• Steve Berlack

James Weldon Johnson Lifted More Than His Voice

I saw his name for the first time when I walked into a project complex in

Harlem. A sign with huge letters at the front entrance read: “Welcome to

the James Weldon Johnson Houses.” I never heard of him. I was 27 years

old. Being naturally curious, I looked him up on the internet, and found

a lot of information on him in Wikipedia. What I read astonished me.


Born in 1871 in Florida, Johnson grew to become a true Renaissance

Man. He taught himself Spanish and became U.S. Consul to Venezuela

and Nicaragua. He became the first Black Executive Secretary of the

N.A.A.C.P. He wrote a novel entitled “The Autobiography of An Ex-

Coloured Man,” and published a collective work called “Fifty Years And

Other Poems.” His most well-known work, however, was the poem that

his brother J. Rosemond Johnson put to music. The piece was entitled “Lift

Ev’ry Voice And Sing,” known by many as “The Negro National Anthem.”


This was all done by a Black man in the early years of the 20th Century.

The more I read about him, and the more I read his work, the more he

influenced my thinking. Newly armed with awareness of all this man

had accomplished, I could not allow any obstacles in my own life to hold

me down. I found that the yearnings I had to explore my creativity and

activism were validated by precedent. I no longer felt strange because of any

“lack of focus” on a particular life path. Given this freedom, I went on to

become active in my community, become an administrator in several major

public agencies, host a nationally syndicated talk show, express my inner

thoughts through poetry and am now writing a book on what I’d learned

in life under the personal development banner of the company I founded.


I have a role model. Though he never met me, though he never thought

about me personally, James Weldon Johnson has led me to great works.

Even his death in 1938 could not stop his influence on my life. I have since

made it a point to tell people about him whenever I can. I am sure that if

he can lead me to unlock my mind, he can lead others to do the same if

they are aware of him.


James Weldon Johnson is a leader by definition and by fact. He’s had no

authority over me. He held no title to which I’ve been bound. Yet his life

is the example that developed the man I am.


Thank you sir. I pray to pass it forward.