Charles Johnson has shown exceptional talent in a wide variety of artistic endeavors: cartoonist, novelist, short story writer, essayist, screenwriter, and educator. Johnson, who established an early reputation as a cartoonist, received his undergraduate degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University while working with and under the guidance of novelist John Gardner. He earned a master’s degree in philosophy and a PhD in philosophy and aesthetics from State University of New York–Stony Brook. Johnson joined the faculty at the University of Washington in 1976. In the spring of 2009, Johnson, who had held the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Professorship for Excellence in English and was the former Director of Creative Writing, retired from teaching.
Among his many and varied accomplishments are four novels, Faith and the Good Thing (1974), Oxherding Tale (1982), Middle Passage (1990), and Dreamer (1998); three collections of stories, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1986), Soulcatcher and Other Stories (2001), and Dr. King’s Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories (2007); and works of philosophy and criticism such as Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988), Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (2003), and Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice (2014). In addition, as a cartoonist and journalist in the early 1970s, Johnson published more than a thousand drawings in major publications. He has received an international Prix Jeunesse Award and a Writers Guild Award for his PBS drama Booker (Wonderworks, 1985), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1986), two Washington State Governor’s Awards for Literature, the 1990 National Book Award in fiction for Middle Passage, a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (1998), and the Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2002), as well as numerous other awards and several honorary doctorates. His books have been translated into many languages. A public intellectual for several decades, he is a well-respected artist and author whose work integrates literature, spirituality, race, and philosophy. It would be an understatement to say the interview was engaging; Johnson was thoughtful, energized, animated, and bubbling with spontaneity even after three hours of questions. Our conversation took place at the University of Washington on Thursday, May 5, 2016. —NGN
NGN: Let’s start at the beginning. Could you tell us a little bit about growing up in Evanston, Illinois?
CHARLES JOHNSON: I was born in Evanston on April 23, 1948. April 23, they say, is Shakespeare’s birthday. It was a very interesting time to be growing up in Evanston, which was for many people a model community—a very progressive community. I grew up in the shadow of Northwestern University. I went to a high school that had been integrated since at least the 1930s when my mother went there. It wasn’t a paradise, but people used to call Evanston “heavenston.” It was an easy place to grow up for a kid. In elementary school I got praised and patted on the head most in my art classes. I was always just dying to get to art class because those were the classes where I came alive.
NGN: Where did that love of drawing come from?
CHARLES JOHNSON: It’s just a talent I had. One is born with it; it just needs to be developed by a good teacher, although many artists and cartoonists are self-taught. I remember I had a blackboard that my parents gave me for Christmas—a three-legged blackboard. This was before we moved into our first house. We had an apartment, and I would sit in the kitchen with the blackboard and draw. I would get lost in it. By the time I was finished my knees and the floor would be covered with chalk. There would be this little sliver in my hand because I would draw and then erase—draw and then erase, draw and then erase. I would see things in my mind—in my imagination—and projecting them out there on the page or on the blackboard was like a relief. Nobody could see these images in my head, but once the image is on the canvas, there it is for the entire world to see. I remember I would be playing with my friends and all of a sudden an image would come into my mind. I would stop cold. It would be so powerful. I could see it in front of me. Another kid would say, “What’s the matter with Chuck?” And my best friend Kent would say, “Oh, he’s just thinking.” That probably was the beginning for me—a strong visual imagination as a kid.
Nathaniel G. Nesmith holds an MFA in playwriting and a PhD in theater from Columbia University. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Marymount Manhattan College, City College of New York, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and recently completed his Creating Connections Consortium Postdoctoral Fellowship at Middlebury College. He has published articles in American Theatre, the Dramatist, the Drama Review, the New York Times, Yale Review, African American Review, and other publications.