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James Weldon Johnson’s "Fifty Years"

Updated on November 28, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

James Weldon Johnson

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Fifty Years"

James Weldon Johnson begins his commemorative poem, "Fifty Years," with the epigraph, "(1863–1913) On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation."

Fifty Years

O brothers mine, to-day we stand
Where half a century sweeps our ken,
Since God, through Lincoln’s ready hand,
Struck off our bonds and made us men.

Just fifty years—a winter’s day—
As runs the history of a race;
Yet, as we look back o’er the way,
How distant seems our starting place!

Look farther back! Three centuries!
To where a naked, shivering score,
Snatched from their haunts across the seas,
Stood, wild-eyed, on Virginia’s shore.

This land is ours by right of birth,
This land is ours by right of toil;
We helped to turn its virgin earth,
Our sweat is in its fruitful soil.

Where once the tangled forest stood,—
Where flourished once rank weed and thorn,—
Behold the path-traced, peaceful wood,
The cotton white, the yellow corn.

To gain these fruits that have been earned,
To hold these fields that have been won,
Our arms have strained, our backs have burned,
Bent bare beneath a ruthless sun.

That Banner which is now the type
Of victory on field and flood—
Remember, its first crimson stripe
Was dyed by Attucks’ willing blood.

And never yet has come the cry—
When that fair flag has been assailed—
For men to do, for men to die,
That we have faltered or have failed.

We’ve helped to bear it, rent and torn,
Through many a hot-breath’d battle breeze
Held in our hands, it has been borne
And planted far across the seas.

And never yet,—O haughty Land,
Let us, at least, for this be praised—
Has one black, treason-guided hand
Ever against that flag been raised.

Then should we speak but servile words,
Or shall we hang our heads in shame?
Stand back of new-come foreign hordes,
And fear our heritage to claim?

No! stand erect and without fear,
And for our foes let this suffice—
We’ve bought a rightful sonship here,
And we have more than paid the price.

And yet, my brothers, well I know
The tethered feet, the pinioned wings,
The spirit bowed beneath the blow,
The heart grown faint from wounds and stings;

The staggering force of brutish might,
That strikes and leaves us stunned and dazed;
The long, vain waiting through the night
To hear some voice for justice raised.

Full well I know the hour when hope
Sinks dead, and ’round us everywhere
Hangs stifling darkness, and we grope
With hands uplifted in despair.

Courage! Look out, beyond, and see
The far horizon’s beckoning span!
Faith in your God-known destiny!
We are a part of some great plan.

Because the tongues of Garrison
And Phillips now are cold in death,
Think you their work can be undone?
Or quenched the fires lit by their breath?

Think you that John Brown’s spirit stops?
That Lovejoy was but idly slain?
Or do you think those precious drops
From Lincoln’s heart were shed in vain?

That for which millions prayed and sighed,
That for which tens of thousands fought,
For which so many freely died,
God cannot let it come to naught.

Reading of "Fifty Years"

Commentary

Stanza 1 - Stanza 3: Celebrating 50 Years Since the Emancipation Proclamation

O brothers mine, to-day we stand
Where half a century sweeps our ken,
Since God, through Lincoln’s ready hand,
Struck off our bonds and made us men.

Just fifty years—a winter’s day—
As runs the history of a race;
Yet, as we look back o’er the way,
How distant seems our starting place!

Look farther back! Three centuries!
To where a naked, shivering score,
Snatched from their haunts across the seas,
Stood, wild-eyed, on Virginia’s shore.

James Weldon Johnson’s narrator of "Fifty Years" is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s affixing his signature to the Emancipation Proclamation, beginning the long process of ending slavery in the United States. The speaker addresses the sufferers of slavery as well as his own contemporaries, "brothers," many who are the descendants of slaves.

Johnson’s speaker dramatizes the signing the Emancipation Proclamation, implying that President Lincoln has erased the vicious practice of slavery and raised the status of the slaves to manhood—a status they had been denied.

The speaker looks back in time as he compares those "fifty years" to a "winter’s day." Historically, fifty years is, indeed, short, but this half century has been like a very cold season of winter for this Africans and their descendants.

Johnson then takes the reader/listener even farther back in time with the disconcerting image of the slave standing, "naked, shivering," who were "[s]natched from their haunts across the seas," and who "[s]tood, wild-eyed, on Virginia’s shore."

Stanza 4 - Stanza 6: Proudly Claiming a Heritage

This land is ours by right of birth,
This land is ours by right of toil;
We helped to turn its virgin earth,
Our sweat is in its fruitful soil.

Where once the tangled forest stood,—
Where flourished once rank weed and thorn,—
Behold the path-traced, peaceful wood,
The cotton white, the yellow corn.

To gain these fruits that have been earned,
To hold these fields that have been won,
Our arms have strained, our backs have burned,
Bent bare beneath a ruthless sun.

Proudly and rightly, the speaker decrees, "this land is ours by right of birth"; he and his ancestors have developed the fallow earth with their "sweat," which has resulted in "fruitful soil."

Instead of merely,"tangled forest," now, through their labor there are "peaceful wood," cotton, and corn fields yielding valuable products for the American people. The speaker claims that to turn this nature-wild land into a domesticated home, "[o]ur arms have strained, our backs have burned, / Bent bare beneath a ruthless sun."

Stanza 7 - Stanza 9: Dramatizing Patriotism

That Banner which is now the type
Of victory on field and flood—
Remember, its first crimson stripe
Was dyed by Attucks’ willing blood.

And never yet has come the cry—
When that fair flag has been assailed—
For men to do, for men to die,
That we have faltered or have failed.

We’ve helped to bear it, rent and torn,
Through many a hot-breath’d battle breeze
Held in our hands, it has been borne
And planted far across the seas.

The speaker dramatizes the patriotism of his fellows who have died fighting for America even before it recognized them as equal patriots and full citizens. His allusion to Crispus Attuck, the first patriot to die in the American Revolutionary War, offers a stark reminder: "Remember, its first crimson stripe / Was dyed by Attucks’ willing blood."

The speaker highlights the fact that Attuck died willingly for his country, not forced because he was a slave. He stresses that this race of American patriots has always stepped forward to defend America, even in foreign wars.

Stanza 10 - Stanza 12: They Have Already Secured Their Rights

And never yet,—O haughty Land,
Let us, at least, for this be praised—
Has one black, treason-guided hand
Ever against that flag been raised.

Then should we speak but servile words,
Or shall we hang our heads in shame?
Stand back of new-come foreign hordes,
And fear our heritage to claim?

No! stand erect and without fear,
And for our foes let this suffice—
We’ve bought a rightful sonship here,
And we have more than paid the price.

The speaker is adamant in reporting to a land still roiled in racism (Johnson was writing this 1913) that at no time has "one black, treason-guided hand / Ever against that flag been raised." Because of the genuine qualities that his African American brothers and sisters have demonstrated since the founding of America, the speaker maintains that they do not deserve to "hang [their] heads in shame" or "speak but servile word," or be timid in claiming their heritage as true, patriotic Americans.

Therefore, the speaker demands that his contemporaries, "stand erect and without fear." They have procured the right to their "sonship here," and they have tendered more than should be required of anyone.

Stanza 13 - Stanza 15: Affirmation Despite Adversity

Because the tongues of Garrison
And Phillips now are cold in death,
Think you their work can be undone?
Or quenched the fires lit by their breath?

Think you that John Brown’s spirit stops?
That Lovejoy was but idly slain?
Or do you think those precious drops
From Lincoln’s heart were shed in vain?

That for which millions prayed and sighed,
That for which tens of thousands fought,
For which so many freely died,
God cannot let it come to naught.

The speaker never makes light of the black experience in America; he knows very well the physical and mental humiliation that his fellow patriots have suffered—as well as the broken spirit. He is aware of the deep levels of discouragement such treatment causes. He understands that there were/are times that all they can rely on was prayer.

However, this speaker also understands that such oppression cannot endure. He, therefore, commands his listeners to become fearless and to look forward to the future and retain "[f]aith in your God-known destiny! / We are a part of some great plan."

The speaker then alludes to William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, two strong abolitionists. He inquires, rhetorically, if his fellows believe that the "fire lit by their breath" could be snuffed out. He further asks if his brothers can imagine that the spirit of John Brown and Elijah Lovejoy has become lifeless and departed. He wants them to consider the death of Abraham Lincoln—did the great emancipator die "in vain"?

The speaker delivers an affirmation that all of those great abolitionists and the great emancipator did not resist only to die in vain. He insists, "millions have prayed" for and "tens of thousands have fought" for and "many freely died," so that darker-skinned people could know the equality they deserved. And of most importance, he treasures and maintains an abiding faith that, "God cannot let it come to naught."

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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