this book really quickly, spurred ahead by the language and intonation that Johnson mentions in the introduction. This is a really approachable book of religious poetry that breathes light into the stories. If your interested in works and commentary about Christianity, I would highly recommend this book.