"THE WHITE MAN OF THE SOUTH KNOWS ALMOST NOTHING": VERY SCARCE FIRST EDITION OF JAMES WELDON JOHNSON'S DEFIANT 1918 RESPONSE TO A WHITE SOUTHERNER'S CLAIM THAT "LYNCHINGS ARE IN FACT FOMENTED OR AGGRAVATED BY GERMAN SPIES"
JOHNSON, James Weldon. "The Negro in War-Time" by Bolton Smith of Memphis, Tennessee. With a Rejoinder by James Weldon Johnson Field Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. New York: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, November, 1918. Slim octavo, original printed tan self-wrappers, staple bound as issued; pp. (1-2), 3-11 (1). $2800.
First edition of the electrifying response near the end of WWI by James Weldon Johnson, newly appointed Field Secretary to the NAACP, to a white Memphis businessman's article, "Negro in War-Time," included herein with its claims that the "Negro Press" presented "every lynching in its worst aspect" and promoted disloyalty by making the Black man "not as jolly, care-free and good-natured as he once was." Johnson's bold "Rejoinder" points to the thousands of Black Americans lynched long before WWI and declares the white "South will never get to the heart of this problem until it is able to think of the Negro… as a human being."
By the time WWI ended on November 11, 1918, "Johnson had established himself as one of the great African American polymaths in our history." A brilliant lyricist, poet and novelist, he was the "literary broker of… the Harlem Renaissance and the organizational force behind the NAACP." In particular, the "American obscenity of lynching infested Johnson's artistic and moral imagination," and drove his bold leadership in civil rights (David Blight, New Republic). At the time of this work's publication, only days before Germany's surrender, Johnson was the NAACP's field secretary, and in 1920 became the first Black American to serve as its executive secretary.
Here Johnson forcefully responds to an article by Bolton Smith, a white Memphis businessman, that was serialized a few months earlier in a local publication. Smith's article claims that Jim Crow poses only a mild "inconvenience" to Black Americans and the Black soldiers who nevertheless display a "growing sullenness" in expressing "their own ideas" about their rights. To Smith, this speaks to the need for a repeal of the 15th Amendment, and he argues "all this talk plays so well into the hands of Germany that… we may find that many Negro lynchings are in fact fomented or aggravated by German spies."
In Johnson's Rejoinder, first published by the NAACP in this very elusive first edition, he points to the thousands of Black Americans "lynched in this country" well before WWI, and declares "the present discontent among the colored people is not fomented by pro-German propaganda but by anti-Negro propaganda… the white man in the South knows a good deal about the Negro, but he does not know the Negro… The South will never get at the heart of this problem until it is able to think of the Negro not merely as something just outside the human pale, not merely as an economic asset to the South, but as a human being" (emphasis in original). First edition, first printing of Johnson's "The Negro in War-Time—A Rejoinder" (pp. 8-10); with complete reprinting of Bolton Smith's "The Negro in War-Time" (pp. 3-7), serialized in The Public: August 31 and September 21, 1918. Containing NAACP mission statement and membership as of October, 1918 (p. 11); rear self-wrapper listing NAACP Officers and Board of Directors. Not in Blockson.
A fine copy.