Episodes, Season 2

Views and Re-Views

In this episode of Consolation Prize, we are exploring a consul’s involvement in a coup and a revolution. When the United States decided to construct a canal in Panama, the president of Nicaragua José Zelaya became upset. He believed the canal would be in his nation. Once it was clear it would not be, Zelaya began to turn his country away from the US. In response, the United States engineered a rebellion against Zelaya, and a president more favorable to American aims was installed. Not all Nicaraguans were happy with the new US-backed government and some rebelled. President Adolfo Díaz called on the United States to protect his government. Consul James Weldon Johnson, better known today for his work with the NAACP and as a songwriter, delayed this counter-rebellion long enough for more than 2,000 US Marines to land. But afterwards, Johnson began to reconsider his role in American nation-building in Latin America.

Guest Bios

Sharika Crawford is a professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. Her recent book The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2020.

Brian Russell Roberts is Professor of English and Director of American Studies at Brigham Young University. He has published widely on Black internationalism and international representation, with books including Artistic Ambassadors: Literary and International Representation of the New Negro Era (U of Virginia P, 2013) and Indonesian Notebook: A Sourcebook on Richard Wright and the Bandung Conference (Duke UP, 2016). His most recent book is Borderwaters: Amid the Archipelagic States of America (Duke UP, 2021).

Transcript

[Eerie bells, with Morse Code beeping underneath]

ABBY MULLEN: The USS Vicksburg was patrolling off the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. It was September 1909. The navy was watching as the president of Nicaragua fought to keep his office. The United States had a man on the ground. He used a secret telegraph code to keep Captain Alexander Halstead in the loop. It wasn’t a very sophisticated code–for example, the word “red” meant “rumors,” “link” meant “all quiet,” and “no news” was “prize.” Our story today is about that man: consul James Weldon Johnson.

[Consolation Prize theme music]

MULLEN: I’m Abby Mullen and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. Before we get into our story, I do have one quick request: I want you to become a member of R2 Studios. For just a couple of dollars a month, you can get stickers, and for a few more dollars, you can get a t-shirt or a tumbler. But most importantly, you can help us make great audio. Just as an example, your donations paid for one of the voice actors you’ll hear in this episode. You can learn more and become a member at r2studios.org. Alright, let’s get on with the show.

[End theme music]

MULLEN: In the American imagination of the late nineteenth century, one thing mattered most about Nicaragua: the fact that it had a Caribbean coast and a Pacific coast. Its location in Central America seemed to make it ideal for a canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific. But Nicaragua had been of interest to European nations since the 16th century, when Spain colonized the area.

SHARIKA CRAWFORD: Nicaragua is one of several colonies that will belong to Spain. However, it is not seen as one of its prime colonial possessions. 

MULLEN: This is Sharika Crawford, a historian of Latin America. She helped me understand the political history of Nicaragua. 

MULLEN: In the 1820s, Nicaragua became independent, just like a lot of other places in Latin America. But each country needed more power than they could have just individually, so some of the countries formed a coalition. But it didn’t last.

CRAWFORD: In the 1830s Central America’s confederation falls apart. And then individual countries form republics. When I say they formed a republic, Nicaragua doesn’t really get to that project until the 1840s. 

MULLEN: Two political parties formed: the liberals and the conservatives. 

CRAWFORD: And in Nicaragua, they’re having a lot of back and forth, over who’s going to hold power. So that’s one of the problems that we’re seeing, that the partisan conflict erupts in- in episodes of violence. 

[music: slow, pensive bells under Crawford]

CRAWFORD: On the same token, Nicaragua has an additional challenge. Again, it’s not unique to some places in Latin America, that the country itself is not fully consolidated under the authorities of the people who claim they’re the president. And they’re based in the center of the country in the capital, Managua. So in the 1840s, the British have, like, basically claimed the Caribbean coastal region as a protectorate. And so they have to sort of vie among themselves over a political consolidation. And then at the same time, sort of ward off foreign interest and/or foreign occupation of territory and that’s how they’re perceiving it right that these are foreigners who are occupying it. And so it’s a very tumultuous time period for them. 

MULLEN: Even though the establishment of these republics was violent and the systems were unstable, the United States still saw them as good. In part because of the ideology, but in part because of the economy.

CRAWFORD: they’re looking to Latin America as sort of kind of a model Republic that these are their sister republics, and they’re very much engaged in and interested in the outcomes of the Spanish American wars for independence, which kind of come to their culmination for most places in the 1820s, around 1826. Sort of that date. But then there’s some interest in expanding southward for commercial reasons. And typically, that’s not led by authorities maybe in the government, but they’re kind of led by US individuals who have interest in various parts of Latin America. 

[music begins again]

View of Corinto harbor from the water.
Photograph of Corinto, Nicaragua. Eadweard Muybridge. 1875, published 1877. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mary and Dan Solomon

CRAWFORD: there is tremendous interest in trying to find a faster route, particularly after the California gold rush and 1849. And that route could be an inter-oceanic canal. Nicaragua as a potential canal site really emerges in 1840s and 1850s. In part, because it has the thinnest stretch of what you might think of as a land-sea route. And up until the 1890s, for the United States, it really is looking at Nicaragua, it looks like that would be the fastest route.

[music transitions from chimes to piano]

MULLEN: The land-sea route might look something like this: From a port like New York, you’d sail your ship to San Juan del Norte, a port on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua. From there, you’d offload your goods onto a steamboat and steam up the San Juan River which would take you from the port to the middle of the country. There you’d find Lake Nicaragua, the biggest lake in Central America. The journey from the coast to the lake might take between 6 and 20 days. You’d then put your goods onto another boat and cross the lake. Then you’d put your goods onto a stagecoach and carry them the rest of the way to the Pacific Coast, where you would board yet another steamer to get to California.

MULLEN: This might seem like a lot of trouble–but it was shorter than going all the way around South America, and you did have the lake in the middle to speed things up. But Americans – and others – were always looking for ways to shorten the route.

[music fades out as Crawford speaks]

CRAWFORD: And there was a sense that perhaps a canal could function really well. And so there was tremendous, you know, pushing, you know, kind of convinced American authorities that this could be the route, except for the fact that Nicaragua has tremendous political turmoil. It makes the logistics of that particularly challenging.

MULLEN: American officials were interested in the idea of a canal, but nothing really came of it for a little while. In the meantime, other Americans – private citizens – invested in infrastructure that made their commercial business easier. For instance, Cornelius Vanderbilt invested in improving road conditions and building those steamboats. Other Americans, like a guy named William Walker, tried to forcefully Americanize Nicaragua, but they were ultimately unsuccessful. From the 1860s to the 1890s, Nicaragua became a leading producer of coffee, and the political situation was fairly calm. In 1893, a much more autocratic leader rose to power. His name was José Zelaya.

[Slow piano music]

MULLEN: Near the end of the nineteenth century, the United States turned back to the idea of a canal. The US government had always intended to build the canal through Nicaragua, but then lobbyists for a new location got involved. And Congress was swayed by their arguments.

[music ends]

MULLEN: In 1903, the United States settled on the location for their canal: Panama. Panama signed a treaty authorizing the United States to take over the French construction of the canal. Nicaragua was no longer under consideration.

MULLEN: This new plan for a canal did not go over well with Nicaragua’s President Zelaya. He didn’t think that the United States should be in charge in Central America, so he began shopping his canal route to other foreign investors–first he went to Britain and France, and then to Germany and Japan. He wanted to keep the United States from having a monopoly on the route across Central America. Needless to say, the United States was not ok with that. So they had to do something to get Zelaya out.

[Sounds of canons booming]

MULLEN: The United States didn’t want a full-on war with Nicaragua, so they attempted a more covert way of asserting control: namely, they kind of staged a coup. The United States engineered a rebellion against Zelaya, hoping to unseat him and put in a president more favorable to American aims. There are a lot of details here that we are not going to go into – suffice to say the power dynamics are very complicated and in flux all the time.

MULLEN: In order to make this rebellion stick, the United States needed a man on the inside, whom both the US Navy and the local sympathetic officials could trust. Enter James Weldon Johnson. 

[Music: a clip from a vintage recording of Roll Them Cotton Bales, full orchestra with singers. Lyrics: ” Down on the old Savanah river All through the merry month of June, month of June, month of June, That’s where the cotton am a growing Beneath the silvery southern moon” ]

MULLEN: So just who is James Weldon Johnson? You probably know him best as a songwriter – specifically the author of the song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem. He and his brother were known on the songwriting circuit; he wrote the lyrics and his brother wrote the music. Their music was performed on Broadway and in minstrel shows. It was also printed as sheet music all around the country. He wasn’t just a songwriter. He was also a teacher and a lawyer. But his real passion was writing.  

James Weldon Johnson photographed by Doris Ulmann c. 1925. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

BRIAN ROBERTS: Johnson kind of rose to prominence nationally as he and his brother became songwriters. And their songs were often picked up by people doing show tunes, people doing musical theater. And eventually, he gained enough prominence that he became something of what at the time would have been called a race man.

MULLEN: That was Brian Roberts, who writes about Black internationalism and literature. As Johnson ascended in the national eye, he still had to deal with the realities of life as a Black person in the United States.

ROBERTS: During the first decade of the 20th century, the, the intellectual climate was colored by kind of the racial climate of the United States. So, Johnson was living in a time the historian Dixon Bruce once called the Nadir of American race relations. During this time, African Americans were dealing with Jim Crow laws, segregated facilities, segregated services. More dramatically than that, during that first decade of the 20th century, some 800 African Americans were killed in lynchings by white mobs. 

MULLEN: In the midst of all this terror, Black people looked to the Republican party for help.

ROBERTS: The Republican Party at this time was still vividly remembered as the party of Lincoln, the party during the Civil War that had helped to free the slaves. And so white Republican politicians counted on Black votes sand actively courted Black votes. And at the same time, Black intellectuals, Black politicians saw the Republican Party as probably their main avenue if they wanted to make the needle move in politics. 

MULLEN: When President Theodore Roosevelt took office in 1901, he relied on the expertise of Booker T. Washington to get the Black vote. Washington gave Roosevelt suggestions for various people he could appoint to federal office, specifically to consulships. 

ROBERTS: Washington is also communicating with Roosevelt’s Secretary of State. Washington has lists that he’s keeping of Black men who are currently serving as US consuls and US diplomats, and he’s advocating with Roosevelt and the Secretary of State, “okay, where else can we put Black men? What other consular posts are there that would be available to Black men.” And also, he’s actively trying to make sure that when it’s time for one Black man to be removed from his post, he’s moving on to a different post, he wants to make sure that another Black man goes and fills that same post. 

MULLEN: Washington also advocated in the other direction. He reached out to prominent Black citizens to see if they wanted to serve.

ROBERTS: Washington was kind of a middleman between the State Department and and these prominent Black figures were the State Department saying,” okay, Washington, we’re willing to appoint a Black console to this post, who would be willing to go? Could we call so and so?” And Washington reaches out to that so and so and says, no, he refuses to go to Siberia. And then so they say, okay, we’ll try to figure somebody else out. All of this influence that Washington has, it seems to me is a function of his influence with the Black vote, the Black voting constituency, as Roosevelt’s actively trying to, to reward people who have advocated in their community for people to get out and vote.

[music: gentle riff on “You’re All Right, Teddy”]

MULLEN: And this is how James Weldon Johnson started his transition from songwriter to diplomat–he wrote a song about Roosevelt for the election of 1904. And that captured the notice of Booker T. Washington. After Roosevelt won the election, Washington put forward Johnson’s name for a consulship in Venezuela.

[end music]

JAMES WELDON JOHNSON (historic recording): This from a group entitled Down from the Carib Sea from my book Saint Peter Relates an Incident read at Columbia University December 24, 1935, James Weldon Johnson. 

Sunset in the Tropics
A silver flash from the sinking sun,
Then a shot of crimson across the sky
That, bursting, lets a thousand colors fly
And riot among the clouds; they run,
Deepening in purple, flaming in gold,
Changing, and opening fold after fold,
Then fading through all of the tints of the rose into gray,
Till, taking quick fright at the coming night,
They rush out down the west,
In hurried quest
Of the fleeing day.
Now above where the tardiest color flares a moment yet,
One point of light, now two, now three are set
To form the starry stairs, —
And, in her fire-fly crown,
Queen Night, on velvet slippered feet, comes softly down.

MULLEN: Johnson arrived in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in 1906. This was not a very labor-intensive posting. Somehow he became the consul for Cuba and Panama, and acted as the consul for France in addition to his American duties, and yet he was still bored. But he had taken the post to give himself time to write serious literature, and so that’s what he did. Here’s how he described his days, as read by an actor.

JAMES WELDON JOHNSON (read by MAKAI WALKER): The social day in Venezuela did not begin until five o’clock in the afternoon, and between early morning and that hour there was scarcely ever anything that one could do except attend to one’s own business. When I had no official duties to perform, I made it my business to use that period in getting ahead with my writing

James Weldon Johnson. Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1933, page 250-251, Available online from Alexander Street.

MULLEN: Even though he came to Venezuela to write, at some point along the way he decided he actually was interested in diplomacy. So he began to take his consular work more seriously.

JOHNSON read by WALKER: Life in Puerto Cabello ran along evenly. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t want to slip so deep into the rut of it that I shouldn’t be able to get out. The consulship at this indolent little port afforded ideal conditions for me to carry on my principal aim in entering the service; but I had grown ambitious as a consul, and I worked to make a record that would entitle me to promotion. I did my best to make my commercial reports more than perfunctory communications. I kept both eyes open as wide as possible for opportunities in American business.

Johnson. Along This Way, 263.

MULLEN: In 1909, a new possibility opened up for Johnson – one that would be much more in line with his new aim of becoming a serious diplomat. The posting was in Nicaragua, where the US was attempting to stage a rebellion against President José Zelaya. Johnson’s new post was in Corinto, on the Pacific side of the country. From there, he could watch as the rebellion started to take shape.

[music: dramatic strings very low under Johnson’s quote]

JOHNSON read by WALKER: Within my first few days in Corinto, I paid another official visit. I learned that President Zelaya was living at his summer house on Cardon Island. I went over to pay my respects to him, and was cordially received. Here was another famous dictator, the man who had held autocratic power in Nicaragua for sixteen years. He chatted with me without constraint for half an hour. I left carrying a pleasant impression of Zelaya although I already knew that, officially, my hand was to be against him.

Johnson, Along This Way, page 272.
Exterior of a one-story building next to railroad tracks
Entrance, the American Consulate, Corinto, Nicaragua. 1910. James Weldon Johnson and Grace Nail Johnson Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

ROBERTS: Johnson’s there toward the very beginning of his consulship for the beginning of a revolution against Zelaya, it starts over on the on the east side of the country. And so not where Zelaya is at, Zelaya is in the west on the Pacific side. 

CRAWFORD: They don’t want him in power. He basically gets ousted and in the course of getting ousted there are some US citizens who have been fighting in the opposition army to overthrow him and they get killed. And so the US has to show up intervening briefly in Nicaragua. 

[rhythmic drumming]

ROBERTS: In the run up to the beginning of the revolution, Johnson is in as far as I can tell a constant communication with with Captain Alexander Halstead of the USS Vicksburg, they’re sending cables telegrams to each other on a regular basis. Apparently, Johnson has been tasked to keep tabs on the presence and the movements of Nicaraguan gunboats. 

MULLEN: This is where the secret code comes in. We don’t know the whole code–maybe it’s in the archives somewhere–but Johnson did record a few of the terms into his own notebooks.

ROBERTS: if Johnson wanted to reference the Gulf of Fonseca he used the word copy. If he wanted to reference the city of Chinon Degas, he used the word short, rumors was red, all quiet was link, no news was prize. And so he’s he’s just keeping track of, of these gunboats using a code using telegrams. The revolution starts and in Johnson’s autobiography, he says, you know, it was all happening over on the east coast. Nothing seemed to be happening. 

[drumbeats end. Two rings of a large bell]

MULLEN: Since there didn’t seem too be much going on, Johnson went home to New York for a little while soon after he arrived in Corinto. He went home in part so he could get engaged and then married to Grace Nail. When he returned to Nicaragua, the Americans were now officially involved. 

ROBERTS: While he’s in while he’s on leave, it turns out that Zelaya flees Nicaragua. So the the revolution is successful, he goes back and the US eventually is able to install a Nicaraguan who’s a former clerk of a US company down there as President to the discontent of many Nicaraguans

CRAWFORD: And the question for them is like, who’s going to hold power? Is it going to be the liberals whom they’ve traditionally sort of leaned towards? Or will it be the conservatives, the outgoings Zelaya guy was a liberal. And now essentially, they’re in this like pickle. And they sort of decide to like align with the conservative, they found a conservative figurehead. And they’re going to also not hold any elections, they just want to stabilize Nicaragua. They don’t want any canal agreements being made with other countries, they also want to kind of get the country back on track financially, it’s in debt, they want to make sure that their creditors who have loaned money, you know, American citizens, you know, business interests there don’t lose out on their money. So they’re, they’re occupying it briefly in 1910, to kind of help with the transition away from Zelaya. 

JOHNSON (archival recording):
Los Cigarillos, The Cigarette Smokers
This is the land of the dark-eyed gente,
Of the dolce far niente,
Where we dream away
Both the night and day,
At night-time in sleep our dreams we invoke,
Our dreams come by day through the redolent smoke,
As it lazily curls,
And slowly unfurls
From our lips,
And the tips
Of our fragrant cigarillos.
For life in the tropics is only a joke,
So we pass it in dreams, and we pass it in smoke,
Smoke — smoke — smoke.
Tropical constitutions
Call for occasional revolutions;
But after that’s through,
Why there’s nothing to do
But smoke — smoke;
For life in the tropics is only a joke,
So we pass it in dreams, and we pass it in smoke,
Smoke — smoke — smoke.

[slow music]

MULLEN: Even though Johnson missed most of the revolution that occurred in 1909, he was very involved in the counter-revolution that took place only a couple of years later in 1912. Not all of the Nicaraguans were happy with the US-backed president, Adolfo Díaz. So they decided to revolt against the new government. Again the revolt started in the east and moved west across Nicaragua. The government requested help from the US Marines, but it would take a while for them to arrive.  

ROBERTS: Johnson’s account of his work to stall this revolution for long enough for the United States to land over 2,000 marines is really intricate in his in his autobiography Along This Way, and there’s more intrigue than I was able to keep track of. He keeps referring to it as a game, to himself as playing a part. But it’s I mean, there is a lot of intrigue, he seems to be somebody that that is playing one of the most prominent roles in making sure that the revolution doesn’t go through.

MULLEN: Johnson saw himself as being integral to the success of this new government and that meant he was deeply involved in the military operations that were necessary to keep it afloat. 

[militant drums]

MULLEN: The revolt started in July 1912. As Díaz tried to fight off the rebellion of his minister of war, Luis Mena. For the next few months, incredible violence and terror reigned across the country. The US president, William Howard Taft, ordered the marines to assist Díaz, but it seemed like Díaz might lose before the marines could get there. A very small number of American sailors arrived in Corinto on August 21, but there weren’t nearly enough to hold the town if any attacks happened. Consul Johnson needed to stall the rebel army long enough that they wouldn’t occupy Corinto before the rest of the marines could get there. And he did. By September 4, 2,300 US marines and sailors had arrived in the town. They set up their headquarters in the consulate. 

[drumbeats end]

MULLEN: Once the marines showed up, the momentum of the war shifted. And in the middle of it all was James Weldon Johnson. Here’s how he described the situation in a letter to his wife Grace.

JOHNSON read by WALKER: The Admiral and his staff came down on the ‘California’ and luck for me Halstead is Captain of the ‘California.’ I need not tell you that Halstead put me in right. As soon as the Admiral met me he said ‘Consul, I know you already; Captain Halstead has told me all about you. ‘Wasn’t that lucky. I shall have to tell you in order to make you know how fine Admiral Southerland’s treatment of me has been. I don’t mean any more patting on the back as a very nice colored man; but recognizing me in the fullest degree as a man and office. I am called into every consultation with him and his staff. He takes no important step or action without asking my opinion and advice. In dealing with Commissions from the rebels he has even asked – I always sit near him – ‘Consul, what do you think of the wisdom of my making such and such a statement? If I say something you think unwise, whisper to me.’ I feel sure that I have measured up to his estimate of me. You know I wasn’t sure of my ground in the last revolution, I was new in the country and wasn’t here when the trouble started, but I _know_ this revolution from A to Z and I’ve studied it out to my fullest ability from the point of condition, of international law and the policy of our Government. I am gaining a tremendous experience in handling big, hard questions, and in acting on decisions made; so if I should remain in the Service, it will be of great use to me.

James Weldon Johnson to Grace Johnson, 31 August 1912, Corinto. From Brian Roberts’ notes.

MULLEN: The rebellion against Díaz was basically quashed within just a few months. Admiral Southerland left in October. Soon after, so did Johnson. He requested a leave of absence to deal with some family issues back in the United States. But he never returned to Corinto.

[slow melody line of Lift Evr’y Voice and Sing]

MULLEN: The skills Johnson learned while serving as a consul helped to transform him from a popular songwriter to a serious political and cultural figure. He saw himself as doing good work not just for the United States, but for Black people in the United States.

ROBERTS: His larger trajectory was, as he told one of his friends, to become, quote, an American minister to somewhere. And so he wanted to become fully diplomatic and not, you know, the, the metaphorical consolation prize of, of the consulship. But this interest in diplomacy, there was already an interest in speaking for the masses, and becoming an ambassadorial figure, even if it was a console was Johnson’s step towards cementing his, I guess, I’d say a new kind of representation. If earlier, Johnson had been doing representation of the Black masses that dabbled in minstrelsy, and dialect verse, dialect songs, then afterwards, you see the shift, he becomes a race man to take seriously. He’s got a way of speaking. And who was he speaking for? He was speaking for the people who were enduring the Jim Crow laws, he was speaking for the people who were being lynched on a regular basis in the United States. It was a big transformation that we saw from before his consulships to after his consulships.

[end music]

MULLEN: So how did Johnson see his own role in American intervention in Latin America? Well at first, he was proud of the work he had done. 

ROBERTS: He seems to have been genuinely excited about it. In an August 1912 letter to Grace Nail so writing home, he says “I am gaining a tremendous experience in handling big hard questions and enacting on decisions made. So if I should remain in the service, it will be great use to me.” 

MULLEN: Johnson left Nicaragua in 1913. The US military stayed – they would occupy Nicaragua in some form until 1933, and then return multiple times later.

MULLEN: After Johnson returned to the United States, his views about the US intervention began to change. He became less of a booster for interventionism. He became more skeptical of the US motivations. And the public was able to follow along with his shift – not as much in his thinking about Nicaragua, but rather as he watched what the United States was doing in Haiti.

ROBERTS: After he got back from Nicaragua, he began writing regular editorials, weekly editorials for the Booker T. Washington affiliated newspaper, The New York Age. It was a column titled “Views and Reviews”. In 1915, he was in August, he was publishing articles defending the United States invasion and occupation of Haiti. And he was explaining to, to his readership, that the United States has often needed to invade Latin American countries, Caribbean countries, he said this was because their governments were instable. And he said, that the situation of these countries, as between the United States and Europe demands that the United States, invade these countries, and participate in these revolutions. And so he was defending the Monroe Doctrine at that point. 

[dissonant piano music]

MULLEN: In 1916, Johnson was recruited to work for the NAACP. 

ROBERTS: The NAACP, admired his tact, admired his diplomacy. A lot of things changed once he was recruited by the NAACP and became the the field secretary for the for that organization. Within just a few months, I think it was about six months, and you can watch his opinions on imperialism change, week by week, in his New York Age editorials. He’s saying that the United States has invaded Haiti, not because it’s a magnanimous country, and not because it’s trying to keep Europe out. But he’s, he’s saying that the United States has invaded Haiti, because of US race prejudice against people of African descent. And so the United States doesn’t like to see a self-governed Black country, would prefer to see it occupied by the United States. He stops seeing other revolutions in Latin America and the Caribbean as as something that should have happened. And I think it may be that then he’s starting to get more perspective that he might read retrospectively back onto his 1912 self about, I always knew that this was wrong for us to be involved here. I always knew that we should have never gotten involved. 

MULLEN: It’s hard to figure out what to make of Johnson’s time in Nicaragua, when we consider the rest of his life. What do we make of these different images that begin to blur together?

ROBERTS: The image of James Weldon Johnson, the writer of the African American national anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” one of the founding fathers of the Harlem Renaissance and great supporters of the Harlem Renaissance. The image of him in Nicaragua, particularly exchanging you know coded messages with Alexander Halstead over the location of Nicaraguan gunboats, the image of him engaging in in these very nuanced diplomatic games, in order to keep a a US installed president in power. 

[music turns less dissonant]

MULLEN: Johnson started his consular career ready to make a name for himself. He wanted to lift up other Black people in the United States and the world. As he became increasingly skeptical of American motivations for nation-building, he realized that he couldn’t make the impact he wanted by being a diplomat. He turned instead to the work of lifting up Black people through activism and literature.

JOHNSON (archival recording):
The Creation
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

Credits

Producers: Jeanette Patrick and Abby Mullen

Experts: Sharika Crawford, Brian Roberts

Voice acting: Makai Walker

Music: Andrew Cote

Special thanks to PennSound for making available the recordings of James Weldon Johnson reading his own poems.

Further Reading

Barton, Melissa; Ellen Doon; Afua Ferdnance; Suzanne Lovejoy; and Edgewood Magnet School staff. “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Yale University Library, 2018.

Gobat, Michael. Confronting the American Dream: Nicaragua under U.S. Imperial Rule. Duke University Press, 2005.

James Weldon Johnson. Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1933. Available online from Alexander Street.

Brian Roberts. Artistic Ambassadors: Literary and International Representation of the New Negro Era. University of Virginia Press, 2013.