Long before the classic funk duo known as The Brothers Johnson blasted Get The Funk Outta Ma Face, the "original" Brothers Johnson - James Weldon and J. Rosamond Johnson penned Lift Every Voice and Sing, the Negro National Anthem. James Weldon (top, right) wrote the poem in 1900, and his brother J. Rosamond set it to music in 1905.
At the turn of the 20th Century, the Johnson brothers were two dynamic, outstanding young black men whose boldness and brilliance had no bounds. More than just writers and musicians, they were serious Race and Renaissance Men! James Weldon Johnson's resume lists him as a politician, diplomat, anthologist, civil rights activist and lawyer. His dazzling 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man helped ignite the African American literary flame that would burn throughout the 1920's. Though supposedly not autobiographical, Johnson is on record saying the characters in his novel were certainly "based on" people he knew personally. The protagonist's ambiguity over his biracial indentity and the coded references to his sexuality clearly influenced the upcoming generation of black male writers who wrote about those subjects with a slightly greater ease during the Harlem Renaissance. He died in 1938.
These three images are of J. Rosamond Johnson, who studied in London and also trained at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music. He worked briefly as a school teacher but never strayed too far from his musical career. A pioneer in early black musical theatre, Johnson attained legendary status as part of the popular team Cole and Johnson. Bob Cole, with the Brothers Johnson wrote some of the most progressive and popular songs of the early 1900's. J. Rosamond Johnson passed away in 1954. 100 years ago, he would have been my favorite brother and I would've had his photos pasted in my Victorian scrapbook. I'm sure he could have made me do the Cakewalk, lift my voice and sing soprano.
All it takes is just one look. What is it about the gaze from a portrait that can continue to emanate and resonate 100 years later. Whether sensitive or sinister, however you interpret, there's still something about Lenwood Morris. Every time I look at it, I have a sense of knowing and familiarity as if a kindred spirit is watching over me. The feeling is made even more poignant when I consider that it is also a self-portrait.
There isn't much information currently available on the painter other than the fact that he studied at the Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia during the early 1900's. Morris, the artist, should not be confused with Linwood Morris, the famous Katherine Dunham dancer. However, there is a connection between Mr. Morris and Dr. Alain Locke, the renowned same-gender indentified African-American philosopher. That's enough to arouse my suspicion, even though it may ever be confirmed.
As of 2007, Morris' self-portrait is the only painting by the artist to ever come up for auction. It sold at the Swann Auction House in New York for $15,600.
Dr. Alain Locke, the first African American Rhodes scholar and Professor of Philosophy at Howard University, bequeathed many paintings, sculptures, books and other memorabilia to Howard including this portrait by Lenwood Morris. It is not dated. But it's beautiful.