Commemoration of James Weldon Johnson
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
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! — from The Creation*
Every culture has a legend of how things came to be. It is a foundational story of their origins, their roots, and it helps them feel integrated into the community who shares the legend. We hear the creation story from the Hebrew Bible in our Christian church at least twice a year and it reminds us that we had a common story of how things came to be and where our history began.
It’s interesting to read creation stories from other cultures. The Yoruba legend from southwestern Nigeria and southern Benin featured a god climbing down from the sky on a golden chain with a number of things such as a snail shell, sand, a rooster and a black cat. The Navajo began in a small underground world with four seas and an island in the middle and progressed up through two more worlds until they reached the fourth world they inhabit now. The Chinese have a number of creation stories, one of which features Phan Ku who was contained in a cosmic egg along with yin and yang, all things that were opposite each other. He grew and finally split the egg open, taking the yin and the yang, the dark and the light, the earth and the sky, the male and the female, and separated them (human beings came from the fleas in his hair). The Babylonian legend, called the Enuma Elish, begins with Apsu (representing sweet water) and Tiamat (representing salt water) mix at the origins of the Tigris and Euphrates, producing two other entities (male and female) representing mud or silt, who produced two more representing earth and sky who produced to more… and so it goes.
One version of the creation story that captured my imagination as a young adult was actually a poem and a sermon and a lesson in seeing things in a new way all at once. The poem, The Creation, was one of seven sermons in verse written by a man named James Weldon Johnson. The poem, written in the style of a Southern African American preacher, showed God doing things as well as speaking them. His imagery is of a God physically rolling a ball around in his hand and then flinging the moon into the darkness with tiny droplets flying off like tiny droplets of paint. These became the stars. The poem builds until we see God, getting down in the dust and molding a figure and then breathing life into it. With that, man came into being, created from the most common of materials but in the image of the Almighty God and bearing the breath of that same God within it. The imagery for me is poignant and spine-tingling.
I don’t think we ever really conceive of God having fun. Sometimes we joke about it when we see funny-looking animals like aardvarks and platypuses, even familiar and beloved ones like elephants and giraffes, but we do so almost with glances over our shoulders to see if God isn’t sending a fireball after us for giving God a very human enjoyment of creating something amusing. Perhaps it is heresy or blasphemy or something, but I do think God had fun during creation. “I think I’ll add a few more inches to this nose,” “Hmmm, big flippers at the front and small ones at the back,” “I think I’ll add a purr to this vocabulary.” When it came to humankind, though, God changed from having fun to something else. Johnson portrays God as like a “…mammy bending over her baby,” a very intimate and gentle action like the woman with her newborn, utterly, completely, totally in love with it. That’s a very different portrayal of God from the usual ones of the punishing, judging, angry God or even the one we hear about who loves us but that we don’t really accept because we know we are so flawed so how could a perfect God love us?
Johnson’s poem is a story told by a master storyteller, born of a tradition of preaching that regarded stories as integral parts of the lesson. It isn’t a story to be read in a monotone or even with well-modulated restraint. It begs us to read it with passion and to hear the passion in it. The phrases rise and fall like waves on an ocean, building to a peak and dropping away so that often the most important phrases are almost whispered. The intensity builds within each aspect of creation but then, softly, “That’s good” appears. It is God’s affirmation, a word of completeness, an appreciation of what has taken place. Like the sun breaking through the clouds after a violent storm, it reassures us and makes us think, no matter how briefly, of how good things really are, and how quietly they can be appreciated before we go back to business as usual.
We know the creation story, most of us from childhood. We grow up with it and it never really changes much for us. Then we read a new translation of it or hear something like Johnson’s poem that puts it all in a different light and we grow a bit in the process. We open our eyes to something new and we are changed, ever so slightly, perhaps, but changed nonetheless.
I’ve loved this poem for years. I’ve never been able to memorize it but I’ve never forgotten it. Now and again I pull out that book and re-read it, taking the images into my mind and somehow feeling better about things as I read about a rainbow curling around God’s shoulders.
James Weldon Johnson was more than a poet; he was also an educator, a successful diplomat with the gift of bringing divergent voices to the table for discussion about difficult subjects, a collaborator with his brother on lyrics and music for Broadway and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a cause to which most of his life was dedicated. But it is as a poet, a preacher, and an exemplary human being that I celebrate him today.
In my mind’s ear, I hear James Earl Jones’ sonorous and glorious voice, “And God said: That’s good!” Somehow I think God gets a kick out of it too.
* Johnson, James Weldon, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, (1955, paperback ed.) New York: Penguin Books (17).
For more about James Weldon Johnson, see James Kiefer’s biographical sketch.