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Johnson, Charles(1948–) - Chronology, Begins Serious Writings, Draws Cartoons

black novel stories award

1948

Born in Evanston, Illinois on April 23

1967

Works as political cartoonist for The Southern Illinoisian

1968

Interns for The Chicago Tribun

1969

Works as teaching assistant, Southern Illinois University

1970

Marries Joan New

1970–84

Broadcasts Charlie’s Pad , a 52-part series on PBS

1973

Receives M.A. in philosophy from Southern Illinois University

1977

Works as assistant professor at the University of Washington in Seattle

1978

“Charlie Smith and the Fritter-Tree” televised on PBS

1981

Named journalism alumnus of the year by Southern Illinois University; promoted to associate professor at the University of Washington

1982

Promoted to professor at the University of Washington

1983

Receives Governor’s Award for Literature from the State of Washington; wins Callaloo Creative Writing Award for short story “Popper’s Disease”

1984

Receives a citation in Pushcart Prize’s Outstanding Writers section for short story “China”; receives Black Filmmaker’s Festival Award for PBS film “Booker”; receives “Best Film in the Social Studies Category,” National Education Film Festival for PBS film “Booker”

1985

Receives the Prix Jeunesse Award for the screenplay “Booker”

1988

Receives Ph.D. in philosophy from State University of New York at Stoney Brook, New York

1990

Wins National Book Award for Middle Passage ; holds the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Professorship for Excellence in English

1998

Named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow

1999

Awarded honorary doctorate from State University of New York at Stoney Brook

2000

Receives the Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award from the Corporate Council for the Arts

2001

Receives the 2001 Pacific Northwest Writers Associations’ Achievement Award

2002

Receives the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature

Begins Serious Writings

Johnson began seriously writing novels to fill the void he saw in black literature; there were in his estimation very few writers creating black philosophical fiction. In his view, the black writers of philosophical fiction were Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and later Albert Murray. These were the only black writers who recognized the connection between fiction and philosophy. Johnson’s writing is informed by his training in philosophy, martial arts, and Buddhism. His stories are filled with layers that come from character names and allusions to history, philosophical systems, philosophers, and literary works and artists, both Eastern and Western. The central philosophy in his fiction is phenomenology, which is developed in Middle Passage and expressed by the fictional tribe, the Allmuseri. In an interview with Michael Boccia of African American Review , Johnson stated the central theme in his opus “is the investigation of the nature of the self and personal identity.”

Johnson challenges the reader to be open to new possibilities, to be engaged by the work and to stretch. He demands no less of himself or his craft. One indication of this is that he set himself to learning Sanskrit by studying the holy texts of Hinduism and Adaita Vedanta in the original Devanagari script with a Vedic priest.

Draws Cartoons

At the age of fourteen, Johnson informed his parents he was going to be an illustrator and cartoonist. By age seventeen, he had earned his first professional paycheck from a Chicago company which sold magic tricks and bought six of his drawings to use in their catalog. He spent the next seven years studying with Lawrence Lariar (cartoonist for the Parade magazine in the 1960s, editor of the annual Best Cartoons of the Year , and author of over one hundred books). He won two awards in national high school competitions sponsored by journalism organizations for cartoonists. Johnson published over one thousand drawings in such diverse publications as Black World and the Chicago Tribune and scripted for Charlton comic books.

Johnson says it was a public reading given by Amiri Baraka in which he called on black people to “take [their] talent back to the community” which moved him to focus his cartooning and illustrating on the history and culture of black America. He began to research and draw; at the end of seven days, he had created a collection of comic art entitled Black Humor which was published in 1970. This was followed in 1972 by Half-Past Nation Time . The cartooning led Johnson to television work.

Johnson has not given up his cartooning or illustrating. He drew a regular cartoon feature “LitCrits” for Quarterly Black Review ; a two-page comic strip on Bruce Lee for Seattle Laughs (1994); regular cartoon feature “Literarte” for Literal Latte ; regular cartoon feature for Black Issues in Higher Education ; and seven Zen cartoons for Buddha Laughing (1999). In the early 2000s, he still liked to draw and accepted assignments.

Cartooning led Johnson to creating, hosting, and co-producing an early PBS show, Charlie’s Pad , a fifty-two part series on cartooning and how to draw. His “Charlie Smith and the Fritter-Tree,” a 90-minute fictionalized biography of Charlie Smith, the oldest living American, was written for PBS in 1978. He wrote “Booker,” another PBS program. It won the international youth prize Prix Jeunesse Award and the Writers’ Guild Award for “outstanding script in the television category of children’s shows.” “Booker” was released for home video in 1996. In 1992, Johnson wrote a screenplay, Tuskegee Men for Columbia Pictures. In all, Johnson has written over twenty screen- and teleplays and has had his own works optioned. He was working on a movie project based on Middle Passage for which he had written two screenplays; it has been optioned three times.

Charles Johnson has contributed to, written, and co-edited numerous books. He wrote the introduction or preface to the commemorative edition of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man ; Mark Twain’s What Is Man? ; the preface essay entitled “A Capsule History of Blacks in Comics” for Roland and Teneshia Laird’s Still I Rise ; “On the Nature of Tales,” preface for A Treasury of North American Folktales edited by Catherine Peck; a statement on fiction in Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Writers , edited by Jewell Parker Rhodes; and the introduction to On Writers and Writing by John Gardner.

Johnson and John McCluskey Jr. co-edited Black Men Speaking (1997) in which eleven men discuss race, racism, and values. Included is a wide range of men who talk about the way they see themselves and their experiences in a variety of forms. Speakers include Don Belton, Yusef Komunyakka, Ellis Marsalis, Joseph Scott, and both Johnson and McCluskey. Johnson and Rudolph P. Byrd have edited I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson (1999). It provides an overview of Johnson’s opus, including examples of his writings and cartoons, and ends with eight critical articles.

Johnson’s Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988) is his doctoral dissertation, which became a book and is “devoted to the creation of a phenomenological aesthetic for black fiction.” He examines the works and artists of black literature from the position of philosophy and ideology. In this text, he criticizes black women writers, especially Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. He sees them as limiting their work to criticism of social problems. In a later nonfiction text, Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (2003), Johnson explores connections between Buddhism and creativity, discusses the role of Eastern philosophy in the quest for a free and thoughtful life, links Martin Luther King Jr. and W. E. B. Du Bois with Buddhism, and looks at basic Buddhist principles and practices. He sees the “Buddhist dharma as the most revolutionary and most civilized of possible human choices.” He links Buddhist practices with the civil rights movement.

Johnson wrote six apprentice novels before he began to write seriously. These novels were naturalistic, in the style of those writers he was reading at the time, such as James Baldwin, John A. Williams, and Richard Wright. He says these were easy for him to write, but they did not express his vision or purpose: to expand the body of philosophical fiction by black writers. Once he was clear on his purpose, to write out of a philosophical sensibility, he wrote his seventh novel, the first to be published, Faith and the Good Thing .

Faith and the Good Thing (1974), the novel he was working on when he met John Gardner, necessitated his reading over seventy books on magic as a part of his research. At this point in his writing career, he was still trying to work out how to use philosophy and philosophers in the fictional form. Thus, the philosophy is not as smoothly fused as in his later novels. Faith and the Good Thing is a folktale which recounts the quest of Faith Cross for the “good thing.” She travels from the South to Chicago and home again. The novel is rife with philosophical speeches, myths, folk material, and allusions. In 1995, Faith and the Good Thing was adapted by Keli Garrett and staged as a play by the City Lit Theater and Chicago Theater Company (March 16-April 20) and by the Chicago Theater Company (April 21-May 28).

His second novel, Oxherding Tale (1982), took five years to write; Johnson received the 1983 Washington State Governor’s Award for this novel. In preparation for the writing of this novel, Johnson read many books on slavery. The novel uses myths, folk material, allusions, philosophy, and history to tell a complex slave narrative and coming of age story set in the antebellum South. One night Jonathan Polkinghome, a plantation owner, and his man-servant, George Hawkins, were drinking to excess. Neither wanted to face his wife, so they agreed to swap wives for the night. The result was the impregnating of Anna Polkinghome and the birth of Andrew Hawkins. Anna refuses to acknowledge the child; therefore, he is raised by Mattie Hawkins, George’s wife. He receives a privileged education, one which exposes him to Eastern mysticism, Plato, Schopenhauer, and other philosophers. Johnson says this novel deals with many forms of slavery—psychological, sexual, and metaphysical. This novel, like his first, includes a quest. According to Johnson, the catalyst for this novel was the “Ten Oxherding Pictures” of Zen artist Kakuan-Shien which he had viewed as a child.

Johnson calls his third novel, Middle Passage (1990), a “classical sea story.” It grew out of the second of his apprentice novels. Johnson read seafaring works and material on the sea, even nautical dictionaries, along with the fiction of Melville and Conrad. In the novel, there are allusions to Moby Dick, The Odyssey , and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In this novel, the fictional tribe the Allmuseri, which had been mentioned in earlier works (“The Education of Mingo” and Oxherding Tale ), is fully developed. This is the story of Rutherford Calhoun, who in 1830 was a recently freed slave and rogue. In a desperate attempt to escape creditors and marriage, he hops the first boat leaving New Orleans. Calhoun discovers this boat, The Republic , is a slaver on its way to bring back African slaves, the Allmuseri. For this work, Johnson received the 1990 National Book Award in fiction and the Northwest Booksellers Award; in 1991, the book was nominated for the Florentine Literary International Prize “Chianti Ruffino Antico Fattore.”

In 1998, Johnson’s fourth novel, Dreamer , was published. Its focus is the last years of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. In his research, Johnson came to see King as both a civil rights leader and a philosopher. He says it is necessary for people to demythologize King in order to understand what he actually had to say. King spoke about the oneness of life and the potential unity of mankind. The novel has a King look-alike, Chaym Smith, who was not raised as King was, but has the same physical features and training in religion and philosophy. Johnson explores the nature of the self and what forces shape man. In 1999, the novel was selected as a New York Times Book Review “Notable Book of the Year” and in 2000 as second book in the Kansas City Star ’s Book Club.

Johnson’s first three short stories were published in 1967. His stories appear in such works as Breaking Ice, Calling the Wind, O. Henry Prize Stories , and Best Short Stories of the Eighties . His first collection of short stories, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Tales and Conjurations (1986) contains eight stories which address African American history and the magical. “The Education of Mingo,” the first story and one frequently anthologized, explores the master-slave relationship and asks the question, Who is the slave? The story alludes to Aristotle and Frankenstein . The story has been called an antebellum parable about education and slavery and a twentieth-century Frankenstein story. Like his other works, this one is multilayered.

Soulcatcher and Other Stories (2001), his second collection, contains twelve stories that grew out of a television series entitled “Africans in America” which aired on PBS in 1998. The stories represent moments occurring in the historical span of time from the slave trade to the Civil War. Each of the stories is in a different literary form, including the epistolary, dramatic monologue, fairy tale, and newspaper article. Historical events such as the Plague, Back-to-Africa debate, and the American Revolution, and historical figures such as Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Richard Allan, and Martha Washington are highlighted. The work begins with “The Transmission,” which describes the Middle Passage and the passing on of history (the griot in the story) to remind the enslaved that they must continue to record history and ends with “Murderous Thoughts.” This story brings the work full circle with the words, “One of the most important things we can do young man, is never forget.”

In 2005, Johnson’s third collection Dr. King’s Refrigerator, and Other Bedtime Stories , which contains nine stories, appeared. The title story shows a pre-Montgomery King thinking about a sermon topic and being reminded of the interdependence of things. “Kwoon,” which was selected for the 1993 O. Henry Prize Stories , has martial arts as its subject. Included also are “Sweet Dreams,” a world where dreams are taxed and a man and his dreams are being audited; “The Gift of Osuo,” and “Cultural Relativity,” a fairy tale. The short stories, like his longer works and interviews, reflect Johnson’s philosophical training, his concern with the human condition (how it can be improved and understood), and his use of allusions to both Western and Eastern culture.

Johnson, Clark (1954–) [next] [back] Johnson, Betsey

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