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James Weldon Johnson’s "Fifty Years"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Introduction and Excerpt from "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."

The speaker is paying homage to the many abolitionists who helped end slavery. And while many citizens still held the view that their black brothers and sisters should remain second class citizens, the speaker offers the rationale for the blessings of equality and respect among all citizens.

This speaker possesses a cosmic view of historical procedure, and he shares his awareness with his compatriots of all shades of skin color that God is always in control, and freedom must ring for those who seek it and work to maintain it—a view that remains as operate today as it did back in the early twentieth century.

Excerpt from "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 . . .

To read the entire poem, please visit "Fifty Years." Bartleby.com.

Reading of "Fifty Years"


This speaker of this poem is offering a tribute to the struggle for civil rights in America that began with President Abraham Lincoln proclaiming the end of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation, as he cites several of the most noted abolitionists.

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

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 is dramatizing the signing the Emancipation Proclamation, implying that President Lincoln had 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

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

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

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

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 are always times that all one can rely on is 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 dark-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."


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 31, 2020:

Laurinzoscott, thank you for the kind words and for your continued interest in my articles, and also thank you for your considerable attention to my responses. It is always heartening to have readers who appreciate one's efforts, and your interest especially offers gratification for its genuine attention and appreciation.

I wish you all the best in your literary efforts! Stay well! Blessings to you and yours . . .

Laurinzoscott from Kanab, Utah on March 31, 2020:

Thank you for both the sharing of this poem and for your teaching ways... You are awesome ma'am , God bless

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 30, 2020:

Thank you for your response, Laurinzoscott!

James Weldon Johnson is one of my favorite poets. His works are brilliant, uplifting, always so bright and intelligent. They offer genuine emotion and never play the victim or race card. Johnson's talent gives America the kind of poetry that helps heal the soul as it informs and enlightens. I'm glad you found the poem powerful; it is one of his best.

Blessings to you and yours!

Laurinzoscott from Kanab, Utah on March 30, 2020:

Well Linda Sue Grimes...this is a wonderful article, you introduced me to something I should have been familiar with. This is a powerful poem...I can trace both my ancestries to slavery...look how far weve c9me as humans...some of us...great one!!!

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