“God’s Trombones Seven Negro Sermons in Verse” Is a series of poems written by the great James Weldon Johnson. Each piece addresses multiple doctrines that are common to the Black Church, but are also common to the Black experience in general. Each piece has a character or scenario that the American Black of the 1920’s could Identify with.
“God’s Trombones” is considered to be a Classic, particularly for the cannon of African American Literature. According to Italo Calvino, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” I truly believe that James Weldon Johnson as an author is a classic, and many of his pieces, especially “God’s Trombones” is a compilation of pieces that should and will be forever recognized as classics that relay a surface level message, but also relay an intricate, individualistic message that can be grasped by each reader and interpreted based on each individual readers experience. I also believe that what makes Johnson’s pieces so great is the way in which they are written. His diction, syntax, and inclusion of “the Black voice”, makes each word come alive. In the words of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Editor of the recent publication of “God’s Trombones”, “writers are read for how they write, not what they write about”. I believe that the reader can appreciate the substance and content of a piece, but I believe that the most celebrated authors are celebrated for the way in which they present their substance and content. And Johnson is a perfect example of this concept.
The piece I would like to focus on is “The Creation”.
This beautiful piece vividly describes God’s intimate and intentional relationship to planet Earth as well as to Man himself. Johnson begins by painting a vulnerable and authentic God who is lonely and so He says, “I’ll make me a world.” What’s amazing about this line is that the reader immediately assumes that God is Black due to his use of the Black dialect. I believe that this is so significant to the Black reader of that time due to their need of seeing Black as being intelligent, Black as being innovative, Black as being good. To experience a God of their race, was something that resinated with them. This God who talks like me, and looks like me and feels like me. This is a REAL God.
“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!”
This part is amazing. The reader can actually visualize God’s beautifully divine smile generating so much light that it can be harnessed and formulated into a constant resource of light and heat, then “God reached out and took the light in his hands, And God rolled the light around in his hands Until he made the sun;…”
These such verses show God’s omnipotence, His omniscience, as well as his personableness. This amazing God who smiles suns into existence does the most amazing thing ever,
“After creating light, and darkness, the moon and the stars;
After creating the valleys and mountains by his very foot print and step on the planet;
He “…spat out the seven seas—”
But throughout this entire piece I must say that my favorite part is when God makes Man.
“Up from the bed of river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank o the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
What really makes this stanza so amazing is the picture created by Johnson of the “mammy bending over her baby”. This really creates a new image of God. It shows that He is big enough to create the Earth, He is knowledgeable enough to tilt the Earth on its axis enough so that it is not too hot or too cold. But this very big and amazing God truly wants to be in relationship. This goes back to Johnson’s original plight, that God himself was lonely so he made Himself a world. But within this world He created Man so that He could see Himself in His creation and then breathed the breath of life into Him so that he could walk and breath and live and interact with Him. This verbiage causes the reader’s heart to be tugged as it does not want God to be lonely. It’s amazing how literature that was written as a poetic masterpiece can still be used as a sermon to point readers, and hearers to God. These concepts still resound today. God wants to walk with us, and talk with us and truly be in relationship with His very intentional and intricate creation. When was the last time you walked with God?
This sermon on the doctrines and theology of Creation is beautiful religiously as well as theologically, but as a piece of literature it is a vividly painted masterpiece that every reader should experience. To have an amazing experience with words, sentence structure, Black diction, and God Himself.
“God’s Trombones” The Creation by James Weldon Johnson