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There’s one positive to the long winter/long early spring commutes in Boston when your primary form of transportation is the train and bus. Plenty of time to read. Two books have been in my bag of late that I’d like share in some fashion. Very different books, indeed, but there is a common thread of poetry and the poetic. First up, Army Life in a Black Regiment, first published in 1869.

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In November 1861, shortly after the start of the U.S. Civil War, the Union fleet took command of Port Royal, South Carolina and neighboring sea islands including St. Helena and Hilton Head. Plantation owners fled leaving behind 10,000 slaves, and a bumper crop of sea island cotton.

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A project was conceived known as the Port Royal Experiment. Its purpose? By working with this group of 10,000 freed slaves, in a relatively contained area, perhaps solutions could be found for the greater looming challenge of how to integrate into society millions of emancipated slaves.

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At least three different groups were involved in the experiment, including Northern missionaries who focused on education and training, entrepreneurs who wanted to show the profitability of free labor versus slave labor, and the U.S. government which, most immediately, needed more men on the battlefield. These groups sometimes worked together but were more often at odds. For an excellent scholarly analysis of the Port Royal Experiment, please read Willie Lee Rose’s Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment.

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port royal students

Teachers immediately went to work setting up schools. Entrepreneurs began implementing their free labor experiment offering to pay the former slaves to cultivate the cotton.  But as for volunteering to fight for the military?

 

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escaped slaves wearing old union uniforms

Since the beginning of the war, Union officers in the field saw the need for trained black troops. Early attempts to recruit  had met with poor results and had little initial support from Lincoln’s White House. But finally, with Port Royal, a new more coordinated effort was to be made.  In November 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson received a letter from Brigadier General Rufus Saxton. “I am organizing the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, with every prospect of success. Your name has been spoken of, in connection with the command of this regiment, by some friends in whose judgement I have confidence. I take great pleasure in offering you the position of Colonel in it … I shall not fill the place until I hear from you …”

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Higginson was a poet, biographer and novelist as well as a Unitarian minister. From a prominent, wealthy New England family, he had long been a staunch abolitionist, social reformer and a major supporter of John Brown. Once the Civil War began, he joined the Union Army. Though he already served another regiment, he accepted Saxton’s invitation to visit Port Royal. He doubted he would accept the commission but, after meeting the people, he accepted his new role without hesitation.

During his time with the regiment he would record detailed entries in his diary about the people, the Sea Island landscape, and of course about the regiments military actions. After becoming ill, in 1864, he would return to New England, resign his commission, and resume researching and writing. Essays about his wartime experiences with the First Regiment appeared infrequently in the Atlantic. By 1869, he compiled the essays, diary excerpts and other work into the book, Army Life in a Black Regiment and Other Writings.

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First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry

In the introduction to his diary entries, Higginson tells the reader:

I am under pretty heavy bonds to tell the truth, and only the truth; for those who look back to the newspaper correspondence of that period will see that this particular regiment lived for months in the glare of publicity, such as tests any regiment severely, and certainly prevents all subsequent romancing in its historian. As the scene of the only effort on the Atlantic coast to arm the negro, our camp attracted a continuous stream of visitors, military and civil. A battalion of black soldiers, a spectacle since so common, seemed then the most daring of innovations, and the whole demeanor of the particular regiment was watched with microscopic scrutiny by friends and foes. I felt sometimes as if we were a plant trying to take root, but constantly pulled up to see if we were growing.”

Of discipline there was great need … Some of the men had already been under fire but they were very ignorant of drill and camp duty. The officers, being appointed from a dozen different States … had all that diversity of methods which so confused our army in those early days. The first need, therefore, was an unbroken interval of training. During this period, which fortunately lasted nearly two months, I rarely left camp … Camp life was a wonderfully strange sensation to almost all volunteer officers, and mine lay among eight hundred men suddenly transformed from slaves into soldiers …

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Infantry Members

Each subsequent diary entry reveals Higginson’s poetic nature. “Yesterday afternoon we were steaming over a summer sea, the deck level as a parlor-floor, no land in sight, no sail, until at last appeared one light-house … The sun set, a great illuminated bubble, submerged in one vast bank of rosy suffusion; it grew dark; after tea all were on deck, the people sang hymns; then the moon set, a moon two days old, a curved pencil of light, reclining backwards on a radiant couch which seemed to rise from the waves to receive it…”(November 24, 1862)

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Dress Parade of the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry

“… One adapts one’s self so readily to new surroundings that already the full zest of the novelty seems passing away from my perceptions, and I write these lines in an eager effort to retain all I can. Already I am growing used to the experience, at first so novel, of living among five hundred men, and scarce a white face to be seen, — of seeing them go through all their daily processes, eating, frolicking, talking, just as if they were white. Each day at dress-parade I stand with the customary folding of the arms before a regimental line of countenances so black that I can hardly tell whether the men stand steadily or not; black is every hand which moves in ready cadence as I vociferate, “Battalion! Shoulder arms!” nor is it till the line of white officers move forward, as parade is dismissed, that I am reminded that my own face is not the color of coal.” (November 27, 1862)

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Infantry Member Henry Williams

Higginson paints a poetic picture of both people and place. “All the excitements of war are quadrupled by darkness; and as I rode along our outer lines at night, and watched the glimmering flames which at regular intervals starred the opposite river-shore, the longing was irresistible to cross the barrier of dusk, and see whether it were men or ghosts who hovered round those dying embers. I had yielded to these impulses in boat-adventures by night … and fascinating indeed it was to glide along, noiselessly paddling, with a dusky guide, the reed-birds, which wailed and fled away into the darkness, and penetrating several miles into the interior, between hostile fires, where discovery might be death.

The book is a time capsule chronicling an important period in American history. These soldiers predated the more famous Massachusetts 54th regiment led by Robert Gould Shaw. Higginson brings to life the courage, the ingenuity and discipline of these early troops.  He shows them to be as human as their white counterparts, their brothers in arms. And though the people of the Sea Islands, for the most part, had known nothing other than slavery, they were prepared with the right training to fight for and defend their freedom and that abstract thing known as “the Union” that their labor had sustained for generations.

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Higginson’s book reminded me of the unique nature of the Sea Islands, a uniqueness that Higginson remarks upon in a post-war essay about the Negro as a Soldier. “I had not allowed for the extreme remoteness and seclusion of their lives, especially among the Sea Island. Many of them had literally spend their whole existence on some lonely island or remote plantation, where the master never came, and the overseer only once or twice a week.”

Under these conditions the slaves developed a patois that is now known as Gullah, a blending of standard English and its Southern regionalisms with different West African languages. By the time the Civil War began, there were over 400,000 slaves in South Carolina alone. Such a large investment in labor was needed for the labor intensive yet highly profitable cultivation of cotton and especially rice.

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During one expedition along the Edisto River with his now-trained troops, Higginson confronts the enemy near some of these rice fields.

“The battery — whether fixed or movable we knew not — met us with a promptness that proved very short-lived. After three shots it was silent, but we could not tell why. The bluff was wooded, and we could see but little. The only course was to land, under cover of the guns. As the firing ceased and the smoke cleared away, I looked across the rice-fields which lay beneath the bluff. The first sunbeams glowed upon their emerald levels, and on the blossoming hedges along the rectangular dikes. What were those black dots which everywhere appeared? Those meadows had become alive with human heads, and along each narrow path came a straggling file of men and women, all on a run for the riverside. I went ashore with a boat-load of troops at once. The landing was difficult and marshy. The astonished negroes tugged us up the bank …They kept arriving by land much faster than we could come by water … What a scene it was! With the wild faces, eager figures, strange garments, it seemed, as one of the poor things reverently suggested, [like judgment day]. “

Bless you” and “Bless the Lord,” were the exclamations Higginson remembers hearing over and over again. “Women brought children on their shoulders; small black boys carried on their backs little brothers … Never had I seen human beings so clad, or rather so unclad … How weak is imagination, how cold is memory, that I ever cease, for a day of my life, to see before me the picture of that astounding scene!” That day they rescued approximately two hundred slaves.

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escaped slaves 1862

 

Higginson, with his Boston Brahmin background, was an outsider looking into another culture. There is condescension on occasion but while he may refer to the former slaves as docile, he makes clear he knew they were not mentally deficient as so many others would report in northern publications. “I cannot conceive what people at the North mean by speaking of the negroes as a bestial or brutal race. … I learned to think that we abolitionists had underrated the suffering produced by slavery among the negroes, but had overrated the demoralization.”

Higginson viewed his troops as human beings who had been denied basic human privileges, privileges he had literally fought for long before the Civil War. Throughout the book he presents the former slaves as active participants in shaping their own destiny.”One half of military duty lies in obedience, the other half in self-respect,” Higginson writes. “A soldier without self-respect is useless.” Recognizing what he describes as the bequest of slavery, Higginson worked with his officers to “impress upon [the troops] they did not obey their officers because they were white, but because they were their officers, just as the Captain must obey me, and I the general; that we were all subject to military law, and protected by it in turn.”

Over time, more black regiments were formed. In 1864 the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry’s name was changed to the Thirty-Third United States Colored Troops. The men served until February 1866 when the troop was finally mustered out. “It is not my province to write their story, not to vindicate them … Yet this, at least, may be said. The operation on the South Atlantic coast, which long seemed a merely subordinate and incidental part of the great contest, proved to be one of the final pivots on which it turned. All now admit that the fate of the Confederacy was decided by Sherman’s march to the sea. Port Royal was the objective point to which he marched, and he found the Department of the South, when he reached it, held almost exclusively by colored troops. Next to the merit of those who made the march was that of those who held open the door. That service will always remain among the laurels of the black regiments.”

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson

“… we who served with the black troops,” Higgins writes, “have this peculiar satisfaction, that, whatever dignity or sacredness the memories of the war may have to others, they have more to us. … We had touched upon the pivot of the war. Whether this vast and dusky mass should prove the weakness of the nation or its strength, must depend in great measure, we knew, upon our efforts. Till the blacks were armed, there was no guaranty of their freedom. It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.”

 

Sources and Additional Reading

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1st_South_Carolina_Volunteers

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Wentworth_Higginson

Army Life of a Black Regiment

Army Life in a Black Regiment (Amazon)

http://www.bostonathenaeum.org/library/book-recommendations/athenaeum-authors/colonel-thomas-wentworth-higginson

https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/thomas_wentworth_higginson

https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/rehearsal-for-reconstruction/

https://www.lowcountryafricana.com/project/history-of-the-33rd-united-states-colored-troops-usct/

http://www.drbronsontours.com/bronsonportroyalexperiment.html

https://www.sciway.net/afam/slavery/population.html

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1862).Bombardment of Port Royal, S.C. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-f9a8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (1861 – 1865).Two views. Dress parade of the First South Carolina Regiment (Colored), near Beaufort, S.C. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-c8e9-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Please note that the Library of Congress has an extensive collection of photographs available online from this period in U.S. history.

 

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One year ago it was my pleasure to share, in his own words and images, a glimpse into the life of painter Donald Langosy. Through his 14-page Story of My Art, that I condensed into roughly six blog posts, Mr. Langosy shared his amazing creative journey that involved the likes of Ezra Pound, William Blake, his wife Elizabeth and of course there is Shakespeare. His work is unique and quite inspiring as can be seen in the new book Donald Langosy: The Poet’s Painter. This book of 99 poems by Eric Sigler illustrated with full-color reproductions of the 99 paintings by Mr. Langosy that inspired the poet.

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Available online from a variety of vendors as listed below. If I have one criticism, after having seen firsthand the scale of some of these paintings, it is that I wish the book was physically bigger. Meanwhile I hope there will be an art opening one day so that more people can view his work up close and meet both painter and poet!

https://eyewearpublishing.glopal.com/en-US/p-8574461128/donald-langosy-poets-painter.html

 

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One of my favorite books, and later animated movies, of my childhood was Watership Down by Richard Adams. This little fellow, nibbling away in Mount Auburn Cemetery, reminded me of the rabbit Fiver, the nervous little one who could see into the future.

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I’ve been thinking about the tree of life ever since a book near-literally fell from the shelves into my arms at the Boston Public Library. A non-descript old fashioned hardback with no book jacket. A bit over-sized though not especially thick. It was turquoise blue with gold lettering on the slender spine that said “Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree Of Life?” The title page made clear that it was a collection of interviews by Guy and Candie Carawan, with black and white photographs by Robert Yellin, together capturing the words, images and songs of the people of Johns Island, South Carolina. I knew of the island and that the people interviewed must have been the descendants of slaves, slaves who most often were of West African origin, who had labored on the plantations producing indigo, rice and other produce that had made their white owners some of the wealthiest people in America. Slavery ended with the Civil War but by the time this book was published in 1966 a new war of sorts raged for civil rights especially the right to vote.

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Given that the preface was written by Alan Lomax, the famed ethnographer and musicologist, I figured the book was just another cool book documenting folkways before a group of people and their ways vanished. Probably a good read but I had so many books in my bag already. I decided to flip through it just a bit and then I would put it away.  I did put it away but not before I saw myself.

Now I grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia not the Lowcountry of South Carolina. But it really didn’t matter as I stared into a book at a landscape that had surely shaped the people, as my childhood landscape had shaped me, and looked into faces that reminded me of home.  Beautiful men and women with dark-hued skin. Some slim as a stick and others quite round. Seniors and babies and every age in between. Some people laughing, some people crying and then there were those with their heads thrown back in song as they prayed through music to God. The poverty comes through too. Even so the poverty does not overshadow the joy, the sense of community, and the intense devotion, a devotion that must have helped these people survive the present when they had little idea what the future held for them and their children.

Look at pictures. That’s all I intended before placing the book back on its shelf.  But then I thought maybe I’d read a page or two, just standing there in the library, and then I’d tuck the book back on the shelf.  It was just a couple of minutes of reading. And then I walked away.

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That night I dreamed about what I’d read. It was a scene described in the first interview by Rev. G. C. Brown. It opens with him describing how his father had been a slave. But then he goes on to describe his grandmother whom he had known. She was a stubborn woman with a cruel owner and when she did not do as was expected of a slave “he’d take her by the ears to the corner of a house, and just bang her head against the corner until she’d bleed. … She died in the insane hospital in Columbia. You couldn’t find three square inches on her head where there wasn’t a scar when she died. And well, you find naked places all through her head where she was beaten until she beaten into unconsciousness. … In her latter years it was discovered that during one of those forays the skull was crushed into her brain.”  It was horrific to think of that woman having to endure such treatment for so much of her life, for her children to know of her abuse at the hands of someone who saw her as less than human … and that people must have stood around and did nothing, for whatever reason, as she was having her head bashed against a wall.

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I returned to the library and checked out the book and have begun to read it properly. I’ve learned more about the people behind the book, Guy and Candie Carawan, and their incredible legacy of social activism. And then there’s Esau Jenkins and his mission of teaching people to read so that they could register to vote.  He operated a bus driving people to their jobs between the island and Charleston. He decided to get a group on the bus in the mornings to teach them how to read the part of the Constitution they needed to read before they could become registered citizens.  As one woman describes she didn’t think Jenkins would have any luck with her; she’d had too little book learning to read such a thing. But somehow, as she described, standing in line and watching the woman before her stammer (and thus failing?), for the woman who’d been on Jenkins’s bus, the words flowed. She even surprised herself.

 

I am immersed in the music of the peoples’ words as well as the lyrics of their music. The music transcribed by Ethel Raim were songs sung by the island congregation at Moving Star Hall. I can’t read the music notes but the words themselves have impact — sad, uplifting and thought-provoking.

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I’m still working my way through the book, this book that’s not so thick and mostly images. The words I read resonate, in some ways too much so, with words I hear today.  By the way, another book recently fell into my arms at the library, 865 pages including footnotes and index. It’s called The Framers’ Coup The Making of the United States Constitution by Michael J. Klarman. One book at a time …

Sources & Additional Reading

Guy Carawan

Alan Lomax

Esau Jenkins

Moving Star Hall

Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree Of Life? (1966)

Ain’t You Got A Right To The Tree of Life? (1994 updated & revised)

 

The Framers’ Coup by Michael J. Klarman

 

 

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That’s right. There’s at least three opportunities to purchase my work and get a great deal. Blurb where I produce my photography books currently has a 50% off sell. Coupon code is BEST50. In my shop you’ll find a range of books including a new compilation of images from a field in Woburn, MA.

Preview the book here.

In my Zazzle shop you’ll find a mix of merchandise for the holiday season and well beyond.

Coupon code for up to 70% off items is ZAZCYBERSALE.

Details from John La Farge’s Presentation of the Virgin

And if you prefer to step away from the computer and like to browse the shelves in person, then I invite you to visit the gift shop at Trinity Church where you’ll find some new postcards as well as classic images, and a lovely selection of music, inspiration books and other merchandise. Located at 206 Clarendon St., entrance is across from the Boston Public Library. Enjoy!

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scenes from edmands park

Walking into Edmands Park was an escape for me. I was working at a small nonprofit located at Boston College’s Newton Campus researching and writing grants. On occasion I needed to rise from the computer and walk around to collect my thoughts, free my brain from jargon, and so on. I’m not the most adventurous person – really! – but when I start walking I sometimes get lost in the motion. Luckily my job was free form enough, so long as I met deliverables and deadlines, that it was okay if my legs kept me going past the stone walls of the campus and into the neighboring woods. It became ritual and coincided with my deepening exploration of photography. At times it seemed a magical place, strangely isolated, though it was adjacent to an active college campus. I’m not sure how many of the students knew what beauty lay around them. Over time, I would collect photos from across the seasons. I couldn’t wait to make my way into the woods after a heavy rain or snowfall to see how the landscape had been transformed.

Eventually I compiled those images and paired them with a few words about my experiences in Edmands Park into a book and published it independently. I shared the book with friends but I didn’t really know what else to do at the time. Anulfo Baez of The Evolving Critic suggested I check out the Indie Photobook Library (iPL) founded by Larissa LeClair. Her library featured the work of emerging and established photographers who were self-publishing their work. I did reach out to Ms. LeClair and she did indeed accept my submission of In Edmands Park for her library.

Five years later her library collection has been placed at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. In a recent press release she stated that while the iPL is now closed to submissions, she “will continue to advocate on behalf of self-publishers from around the world by directly consulting with libraries and museums on their acquisitions.” I am thankful for that early support and recognition of my work and honored to now have one of my books figuratively if not literally sitting on a library shelf at Yale University.

Sources & Additional Reading

iPL collection adds to Beinecke’s strengths in photobooks and modern trends in self-publishing – http://news.yale.edu/2016/11/16/ipl-collection-adds-beinecke-s-strengths-photobooks-and-modern-trends-self-publishing

In Edmands Park

See more images here: http://www.newtonconservators.org/art_staples.htm

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James Weldon Johnson and Aaron Douglas

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and Aaron Douglas (1899-1979)

Originally published in 1927, James Weldon Johnson’s book, God’s Trombones, is a slim volume composed of a prayer and seven poems: Listen, Lord–A Prayer, The Creation, The Prodigal Son, Go Down Death, Noah Built the Ark, The Crucifixion, Let My People Go, and The Judgement Day. The verses were inspired by his experiences attending black churches throughout the American south. The preachers’ oratory inspired Johnson to write these poems and, in the book’s preface, to reflect upon the nature of oration and folk traditions. His poems, I assume, inspired his artistic collaborators, Aaron Douglas and Charles B. Falls. The signature styles of two very different artists were brought together to complement Johnson’s words.

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Lettering by Charles Buckley Falls (1874-1960)

A publication was produced that is really quite distinctive with regard to words, images and overall concept. Johnson as scholar as well as poet produced a tome that captured in a unique way the power and importance of religion in the African American experience. He makes real even for those not having attended black churches how the preachers – God’s trombones – used word, rhyme and rhythm to give voice to the stories in the bible even when no bible was present.

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It would be easy to pick up this book, to skip the preface and go straight to the poems. But don’t. Johnson’s preface is critical, for his brief and cohesive insights into religion and the American experience, and for his guidance in how to truly appreciate what he was attempting to do with this book.

I claim no more for these poems than that I have written them after the manner of the primitive sermons. In the writing of them I have, naturally, felt the influence of the Spirituals. There is, of course, no way of recreating the atmosphere — the fervor of the congregation, the amens and hallelujahs, the undertone of singing which was often a soft accompaniment to parts of the sermon; nor the personality of the preacher — his physical magnetism, his gestures and gesticulations, his changes of tempo, his pauses for effect, and, more than all, his tones of voice. These poems would better be intoned than read; especially does this apply to “Listen, Lord,” “The Crucifixion,” and “The Judgment Day.” But the intoning practiced by the old-time preacher is a thing next to impossible to describe; it must be heard, and it is extremely difficult to imitate even when heard. …

“… The tempos of the preacher I have endeavored to indicate by the line arrangement of the poems, and a certain sort of pause that is marked by a quick intaking and an audible expulsion of the breath I have indicated by dashes. There is a decided syncopation of speech — the crowding in of many syllables or the lengthening out of a few to fill one metrical foot, the sensing of which must be left to the reader’s ear. The rhythmical stress of this syncopation is partly obtained by a marked silent fraction of a beat; frequently this silent fraction is filled in by a hand clap. …

The ensuing poems do read like song and the power of the words are echoed and strengthened by the complementary visusals.

Illustrations by Douglas for the poems, The Creation, The Prodigal Son, and Go Down Death.

Illustrations by Douglas for the poems, The Creation, The Prodigal Son, and Go Down Death.

Noah Built the Ark

Illustration and complementary chapter head for Noah Built the Ark

Illustration for The Crucifixion

Illustration for The Crucifixion

Illustration for Let My People Go

Illustration for Let My People Go

     

Both Johnson and Aaron Douglas are considered key figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Charles B. Falls was a noted illustrator and designer especially remembered for the posters he created during World War I and II as part of the Victory Books Campaign.

Over time the book has been reprinted numerous times including an edition by Penguin Classics, edited by Henry Louis Gates and with an introduction by Maya Angelou. As Johnson wrote in his preface the poems are really meant to be performed and over the years many individuals and institutions have done just that. Recordings can be found online.  You can also find the book fully digitized and viewable online thanks to the Documenting the American South project at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, my primary source for this post. I hope you have the opportunity to view the book in-hand or online: http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/johnson/johnson.html

 

Sources & Additional Readings

God’s Trombones (digitized) – http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/johnson/johnson.html

James Weldon Johnson – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Weldon_Johnson

Aaron Douglas – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Douglas

Charles Buckles Falls – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Buckles_Falls

The New Negro Renaissance – http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-renaissance.html

More about the Victory Books Campaign – http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/pages/exhibits/ww2/services/books.htm

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