Charles R. Johnson (born 1948 in Evanston, Illinois) is an American scholar and author of novels, short stories, and essays. Johnson, an African-American, has directly addressed the issues of black life in America in novels such as Middle Passage and Dreamer.
Johnson first came to prominence in the 1960s as a political cartoonist, at which time he was also involved in radical politics. In 1970, he published a collection of cartoons, and this led to a television series about cartooning on PBS. Johnson's first novel, Faith and the Good Thing was published in 1974. In 1990, he was awarded the National Book Award for Middle Passage.
In 1977, Johnson became a Buddhist.
Johnson's mentor, early in his writing career, was the writer John Gardner. In an interview, Johnson wrote, of Gardner:
"Gardner, as I’ve said often, was the hardest-working writer I’ve ever known in my life. “Writing is the only religion I have,” he once said, and this was true. He was prolific, innovative, learned (a scholar of medieval literature ), radically independent, a translator who said he knew twelve languages, a poet, librettist, novelist, short story writer, a composer of scripts for radio and films, a critic and literary scholar, player of the French horn: a true cornucopia of creativity. He could write for 72-hour stretches without sleep. But, no, he was not a gifted storyteller, as he would have admitted. His most enduring novel is Grendel, which is, of course, derived from the story we receive from the Beowulf poet. But he was an American philosophical writer, like Saul Bellow.
Johnson is currently the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Endowed Professor of English at the University of Washington, and is a MacArthur Fellow. He is also the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2003 he published Turning the Wheel, a collections of essays about his experiences as an African-American Buddhist.
In the updated 1995 introduction to his novel Oxherding Tale, Johnson engendered a political firestorm when he seemed to criticize Alice Walker's The Color Purple for its negative portrayal of African-American males. Quoth Johnson: "I leave it to readers to decide which book pushes harder at the boundaries of convention, and inhabits most confidently the space where fiction and philosophy meet." Such candor and criticism came as a shock to some in academia, who felt Johnson violated an unspoken taboo against criticizing another writer of color.
In a 2007 interview, Johnson described the controversy this way:
"I’ve met Alice Walker. We met in the ‘70s at a New York book party for her novel Meridian. While I have artistic and intellectual problems with The Color Purple, I think the author is addressing a legitimate problem: namely, the pain many black women have felt, historically, from not being able to rely on their men being men (reliable, supportive, there to help raise the babies they make) in a society and culture that since the 17th century has tried to emasculate black men. (See my discussion of her novel in Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970). Walker has never said anything to me about that statement in the preface to Oxherding Tale. But there are, I know, some black (and white) feminists who probably hate me, but that’s their problem, not mine. (As a buddy of mine always says, “Hate kills its host first.”)
In an online interview, Johnson described his beliefs and American Buddhism this way:
"Buddhism was really unknown to the general public in the West before World War II. After the 40s, when American black and white soldiers came back with Buddhist wives, and the first teachers (Suzuki was huge back then) came to these shores, Zen Buddhism flourished among artists and so-called hip people, like the Beats. But they misunderstood a very great deal...The steps on the Eightfold Path are nothing like the Ten Commandments. Buddhists never command anything. We have no interest in imposing our will on others. Like the precepts, the Eightfold Path offers a blueprint for ethical living that leads to awakening or nirvana (The word suggests to blow out the illusory sense of self, nir meaning “out” and vana “to blow”.) The Buddha made it clear that we are not to accept the Four Noble Truths or Eightfold Path on his (or any) authority. Rather, we are to confirm (or deny) their truth in the depths of our own experience, and proceed from there, adapting the Eightfold Path to our own experiences, time and place. No two people arrive at awakening on the same path.
In that same interview, Johnson said this of race and racism in America, and white views of blacks:
"During the age of slavery, then the era of Jim Crow segregation, when whites separated themselves from blacks, they needed a black individual to tell them what black people thought, desired, needed, etc. (How else were they going to find out?) Often that person was the black community’s minister; later writers served that purpose, from Richard Wright to Ralph Ellison to James Baldwin. I personally think in the post-Civil Rights period a black person is wasting his (or her) time, the preciously few years of their lives, by devoting their energy---as a “spokesman”--- to explaining so-called “black” things to white people. Whites can---and should---do their own homework. Read from the vast library of books on black American history and culture. Take a course, for God’s sake, on some aspect of black history. Then black individuals can be free to pursue the whole, vast universe that awaits their discovery (as it does for any white person), leaving behind emotionally draining racial discussions to investigate astrophysics, DNA sequencing, cosmology, Sanskrit, the Buddhadharma, mathematics, nano-technology, everything in this universe that remains such a mystery to us.
Johnson described his working methods this way:
"I’ve kept writer’s workbooks since around 1972. They fill up a whole shelf in my study. Almost every day I’m recording a thought or image on the pages of my current workbook for future use. The workbooks, as I see them, are a memory aide. When I revise a story or novel, I go through all those workbooks to see if there is an image or idea that I might have had, say, thirty years ago that is useful for an in-progress fiction or essay. It takes me about eight hours (at least) to tramp through all those workbooks when I’m in the final stages of revision. I do the same with old drafts of novels. For one of the six novels I wrote between 1970 and 1972, I did research to describe a character using heroin. When writing Dreamer, I dug up those old pages and used the details for my character Chaym Smith, the fictitious double for Martin Luther King Jr.
He also stated this about the necessity of rewriting:
"Writing itself is the best teacher of writing, so a young or old writer must learn that, if necessary, his ratio of throwaway to keep pages might turn out to be 20 to 1. (90% of good writing, as the saying goes, is rewriting.