J. Chester Johnson has written poetry for several decades. Spanning that time, his work has received praise by many well-regarded poets and writers – from, among others, Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Poetry (first Black poet to be so awarded), Poet Laureate Allen Tate, and Nobel Laureate I. B. Singer to current, well-recognized poets, such as Cornelius Eady, Major Jackson, Molly Peacock, Lawrence Joseph, Vijay Seshadri, and Elizabeth A. I. Powell. Recent poetry books, authored by Johnson, are St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems(second edition, 2010) and Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems (2017).
Johnson is also a nonfiction writer. Published in 2017, he authored Auden, the Psalms, and Me, the story of the retranslation of the psalms in the Book of Common Prayer for which W. H. Auden (1968-71) and Johnson (1971-79) were the poets on the drafting committee; this retranslation has become a standard. In addition, released in 2020, Johnson’s Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and A Story of Reconciliation was an Amazon Bestseller and appears on a Goodreads’ multi-year, international list of Best Nonfiction Books.
DAMAGED HERITAGE: THE ELAINE RACE MASSACRE AND A STORY OF RECONCILIATION - (Released May 5, 2020)
“Johnson has laid the healing tools in our hands, and
left instructions. This is how it starts.”
"Johnson is making a profound contribution to that sacred healing work with his truth telling of this long overdue story."
"Johnson poignantly tells of a personal family history that stretches from the darkest days of 1919 to a moment of grace nearly a century later, when he met with Sheila Walker. A moving and inspiring read."
NOW AND THEN: SELECTED LONGER POEMS
“The scope of NOW AND THEN is epic. It provides its readers with the same amplitude of intelligence, passion and formal achievement as our great American epics – Melville’s MOBY DICK, Whitman’s LEAVES OF GRASS, and Ginsberg’s FALL OF AMERICA. It is a book of fierce spiritual and moral witness, energy and power.”
AUDEN, THE PSALMS, AND ME
ST. PAUL’S CHAPEL & SELECTED SHORTER POEMS
“Undoubtedly, this is a work headed for literary permanence in our collective ear.”
FOR CONDUCT AND INNOCENTS
Johnson’s drama in verse, “For Conduct And Innocents,” about the martyr and 20th century theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was presented as a multi-media event (drama, music, dance, film) on Oct. 18, 2015 at Trinity Wall Street with nearly 50 performers participating.
Click here to see the full performance.
To read the full text, click here.
“I love the Bonhoeffer play...The whole dynamic of moral indignation and spiritual ardor, combining and recombining there in endless variation – a quality the lyrics also possess – made the reading fascinating.”
“What an amazing undertaking – so impressive in scope, intent and understanding. This must have taken years of energy.”
ELAINE RACE MASSACRE
Johnson’s literary work, Elaine Race Massacre, was presented as a multi-media production (dramatic reading, music, dance, and visual images) on February 19th at Trinity Church Wall Street. The piece is written in the form of persona voices with prose and poetry being employed for historical pertinence and lyrical effect. The Elaine Race Massacre of 1919, which occurred in a rural area on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River Delta, may be the most significant murderous attack against African-Americans in our country’s history, but out of the brutality and death rose a case, Moore v. Dempsey, that was decided by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1923 and that breathed life, for the first time, into the 14th Amendment (equal protection under the law), providing the underpinnings to the civil rights movement. The persona voices in the performance included massacre victims, members of the Supreme Court, and the genuine American hero, Scipio Africanus Jones, the African-American lawyer from Little Rock who represented black sharecroppers, found guilty of murder in unfair and rapid trials immediately following the cessation of the massacre.
About the Author
J. Chester Johnson is a poet, essayist, and translator. His writings have been published domestically and abroad and translated into several languages. Johnson, whose work has been praised by leading writers and critics over a few decades, has authored numerous volumes of poetry, including St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems, second edition (published in 2010 by St. Johann Press); the collection’s signature poem remains the memento card for the multitude of visitors to the chapel that survived the 9/11 terrorists’ attacks at Ground Zero (more than a million poem cards have been distributed). As The New York Times noted, “‘St. Paul’s Chapel’ has been used for the church’s memento card for more than 10 years.” American Book Review regarded the poem this way, “Johnson’s ‘St. Paul’s Chapel’ is one of the most widely distributed, lauded, and translated poems of the current century.” The well-known poet, Major Jackson, said of the volume, St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems, “Undoubtedly, this is a work headed for literary permanence.”
In January, 2017, a companion volume, Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems, authored by Johnson, was published (St. Johann Press). The acclaimed poet and scholar, Lawrence Joseph, characterized the book, as follows: “The scope of Now And Then is epic. It provides its readers with the same amplitude of intelligence, passion and formal achievement as our great American epics – Melville’s Moby Dick, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and Ginsberg’s Fall of America. It is a book of fierce spiritual and moral witness, energy and power.”
Johnson and W. H. Auden served as the two poets on the drafting committee for the retranslation of the Psalms, which is the version contained in the current edition of The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church; the retranslation has been adopted by Lutherans in Canada and the United States, and by the Anglican Church of Canada; it was also adopted as the preferred (now, permitted) Psalm translation until the Church of England produced its own retranslation in 2000. Johnson’s memoir and literary and historical commentary on the retranslation of the Psalms, Auden, the Psalms, and Me, was recently published (September, 2017) by Church Publishing Incorporated.
J. Chester Johnson has also written about civil rights and race relations. Several of his pieces are part of the J. Chester Johnson Collection in the Civil Rights Archives at Queens College (New York City). He also authored the Litany of Offense and Apology in poetry and prose for the national Day of Repentance (October 4, 2008) when the Episcopal Church formally apologized for its role in slavery and related evils. Born white and reared in one of the country’s most racially segregated regions, Johnson responded against racism in his writings and life experiences; after MLK’s murder, he returned to the town of his youth and taught in the all African-American public school there before integration of the local education system.
Johnson has read his work at Harvard University, the National Cathedral, and on the BBC, among other venues.
J. Chester Johnson, born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, spent his youth in a small town located on the cusp of the Mississippi River Delta in southeast Arkansas. Johnson, who has lived most of his adult life in New York City, is married to Freda Stern Johnson; they have two children. For over three decades, in addition to his writing, Johnson owned and ran a financial advisory firm that concentrated on debt management for states, large local governments, and public authorities; he also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U. S. Treasury Department during the Carter Administration. Johnson was educated at Harvard College and the University of Arkansas (Distinguished Alumnus Award, 2010).
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- Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and A Story of Reconciliation, written by J. Chester Johnson, will be published by Pegasus Books on May 5, 2020. Click here for book cover image and more information.