• The Battle for the Black Soul: On the Poetic Embodiment of the Black Preacher

    Gregory Pardlo Contextualizes James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones for the Contemporary Era

    “O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
    You—you alone, of all the long, long line
    Of those who’ve sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
    Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.”

    –“O Black and Unknown Bards” (1922)

    Ethical questions are likely to haunt any poet today who uses a mask to represent a culture. By mask, I mean a voice that, in the pretense of the poem, belongs to someone or something other than the poet. The mask itself is not the problem. Persona poetry is an entire genre founded on masking. However, when a poem implies its mask captures characteristics that are typical of a broad demographic, that poem is almost certainly going to be read as insensitive. Or worse.

    A hundred years ago, many believed that, no matter how arbitrarily they may have been categorized (or by whom), groups of people did share essential characteristics that could be more or less accurately depicted. The more popular the depiction, the more accurate it was perceived to be. Bias hardened into truth. If you were, like James Weldon Johnson, a poet who belonged to a community that was routinely summed up with negative stereotypes, you might, like him, choose to fight fire with fire, and create positive types to counter the negative ones. The literary ethics of today would not apply.

    Readers today will have to make complex adjustments to account for the historical differences and the social logic that shaped Johnson’s journey in writing God’s Trombones. When we have made such adjustments, that is, after traveling through what scholar Michelle Wright calls “epiphenomenal time,” which is a kind of historical thick description that puts meat on the bones of simple timelines, we can understand the work in more than an academic sense. The point isn’t to empathize with Johnson nor to turn the work into a mere history lesson. As with any prayer, however beautifully it may ring in the ear, a poem’s beauty intensifies the more we can appreciate the spiritual strivings on which it is cast.

    Johnson’s journey in writing these poems was not necessarily arduous, but it was protracted. By his account, nearly ten years before the book’s publication in 1927, he began “nursing in [his] mind” the germ of what would become this, his second book of poems, God’s Trombones. What could account for such a long incubation period? We can safely rule out writer’s block, which Johnson was not one to suffer.

    He described his first book, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, a novel widely acknowledged to be a foundational text in the Black American literary canon, as having developed rapidly in his mind, “at times, outrunning [his] speed in getting it down.” Johnson says he told himself that he didn’t have time to write the sermons for God’s Trombones, that he was too busy, but even he seems to have recognized that he was using an easy excuse to cover up a more complex one. Time, or the lack of it, was rarely an obstacle for this writer who was not easily distracted. Take, for example, the title poem of his first poetry collection, “Fifty Years.” An opus of forty-one quatrains in its initial draft, Johnson wrote the poem to commemorate the semicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.

    Over the course of six weeks, he composed it in the small hours of the morning in a building that barracked rowdy Marines as well as the office where he worked his day job as US consul in Nicaragua. After the poem appeared on the front page of The New York Times, its editors intimated that “Fifty Years” was all but a work of genius.

    A poem’s beauty intensifies the more we can appreciate the spiritual strivings on which it is cast.

    He was prolific in many fields and withstood pressures of all sorts. The more pronounced bullet points on Johnson’s wide-ranging resumé include lawyer, school administrator, musician, poet, and essayist. In form and content, each of his books sets out to map what would be, for him, novel and unique terrain. He was not risk-averse. He thrived outside of his comfort zone. He believed in the power of reason to lead him to the truth whether that truth favored his interests or not. With unflagging energy, he used his art to address conundrums of race and its attendant brutality.

    Yet, writing God’s Trombones seems to have been uniquely challenging for him. Composing poems as sermons in the composite voice of a fictional and anonymous “old-time Negro preacher” very possibly carried Johnson to the limits of his imagination. Once he fixed on the figure of the old-time preacher, he had to compose the sermons while finding ways to invest them with real emotion, a task made all the more difficult, I’m sure, by Johnson’s avowed atheism.

    Deceptively simple in its message and import, God’s Trombones is uncomplicated only in the scale of its ambition. Johnson was writing at a time when the “souls of Black folks” (to borrow a phrase from Johnson’s contemporary and sometimes rival W. E. B. Du Bois) were very much at stake. Arbiters of public thought, from colonial theologians (the earliest apologists for slavery) to those later mystics of vaudeville and then, Hollywood, secured their profits and authority by stoking bigotry and racial anxiety with depictions of monstrous, imbecilic, lazy, deceitful, and, above all, justifiably downtrodden people of African descent. By the twentieth century, fighting back against this centuries-long smear campaign had become an all-hands-on-deck operation for many Black artists, writers, and intellectuals.

    Johnson was committed to demonstrating the merits of Black cultural expression as well as distinguishing his own work within a cultural landscape dense with competing agendas and motives. Where Langston Hughes had turned to the blues for homegrown material in his 1926 debut poetry collection The Weary Blues, Johnson looked to the Black church. He subscribed to no religion, but he acknowledged its value in helping people make peace with suffering and the mysteries of life. More importantly, Johnson recognized that religion played an outsize role in the lives of Black Americans.

    Josef Sorrett, in his book Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics, describes Johnson’s mix of literary and ecclesiastic sensibilities as a “celebratory ambivalence.” That is, he revered the culture of the Black church with a kind of disinterested interest, the objective eye of an artist. Influenced by other poets, by politics, and by his belief in the soft power of art to effect material change in the lives of Black people, Johnson began working out how he might “take the primitive stuff of the old-time Negro sermon and, through art-governed expression, make it into poetry.” He was on a tour of the Midwest when he encountered the preacher who would finally galvanize the project.

    As the leaders of Allied nations descended on Versailles to certify the world safe for democracy, terror reigned across the United States. The public torture and execution of men, women, and children, a form of racialized terror employed to maintain the social order, had become a grim feature of American life. By 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) recorded at least 3,224 verifiable lynchings in the US. Deepening racial animosity and the proliferation of segregation laws effectively denied Blacks access to the levers of government. Lobbying congress directly for anything but symbolic denunciations of lynching proved futile. The nascent NAACP adopted an alternative strategy of dispatching representatives across the country in a noble but ultimately failed campaign to agitate for federal protections. Johnson, the secretary of the NAACP at the time, was assigned to tour the Midwestern United States.

    The tour found him speaking most often at Black churches whose congregations naturally assumed him to be a man of the cloth. Because he had previously served as US consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua, small-town newspapers heralding the prestigious visitor, as well as any locals who had the honor of introducing Johnson to audiences along the tour, often referred to him as “ex-minister to Venezuela and Nicaragua.” As he explained, many people took minister to be synonymous with preacher. At one engagement, he was nearly prevented from speaking when he corrected the misunderstanding. Johnson had to reassure the church elder that elements of his presentation indeed had a “spiritual bearing” worthy of God’s house.

    Because its congregants’ daily lives lacked the most fundamental civil protections, the Black church was more than a spiritual oasis. In addition to being a house of worship, it traditionally served as a kind of town hall. It safeguarded the well-being of its members in very tangible ways. In Johnson’s posthumously published Negro Americans, What Now?, he describes the Black church as a “tremendous social force,” and in terms he had similarly used to describe the old-time preacher: “When there was no other agency to do it, the church brought about cohesion and stabilization in a bewildered and leaderless mass.”

    With its congregants prevented from voting and denied access to municipal services and public resources, the church, Black America’s bedrock institution, became the site of civic planning and administration. Du Bois, a founding member of the NAACP, describes the Black church as “the central clubhouse of a community.” Du Bois writes:

    “Various organizations meet here,—the church proper, the Sunday-school, two or three insurance societies, women’s societies, secret societies, and mass meetings of various kinds. Entertainments, suppers, and lectures are held beside the five or six regular weekly religious services. Considerable sums of money are collected and expended here, employment is found for the idle, strangers are introduced, news is disseminated and charity distributed.” (The Souls of Black Folk)

    For much of the twentieth century, it was unusual for anyone in a Black community not to be a member of a church. Indeed, as Du Bois says, the Black church “antedates the Negro home.” In keeping with the patriarchal structure of the home, civic leaders, men like Johnson, typically were members of the clergy. One of the few paths to leadership in Black communities ran through the church. Du Bois suggests that the leaders of Black churches were some of the most powerful Black people in the world.

    As he writes in his essay, “Of the Faith of the Fathers,” from The Souls of Black Folk, “The Preacher is the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil.” On this score, Johnson agrees, granting that the old-time preacher was often “a man of positive genius.” Johnson’s father, a respected figure in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, was a preacher. Had it not been for his parents’ liberality, Johnson may have become a preacher, too, as it was his maternal grandmother’s “burning ambition” for him to enter the clergy. No matter how awkward Johnson may have felt in that moment as he approached the pulpit after having been mistaken for a preacher, he understood the performance expected of him.

    He knew the rhythm, the rhetoric, and the style. He knew, as we still know today, the patterns of call and response. He knew the stomp and the hand clap, and the way the human voice can be made to evoke entire spectrums of sound in the compass of a single note. Johnson also knew how, with limited alternatives, generations of Black Americans built upon the oral traditions that kidnapped Africans had carried with them through the Middle Passage. Early Black preachers had been expert in translating the world of the Good Book to people for whom books were often foreign, if not illicit, objects. For them, the less a sermon appealed to the logic of the page, and the more it appealed to the experience of the body, the more effective it became.

    The voice we encounter on the page is as much Johnson’s as it is a composite of preachers Johnson studied.

    Only a generation before Johnson, Walt Whitman mined the oratory style of itinerant preachers to sing the body electric. First published in 1855, by the time it reached Johnson, Leaves of Grass was revered and reviled, and had made its indelible mark on the American canon. In his autobiography, Along this Way, Johnson describes his first encounter, around the turn of the century, with Whitman. He was writing poems in Negro dialect while keeping a lookout for alternatives to the form he would grow to detest. He writes:

    “I was engulfed and submerged by [Leaves of Grass], and set floundering again. I felt that nothing I had written, with exception of the hymn for the Lincoln celebration, rose above puerility. I got a sudden realization of the artificiality of conventionalized Negro dialect poetry; of its exaggerated geniality, childish optimism, forced comicality, and mawkish sentiment; of its limitation as an instrument of expression to but two emotions, pathos and humor, thereby making every poem either only sad or only funny.”

    This encounter with Whitman strengthened Johnson’s resolve to lose the racist clamp on the American tongue, and he began to see more clearly the old-time preacher as the figure through whom “the people of diverse languages and customs who were brought here from diverse parts of Africa and thrown into slavery were given their first sense of unity and solidarity.” Whereas Whitman embellished his secular wisdom with the cadences of Revivalist preachers, Johnson adapted his metaphysics from the Black church. For Johnson, the preacher was an instrument of discovery and release.

    There is a bit of false humility in his claim that he was merely serving as a sort of amanuensis to the figure idealized in these “seven Negro sermons in verse.” Johnson had to do a good deal more than jot down a few notes—even if that is how the collection got started—while listening to a gifted preacher. There are recognizable conventions that give shape and consistency to the sermonic tradition in the Black church, but there are, as is the case in any genre of performance, as many styles as there are practitioners. Johnson’s project was therefore much less clerical (pun intended) and far more creative than he allowed.

    The anti-urban sentiment we encounter, for example, in “The Prodigal Son,” could belong to Johnson, the Victorian-era conservative, as easily as to his fictional preacher. “Babylon” lures the prodigal son away from his father’s house and toward perdition. Johnson depicts the city like certain parts of newly electrified Harlem, “bright in the night-time like day, / The streets all crowded with people / …singing and laughing and dancing.” Here, the “young man” buys a new suit and squanders his days and nights drinking, gambling, and cavorting with “the women of Babylon.” The voice we encounter on the page is as much Johnson’s as it is a composite of preachers Johnson studied, which is to say, it is a product of the poet’s fertile imagination.

    In his 1973 Black Poets of the United States, French scholar Jean Wagner notes that Johnson had intended to include a fictional character portrait as one of the poems comprising God’s Trombones. Sadly, “The Reverend Jasper Jones” was not a good enough poem to warrant inclusion. If it had been included, it would have impressed upon readers that all of the sermons collected here are ultimately persona poems, and it would have given the collection a more defined speaker—the fictional Reverend Jones—to deliver the sermons. Meanwhile, the real preacher that inspired Johnson’s ideal one “strode the pulpit up and down…and he brought into play the full gamut of his wonderful voice…. He intoned, he moaned, he pleaded—he blared, he crashed, he thundered.” Johnson also notes the preacher’s tempos, which he tried to “indicate by the line arrangement of the poems, and a certain sort of pause that is marked by a quick intaking and an audible expulsion of the breath…indicated by dashes.”

    Even today, we recognize that gasp as a staple flourish of Black oratory in America. Zora Neale Hurston records it as a punctuating “ha!” at the ends of lines in a sermon included in her posthumous essay collection, The Sanctified Church. The gasp is a sibling to the chain gang’s grunt, “hunh,” in Sterling Brown’s 1932 poem, “Southern Road.” Johnson praises the “decided syncopation of speech…The rhythmical stress of this syncopation…obtained by a marked silent fraction of a beat…frequently filled in by a hand clap.” This was the preacher, and the culture the preacher anchored, that Johnson sought to memorialize.

    Johnson’s claim that “The old-time Negro preacher is rapidly passing” is questionable. The Great Migration had inspired fears that the old folkways would be lost to urban attitudes as Black folks abandoned rural life in pursuit of opportunities in the various “Babylons” of America. As Black folks left the fields and plantations of the American South, however, their clergy and its unique style of preaching moved with them. The “old-time Negro preacher” turns up everywhere in Black cultural expression, particularly in our literature, because the spiritual aesthetic of the church has permeated all aspects of our cultural lives. Sorrett explains, “[T]he very organizing logics, aesthetic practices, and political aspirations of the African American literary tradition have been decidedly religious.” He adds pointedly, “[B]lack literature is religious.”

    The prognosis that the old-time preacher was a dying breed of public intellectual may have contained a bit of wishful thinking. In a gesture that seemingly thanks the old-time preacher for his service while hinting that his service will no longer be required, Johnson advocates a kind of gentrification of the church by “well-educated and progressive youth” (Negro Americans, What Now?). “The day of the ignorant preacher,” Johnson writes more decisively, “is gone.” Hastening toward the dawn of a new Black church, Johnson imagines a pulpit staffed with college-educated youth committed to the institution and adept at ministering to the community’s needs, secular and divine.

    Ultimately, the old-time Negro preacher Johnson fits on the page is a kind of transitionary figure best understood as a counterpart to Alaine Locke’s New Negro. Seemingly, the former faces the past while the latter faces the future. But they are both future-oriented. That Johnson reaches back in time to find his exemplar tells us something of his priorities in advancing the agenda for civil rights. Johnson is not willing to risk Black Americans’ stake in the soul of the nation—its wealth, culture, ethos, and identity—by starting afresh. The old-time preacher maintains a quality of seniority and equity in America that the figure of the New Negro lacks.

    Locke, among others, conjured this protean figure associated with the Harlem Renaissance in response to demeaning stereotypes of Black people. The New Negro was educated and self-determining. The New Negro was an archetype many hoped would triumphantly eclipse the Old Negro. The drawback to simply eclipsing the Old Negro, however, was that, as a strategy, it left that demeaning stereotype in place to haunt, in ghostly relief, its more salutary successors.

    In other words, racist nostalgists could still resurrect the Old Negro as a comforting fantasy to evoke a happier, “great” American past. Johnson’s archetype of the old-time preacher, on the other hand, served to rewrite past depictions by demonstrating more “accuracy,” and thus, in the thinking of the time, made a bid for greater authenticity, that contested imaginary element upon which American social logics are founded.

    The title of this collection creates an architecture of thought that allows the old-time preacher, and by extension Black people, the widest possible range of expression.

    Johnson’s mission to elevate Black culture included a crusade against so-called Negro dialect. He praised Paul Laurence Dunbar’s dialect poems, but recognized the ways that dialect reduced Black subjectivity to uniform and uncomplicated expressions, which only affirmed for anyone inclined to believe in Black inferiority that Black people were not capable of deeper, more complex feelings. For Johnson, the “instrument” of Negro dialect can only evoke either “a happy-go-lucky or a forlorn” character. “The Negro poet in the United States,” Johnson states, “needs now an instrument of greater range than dialect.”

    The metaphor of instrumentation is central to this lifelong musician’s aesthetic vision. To unpack the title of this collection is to consider those human wind instruments, the old-time Negro preachers through whom both God’s breath and the poet’s inspiration are transformed into proverbial music to our ears. Thus, we have to read the title as a double metaphor. The trombone represents the old-time preacher, while the preacher stands for the Black imagination. Johnson initially considered using the trumpet as the collection’s central metaphor but rejected it as cliché. The trombone, as he footnotes in his introduction, is “the only wind instrument possessing a complete chromatic scale [that is] enharmonically true.” It is the trombone that possesses “the power to express the wide and varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice.” The title of this collection creates an architecture of thought that allows the old-time preacher, and by extension Black people, the widest possible range of expression.

    “To place in the mouths of the talented old-time Negro preachers a language that is a literary imitation of Mississippi cotton-field dialect is sheer burlesque,” Johnson writes. His aversion grew out of his distaste for white performers in blackface who lampooned Black people for the vaudeville stage, where they originated the form that had come to be known as Negro dialect. But Johnson is also responding to some of his contemporaries, Black poets who were not above placing “cotton-field dialect” in the mouths of their fictional preachers. Poets, for example, like Daniel Webster Davis, two of whose poems Johnson had included in the landmark anthology he edited, The Book of American Negro Poetry.

    Both a poet and a preacher, Davis was a racial accommodationist who—wisely, we should note—was afraid that “flaunting the scare-crow of Negro domination” would offend his white readers. By this he meant that white readers would interpret depictions of competent, self-determining Blacks as signs that, given the chance, Black people would, in an act of retaliation, replace, if not eradicate, whites as the dominant race. Davis’s poems hew strictly to the formula of comedy and pathos that Johnson so abhorred. When Davis gives his poems titles like “Is Dar Wadermilluns on High?” and “Skeetin’ on de Ice” (in which the preacher speculates that the Israelites fleeing Egypt were able to cross the Red Sea because it was frozen), it’s not to faithfully portray Black Americans. It is to assuage what he believed were his white readers’ racial anxieties, through the use of racially demeaning stereotypes.

    It is odd that Johnson should have to struggle at all against a reductive and homogenizing Negro dialect when what often gives Black cultural expression its richness is its ability to convey multiple meanings at once. Robert T. Kerlin’s 1923 study, Negro Poets and Their Poems, explains that in the spirituals, “not a word…had but two meanings for the slave, a worldly one and spiritual one, and only one meaning, the spiritual one, for the master—who gladly saw this religious frenzy as an emotional safety-valve.”

    And according to Amiri Baraka in Blues People, “Black cultural expression aims at circumlocution rather than at exact definition. The direct statement is considered crude and unimaginative; the veiling of all contents in ever-changing paraphrases is considered the criterion of intelligence and personality.” Poems in the Black American tradition often follow these strategies of what today we might call, following Henry Louis Gates, Jr., signifying. As a rhetorical and poetic device, signifying is more dynamic than allusion but less systematic than allegory. Contrast Davis’s preacher, for example, with the preacher in Dunbar’s “An Ante-Bellum Sermon,’’ another poem on the theme of Moses telling Pharaoh to “let my people go.”

    Unlike Davis, Dunbar inhabits his character, which means we encounter the preacher unmediated, without the distancing effects of quotation marks. Dunbar’s preacher is still a bit comical, but he’s savvy, and we get a feel for the ironic tension between the poet and his mask. This dramatic irony is a hallmark of persona poetry. Like an inside joke, that is, like signifying, dramatic irony can throw readers off because it relies on subtext, innuendo, and shared cultural knowledge. Dramatic irony is most difficult to discern when the poet gives voice to an unidentifiable and/or hypothetical speaker, a “type.”

    Reading Dunbar’s sermon, one might mistake the preacher’s signifying disclaimer, “Now don’t run an’ tell yo’ mastahs / Dat I’s preachin’ discontent. // ’Cause I isn’t,” as deference to prevailing social norms. It isn’t. In fact, the disclaimer is a signal that we should take the preacher’s meaning as an assertion of his very opposite intent to highlight the irreconcilable opposition between slavery and Christianity, and the slaveholders’ hypocrisy in pretending otherwise. But Dunbar doesn’t stop there. While he, like Johnson, harkens back to an old-time antebellum preacher, Dunbar signifies on a topical concern by having that preacher predict that the enslaved will one day be recognized as full citizens.

    Similarly, Johnson signifies in God’s Trombones, albeit with less bite. He employs this device with restraint in his treatment of the same theme, “Let My People Go.” Here, Johnson’s preacher imagines the dialogue between God and Moses. “And God said to Moses: / I’ve seen the awful suffering / Of my people down in Egypt / I’ve watched their hard oppressors, / Their overseers and drivers” (emphasis added). If we were unaware of how the story of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom is traditionally coded in the Black church, Johnson reveals this subtext by placing two of the most fearsome and despised figures on a slave plantation under Pharaoh’s command. That Johnson signifies on an association that would have been considered a given in the Black community suggests Johnson wants white readers to register the point as well.

    Furthermore, when God in Johnson’s poem tells Moses to “go down, / Go down yonder into Egypt land” where “Old Pharoah” is holding God’s people in bondage, the preposition is ironically multidimensional. “Down” situates us vertically as God is presumably up in heaven. “Down” in Black vernacular can also point in any cardinal direction within a local radius. But “down” in a geographic sense signifies movement south from the Mason–Dixon line, figuratively situating Pharaoh deep within slaveholding territory. Johnson’s “Let My People Go” has a message for its time. Johnson is not concerned with protecting some of his readers’ feelings. On the contrary, he addresses those who have inherited the wealth derived from slave labor in America as “All you sons of Pharaoh,” and asks how long they think they can hold God’s people—Black people by implication— down when “God himself has said, / Let my people go?”

    No text is perfect, but every text reflects something of the historical moment that shaped it.

    My references to Johnson’s archetypal preacher have used a masculine pronoun exclusively. This is not to reinforce a masculine norm nor is it in surrender to the conventions of Johnson’s era. Rather, I hope the exclusion will highlight the extent to which women were erased from the collective imagination by some of our most influential poets and writers. Leaving it to Johnson, we might think women were relegated to minor, marginal roles within the Black church. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

    Thought of as an exclusively female space, the famed “amen corner,” as it is popularly called, is the set of pews where women of the congregation sit, stand, shout, stomp, dance, and catch the spirit. When the preacher asks for an “amen,” the amen corner obliges. It is also the case that “the prayer leader” in the Black church “was sometimes a woman.” As Johnson acknowledges, “It was the prayer leader who directly prepared the way for the sermon.” True, women were less likely to have been given direct access to the pulpit, but women gave the pulpit its prominence and sway. While history records the names of distinguished Black clergymen like Bishop Daniel Payne, James W. C. Pennington, Samuel R. Ward, Henry Highland Garnet, US Senator Hiram R. Revels, and many many others, we are left to imagine the lives of women who claimed recognition as preachers.

    Think of Sojourner Truth and the lesser-known Nannie Burroughs, women whose faith and leadership suited them for the pulpit, but whose indomitable spirit had to find its outlet in political activism. Thanks to Lydia Maria Child, the famed editor of Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, we do have a glimpse of an old-time Black woman preacher. The daughter of a man who had escaped slavery, Julia Pell was the kind of illiterate theologian that Davis would have found troubling. In a letter dated December 9, 1841, Child describes Pell, whom she encountered in Philadelphia. Having attended Pell’s sermon one Sunday, Child writes:

    “Such an odd jumbling together of all sorts of things in Scripture, such wild fancies, beautiful, sublime, or grotesque, such vehemence of gesture, such dramatic attitudes, I never before heard and witnessed. I verily thought [Pell] would have leaped over the pulpit; and if she had, I was almost prepared to have seen her poise herself on unseen wings, above the wondering congregation” (Letters from New York).

    Child further described Pell’s “wild fancies” as “purely her own idea.” Another way of putting it, Pell’s sermon was the product of a poetic imagination that, had they witnessed it together, Davis and Johnson may equally have found it indecorous. Child not only recognized Pell’s sermon as “beautifully poetic.” She found it “not unworthy of Milton.”

    Accounting for biases, hyperboles, and competing claims to authenticity, we might begin to understand the historical context Johnson is responding to when he writes God’s Trombones, but our understanding should not exempt him from criticism attuned to our own era. When we measure God’s Trombones neither to condemn nor to vindicate it against the moral and aesthetic standards of today, we give it dimension. We extend its life and the lives imagined within it. No text is perfect, but every text reflects something of the historical moment that shaped it.

    In this way, we inherit the old-time preachers and poets, those known and unknown who are, like us, as flawed as the standards we use to evaluate them. We must be informed readers without surrendering to the authority of a poem or even to our interpretations of it. Just as important as what a poem means is how we give it meaning. By sharpening these practices against the stone of time we can begin to imagine futures that we might look forward to inhabiting together.


    Excerpted from God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson, introduction by Gregory Pardlo. Available from Vintage Classics, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.

    Gregory Pardlo
    Gregory Pardlo
    Gregory Pardlo's collection Digest (Four Way Books) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Other honors include fellowships from the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center, the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts for translation. His first poetry collection Totem won the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. He is Poetry Editor of Virginia Quarterly Review and Director of the MFA program at Rutgers University-Camden. His most recent book is Air Traffic, a memoir in essays.

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