Johnson, Charles 1948–

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Johnson, Charles 1948–

(Charles Richard Johnson)

PERSONAL: Born April 23, 1948, in Evanston, IL; son of Benjamin Lee and Ruby Elizabeth (Jackson) Johnson; married Joan New (an elementary school teacher), June, 1970; children: Malik, Elizabeth. Ethnicity: Black. Education: Southern Illinois University, B.A., 1971, M.A., 1973; postgraduate work at State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1973–76. Religion: Buddhist.

ADDRESSES: Office—Department of English, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98105.

CAREER: Writer, cartoonist, and educator. Chicago Tribune, Chicago, IL, cartoonist and reporter, 1969–70; St. Louis Proud, St. Louis, MO, member of art staff, 1971–72; University of Washington, Seattle, assistant professor, 1976–79, associate professor, 1979–82, professor of English (Pollock Professor for Excellence in English, the University's first endowed chair in writing), 1982–. Director of Associated Writing Programs Awards Series in Short Fiction, 1979–81, member of board of directors, 1983–.

AWARDS, HONORS: Named journalism alumnus of the year by Southern Illinois University, 1981; Governors Award for Literature from State of Washington, 1983, for Oxherding Tale; Callaloo Creative Writing Award, 1983, for short story "Popper's Disease"; citation in Pushcart Prize's Outstanding Writers section, 1984, for story "China"; Prix Jeunesse Award for the screenplay Booker, 1985; National Book Award, 1990, for Middle Passage; MacArthur Foundation Fellow, 1998; Honorary Ph.D., State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1999; Pacific Northwest Writers Association Achievement Award, 2001.



Faith and the Good Thing, Viking (New York, NY), 1974, reprinted, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2001.

Oxherding Tale, Indiana University Press (Blooming-ton, IN), 1982.

Middle Passage, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1990.

Dreamer, Scribner (New York, NY), 1998.


Black Humor (self-illustrated), Johnson Publishing, 1970.

Half-Past Nation Time (self-illustrated), Aware Press, 1972.

Contributor of cartoons to periodicals, including Ebony, Chicago Tribune, Jet, Black World, and Players.


1970–1980 Charlie's Pad (fifty-two-part series on cartooning), PBS.

Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree, PBS "Visions" series, 1978.

(With John Alman) Booker, PBS, 1983.

Contributor of scripts to numerous television series, including Up and Coming, PBS, 1981, and Y.E.S., Inc., PBS, 1983.


The Sorcerer's Apprentice (short stories), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1986.

Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1988.

Pieces of Eight, Discovery Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1989.

(Author of foreword) Rites of Passage: Stories about Growing up by Black Writers from around the World, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1993.

(Author of introduction) On Writers and Writing, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1994.

(Coeditor) Black Men Speaking, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1997.

(Author of foreword) Northwest Passages, Bruce Bar-cott, Sasquatch Press (Seattle, WA), 1997.

(Coauthor) Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery, Harcourt Brace (San Diego, CA), 1998.

(Coauthor) I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1999.

(Author of foreword) A Treasury of North American Folktales, Norton (New York, NY), 1999.

(Editor, with Yuval Taylor) I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives, Volume 1: 1772–1849, Payback (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1999.

(Coauthor) King: The Photobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Viking (New York, NY), 2000.

(With Jean Toomer and Rudolph P. Byrd) Essentials, LPC Group (Chicago, IL), 2001.

(Editor, with Max Rodriguez and Carol Taylor) Sacred Fire: The QBR 100 Essential Black Books, John Wiley (New York, NY), 2000.

Soulcatcher and Other Stories, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2001.

(Author of introduction) Uncle Tom's Cabin, (150th Anniversary Edition), Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2002.

(Author of foreword) Fredrik Stromberg, Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History, Fantagraphics Books 2003.

Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing, Scribner (New York, NY), 2003.

Dr. King's Refrigerator: And Other Bedtime Stories, Scribner (New York, NY), 2005.

Contributor to Thor's Hammer: Essays on John Gardner, edited by Jeff Henderson, Arkansas Philological Association, 1986. Work represented in anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, 1982, edited by John Gardner and Shannon Ravenel, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1982. Contributor of short stories and essays to periodicals, including Mother Jones, Callaloo, Choice, Indiana Review, Nimrod, Intro 10, Obsidian, and North American Review. Fiction editor of Seattle Review, 1978–.

A special collection of Johnson's papers is held at the University of Delaware Library.

ADAPTATIONS: Middle Passage, Africans in America, and Dreamer have been adapted for audio cassette; John Singleton/ Warner Bros. bought the film rights for Middle Passage in 1997.

SIDELIGHTS: "Charles Johnson has enriched contemporary American fiction as few young writers can," observed Village Voice critic Stanley Crouch, adding that "it is difficult to imagine that such a talented artist will forever miss the big time." A graduate of Southern Illinois University, Johnson studied with the late author John Gardner, under whose guidance he wrote Faith and the Good Thing. Though Johnson had written six "apprentice" novels (the second of which became Middle Passage) prior to his association with Gardner, Faith was the first to be accepted for publication. Johnson once commented that he shares "Gardner's concern with 'moral fiction'" and believes in the "necessity of young (and old) writers working toward becoming technicians of language and literary form."

Faith and the Good Thing met with an enthusiastic response from critics such as Garrett Epps of Washington Post Book World, who judged it "a brilliant first novel" and commended its author as "one of this country's most interesting and inventive younger writers." Roger Sale, writing in the Sewanee Review, had similar praise. He commented: "Johnson, it is clear, is a writer, and if he works too hard at it at times, or if he seems a little too pleased with it at other times, he is twenty-six, and with prose and confidence like his, he can do anything."

The book is a complex, often humorous, folktale account of Faith Cross, a Southern black girl traveling to Chicago in search of life's "Good Thing," which she has learned of from her dying mother. In her quest, noted Time's John Skrow, Faith "seeks guidance from a swamp witch, a withered and warty old necromancer with one green and one yellow eye," who "spouts philosophy as if she were Hegel." Skrow deemed the work a "wry comment on the tension felt by a black intellectual," and Annie Gottleib of the New York Times Book Review called Faith and the Good Thing a "strange and often wonderful hybrid—an ebullient philosophical novel in the form of a folktale-cum-black-girl's odyssey." She noted that the novel's "magic falls flat" on occasion, "when the mix … is too thick with academic in-jokes and erudite references," but she added that "fortunately, such moments are overwhelmed by the poetry and wisdom of the book." In conclusion, Gottleib found the novel "flawed yet still fabulous."

Johnson once described his second novel, Oxherding Tale, as "a modern, comic, philosophical slave narrative—a kind of dramatization of the famous 'Ten Oxherding Pictures' of Zen artist Kakuan-Shien," which represent the progressive search of a young herdsman for his rebellious ox, a symbol for his self. The author added that the novel's style "blends the eighteenth-century English novel with the Eastern parable."

Like his first novel, Johnson's Oxherding Tale received widespread critical acclaim. It details the coming of age of Andrew Hawkins, a young slave in the pre-Civil War South. Andrew is conceived when, after much drinking, plantation owner Jonathan Polkinghorne convinces his black servant, George Hawkins, to swap wives with him for the evening. Unaware that the man sharing her bed is not her husband, Anna Polkinghorne makes love with George and consequently becomes pregnant with Andrew. After the child is born Anna rejects him as a constant reminder of her humiliation, and he is taken in by George's wife, Mattie. Though he is raised in slave quarters, Andrew receives many privileges, including an education from an eccentric tutor who teaches him about Eastern mysticism, socialism, and the philosophies of Plato, Schopenhauer, and Hegel. In an interview with Rob Trucks of TriQuarterly, Johnson pointed out that Oxherding Tale, which he said was very special for him, "threw a lot of people because they didn't know what to do with this book. They didn't understand it. People seem to think ideologically, very often, about Black art, and they have presuppositions in their mind, and all kinds of sociological clichés." He wrote the nonfiction work Being and Race to try and bridge this kind of gap in understanding.

Writing in Literature, Fiction, and the Arts Review, Florella Orowan called Andrew "a man with no social place, caught between the slave world and free white society but, like the hapless hero Tom Jones, he gains from his ambiguous existence the timeless advantage of the Outsider's omniscience and chimerism: he can assume whatever identity is appropriate to the situation." Oxherding Tale accompanies its hero on a series of adventures that include an exotic sexual initiation, an encounter with the pleasures of opium, escape from the plantation, "passing" as white, and eluding a telepathic bounty hunter called the Soulcatcher. As Michael S. Weaver observed in Gargoyle, Andrew "lives his way to freedom through a succession of sudden enlightenments…. Each experience is another layer of insight into human nature" that has "a touch of Johnson's ripe capacity for laughter." The book's climax, noted Crouch, is "remarkable for its brutality and humble tenderness; Andrew must dive into the briar patch of his identity and risk destruction in order to express his humanity."

Weaver admitted that "at times Oxherding Tale reads like a philosophical tract, and may have been more adequately billed as Thus Spake Andrew Hawkins." But he concluded that the novel "is nonetheless an entertaining display of Johnson's working knowledge of the opportunities for wisdom afforded by the interplay between West and East, Black and White, man and woman, feeling and knowing—all of them seeming contradictions." According to Crouch, the novel is successful "because Johnson skillfully avoids melodramatic platitudes while creating suspense and comedy, pathos and nostalgia. In the process, he invents a fresh set of variations on questions about race, sex, and freedom."

In the short-story collection The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Johnson continues to examine spiritual, mystical, and philosophical matters through the essentially realistic filter of historical African-American experience. Magic, however, particularly African voodoo practices, plays an essential role in most of the stories, lending these tales an element of the fantastic "without," as Michael Ventura noted in the New York Times Book Review, "getting lost in fantasy." Johnson's overriding concern in this volume is with transcending the self, examining the importance of, and terror involved in, surrendering to nonrational forces. For example, in the title story, an older former slave in South Carolina—the Sorcerer—tries unsuccessfully to pass his abilities on to a young man born in freedom. He laments the fact that the youth has become too American, too rational, to accept African magic. Johnson writes that "magic did not reside in ratiocination, education, or will. Skill was of no service…. God or creation, or the universe—it had several names—had to seize you, use you, as the Sorcerer said, because it needed a womb, shake you down, speak through you until the pain pearled into a beautiful spell that snapped the world back together." Ventura concluded that "Mr. Johnson's spell of a book comes on with the authority of a classic."

In 1990, Johnson's literary stature was officially recognized when he won the National Book Award for his novel Middle Passage. Set in 1830, the story concerns the newly freed slave Rutherford Calhoun, an ardent womanizer, an admitted liar, and a thief who runs from New Orleans ahead of bill collectors and away from an ill-fated romance. He stows away on a ship, the Republic, that is setting out on a round-trip voyage to Africa where it will fill its hold with slaves. As the novel progresses, the ship's captain is revealed to be a kind of mad genius, the crew is shown to be comprised of a variety of unsavory sea-going types, and the slaves who are eventually transported are—like the Sorcerer in The Sorcerer's Apprentice—members of the (fictional) All-museri tribe of wizards. Middle Passage, like much of Johnson's fiction, relates the many aspects of the African-American experience through a fantastically tinted literary realism. Writing in African American Review, Daniel M. Scott III concluded of Middle Passage: "As Johnson sings the world, he searches experience and perception for the roots of reality and the doorways to transformation. Writing, understood as a mode of thought, is the middle passage, between what has been and what will be, between the word and the world." In answer to Trucks's question, "What do you think the protagonists of your first three novels—Faith Cross (Faith and the Good Thing), Andrew Hawkins (Oxherding Tale), and Rutherford Calhoun (Middle Passage)—have in common?" Johnson replied, "All those characters are seekers, questers (and adventurers). Fredrick T. Griffiths, the critic, rightly calls them 'phenomenologi-cal pilgrims.' He's so right—my characters are adventurers of ideas, truth-seekers (and thus have the philosophical impulse, even when they're not trained philosophers), and hunger for wisdom."

It is not to be wondered at, then, that Johnson's next novel, the Dreamer, is set during Dr. Martin Luther King's 1966 Chicago campaign. Johnson, who has been a teacher for almost half his life, says that he enjoys doing research for his novels, relating to Trucks that "when I wrote Oxherding Tale, I speed-read every book on slavery in the State University of New York at Stony Brook's library, just because I wanted to immerse myself in that, in all the slave narratives. I spent six years just reading stuff on the sea, reading literature on the sea for Middle Passage, everything from Appolonius to Voyage of Argo forward to Conrad. All of Melville I looked at again, nautical dictionaries. Everything about the sea, because I didn't know that stuff." So, of course, "Dreamer embodies a great deal of history and biography." Johnson continued, "All of '92 I just was reading King. I was going off to do promotion for Middle Passage, lectures and stuff, and I would take the King books with me, so it was all going on continuously. I was accumulating…. sort of gathering things … on the Civil Rights movement. Letting all of that stuff come together until I was ready to write, and the first thing I was ready to write was the Prologue."

Calling the novel a "gospel," Johnson said of King, "He really was a philosopher. In the past, you know, I might have a problem I'm writing about and I'd ask, What would Kant have to say about this or What would Hegel say?, but now it's pretty easy for me to say, What would King say about this? I have a sense now," a statement that solves the question John Seymour of the Nation asked: "How does Johnson do it? How does he handle, with insight and sympathy, the Reverend Doctor's torment over the value of the risks he takes for the Movement's sake? Or the cost in time missed with his wife and children?"

Dreamer focuses on the last few months of King's life. As Seymour described, "It is the summer of 1966. More to the point, it is one of those long, hot summers that leave a trail of smoldering ashes, shattered nerves and broken lives in cities throughout the decade. A sad but dauntless Martin Luther King, Jr. is marooned in Chicago, struggling to forge strategy for social transcendence as all around him sirens roar, windows explode, contradictions surface, hope dies." In the midst of the violence, a man who looks so like him as to be a double is brought to his room and offers to stand in for him in dangerous situations. King tells his friends to take to a safe house Chaym Smith and teach him about the Movement. The complicated relationship in which more than physical appearances elide between the two men proceeds through the book, without satisfying the reader with neatly tied-up ends.

Seymour commented that Johnson grabs hold of situations where he can explore "the various ways one can be. Not just be black or white or even American. Just be." "In engaging King's ghost," Seymour continued, "Johnson sets himself up for more ferocious versions of the tut-tuts he caught in some quarters for his antic spins on slave narratives. He raises the stakes in Dreamer not only by presuming to enter the mind and heart of a martyred icon but by imposing a Prince-and-the-Pauper thriller motif to explore what it meant—still means—to lead, to follow, to seek a path to freedom."

Continuing his search for like answers, The Soulcatcher and Other Stories was published in 2001. Judy Light-foot in the Seattle Times described it as a peaceful work, despite the fact that it is about experiences under slavery: "Johnson's tales vary widely in technique. Characters are black and white, male and female, old and young, mute and eloquent, enslaved and elite; and the genres include dramatic monologues, personal letters, diary entries, and traditional omniscient storytelling. Yet something gently draws this diversity into harmony. It might be called a spirit of good will—a curious phrase, perhaps, for a book about slavery. But although Johnson faces history's horrors squarely, and his characters have righteously indignant moments, his book transcends indignation and blame."

Aside from the fiction, Johnson has coedited and coauthored several works, including Black Men Speaking, a volume of voices from all walks of life, Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery, I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson, and King: The Photobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. James R. Kuhlman in Library Journal described Johnson's 2003 book, Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing, as "an uncommon and useful overview of black American involvement in Buddhism." Although Seattle Times reviewer Kari Wergeland experienced the essays as scattered over a wider terrain and somewhat heavyhanded and uneven, she did conclude, "However, Johnson is a true renaissance man. His judicious knowledge of philosophy, history, literature, science, and other disciplines shines through all of his essays. He is a compassionate critic, and his pieces on novels such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (a masterpiece which should get more attention in our universities), and Sinclair Lewis's Kingsblood Royal offer plenty of grist for the mill."

Johnson told CA: "As a writer I am committed to the development of what one might call a genuinely systematic philosophical black American literature, a body of work that explores classical problems and metaphysi-cal questions against the background of black American life. Specifically, my philosophical style is phenomenology, the discipline of Edmund Husserl, but I also have a deep personal interest in the entire continuum of Asian philosophy from the Vedas to Zen, and this perspective inevitably colors my fiction to some degree.

"I have been a martial artist since the age nineteen and a practicing Buddhist since about 1980. So one might also say that in fiction I attempt to interface Eastern and Western philosophical traditions, always with the hope that some new perception of experience—especially 'black experience'—will emerge from these meditations."



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University of Washington Showcase, (March 12, 2004), "Charles Johnson: National Book Award Winner."

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