Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Thursday, October 18, 2007

James Weldon Johnson and Bill Cosby

I watched Larry King interview Bill Cosby and his co-author, Professor Toussaint, about their book, Come On, People, which speaks to the ways in which African Americans can address problems in their communities and families. Cosby's gotten some grief for the book and for speaking out, partly, in seems, because his thesis has been mis-construed. Even Larry King asked him, "But aren't many of these problems the result of racism in America?" And Cosby answered, of course--he'd never suggested they weren't. Cosby seemed to be running into one of the primary logical fallacies of television interviews: the false dichotomy, which dictates that the root of a problem must be either X or Y but never both X and Y. Cosby's point: both. All Americans have a responsibility to address American problems, but he just happens to be focusing now on what African Americans might do in the meantime, for America-in-general doesn't seem to be in a great rush to solve the problems.

King and his guests reviewed some of the statistics: African Americans make up 12 per cent of the general population but 44% of the prison population. The average lifespan for African Americans is six years less than that of the general population. In some cities, the high-school drop-out rate of African Americans is 50 per cent.

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)--African American poet, novelist, songwriter (he wrote "Lift Every Voice" and other popular songs), editor, diplomat, and professor--has a nice little poem that pertains to the topic:

To America

by James Weldon Johnson


How would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking ’neath the load we bear?
Our eyes fixed forward on a star?
Or gazing empty at despair?

Rising or falling? Men or things?
With dragging pace or footsteps fleet?
Strong, willing sinews in your wings?
Or tightening chains about your feet?

I love this poem in part because it gets to the nub, or a nub, of the matter. Whatever problems plague African Americans are problems for the whole nation to confront and solve, not shifting blame, going for easy excuses, or making things worse along the way. In fact, the "us" in the poem could represent not just African Americans (about whom Johnson was writing) but any group experiencing widespread difficulty: the homeless; the working poor; single parents; physically and psychically wounded soldiers coming back from Iraq; all people without health care or with shaky health care. In Johnson's time, even more so than in ours, the "widespread difficulty" lay with how the U.S. viewed and mistreated its African American citizens; therefore, Johnson, in his poem, was asking the question of the source of the difficulty, America.

How would you have America, America? Implicitly, that's also Johnson's question. If a 50-year-old white woman is laid off, loses her health-care insurance, and can't go to the doctor, and if a 16-year old African American man drops out of high school, the woman and the young man have a problem, but so do their families, their community, and their nation: us. America should want the woman to have health-care, no matter what, and America should want to get the lad back into school. How would we have it? Much better--especially for those who have it bad.
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