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Again and again in recent years critics have taken Johnson to task for abandoning "dialect"; but to abandon "dialect," as Johnson had known it, was not to abandon vernacular. It was Johnson, before any other black poet, who broke the barrier between "dialect" and Standard English--specifically in this poem. Rather than invidiously comparing Johnson's with Hurston's renderings of sermons or Sterling Brown's of ballads (a decade later), we ought to have a look at the kind of literary model Johnson had to work from, such as Dunbar's "An Antebellum Sermon":


Now ole Pher'oh, down in Egypt,

    Was de wuss man evah bo'n,

An' he had de Hebrew chillun

    Down dah wukin' in his co'n;

'T well de Lawd got tiahed o' his foolin',

    An' sez he: "I'll let him know--

Look hyeah, Moses, go tell Pher'oh

    Fu' to let dem chillun go."


What a distance to a stanza like this one from Johnson:


Then God sat down

On the side of a hill where He could think;

By a deep, wide river He sat down;

With His head in His hands,

God thought and thought,

Till He thought, "I'll make me a man."


Such a stanza was virtually unthinkable in 'poetry' until Johnson wrote it. It is still ahead of where either Hughes or Hurston was in 1925, as Locke would later point out in a fine review of Sterling Brown's Southern Road.

As Hughes, Hurston, and Brown would all recognize, Johnson was after an idiomatic vernacular poetics, recognizing that a break with the "dielect" tradition was prerequisite to a more variously self expressive poetry. "The Creation" shows, better than anything by Dunbar, the black folk preacher as a superior verbal artist--a virtuoso word-crafter and image-maker; it recuperates precisely the sort of syncretic linguistic feats that had been a butt of humor in the minstrel show:


And God stepped out on space,

And He looked around and said,

"I'm lonely

I'll make me a world."


How can anyone say that such writing "only passes for ‘colored’"? This is a stanza that rives the walls of genteel dialect poetry. As Louis D. Rubin has pointed out, most convincingly, Johnson had demonstrated the possibility of moving back and forth between "formal intensity" and "colloquial informality"; just as important, the lessons of free verse are applied to make each line correspond to a breath: "Here was the flowing, pulsating rise and fall of living speech, making its own emphases and intensifications naturally, in terms of the meaning, not as prescribed by an artificial, pre-established pattern of singsong metrics and rhyme." Gayl Jones backs up Rubin's point with the authority of someone who has studied the matter with an eye to getting work done: "Johnson maintains the syntax and expressive language and rhythms of the folk orators and seems to presage more contemporary ways of transcribing dialect or folk speech as a self-authenticating language."