An influence on such movements as the Harlem Renaissance, Fenton Johnson was a poet and short story writer who was born in Chicago in 1888. His father was a porter for the railways and the Johnsons were considered well-off for an African American family at the time and even owned their house on State Street. Fenton Johnson had no real pretensions to be a writer in his youth and was more inclined to a career as a preacher as he made his way through secondary school in Chicago.
In 1908 Johnson gained a place at Northwestern University but later moved to the University of Chicago where he graduated a few years later. After he left, Johnson began work as a postal worker but quickly found a place as a teacher at a black school in Louisville which he maintained until 1911 when he decided to pursue his career as a writer.
Two years later, in 1913, Johnson self-published A Little Dreaming, a small collection of poetry, which was followed by two more in quick succession, including Visions of the Dusk. By this time he had moved to New York and managed to complete a degree in journalism after getting some financial assistance from a generous benefactor.
In 1916 he headed back to his home town of Chicago and set up a magazine called The Champion with his cousin, which focused on black achievements, following this up a few years later by creating The Favorite Magazine.
It was in The Favorite Magazine that Johnson began to publish some of his own poems and in 1920 he produced a series of short stories, bringing them together in the collection Tales of Darkest America. After building valuable connections with the literary organization The Harriet Munroe Group more of his poetry was published in magazines.
One of Johnson’s best known works was a poem called Tired which was published in the Kreymborg anthology Others and, from the 1930s, other poetry appeared regularly in various publications of the day. Getting his own work published as a collection, however, proved harder. He began work on his fourth book but could find no publisher and so it was left unfinished.
Johnson’s poetry epitomized the embattled life of black people in the America of the time, presenting a description of despair and underlying pessimism that is both powerful and thought provoking even now. Whilst critics have dismissed his early works such as A Little Dreaming as largely unremarkable, poems such as Tired contain an inherent bitterness that typified the lot of African Americans.
Among works like Declaration Johnson also exhibits a fervent desire not only for black equality but for all races to be treated the same. Although his poetry never appeared in collections in their own right apart from the ones he had self-published, his words have influenced movements like the Harlem Renaissance over the years.
Fenton Johnson published less poetry in later years though he continued to write. He died in 1958 at the age of 70 in Chicago.