Charles Johnson walks into the Faire Gallery & Café on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, deceptively low-key for one of America’s pre-eminent men of letters. At the cozy café, owned by his daughter, Elisheba, Johnson asks for “my usual,” a large cup of coffee with two Splendas. It’s a good place from which to look at his adopted city, and to consider the culture and the kindred people whose literary exploration by the author and scholar has lifted him to great heights.
For four decades, Johnson has wrestled with subtleties and nuances of the African-American experience in novels, essays, reviews and screenplays that have ventured outside the comfortable frames of much of contemporary black writing. For much of that time, he’s also been a professor in the English department at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Johnson, 61, retired from the university in August, the recipient of a shower of new accolades (previous ones have included the coveted MacArthur “genius” grant in 1998). He’s now preparing the next act in a crowded life and career, not a time to rest on his considerable laurels, but to build on them.
There’s a new book on philosophy co-written by Johnson and Marymount philosophy professor Michael Boylan. And Johnson’s celebrated novel Middle Passage is on its way to a transformation into a graphic novel from DC Comics; the author said film director Reginald Hudlin and award-winning artist Denys Cowan are working from a Johnson screenplay of the novel, which won the National Book Award in 1990.
One of his bigger, more tantalizing challenges may be writing a stage adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s celebrated novel Invisible Man— unwieldy, impressionistic, imagistic and one of the Everests of American literature. Johnson is breaking ground on what could be a production for Intiman Theatre’s “American Cycle” series tentatively set for 2011.
And Johnson, the intellectual, observes the challenges facing fiction in general, and black literary fiction in particular, in an era of salacious potboilers and thug-life tracts—as well as the rising impact of the Internet and its potential for changing the popular relationship with the printed word.
Johnson’s allegiance to Ellison as mentor and touchstone is a long one. In Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ellison, the author noted that when Johnson won the 1990 National Book Award, “his acceptance speech seemed to be one long tribute to Ralph. Johnson’s gesture moved Ralph almost to tears.”
For David Remnick of The New Yorker, writing in a tribute piece after Ellison’s death in 1994, Invisible Man is “one of the ur-texts for a loose coalition of black American intellectuals who represent an integrationist vision of the country’s history and culture.” Naming names, Remnick included Johnson in that coalition.
With literally dozens of books and hundreds of reviews, essays and short stories; sprinting from fiction to nonfiction, from theater to film, Johnson has displayed breathtaking scope in a body of work by turns scholarly and streetwise.
In Seattle, the city that still resonates for him 33 years after he moved there to pursue his career, the author sat for an interview:
The Root: What do you see happening in black fiction that gives you hope? And what do you see happening that gives you … pause?
Charles Johnson: I'm presently very delighted to see the aesthetic diversity among contemporary black, literary fiction writers, people like Victor LaValle, Shayla Hawkins, Colson Whitehead and Caryl Phillips. They follow their own intellectual and artistic lights, and they are skillful in their craft. What gives me pause, however, is the lack of those virtues in more pop forms of black fiction such as ghetto-lit and street-lit, which are clumsily conceived and executed, and devoted to dysteleological elements in black life.
TR: Late in his life, Norman Mailer observed, “I think the novel is on the way out.” Was that just a literary lion letting off steam, or a nod to how the storytelling process has changed in the Internet age?
CJ: I read an excerpt of what the late Mr. Mailer said at the National Book Award ceremony when he was given a lifetime achievement award. He said he felt as if he was creating for the horse-and-buggy era in an age of automobiles. So, yes, on his gloomier days perhaps he thought the novel was obsolete. The problem with his statement is that people have been predicting the death of the novel for a couple of hundred years now, and the novel as a form always comes roaring back to life. I think it's important to remember that the novel, which in the West most critics date back to the 18th century when Samuel Richardson published his “novel of character,” Pamela, in 1739, and Daniel Defoe his “novel of incident” Robinson Crusoe in 1719, is but one among many historical forms of narrative that we employ for storytelling—each form has its strengths and weaknesses. As long as we delight in the particular things only novels can do, that form will endure.
TR: Back in August you told the Seattle Times, “Today, our writers tend to write for a particular race, class or gender audience.” Is that an issue for black writers or for writers in general?
CJ: In our time, this is a problem for all American writers: How do we portray the racial, cultural, gender and class Other? It's very important that we make this attempt given our goal of truly becoming a multicultural society and no longer a strictly Eurocentric one. Yet I recently read that 85 percent of white Americans live in basically white communities. They don’t live close by a racial or cultural Other. Gated communities are another form of segregation. This leads to a kind of provincialism and parochialism. If you’re going to write about somebody different than yourself, you take a great risk. Because you have to be empathetic toward other people and try to understand them in their terms, not in terms of your ideas of what they are and what they might like. You have to give up your own ego, and that’s a challenge for any writer.
TR: What effect did Ralph Ellison have on you as a young writer? Why is Ellison your touchstone, your yardstick?
CJ: The only national prize I ever wanted was the National Book Award because Ellison got it. I trace my lineage as a philosophical writer to three writers: Ralph Ellison; Richard Wright, who really was a genius; and Jean Toomer, whom I think bridges 19th-century transcendentalism with the 20th-century encounter by Americans with Eastern philosophy. Ellison’s book—I’ve gone back and forth about it in my writing over the decades. … Ellison is extremely useful to us for large cultural reasons that go even beyond this book. [He observed that] what fuels our lives is integration, as opposed to separatism. What’s at the heart of what Ellison is saying is a truth that’s true of every culture that I believe has ever existed: that our lives interpenetrate. There’s a subtlety to Ellison’s thought about race integration and culture that is hard to find in many other places.
TR: Invisible Man is a sequoia of American literature, and one of the more impressionistic signal works of the canon. What challenges do you envision in putting this work in a theatrical context? Can you say much about the project?
CJ: I think it’s going to be an interesting project when we actually start working on it. The Intiman is still putting its proposal before the board of the Ellison Foundation. We’re still in the early stages of getting the thing locked away.
TR: There’s an increasingly vocal argument being made that it’s time for HBCUs to move to being part of more mainstream colleges, both as a cost-savings measure and as an academic reinforcement of America’s sense of racial inclusion. What’s your take?
CJ: Those schools served such a necessary purpose, obviously, in the era of segregation, when black people couldn’t go to other schools. I would imagine they have much of what the NAACP has now, which is an identity crisis. We’re 40 years into the post-civil rights era, and admitting students other than black was a way of acknowledging ‘e pluribus unum.’ But by the same token, there’s probably a culture that serves black people in historically black schools. And they don’t want to lose that, because it was at the core of shaping black generations.
TR: And what’s your sense of the NAACP’s identity today?
CJ: When we have the first black president of the United States of America, who is sworn to serve all people, it’s a whole different cultural moment. The NAACP and some of the other organizations … I’m not going to say they’re locked in the past, but I will say that their hour of necessity is not the same as it was in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
We [black people] have internal questions that must be addressed. I think those are properly the territory of the NAACP, the Urban League and all of our organizations. We’re looking at two black Americas right now. We have black people who are billionaires. Oprah Winfrey has her own network. We have black people all over every area you can conceivably think of. At the same time, we have these egregious situations, a lot of which focus on black males. Black male culture catches up to many kids by the time they’re 8 years old. There’s a lot of cleaning up we have to do in the 21st century if we wish to survive competitively as a people in a global, knowledge-based economy. We’re not just competing with white people in America anymore. We’re competing with people in India and China for jobs. There’s an awful lot that has to be done, and it’s all about education. It’s an interesting moment.
TR: Your affinity for Seattle is well-known. What is it about this place that still moves you?
CJ: The freedom. Jonathan Raban, a writer here in Seattle from England, did an essay on Seattle with a line that’s very true for any immigrant coming here. He said if you go to other cities, you have to learn the school rules. New York has ‘em; Chicago has ‘em; L.A. has ‘em. You conform to the city, or you don’t survive in it. In Seattle, there are no school rules. You come here, he said, and you can arrange the city like pillows on a couch. That was my experience when I came to Seattle in 1976. There was a freedom here, nobody messed with anybody else. There was no particular way of life imposed on people in terms of attitude or dress. … It’s a very progressive city. It’s this little shining city that to me is like a less expensive version of San Francisco, another city that I like. Both have much of the same composition: black people, white people, Asians in both, here we have Native Americans, and influences of all of those impact on the region.
TR: Can we expect a new Charles Johnson novel any time soon?
CJ: I don’t know how soon ‘soon’ is. I’ll be working with [science-fiction writer and lecturer] Steven Barnes in collaborating on a sci-fi novel. But my next novel, not the collaboration … I already know what the theme is. I just want the right story to embody that theme. Every one of my novels has a central question. In Middle Passage, the question is ‘where’s home?’ In Dreamer, the central question is, ‘how do you end evil without engendering new evil?’ The central question for the novel that I’m preparing myself for is, ‘what does it mean to be civilized?’ That’s the question that’s the most pressing on me for the last 10 years. I think some days that we’ve entered into a period of cultural decadence, just like the ancient Greeks after the Peloponnesian War and just like the Romans. I want to know, what are those things that lead to civilized life and civility? I think about it every day. I take notes on it every day. That’s what my next novel’s going to be.
Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root. American Bandwidth, his latest book of essays on popular culture, race matters and politics, was published in October.