Dr. Charles Johnson is a prolific writer, lifelong educator, significant visual artist, and philosopher who shines a light on American culture.
Johnson, whose balance of philosophy and folklore has been praised since the publication of his first novel in 1974, gained prominence when his novel “Middle Passage” won the National Book Award in 1990 — the first time such an award was given to an African American male since Ralph Ellison in 1953. "Middle Passage" now has over 100,000 copies in print.
Like his other works of fiction, “Middle Passage” embodies Johnson’s unique approach to the creation of black literature, defined as “a fiction of increasing artistic and intellectual growth, one that enables us as people—as a culture—to move from narrow complaint to broad celebration.”
Born in Evanston, Illinois, Johnson began his career as a cartoonist and illustrator. After studying with cartoonist Lawrence Lariar, he began publishing stories and comic art at the age of seventeen years old. His two collections of political cartoons, "Black Humor" and "Half-Past Nation Time," published as he was completing his bachelor's degree in journalism, were acclaimed for their subtle but pointed satire of race relations, and their success led to Charlie’s Pad, a 1970 how-to-draw series on public television that Johnson created, co-produced, and hosted.
A Ph.D. in philosophy, and a practicing Buddhist who specialized in phenomenology, aesthetics, and eastern thought, Johnson published in 1974 his first novel, “Faith and the Good Thing.” Since then he has authored 17 books, more than 20 screenplays, 1000 drawings, and numerous essays, articles, short stories, literary reviews and works of criticism. He has also worked as an editor, cartoonist, journalist and until his retirement in 2009 after 33 years of teaching was a very popular professor at the University of Washington. UW's former president William Gerberding called Johnson a teacher “of deep learning, aesthetic depth, and sterling reputation.” He is presently serving as chair of the fiction judges panel for the 1999 National Book Awards, and on the three-person fiction judges panel for the 2010 Pulitzer prize in fiction, his third time serving as a judge for both national prizes.
Johnson’s work is known for being complex and challenging, for exploring the most probing philosophical issues of our time. He challenges the assumptions and beliefs of his readers and refuses all simplifications of the complexity of American reality, whether in terms of race, gender, history, politics, or religion. His ultimate goal is articulating the broader view of the human experience that transcends race.
Johnson is the recipient of many awards, including NEA and Guggenheim fellowships, a Writers Guild Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, and many others. His novel “Middle Passage” has just been leased by D.C. Comics to become a graphic novel in the near future. Additionally, Johnson’s work is the focus of a new book by Dr. Linda Selzer from Penn State. The book, titled “Charles Johnson in Context,” takes an interdisciplinary approach to Johnson's major fiction, providing fresh insight into his work by placing it within a broad historical context---that of black philosophers, black Buddhists, and black public intellectuals.
Johnson reads for the American Book Review in January, 2010.
An American Book Review interview with Johnson
From the Publishers Weekly:
Calhoun, a newly freed slave, accidentally boards a slave ship bound for Africa with a tyrannical, philosophizing captain and his rowdy, mutinous crew. "Blending confessional, ship's log and adventure, the narrative interweaves a disquisition on slavery, poverty, race relations and an African worldview at odds with Western materialism," said PW of this National Book Award-winner . "In luxuriant, intoxicating prose Johnson makes the agonized past a prism looking onto a tense present."
Dreamer, A Novel
From the Publishers Weekly:
Considering the incandescent power of his personality and the high drama of his later years, it is surprising that Martin Luther King Jr. has not inspired more fiction. It is a gap that Johnson, author of the National Book Award-winning Middle Passage, aims to fill with this novel, whose passages of heightened reportage alternate with scenes in which invented characters interrelate with the civil rights leader. Narrating is young Matthew Bishop, an earnest if somewhat nerdy acolyte who, one day during the terrible 1966 summer riots in Chicago, brings to King a man who looks exactly like him.
About the Book:
One night in the antebellum South, a slave owner and his African-American butler stay up to all hours until, too drunk to face their wives, they switch places in each other's beds. The result is a hilarious imbroglio and an offspring -- Andrew Hawkins, whose life becomes Oxherding Tale.
Through sexual escapades, picaresque adventures, and philosophical inquiry, Hawkins navigates white and black worlds and comments wryly on human nature along the way. Told with pure genius, Oxherding Tale is a deliciously funny, bitterly ironic account of slavery, racism, and the human spirit; and it reveals the author as a great talent with even greater humanity.
For more information on giving to the Library contact the Tylerr Ropp, Senior Director of Development, at tropp@OSUgiving.com or 405-385-5664.