A Poet to His Baby Son

A Poet to His Baby Son
by James Weldon Johnson


Tiny bit of humanity,

Blessed with your mother’s face,

And cursed with your father’s mind.


I say cursed with your father’s mind,

Because you can lie so long and so quietly on your back,

Playing with the dimpled big toe of your left foot,

And looking away,

Through the ceiling of the room, and beyond.

Can it be that already you are thinking of being a poet?


Why don’t you kick and howl,

And make the neighbors talk about

“That damned baby next door,”

And make up your mind forthwith

To grow up and be a banker

Or a politician or some other sort of go-getter

Or—?—whatever you decide upon,

Rid yourself of these incipient thoughts

About being a poet.


For poets no longer are makers of songs,

Chanters of the gold and purple harvest,

Sayers of the glories of earth and sky,

Of the sweet pain of love

And the keen joy of living;

No longer dreamers of the essential dreams,

And interpreters of the eternal truth,

Through the eternal beauty.

Poets these days are unfortunate fellows.

Baffled in trying to say old things in a new way

Or new things in an old language,

They talk abracadabra

In an unknown tongue,

Each one fashioning for himself

A wordy world of shadow problems,

And as a self-imagined Atlas,

Struggling under it with puny legs and arms,

Groaning out incoherent complaints at his load.


My son, this is no time nor place for a poet;

Grow up and join the big, busy crowd

That scrambles for what it thinks it wants

Out of this old world which is—as it is—

And, probably, always will be.


Take the advice of a father who knows:

You cannot begin too young

Not to be a poet.

About the author

(Excerpt from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/james-weldon-johnson)

James Weldon Johnson [1871 – 1938] was born in Jacksonville, Florida. He distinguished himself equally as a man of letters and as a civil rights leader in the early decades of the 20th century. A talented poet and novelist, Johnson brought a high standard of artistry and realism to Black literature in such works as God’s Trombones (1927) and The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912). His pioneering studies of Black poetry, music, and theater in the 1920s introduced many white Americans to the rich African American creative spirit, hitherto known mainly through the distortions of the minstrel show and dialect poetry. Meanwhile, as head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the 1920s, Johnson led determined civil rights campaigns in an effort to remove the legal, political, and social obstacles hindering Black achievement.

Johnson is the author of the poetry collections Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day (1930), God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927), and Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917), among others. He published several books of prose, including Negro AmericansWhat Now? (1934), Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (1933), Black Manhattan (1930), and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). His multifaceted career, which also included stints as a diplomat in Latin America and a successful Tin Pan Alley songwriter, testified to his intellectual breadth, self-confidence, and deep-rooted belief that the future held unlimited new opportunities for Black Americans.

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