The Grand Finale in James Weldon Johnson’s ‘Go Down, Death’

A black church service in Heard County, Georgia, April 1941 (Jack Delano / Farm Security Administration / The New York Public Library )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In 1927, the year before my grandmother was born, James Weldon Johnson published a book of poems with the intent of preserving the oral tradition of old-time black preachers. Johnson wrote that he wanted to capture the “tempo of the preacher” without using black dialect––the resulting collection, God’s Trombones, mimics the soulful intonations of a sermon, but within the confines of verse.

This rings true in the poem “Go Down, Death,” in which God commands Death “to find Sister Caroline.” Subtitled “A Funeral Sermon,” the poem begins with the narrator, an old-time preacher, consoling the family members of Sister Caroline, assuring them that she is not dead, but simply “resting in the bosom of Jesus.”

The next several stanzas mark a dramatic shift in tone: Johnson portrays a conversation between God and Death with the high drama and ethereal imagery of a Baroque painting, with Death riding his white horse out of the “shadowy place” and through the Deep South to claim sweet old Ms. Caroline.

I like this poem because it gives dignity and gravity to the life (and death) of Sister Caroline, who would otherwise go quietly and faintly. That Death would ride up “the golden street” through the syrupy heat of Georgia to find her shows that no matter the humble conditions one endures in life, everybody achieves the grand finality of an end:

And God said: Go down, Death, go down,
Go down to Savannah, Georgia,
Down in Yamacraw,
And find Sister Caroline.
She’s borne the burden and heat of the day,
She’s labored long in my vineyard,
And she’s tired—
She’s weary —
Go down, Death, and bring her to me.

Johnson’s poem reminds me of the tradition in which I was raised. His invocation of Jesus whips me back to when my Mississippi-born grandmother, who would have turned 89 this month, embraced the words of these folk sermons: “Take your rest, / Take your rest.” And it reminds me how I also found solace in them:

Weep not––weep not,
She is not dead;
She’s resting in the bosom of Jesus.