"A Real Poet."

by James  Weldon  Johnson

For years the great poet has been regarded as the highest manifestation of the intellectual, esthetic, and in many cases spiritual, powers of a race. In the names that have come down through history it is those of the great poets that blaze out brightest. It is chiefly upon the achievements of such poets that races and peoples claim greatness for themselves.

There are, of course, four names which in their influence and appeal stand on a level with or even above the greatest poets. They are Buddha, Confucius, Christ and Mohammed. But these four great religious teachers were after all great ethical poets. Judged in every light they do represent the highest peaks of the genius of the races that produced them. But these names are limited to oriental races. No occidental race has yet produced a great religious teacher. Among the occidental peoples the great poet still stands almost unrivaled. There are other lists, of course, that contain names of wide influence and appeal. For example, that soldiers' list can show Alexander, C├Žsar and Napoleon. But there is not an occidental people in which the final test would not put its greatest poet above its greatest soldier.

The times are slightly changed and the glamour about the poet may be somewhat dimmed. We are living in a very material age, and the man of science, the man who is able to bend the forces of nature to the well being of humanity is coming into ascendancy. There may come a time when from achievements in science there will spring names that will shed a luster as bright and enduring as the names of Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Moliere and Goethe.

However, to my mind, this is improbable. The materialism of the present age may be but a transitory state. Moreover, although the scientist may contribute what in the utilitarian sense is far more important to humanity, he can never take hold of the imaginations of men and stir their souls like the poet. It therefore seems that as long as man loves the beautiful the great poet will hold his supreme place.

I have indulged in this rather weighty sounding introduction simply to induce a train of thought. I wish my readers to think of the production of poets by a race as a vital thing. It is vital not only as an indication of the development of the race but it is vital as to the place and recognition which that race is given by the world at large.

In accordance with the temper of the age, and more particularly, in accordance with false ideas with which the mind of the Negro in American has been impregnated, we Aframericans are prone to think of one of our number who conducts a successful corner grocery store as being far more vital and important as a factor in our progress than one who turns out a sheaf of poems, even though the poems are real poetry. We are prone to think of the grocer as one who is laying foundations[SIC] stones in our racial greatness and of the poet as doing little more than wasting his time.

Without disparaging the successful grocer, I must say that this evaluation is all wrong. It would be interesting, if it were possible, to calculate how many successful Negro grocers it would take to equal the force of Paul Laurence Dunbar as a factor in the progress of the race and in having the progress recognized by the world. I am now driving at the truth contained in the words of Jesus Christ when He said, "Man shall not live by bread alone." If the race would develop its greatness and highest possibilities it needs not only to support its grocers but also to appreciate its poets.

All this is merely introductory to a few words to call attention to a Negro poet who has risen like a new and flaming star on the horizon. The poet is Claude McKay.

Mr. McKay deserves a full and prompt appreciation. We should not do in his case what we're guilty of in the case of Dunbar, that was, not to recognize or not even to know his greatness until it was acclaimed by the whites.

Mr. McKay is a real poet and a great poet. I mean by this that he has both the poetic endowment and the ability to make that endowment articulate, and he is yet far from his full growth. He is still a young man. He is a poet of beauty and a poet of power. No Negro poet has sung more beautifully of his own race than McKay and no Negro poet has equalled the power with which he expresses the bitterness that so often rises in the heart of the race. As an example of that power we quote his sonnet, "If We Must Die," written after the terrible riots in the summer of 1919: If we must die, let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursed lot. If we must die, O let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain: then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe! Though far outnumbered let us show us brace, And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow! What though before us lies the open grave? Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! [source]

The race ought to be proud of a poet capable of voicing it so fully. Such a voice is not found every day.

Mr. McKay's volume, "Harlem Shadows," published by Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York, is already attracting the attention of the critics of the country. What he has achieved in this little volume sheds honor upon the whole race.


Johnson, James Weldon. "A Real Poet." The New York Age: The National Negro Weekly (May 20, 1922).


Harlem Shadows (1922)

Additional Poems by Claude McKay

Contemporary Reviews

Supplementary Texts