The Crisis 5.4 and James Weldon Johnson

After reading the Crisis Vol. 5 No. 4, it seems like the magazine has a two-fold rhetorical purpose: highlight the achievements by and within the black community, and political arguments that articulate/publicize the injustices facing that community—there is a persuasive angle toward racial progress, ending discrimination and violence, etc. The magazine first highlights various accomplishment and important members of the black community, then argues against and addresses injustices, and then ends by highlighting achievements by the community. I’m not sure the rhetorical effect of ordering the content in this way; but one observation I can make is that this structure roughly follows the structure of the slave narrative: establishes humanity of author, then chronicles the loss of humanity (caused by slavery and racial discrimination/violence), and then ends with the narrator finding humanity again. Note: I’m not taking into account the function/effect of the advertising pages that bookend the issue.

One thing that’s interesting is James Weldon Johnson’s function in this issue-- to span and transition between highlighting members of the black community and the political arguments against American racism. He is first introduced in the “Men of the Month” column (pp 171-2) as “one of the most promising figures in Negro-American literature.” The editors mention his recent publication of “Fifty Years” on the front page of the NYT and then give a brief biography. The majority of this short passage is dedicated to his artistic achievements as first a song writer and then as a literary figure—“more serious writing.” The Crisis primes us to understand Johnson as an author with the potential for “epoch making.” The poem “Father, Father Abraham” follows this introduction and, like the introduction, frames Johnson as an apolitical author. The focus is on the aesthetic quality of his writing. The poem is religious and follows a tight rhyme scheme and metrical form.

The very next page of the magazine is the “Opinion” (p 173) section wherein lies the bulk of the persuasive, argumentative content. The section opens with an “Emancipation” subsection, and Johnson’s poem is quoted at the beginning, highlighting now his political writing. The section of the poem that’s quoted alludes directly to violence enacted on the black body (“spirit bowed beneath the blow… wounds and stings… brutish might/That strikes…”). There is an overriding sense of “despair,” of progress not made. And the poem ends with the suggestion that previous efforts toward emancipation will continue, and that “God” won’t let those strivings “come to naught.” This is a directly political poem, one that contrasts directly with Johnson’s biographical sketch before and the “Father, Father Abraham” poem. The question is why the Crisis sets up Johnson first as an artist and then as a political writer? Why shape the audience’s understanding of Johnson in this way? On a functional level, Johnson is used to transition between sections in the magazine. How does this structure, though, shape the audience's reading of argumentative content of the opinion section?


Astute observation the sequencing of the magazine issue resembling the structure of a slave narrative. Lets think about this in class today with respect to The Freewoman, which also used language from the abolition movement for the cause of feminism. But also, lets look at the advertisements (a theme for this week), and think about how they might relate to or complicate that slave narrative.