The following is a transcript of a talk I gave at the Poetry Foundation on September 14th, 2017. I, along with Richard Guzman, Haki Madhubuti, Vida Cross, and Don Evans inducted Johnson into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.
Fenton Johnson was born in 1888 and matured during one of the most turbulent eras in American history. These were the years when the modern global finance system, consumer capitalism, and technological innovation were turning the world on its head. In the short 26 years from when Johnson was born to when he published his first collection poetry in 1913, the United States had weathered six international financial panics, had grown into a military empire, and had been completely upended by electrification, the telephone, the phonograph, the radio, the automobile, the airplane, and the motion picture industry. The scale of daily American life was simultaneously shrinking and expanding in dizzying ways. For many, there was a real sense of optimism about the future. In fact many black people felt this too. One must remember that after the Civil War, 14 black men served in the U.S. House, 6 served as lieutenant governors, and over 600 served in state legislatures in the south. By 1890 the first generation born past slavery have now become a fledgling class of black professionals building their own prosperous world.
Fenton Johnson was born into this rather rare world of the black bourgeoisie. In 1888, before the rise of the black belt, Chicago’s African-American population was actually quite modest. In this community, the Johnsons were nobility. Fenton’s father Elijah Johnson had worked as a Pullman porter—a very lucrative job at the time—and had amassed quite a sum of money, enough to open the Dreamland Café one of the city’s premier jazz clubs that hosted greats like King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and Louis Armstrong. Fenton Johnson’s uncle, “Mushmouth” Johnson was in the same business but with greater and meaner ambitions. Mushmouth known as the “Negro Gambling King of Chicago,” owned and operated the Emporium, a saloon and gambling hall on State street which became an epicenter of entertainment, vice, and corruption. Mushmouth quickly became one of the most powerful black men in the city.
Young Fenton, the patron son of the city’s black elite, had been kept well away from his family’s vices. Indeed, he enjoyed access and privileges very few black people in the United States could claim at the time. His friend Arna Bontemps tells of Johnson driving his own motorcar. In addition, Fenton attended Northwestern and then the University of Chicago for college before heading South to teach English, for a year, at the State University of Louisville in 1910.
His time in Kentucky must have made quite an impression. Though he enjoyed ample wealth and privilege in Chicago, Johnson would have been shocked to find that in the South no black person, regardless of their station, was immune to racial antagonism, and prejudice. Only fourteen years before, Plessy v. Ferguson had passed—codifying separate but equal into law. By the time Johnson arrived to teach in Louisville, every state in the South and many others around the nation had passed laws completely baring black people from the ballot box. The shadow of Jim Crow had quickly washed over the country. After Reconstruction in 1877, Northern and Southern capitalists swept into the South looking to exploit the region’s four million impoverished black people. Sharecropping, crop lien laws, vagrancy laws, and other methods became the legal means by which to keep the New South looking conspicuously like the Old one. To keep everything in it’s place politicians and industrialists stoked racial antagonism. We are not just talking about the Klan either. Between 1900 and 1910 an average of 75 black men were lynched a year. And these were only the reported cases.
Many black southerners saw the writing on the wall. In just five years between 1915 and 1920, 500,000 black people migrated north. By 1930, nearly 1.4 million black people had moved north and west to cities like Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York, and Chicago.
Fenton returned to in Chicago in 1911. With this backstory in mind, he turned all of his energies to poetry. Yet even with his academic pedigree, he could not begin to write without addressing a basic problem. In 1911, how could a black poet even begin to start writing when there were so few black artists with which to speak to and even fewer white readers and publishers interested in listening?
In fact, there was one African-American poet who had successfully cultivated the adoration and attention of the white world: Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar’s influence cannot be overstated. He was the most famous black author in the country, certainly the most famous black poet. Dunbar, who had died only a few years earlier, had in his short life written critically acclaimed collections of poetry, several novels, and many minstrel shows, including the hugely popular blackface minstrel hit In Dahomey—the first Broadway show written by and staring black people. It’s no wonder that one of Johnson’s first poems is an elegy to Dunbar.
What the white world loved most about Dunbar’s work was how it employed vernacular southern black dialect to paint picturesque scenes from the old plantation where black people acted as lovable, simpleminded, buffoons. These stereotypes pleased white audiences hungry for cheery, old-timey accounts of an antebellum South that was and always had been pure fantasy.
Understandably, many prominent black professionals criticized dialect poetry for reinforcing racial prejudice. Yet, even so, many others saw Dunbar and his poetry as constituting major progress. For the first time black artists were a part of the mainstream. This, in and of itself, was significant. In addition, Dunbar’s popularity along with that of the Fiske Jubilee Singers proved the value and importance of black cultural traditions, which, until this period, the white world had considered to be trifling and unimportant.
The poet James Weldon Johnson described the problem like this: “The Negro in the United States has achieved or been placed in a certain artistic niche. When he is thought of artistically, it is as a happy-go-lucky, singing, shuffling, banjo-picking being or as a more or less pathetic figure.” He goes on to explain that “The Negro Poet needs a form that is freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the distinctive humor and pathos of the Negro, but which will also allow for the widest scope of treatment.” Johnson is calling for poetry that can speak to all manners of the black experience—from Hattiesburg to Harlem to Bronzeville.
Indeed, this was the same thing that Fenton Johnson was searching for when he moved in New York City in 1913 to attend graduate school at Columbia. Having just published his first of poetry, Little Dreaming, Johnson was just at the very beginning of his poetic abilities. When he arrived in Harlem, he would have been gobsmacked. While the Harlem Renaissance was still in its infancy, a larger, more profound revolution had just occurred at 68th and Lexington on February 17th: the International Exhibition of Modern Art, famously known as the, “Armory Show.” This exhibit introduced the United States, for the first time, to Picasso, Cezanne, Duchamp, Seurat—to Modernism itself. The show would utterly change the face of American art forever. Now we know that Fenton had made friends with a young editor who became famous for writing the very first review of this show. It’s fair to expect Fenton to have known of the show too—perhaps to have visited it as well.
We can imagine him staring into the abstracted, strange Cubist and realist pieces and to have been perplexed and inspired. Now he would have two overpowering questions to answer. How could he write poetry faithful to and in defense of his race, but also, how could he write poetry that was as radically new and captivating as the art upon those walls?
At the end of the prelude to Visions of the Dusk, Fenton Johnson has lit upon an answer that speaks as much to the literary public as it does to himself. He explains that those who seek “the beauty of a truth” must not look for style, but for inspiration. In his words, “the vision is the thing, and not the word.”
The two collections of poetry he would write during his brief stint in Harlem, Visions of the Dusk and Songs of the Soil reflect an author who, poem by poem, has finally figured out how to make old things new. While he has at times “cast aside the English of the Victorians and assumed the language of the plantation and levee,” he also chooses to do the opposite, translating black spirituals out of dialect into clear literary prose. Johnson’s goal in these books is to prove to the white world that black people have always been America’s poets—that his race knows, more than any other, the extremes of joy and sorrow. They harbor a “wealth of misunderstood tradition” that, unlike white society, has “not been ruined by the culture of a decadent age” but instead has grown distinctively apart from it. Unlike any other poet in the American canon, Johnson’s work uniquely animates black subjectivity, inhabiting the trials, the bitterness, and the burdens of living behind the veil.
All three of Johnson’s poetry collections were well received. One important critic lauded him for his courage to value the traditions and ancient history of his race while still conveying in his poetry “A feeling for sensuous world-color” with poetry that spoke of “infinite mournfulness” about the “old vanishing life” of the plantation.
Bolstered by his modest success, Fenton Johnson returned to Chicago in 1916 to focus all of his efforts on turning the city into the leading place for positive black expression. The next year, Johnson put his entire savings into a new project, a magazine. Starting with The Favorite, which only ran for a year, and later The Champion, Johnson believed that he could solve the race problem through, as he calls it, a “doctrine of cooperation.” His novel idea was to publish writing by social workers of both races with the eventual goal of forming weekly clubs where concerted black and white citizens could talk about social issues.
His ambition should not be overlooked. But ambition alone cannot pay the bills. Both magazines failed and by 1920 Fenton Johnson had lost almost $10,000 in the enterprise (roughly equivalent to $150,000 in today’s money). With only $70 left in the bank Johnson had to acknowledge a very hard reality: save a small coterie of experimental poets and literary journals, white America simply wasn’t interested in socially conscious or avant-garde black writing.
The irony was that Johnson’s most meaningful period was far behind him. We can wonder if he knew this too. During the 1920s his poetry was featured in several significant publications. He had appeared alongside Carl Sandburg in Marianne Moore’s Little Magazine, had been published in Max Eastman’s The Liberator, as well as a number of times in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine, and more often still in Alfred Kreymborg’s Others. Indeed, Kreymborg included Johnson in his seminal 1930 anthology Lyric America where he would call him “the first radical poet.”
More significant still, during the 1920s Johnson’s legacy was forever cemented in the canon of black writers. Five of Johnson’s poems were included in James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 Book of American Negro Poetry (which was, at this time, the very first anthology dedicated to black poetry), along with Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk from 1927 and V.C. Calverton’s Anthology of American Negro Literature from 1929.
While Johnson’s legacy was just taking off, he continued to struggle to pay the bills. In 1920 he wrote a collection of essays titled For the Highest Good and then a book of short stories titled Tales of Darkest America. Both, evidently, garnered little attention and likely even worse sales. He then turned his talents to playwriting where, like in poetry, he failed to find the fame and fortune he desired.
It’s by one of those particular perversities of history that in the 1930s Johnson would be effectively saved by the Great Depression. FDR’s Works Progress Administration called for the funding and support of the arts and humanities across the country. In Chicago Johnson joined the Southside Writer’s Group, a WPA-funded organization that featured such important Chicago writers as Margaret Walker, Theodore Ward, Richard Wright, and Johnson’s good friend Arna Bontemps to name only a few. This group would become an important founding component in the Chicago Black Renaissance, a seminal cultural movement that involved not just poets, but dancers, artists, journalists, jazz musicians, and composers. According to the poet Frank Marshall Davis, Johnson in his quiet, self-effacing presence, made a lasting impact on all of these writers.
This, regrettably, would be the last the public would hear from Fenton Johnson. Through the 1940s and 1950s he had retreated to obscurity, living as a boarder in a Southside apartment until his death in 1958.
As is so often the case in the history of literature and literary canons, Johnson wouldn’t live to understand the impact his poetry had made. Indeed, in 1987, Ron Silliman, the language poet, pointed specifically to Fenton Johnson as the first American poet to reimagine the sentence as a poetic form. He’d go on to say that Johnson’s “The Minister,” was the “first instance in English of a prose poem which calls attention to a discursive or poetic effect.” By this, Silliman means to say that Johnson’s prose innovation was to expand the meaning of poetry itself. Here rhyme and meter are no longer basic definitions of what counts as poetry. Instead a declarative sentence, when arranged and reiterated, can call attention all on its own to the strange familiarity of language. This is making old things new. As Silliman himself notes, Johnson’s poetry effectively points the way to poets like William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein amongst others.
It’s always hard to precisely quantify an artist’s influence on his world. But for someone like Johnson it seems rather obvious. He not only broke the trail for so many artists—black and white—but he guided them to the top of the mountain.