I’m going to close out our investigation into the little-known early 20th Century Chicago Modernist poet Fenton Johnson with one of his most emotionally moving poems. James Weldon Johnson first included “Tired” in his “Book of American Negro Poetry” in 1922, and it has been anthologized several times since. “Tired” remains the poem of Fenton Johnson’s that one finds most often shared on the Internet today.
You can see why. Only a few beats in, that powerful line is spoken: “I am tired of building up somebody else’s civilization.” It may take no more than that line alone to have some tag Fenton Johnson as the first radical Afro-American poet.
I cannot categorically disagree there. I know little about Johnson’s political views, and though the two short-lived magazines he founded before 1920 are said to have included political philosophy, I know nothing of the particular stances he took or supported. At least at the time (the first two decades of the 20th Century) “Tired” along with a few other of Johnson’s poems caused some Black cultural critics to remark that Johnson was too pessimistic, too given over to despair. You might find that strange, but in that moment, there was a feeling that educational and cultural uplift could soon raise the Afro-Americans along with the time’s large and wide immigrant demographics into a new, more accepting America. We know now that didn’t happen, that indeed 20th Century racism and poverty had some mighty blows to land on America and American Blacks with KKK branded racism, Great Depression poverty, and world-wide Fascism—but at the time, that uplift was what many Afro-American elites were pulling for.
However, just by going on what Fenton Johnson poetry I have available to me, I’m not entirely sure Johnson was, at this time, a political radical or a thorough pessimist.
“Somebody give me my gin.” Mike is out back serving warm gin to ladies.
After all, the speaker in “Tired” is not Johnson himself, no more than the banjo player in our last post’s poem is Johnson, the middle-class raised, college educated man. Even the Last Chance Saloon, where the banjo player played for tips, returns in “Tired”. Johnson didn’t live in a shanty, he wasn’t married to a laundress.
True, this is a character that Johnson wants us to hear, an important voice that maybe even the Black “Talented Tenth” wasn’t listening to then, much less White America. And though it’s free verse, this is a poem, not an incisive political analysis or program. It’s a dramatic speech with rhythm, repetition, and a rise in despair from gin-houses to the stars.
It’s not hard for me to see in “Tired” the ancestor of August Wilson’s great play cycle, or the range of characters and voices in Walter Mosely’s detective fiction.
Musically I stepped at least as many decades into the future here, concluding this audio piece with a short burst of the kind of free jazz that allied itself with the Black Arts movement in the later part of the 20th Century. I’ll allow that this music is an acquired taste, but at its core is an ethic of allowing individual voices and modes of expression even in a group context. Free Jazz is not always as raucous as what I played for this, but it does not forbid it either. That’s consistent with what I try to do (within my limits as a musician) with the Parlando Project. When I say we combine words with various music, I mean it.
That does mean that you may not like all the writers’ words I present, or all the kinds of music I write and play to combine with those words, but it means that I’m also not going to stick with one thing and repeat it until we are both tired of it.
I’ve ordered these last four posts here on Fenton Johnson purposely, so to present the man more in full, and because, to be honest, I didn’t feel I could earn any license to speak these words without doing something more than just putting them in my mouth. To listen to Johnson’s “Tired” as I performed it, use the player below.