It's odd how often we *know* of a historical figure as the creator of X or the hero of Y ~ their endeavors, and indeed, their life, distilled into a single tagline. In the case of James Weldon Johnson, that shorthand is "composer of the lyrics for the Black national anthem.'
Whether 'Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing' is performed at a 1972 benefit conference,
or as part of an NFL broadcast,
the lyrics James Weldon wrote in 1900 to accompany the music composed by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, have become the coda for who he was.
That accomplishment -- to have created lyrics for a song with the ability to reflect a collective identity for millions into the 21st century-- would be a lifetime achievement for most of us. Yet in Johnson's case, it represents a mere sliver of the talents and firsts he pursued across many field of accomplishment:
Education (first Black professor at New York University),
Law (the first Black person admitted to the Florida Bar),
Diplomacy (serving the Roosevelt and Taft administrations as consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua),
Civil rights leadership (as the first Black person to serve as Executive Secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the ‘NAACP’), and
Noted Harlem Renaissance writer, poet and editor.
I became interested in Johnson in the context of the 1929 Kyoto Conference of the Institute of Pacific Relations, to which he was (reluctantly) invited as a member of the American delegation. The attitudes and reactions of the various participants to Johnson as a Black person at this convocation of internationals elites reveals much regarding the possibilities and limitations of post-WWI efforts to overthrow imperialism and pursue self-determination.
Blackpast.org's founder Dr. Quintard Taylor asked me to write about Johnson in 1929 Japan. In Ready, Willing and Able: James Weldon Johnson at the Institute of Pacific Relations 1929 Conference, I examine what Johnson's participation tells us about the possibilities and limitations of that period.
On the question of whether race is central to understanding policy problems, Johnson wrote, “Out of it all [the conference discussions], the truth that came home most directly to me was the universality of the race and color problem. Negroes in the United States are prone, and naturally, to believe that their problem is the problem. The fact is, there is a race and color problem wherever the white man deals with darker races (emphasis added).”
Johnson's naming of race/color as a problem resulting from white people's interactions with Black people and other people of color is another of his contributions that stands the test of time.