February 1, 2019

Poetry to Read Aloud: James Weldon Johnson

Poems to Read Aloud , Public Speaking , Resources

The Buckley School's founder believed that all public speakers should hone their presentation skills by reading poetry out loud. We keep that worthwhile practice alive by including a poem in our magazine each month for you to read aloud. The portrait of James Weldon Johnson above is from the Beneicke Rare Books and Manuscript Library at Yale University.


"Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;"

– From James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing"


Poet, novelist, diplomat, civil rights leader, teacher, school principal, lawyer, college professor--it might be easier to list the things James Weldon Johnson didn't do. In addition to being an admired writer and key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, he was the first national leader of the NAACP and the first African-American professor at New York University.

Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida on June 17, 1871. His mother, a public school teacher, urged both her sons to study literature, music and art. At age 16, he enrolled at Atlanta University. There he became known for his public speaking skills and won the Quiz Club Contest in English Composition and Oratory before graduating in 1894.

James Weldon Johnson at work.

Johnson moved to New York in 1901 to work with his brother Rosamond, a composer. Together, the brothers produced Johnson's first successful work, the poem and song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," created to mark Abraham Lincoln's birthday.

Johnson first published his novel anonymously in 1912.

Johnson served as a U.S. consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua for nine years, staring in 1901. It was during this time that he wrote his novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and published a number of poems.

For this month's poem to read aloud, we offer you these lines from Johnson published in 1917.

Prayer at Sunrise

by James Weldon Johnson

Now thou art risen, and thy day begun.
How shrink the shrouding mists before thy face,
As up thou spring’st to thy diurnal race!
How darkness chases darkness to the west,
As shades of light on light rise radiant from thy crest!
For thee, great source of strength, emblem of might,
In hours of darkest gloom there is no night.
Thou shinest on though clouds hide thee from sight,
And through each break thou sendest down thy light.

O greater Maker of this Thy great sun,
Give me the strength this one day’s race to run,
Fill me with light, fill me with sun-like strength,
Fill me with joy to rob the day its length.
Light from within, light that will outward shine,
Strength to make strong some weaker heart than mine,
Joy to make glad each soul that feels its touch;
Great Father of the sun, I ask this much.

Here's an audio recording of Johnson reading his poem "Ma Lady's Lips Am Like De Honey"

If you'd like to hear more Johnson's voice as he reads some his poems and comments on others, you can find that here.

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