Here is, to quote the eminent historian Nathan Irvin Huggins, one of the finest American autobiographies written in this century.” Born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, James Weldon Johnson began his career as a high-school principal. He went on to attain success as a songwriter on Broadway and as the compiler of the definitive Book of American Negro Spirituals. But he achieved one of his greatest triumphs in 1912, when, under a pseudonym, he published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Mana classic novel about a musician who rejects his black roots, a novel that is still in print today in multiple paperback editions. Johnson went on to be, from 1920 to 1930, the first African-American head of the NAACP, fighting tirelessly for the passage of a federal anti-lynching law. His life story is that of a truly remarkable man who triumphed over a system of institutionalized racism to become one of black America’s leading educators, men of letters, and reformers.
With the possible exceptions of Dr. Alain Locke and W.E.B. Du Bois, no African American excelled on as many different levels as James Weldon Johnson. Along This Way
--the first autobiography by a person of color to be reviewed in The New York Times
--not only chronicles his life as an educator, lawyer, diplomat, newspaper editor, lyricist, poet, essayist, and political activist but also outlines the trials and triumphs of African Americans from post-Reconstruction to the rise and fall of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Florida in 1871 to middle-class West Indian parents, Johnson recognized the challenges and absurdities of segregated America early on. But it was his experience as a tutor to rural blacks while a student at Atlanta University that was to alter the course of his life: "It was this period that marked the beginning of psychological change from boyhood to manhood," he writes. "It was this period that marked also the beginning of my knowledge of my own people as a race."
With a rare blend of pride and humility, Johnson recounts how he, among other accomplishments, became Florida's first black lawyer in 1898, a diplomat in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and lyricist for his brother Rosamond Johnson's famous song, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Johnson's commentary on his epochal novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, as well as writings on his works of poetry--The Creation, God's Trombones, and Fifty Years and Other Poems--is priceless. Equally important are the logical and even-tempered opinions on race that he wrote for The New York Age, which offered comprehensive critiques of Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Marcus Garvey, along with his analysis of the racial climate while serving as head of the NAACP. This remarkable man left a mark on the 20th century that goes beyond the boundary of race. --Eugene Holley Jr.