God’s Trombones

God’s Trombones


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 We saw God fling His heavenly Light against the Eternal Deep

“like a mammy” the Creator knelt down to make Him “a man.”



Books by James Weldon Johnson

Lift Every Voice and Sing  /  The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man   / God’s Trombones / Black Manhattan / Along This Way

The Creation / The Books of the American Negro Spirituals.  

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God’s Trombones: A Review

By Amin Sharif

I am old enough to remember when every black child was required to memorize and recite the poems of Langston Hughes or James Weldon Johnson. The recitation of these works usually took place at church or in school. And these occasions came as close to a rite of passage as anything possessed by the Black Community in those days. Each child practiced for weeks to stand before parents and friends to recite the words of these two great poets. And woe unto the child who forgot his lines or who gave a recitation that did not move those assembled. For the younger children, Langston Hughes was more than appropriate. But for those in the upper grades, James Weldon Johnson’s works were the only ones that would suffice. And among Johnson’s works, only The Creation was deemed a masterwork. Only the best of the best was ever allowed to present this work to a congregation or the school assembly.


The Creation

And God stepped out on space

And he looked around and said:

I’m lonely —

I’ll make me a world.

And as far as the eye of God could see

Darkness covered everything,

Blacker than a hundred midnights

Down in a cypress swamp

Then God smiled,

And the light broke,

And the darkness rolled up on one side,

And the light stood shining on the other,

And God said: that’s good!


I can clearly remember an assembly at my old elementary school # 138 when a senior from Douglas High School came to present Johnson’s masterwork to my schoolmates and me. The orator was a very dark skinned, youth with a deep bass voice. Standing in a spotlight, the youth stretched out his arms and became his dramatic presentation. There seemed to be no other sound in the world but his voice as he described how God made the world. Though the poem is relatively short, this youth seemed to make time stand still for us. In our mind’s eye, we saw God fling His heavenly Light against the Eternal Deep. And, we saw how “like a mammy” the Creator knelt down to make Him “a man.” To me, the recitation was like a song–an old Negro spiritual–that I heard my great-grandmother sing while hanging out wash. Yet, at the same time, the verses seemed more holy than a spiritual. We all sat there mesmerized as the presentation went on. And when the last words of the poem had been spoken, we had the same strange feeling a child gets when he emerges from baptismal waters.

It was with these memories that I sat down to watch a presentation of James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombone: A Trilogy of African American Poems   shown of WHUT (Howard University’s channel).  Though this program was only a half-hour long, it was a magnificent mixture of oration, animation, and music. The poems (The Creation, The Prodigal Son, and Go Down Death) were read by the well known actors: James Earl Jones and Dorian Haywood. James Earl Jones signature voice was perfect for Johnson’s Creation. 

But Haywood’s masterful presentation of Johnson’s The Prodigal Son and Go Down Death was equally impressive. Though I have never been a fan of claymation, this technique along with stirring music made Haywood’s reading of The Prodigal Son the high point of the program. Haywood’s voicing was in the style of the great Black Southern Church Tradition. And, one could visualize a congregation with white handkerchiefs and fans shouting out their “amens” against a tide of singing and clapping. All in all, the Trilogy was well worth watching and a fitting tribute to the works of Johnson.             

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James Weldon Johnson 


Author, Lawyer, Diplomat

James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1871 and had a distinguished career as an author, lawyer and diplomat. Johnson was educated at Atlanta and Columbia Universities. He collaborated with his brother John Rosamond Johnson to write some 200 songs. Among these was the Negro Anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing. The brother also wrote a musical together.

From 1906 to 1910, Johnson was United States consul to Venezuela. And in 1916 to 1920, Johnson was a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He became the first black executive of the NAACP in 1920. He held this position until 1930. In that same year, Johnson became a professor of creative literature at Fisk University. Soon after, Johnson published his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man under a pseudonym.

Johnson’s most famous literary effort was God’s Trombones published in 1927. God’s Trombones are a collection of poetic sermons written in free verse. It is said the Johnson considered the voice of the black preacher to be a musical instrument “not a piano . . . or trumpet but a trombone. Johnson was also the author of Black Manhattan,  a biography called Along This Way, and  The Books of the American Negro Spirituals.  

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James Weldon Johnson—A Chronology (1871-1938)

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Lift Every Voice and Sing

                      Lyrics by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) Lift every voice and sing Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise High as the listening skies, Let it resound loud as the listening skies, Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of hope that the present has brought us, Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on till victory is won. Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chastening rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died, Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet Come to the place for which our fathers sighed? We have come over a way that with tears has been watered We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered. Out from the gloomy past, Till now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast. God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light. Keep us forever in the path, we pray. Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, Lest, our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand, True to our God True to our native land.                          Music by John Rosamond Johnson (1873–1954)

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Lift Every Voice and Sing (Kim Weston) / Lift Every Voice and Sing (Grace Baptist Church Cathedral Choir)



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A group of young men in Jacksonville, Florida, arranged to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in 1900.  My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercise.  I wrote the words and he wrote the music.  Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made memeographed copies for us and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.     “Shortly afterwards, my brother and I moved from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds.  But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it, they went off to other schools and sang it, they became teachers and taught it to other children.  Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country.  Today, the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn is quite generally used.—James Weldon Johnson

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The James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection

Founded in 1941 by Carl Van Vechten, this collection stands as a memorial to Dr. James Weldon Johnson and celebrates the accomplishments of African American writers and artists, beginning with those of the Harlem Renaissance. Grace Nail Johnson contributed her husband’s papers, leading the way for gifts of papers from Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White and Poppy Cannon White, Dorothy Peterson, Chester Himes, and Langston Hughes. The collection also contains the papers of Richard Wright and Jean Toomer, as well as Robert W. Small Funder groups of manuscripts or correspondence of such writers as Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Wallace Thurman.

Representative manuscripts suggest the richness of the collection: Richard Wright’s Native Son ; Jean Toomer’s Cane ; Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God ; W. E. B. DuBois’s “The Renaissance of Ethics,” his Harvard thesis with annotations by William James; James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man and God’s Trombones ; and Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues. Examples of the abundant correspondence are letters between Owen Dodson and Adam Clayton Powell, Joel Spingarn and W. E. B. DuBois, Georgia Douglas Johnson and William Stanley Braithewaite. The correspondence of Dr. Johnson and Walter White documents the early history of the NAACP. Also present are music manuscripts by W. C. Handy, J. Rosamond Johnson, and Thomas “Fats” Waller, among others.

Carl Van Vechten photographed hundreds of his friends including all the persons mentioned above as well as Alvin Ailey, Marian Anderson, Pearl Bailey, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, Arthur Mitchell, Paul Robeson, Margaret Walker, and Ethel Waters, to give but a sampling. These photographs, combined with those collected by Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, form an important visual record of artists, writers, actors, musicians, and politicians active in the United States from the 1920s through the 1950s. Sculpture by Richmond Barthé, Augusta Savage, and Leslie Bolling, drawings by Mary Bell, a portrait head of Ethel Waters by Antonio Salemme, as well as commemorative medals and prints are among the many works of art in the collection. Added in the 1990s, the Randolph Linsley Simpson Collection of photographs of and by African Americans contains over twenty-five hundred images from across the nation. Its formats span the history of photography, from Daguerreotypes and cabinet cards to photographic postcards and snapshots from 1850 to 1930.

James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, formed a successful team of lyricist and composer best known for the anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Less well remembered are the many popular hits they sold as sheet music such as “Under the Bamboo Tree.” They collected sheet music by other African American composers and their collecting pattern continues. Yale Library

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books

For July 1st through August 31st 2011  


#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope

and the Heart of a Woman Who Changed a Nation

By Rosa Parks

Parks, one of the U.S.’ authentic living legends, is the black lady who on December 1, 1955, refused to surrender her bus seat to a white man, was arrested under the Jim Crow law that required blacks to make way for whites, and thereby launched the yearlong bus boycott by blacks in Birmingham, Alabama, which led to the national overturning of that city’s and similar segregation laws across the nation. In this tiny collection of what seem like outtakes from oral-history tapes, she rehearses her great day (as it seems from the perspective of history; Parks remembers it as “not a happy experience. . . . I had not planned to be arrested”), stressing that it wasn’t, as many have romanticized, because her feet were tired that she didn’t move, but because she was “tired of being oppressed . . . just plain tired.” Her remarks, disposed somewhat arbitrarily into sections topically named “Fear,” “Pain,” “Character,” “Faith,” “Values,” reflect her lifelong commitment to justice for black Americans and to peace and equal opportunity for all.

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The Shadows of Youth

The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation

By Andrew B. Lewis

With deep admiration and rigorous scholarship, historian Lewis (Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table) revisits the ragtag band of young men and women who formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Impatient with what they considered the overly cautious and accommodating pace of the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr., the black college students and their white allies, inspired by Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence and moral integrity, risked their lives to challenge a deeply entrenched system. Fanning out over the Jim Crow South, SNCC organized sit-ins, voter registration drives, Freedom Schools and protest marches. Despite early successes, the movement disintegrated in the late 1960s, succeeded by the militant Black Power movement. The highly readable history follows the later careers of the principal leaders. Some, like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, became bitter and disillusioned.

Others, including Marion Barry, Julian Bond and John Lewis, tempered their idealism and moved from protest to politics, assuming positions of leadership within the very institutions they had challenged. According to the author, No organization contributed more to the civil rights movement than SNCC, and with his eloquent book, he offers a deserved tribute.—Publishers Weekly

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America.

This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Lift Every Voice and Sing

A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem; 100 Years, 100 Voices

Edited by Julian Bond and Sondra K. Wilson

Pasted into Bibles, schoolbooks, and hearts, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written by J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson in 1900, has become one of the most beloved songs in the African American community—taught for years in schools, churches, and civic organizations. Adopted by the NAACP as its official song in the 1920s and sung throughout the civil rights movement, it is still heard today at gatherings across America. James Weldon Johnson’s lyrics pay homage to a history of struggle but never waver from a sense of optimism for the future—”facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won.” Its message of hope and strength has made “Lift Every Voice and Sing” a source of inspiration for generations.

In celebration of the song’s centennial, Julian Bond and Sondra Kathryn Wilson have collected one hundred essays by artists, educators, politicians, and activists reflecting on their personal experiences with the song. Also featuring photos from historical archives, Lift Every Voice and Sing is a moving illustration of the African American experience in the past century. With contributors including John Hope Franklin, Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, Norman Lear, Maxine Waters, and Percy Sutton, this volume is a personal tribute to the enduring power of an anthem. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has touched the hearts of many who have heard it because its true aim, as Harry Belafonte explains, “isn’t just to show life as it is but to show life as it should be.”

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 21 July 2012




Home Amin Sharif  Wilson Jeremiah Moses Table    Langston Hughes Table 

Related files: God’s Trombones    Race Prejudice and the Negro Artist

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