Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Common sense tells us that writers and artists shouldn’t worry about receiving literary awards. Nevertheless, they do worry about these things, despite the self-inflicted damage this may cause to their egos in the absence of such prizes. In a recent article, “Is Mine Bigger Than Yours?,” in Buddhadharma (Winter 2010), I touch upon this subject in terms of scholar Richard Hayes’s discussion of the Sanskrit word maana, usually translated as “pride,” which in Buddhist literature is one of the impediments to our experiencing peace, awakening, and liberation. The word is derived from a verbal root that means “to measure.” So maana is the act of measuring ourselves against others, something we do 24/7 (even when we pretend that we don’t). We have been conditioned to constantly do this all our lives, from our earlier years of receiving grades that measure our academic progress to the promotions we seek on our jobs. Nothing could be more human since we are social animals and learn by imitation. If we did not do this measuring of ourselves against others (or against ourselves at different times), we would be unable to improve our performances or correct our mistakes. Literary awards, or an “A” grade are---or so we’ve been taught---public validation that we’re OK and doing good.  I certainly believe that outstanding work should always be acknowledged, but the absence of an award attached to one’s work is obviously no indication that we aren’t doing good.

In addition to serving as a judge for several literary awards (the National Book Award for fiction, Pulitzer Prize for fiction, PEN/Faulkner, and many more) I’ve greatly enjoyed creating awards for others. The Marie Claire Davis Award at Evanston Township High School (named after one of my writing teachers in 1965), is given to a senior for a portfolio of creative writing that demonstrates excellence in English, and the winner receives $500. The Charles Johnson Student Fiction Award at Southern Illinois University is a nation-wide competition for college students; the winners receive publication in Crab Orchard Review and $1,000. And I even once created (at the urging of one of his disciples) a special literary award for my friend, the late spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy for his voluminous spiritual writings---it was presented to him by my UW colleague Shawn Wong since I had to be out of town, but I bought the plaque at a trophy shop, and wrote the laudatory citation.

Something I discovered during the creating of these awards for others is that giving is just as rewarding as getting. The happiness the recipient experiences becomes my happiness, too. Furthermore, the creation of an award intended for others serves to de-mystify the allure, glamour and enchantment of awards and prizes in general for a writer.

I would advise young writers (or old ones) to enjoy literary prizes when they receive them, and not to feel bad when they don’t. Resist naama. Don't worry about external validation. Try not to compare yourself to others, because each of us is unique---a life that is unlike any that has ever been before or will be in the future. (As the Buddha supposedly once said, "You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.") Read the splendid historical overview of the major literary awards written by Salon’s Laura Miller on November 16, 2000. She points out that the Nobel Prize in Literature was not awarded to Leo Tolstoy, Bertolt Brecht, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka. (Their work is certainly not diminished because they were passed over for a Nobel Prize.) If one enjoys the creative process for its own sake, that really should be reward enough. An award is “after the fact,” so to speak, when the special joy one experiences in doing the work is long over.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


For all of 2011, poet and arts activist E. Ethelbert Miller is pitching questions my way. From week to week I never know what he'll ask me next, but all his questions are thought-provoking, like this one:

"What are your definitions of Hope, Sin and Forgiveness? How have these ideas affected your life and work?"

 Long ago, I read that in the New Testament the Greek word for "sin" is hamartia, meaning "to miss the mark, to err." I've always been fond of this meaning because of the image it suggests,  that of an archer who tries his best to hit a target, but his arrow goes astray. Being human we are naturally prone to err, as C.S. Lewis expressed so well in his often quoted statement: " Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them---never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?"
Given our perceptual and epistemological limitations, it seems to me that we can be forgiven for occasionally "missing the mark" or falling short of whatever one might mean by "perfection." In other words, as the popular saying goes, "We all have the right to be wrong."

As for "hope," that's something every Buddhist feels every day since the Dharma makes clear that we, as individuals, create our own happiness and suffering. This is nothing more than cause and effect (or karma, if you like). With each positive, selfless action we establish the basis for future happiness. An old formula goes like this: We work to nurture the good that exists, and create new possibilities for the arising of the good in the future; we work to eliminate the evil that exists, and eliminate the conditions for the arising of future evil. And because one of the marks of existence is change or impermanence, we know that even a "bad" situation must change. And so will "good" ones, for those terms---"good" and "bad"---are relative. Thus a follower of the Dharma never feels too sad when experiencing a "bad" moment or too ecstatic when undergoing a "good" one, for neither will last for very long. Generally, though, Buddhists are happy because we know we are free---moment by moment---to change, improve, get better, and make progress on the Path.

But a few more words must be said about the relativity of "perfection" and "imperfection."
In Japanese Zen Buddhism we encounter the term wabi-sabi, i.e., art that provides a direct, intuitive insight into truth. Far different from Western theories of the beautiful, in wabi (things fresh, simple and quiet) sabi (things radiating beauty with age), which covers arts as diverse as Zen gardens, flower arrangement, the tea ceremony and poetry, we find a preference for such features as imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness (along with the idiosyncratic, modesty and humility), for these things too capture the beautiful. 

 Early in my study of Sanskrit 13 years ago, I had to translate this sentence in my workbook:
भ्रन्तिररिर्न अभवत
 The translation? “The error was not an enemy.”

Needless to say, coming on that sentence so early in my learning this language brought me a sense of relief (and laughter).

Monday, March 28, 2011


“The Negro suffers in his body quite differently from the white man.”  Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks.
During my years of graduate study at SUNY-Stony Brook campus, all Ph.D. students in Philosophy were required to submit for the faculty’s approval an essay using the methods of one of the three major schools of twentieth-century philosophy----Anglo-American (analytic), American (pragmatism), or Continental (phenomenology). Because my background was in the visual and literary arts, and because aesthetics was my field of concentration, I chose the German and French phenomenological traditions, writing during the summer of 1975 “The Primeval Mitosis: A Phenomenology of the Black Body.” It is one of the early examinations of the lived-experience of black embodiment in a Eurocentric and racist society that objectifies the black body as a site of stain, uncleanliness, all the “dark things,” and denies to black people a life rich and complex as subjects. Over the years, this essay---simply re-titled “A Phenomenology of the Black Body”---has been reprinted and anthologized often, though my own existential  choices, personal and professional, progressively moved me away from Western philosophy to Buddhism and Eastern thought.

But that old essay is merely a prolegomenon to the bold, systematic and thorough examination of the lived experience of black embodiment in Dr. George Yancy’s Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008). In his phenomenological archaeology of this nearly uncharted territory---the region of the black body as the mediation for consciousness and an epidermalized world---Yancy guides us through the daily construction of whiteness and racial privilege in a fashion no white thinker can achieve, reminding us of Mircea Eliade’s insight that “he who reveals to us the meaning of our mysterious inner pilgrimage must be a stranger of another belief and another race.” His book is born of struggle, written in America’s existential and racial trenches.

In her outstanding literary study, Charles Johnson in Context (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), Dr. Linda Furgerson Selzer at Pennsylvania State University notes that “A 1974 report published in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association…found that only thirty-five blacks with the terminal degree in philosophy could be identified nationwide: ‘one black Ph.D. in philosophy for every million black citizens’.” 
That was my era in Philosophy, a field that for 2500 years has been dominated by white men.  Dr. Yancy, who belongs to a new generation of black philosophers and teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Duquesne University, courageously and brilliantly continues  the “struggle” to liberate American academic philosophy from its racial, sexual, and cultural myopia in book after book: The Philosophical I: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy; African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations; Cornel West: A Critical Reader; Philosophy in Multiple Voices; White on White/Black on Black; What White Philosophy Looks Like: African American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question; Narrative Identities: Psychologists Engaged in Self-Construction; and, most recently, The Center Must Not Hold: White Women Philosophers On the Whiteness of Philosophy.  He has just completed the editing of a book on African American and Latin American philosophical perspectives; and, with his wife Susan, the editing for a book on rap, hip hop and therapy.

Dr. Yancy’s contribution to Philosophy is original, long-awaited, seminal, and crucial for our understanding of race and culture at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Read the following review and you will see what I mean.
White Gazes as an Embodied
Philosophy of Race
John T. Warren
Yancy, G. (2008). Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race.
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 267 pp. ISBN-10: 0742552985. $29.95 (paperback).
Perhaps the hardest lesson to teach my graduate advisees is the art of naming, with
clarity and specificity, what it is that they are trying to address in their research and
writing. Often, they seem to circulate around an idea, dance right up the edge of an
argument, only to stop without actually saying it. It is hard to teach, this art. George
Yancy (2008), in his remarkable book Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing
Significance of Race, provides an exemplar extraordinaire of what is possible when,
with precision, one names the stakes and makes the case for how and why social
systems remain so fixed in our imagination. In this review, I hope to capture what
I find to be the real payoff in Yancy’s latest book (see also Yancy, 2002, 2004, 2005);
simply put, he creates what I have come to see as an embodied philosophy of race. In
the end, his book is not just a primer for good writing that names the mechanisms of
race’s persistence on our collective imaginations, but also a powerful example of how
body-centered writing complicates our very conception of race in America.
The cover of Yancy’s text offers an endorsement from Cornel West: ‘‘courageous
and brilliant; don’t miss it.’’ I agree. However, more significant than the brilliance of
the volume is Yancy’s unyielding courage. Indeed, a book that situates the Black body
as subject to the White gaze (always, all the time, as a result of our collective
historicity) is courageous in that when naming such systemic and material acts, Yancy
cuts against the academic tendencies to skirt the issue. In other words, when talking
about race and power, academics tend to fall into the trap of niceness, reducing
racism and white supremacy to talk of ‘‘systems’’ and ‘‘discourses.’’ Such work, while
important, sidesteps the immediacy of racism’s felt effects, leaving individuals
relatively untouched by their own racist acts. I find this often in my own writing and
teaching--if I talk of ‘‘patterns’’ or ‘‘systems of power,’’ I can often avoid feeling like
I’m naming people, calling them out. Yancy’s text troubles the very distinction between
individuals and systems by writing from an embodied location--his ‘‘I’’ in
this book is not abstracted nor simply a standpoint from which he writes. Rather, he
is a body, a Black body, who encounters racism in and through his everyday
communicative interactions. By implication, Whites who enact the gaze, who
embody racism, are also individually implicated (although not solely responsible)
for their/our actions. This is not a radically new idea, but the careful crafting and
powerful naming Yancy employs is surely insightful.

The text pivots around the argument that the White, racist gaze on Black bodies ‘‘is
itself a performance, an intervention, a violent form of marking, labeling, as different,
freakish, animal-like’’ (p. 93). He makes this case by offering several contexts to see
this White gaze at work on Black Bodies. In Chapter 1, Yancy examines the ‘‘elevator
effect,’’ conducting a phenomenology of what happens communicatively when his
body enters an elevator that is occupied by a White woman. This analysis examines
how his body is rendered, is produced communicatively as the stereotypical predator,
regardless of his own actions:

Although I do not feel my body image slip away from me, pushing me toward the
precipice of epistemic violence, ever closer to living in the state of self-hatred, it is
precisely within the context of various racist social spaces that I feel as if I become
‘‘Black’’ (read: evil, sexually rapacious) anew within the context of each encounter
with the generative dimensions of the white gaze/imaginary. (p. 23)

From his own encounters with whiteness in the academy (Chapter 2) to his careful
reading of textual constructions of whiteness in literature and autobiography (i.e.,
Toni Morrison in Chapter 6 and Frederick Douglass in Chapter 5), the book proceeds
to detail the effects of the White gaze on the Black body. The White gaze is exposed as
a performative act that enacts violence and works to obscure its own production. In
this way, because the body is always a central concern, the philosophic take on
racism’s production is always an embodied form of argument, naming the ways real
bodies are implicated in these lines of argument.

In what I find to be the most innovative claim in the book, Chapter 7 examines the
production of whiteness as ambush, as a reproductive and insidious form of cultural
dominance and power enacted even by those who strive against racism. From the
dangers of well-intentioned theorists to the explosive rants of Michael Richards
(Seinfeld’s Kramer), Yancy details how racism ‘‘is embedded within one’s embodied
habitual engagement with the social world and . . . is weaved within the unconscious,
impacting everyday mundane transactions’’ (p. 230). As an almost mystical force,
whiteness is seen here as a deeply engrained part of our collective world--Yancy
cautions that Whites need to be careful of imagining that they/we have arrived.
Building from communication research examining whiteness as a performatively
constituted identity, he reminds us that one does not individually own the ways
whiteness has been constituted; rather, whiteness is produced in ways that individual
subjects may not even be aware of. Yancy here makes two important links to bring the
themes together. First, he argues that whiteness cannot be examined solely by
Whites--as White constituted subjects, there are inevitably gaps they/we cannot see;
the White scholar is always in danger of being ambushed by the very whiteness she/he
seeks to disrupt. Second, he concludes by tying the system and the individual back
together as mutually constitutive parts of the whole, arguing that we’d do well to
remember that whiteness ‘‘makes tyrants out of human beings’’ (p. 247). This link of
the individual to the system is one of the most convincing cases I have read, arguing
that to separate the individual from the system is to deny the effects of whiteness--
the bodily consequences and privileges that we all experience each and every day
through our pigmented skin. Here, Yancy notes the ethical imperative that we all
share to do the work of challenging the normative status of whiteness.

I end here by reiterating why I think this is a courageous book. Constantly in
danger of being charged with being ‘‘angry’’ or being ‘‘too sensitive’’ or ‘‘making too
much’’ of his experiences or his readings of events, Yancy dismisses those charges in
two significant and, quite frankly, brave ways. First, he does careful and systematic
research. His phenomenology of his body in the elevator (Chapter 1) alone stands as
a sophisticated piece of philosophic writing. His research is well-argued and carefully
reflexive in order to present a cogent and critical take on the relationship between the
disciplinary gaze from White folks and the effects that gaze has on Black bodies.
Second, Yancy consistently names the practices that constitute White gaze as a violent
performance of producing a ‘‘technology of docility’’ that produces the dark body as
fixed (p. 141), all while engaging the reader as an ally. In this way, I feel implicated in
Yancy’s work while never feeling blamed. As a White reader, I found myself both
convinced of Yancy’s claims while also energized to renew my dedication toward
challenging the ways whiteness works within and through my own gaze. In this way, I
am both an instrument of the system and also individually implicated in that system’s
Yancy, G. (2002). The philosophical I: Personal reflections on life in philosophy. Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littlefield.
Yancy, G. (2004). What white looks like: African-American philosophers on the whiteness question.
New York: Routledge.
Yancy, G. (2005). White on white/black on black. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
John T. Warren is Associate Professor in the Department of Speech Communication at Southern Illinois
University, Carbondale. Correspondence to: Southern Illinois University, Speech Communication, MC 6605,
Carbondale, IL 62901-6605, USA. Email:
The Review of Communication
Vol. 9, No. 3, July 2009, pp. 280-282

Friday, March 25, 2011


If I'm not mistaken, Africans in America is the only history book to ever contain original short stories, 12 in all, composed by a contemporary writer to dramatize the historical record on American slavery. Looking back at this companion book for the PBS series in 1998, I'm pleased with these stories and feel privileged that I had the opportunity to write them. But doing the stories was psychologically and spiritually difficult---even slightly damaging---for me. 

One of the producers for the PBS series told me that the goal was to make viewers of the four programs and readers of the companion book feel what it must have been like to be either a master or a slave. With that directive, I knew I was about to begin a very painful, imaginative experience. I deliberately put it off for a full year, partly to complete my novel Dreamer after seven years of working on it, and to do two weeks of research in Thailand for an article Microsoft requested for one of its on-line travel magazines. 
Tired from those experiences at the end of 1997, I almost backed out at the last minute from doing the stories in early 1998, because looming ahead of me was six weeks of book promotion away from home for Dreamer starting in April. But I couldn't back out. I'd made a promise and signed a contract. In my study were boxes of primary research provided by historians at Harvard and other  universities. Furthermore, if I didn't deliver those 12 stories, the companion book for the PBS series would not be completed by the time the series aired in the fall of 1998, and that would damage a decade of work that executive producer Orlando Bagwell, an old friend from my days of working on film projects at WGBH in the 1970s, had invested in making this powerful series on slavery a reality.

When a writer creates a character, he (or she) must fully enter into that fictitious person, feeling the character's life and emotions from within. This process is  identical, psychologically, to what an actor must do when playing a role. In order to do this for the characters who were slaves, I knew I would have to make myself experience in the depths of my imagination and soul the full gamut of negative emotions: anger, outrage, even murderous hatred. All the things that Buddhists work to eliminate from their minds. Worse, I suspected that these emotions---so necessary for writing about slavery---would, to some degree, remain with me long after the stories were done.

So I decided to write all twelve during the month of January, 1998, mainly to shorten the time I would have to dwell emotionally, night and day, on the horrors of the hate-inducing Peculiar Institution. On all that centuries-old violence that I would have to make come alive within me. I told my wife and children that I would be physically at home for the coming month, yes, in case they needed anything; but they had to understand that in his head Daddy would be living in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

When I began to write I had no idea what the 12 stories would be---only an idea for the first one, "The Transmission," which would dramatize the Middle Passage. I did have a list, though, of literary forms and different viewpoints I wanted to use to aesthetically diversify the stories. (You should expect that from someone who taught creative writing for 33 years.)

I tentatively began "The Transmission," not using the style I'd employed for my novel Middle Passage, but instead one of strict naturalism. I wrote about two brothers in the hold of a slave ship; they'd lost their world and were on that nightmare journey to the New World. I had to imagine and feel every detail of their terror and dehumanization. But, then, as I began to ask myself questions about who they were in their village before they were captured, it occurred to me that the older brother might be a griot, a living library containing all the history, culture, knowledge, and rituals of his people. A human book. It was then I realized that he, dying, would use that terrible voyage to orally transmit to his younger brother a detailed vision of the world they had lost. This transmission, from brother to brother, saves them both from going mad in the belly of that boat. In other words, that knowledge and cultural experience were things of tremendous value the white man could never take away from them. And after the older brother dies, the younger one knows that he is the new keeper of their culture and history, and that he is obliged to add new stories to it when he reaches America. Yin and Yang: in the midst of the worst experience imaginable, I mercifully stumbled upon some light in the darkness, an approach that could show the human capacity to snatch something good out of evil. The "Transmission" took about two and a half days to write. Once it was done, I saw how I could do three stories a week for four weeks, working night and day, pausing only to sleep and hastily eat a meal. (I have no recollection whatsoever of  events happening in the world outside my study during the month of January 1998.)  And even better, I saw how I could portray strength, dignity, and personal agency in the slave characters I had to write about, and not present them as helpless victims.

Today, those twelve fictions comprise my third short story collection, Soulcatcher and Other Stories, which is used in classrooms every year for students ranging from middle school through college. Some years ago, I was delighted during a radio interview when the host for that show told me that she at first thought all twelve stories had been written by different people, that I'd only served as the editor who assembled them. That was exactly the affect I wanted to achieve through artistic variations. "The Transmission" uses authorial omniscience (third-person limited) viewpoint. "Confession" shaped itself as a third-person monologue (until the very end of the story, only the slave Tiberius speaks). "Poetry and Politics" is a single scene entirely in dialogue (no narration or description) because I heard rather than saw this exchange between Phyllis Wheatley and her mistress. "A Soldier for the Crown" is cast in second-person viewpoint (which prevents readers from knowing an important fact about the protagonist until the story's end). "Martha's Dilemma" is written in traditional first person, and "The Plague" is rendered as fictitious diary entries by Rev. Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church (AME) that I was raised in as a child. An epistolary approach (letters) felt best for "A Report from St. Dominique," and in "The People Speak" I could not resist (being an old journalist) the mock-newspaper article as the story's vehicle. By contrast, "Soulcatcher" uses full authorial omniscience as it switches from the viewpoint of a slave hunter to perching on the shoulder of his prey (I've only done this approach once before, in the story "Kwoon"). In "A Lion at Pendelton," mixed prose and verse (George Moses Horton's poem "The Slave's Complaint") structure that narrative. The dominant feature of "The Mayor's Tale" is, obviously, the "Once upon a time" narrative voice usually heard in folk-and-fairy tales. And the final story, "Murderous Thoughts," is composed of alternating first-person monologues, each with a different voice and diction, delivered to an off-camera reporter.

So those are the inter-connecting slavery stories. If I had my druthers, and could do an assignment like this again, I'd pick the period between Emancipation and the legalizing of racial segregation ("separate but equal") in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, because those thirty-one years of American history (they produced people like James Weldon Johnson, boxer Jack Johnson, and W.E.B. Du Bois) have not often been dramatized, years during Reconstruction and after it when life and the possibilities for black Americans were (relatively and briefly) more fluid, and richer in possibilities before Jim Crow became law.

 But, yes, as I feared, my month-long immersion in the experience of slavery for the Africans in America stories (which was rather like going on an extended meditation retreat) did leave in me a residue of "murderous thoughts" whenever I think about this subject (or any matters pertaining to race). The stories took a lot out of me. But for a writer, even a black, practicing Buddhist, that was just part of the territory this assignment demanded that I traverse, and ultimately a small price to pay for bringing those stories to the page.


Are you new to the E-Channel?

The E-Channel presents the words and wisdom of the writer Charles Johnson. It's Charles Johnson LIVE!  It was created by E. Ethelbert Miller (that's what the E stands for) in January 2011. It's a one year project in which Miller will interview Johnson about his books, beliefs, and various matters of the heart and mind. The E-Channel presents Johnson's own voice. Every word is his. They are responses to questions asked each week by Miller.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011


The intellectual world of my time alienated me intellectually. It was a Babel of false principles and blind cravings, a zoological garden of the mind, and I had no desire to be one of the beasts.
Philosopher George Santayana

I cannot say that there has ever been an incident or moment in my life when I questioned my religious faith. But my faith in American literary (and academic) culture was tested in the late 1970s and early 1980s when over-simplified political agendas of one kind or another trumped artistic and intellectual concerns in contemporary black (and American) fiction.

Back in 1974, I remember a friend of James Baldwin telling me that Baldwin didn't like my first novel Faith and the Good Thing because, according to him, it wasn't "political." Baldwin, who I'd long admired, gave no explanation of what he meant by that. (That novel appeared the same year as his If Beale Street Could Talk, and got generally better reviews, which was ironic because I got the idea of using a female protagonist for Faith after reading an interview where Baldwin said he was going to use one in Beale Street). I also remember giving a reading in Detroit in the 80s, and my white host for that event telling me he saw novelist David Bradley and myself as the "pariahs" of black literature. These were years when writing by black women---along with tribal, ideological, Afrocentric and black cultural nationalist books influenced by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s---were heavily promoted and embraced by soft-headed, well-meaning but naive whites who didn't know any better, often regardless of the intellectual and artistic quality of those works; years when black male writers (and black men in general) were relentlessly vilified simply because of their gender. Of course, there's nothing new about that, as writer John McCluskey Jr. once pointed out to me---black men have been demonized since the Colonial period. (But those denunciations of black men had, I knew, absolutely nothing to do with the way my morally exemplary father lived and how he taught me to conduct myself.) Even my good friend Ethelbert Miller, a wise Elder who created this E-Channel and kindly posts these brief essays I'm writing each week, told me that if I'd lived in Washington D.C., instead of Seattle, black nationalists back east (the same people who attacked Ralph Ellison and poet Robert Hayden) would never have let me publish my doctoral dissertation, Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988).

But two or three things restored my faith. One was the loyalty of my agents Georges and Anne Borchardt (the best literary agents in America) who stuck by me; Anne once remarked that finding a home for Oxherding Tale was one of the great achievements of her long career. Something else that shored me up were the readers of my books who wrote to me, like the young, talented black woman poet who recently sent me this message:

Dear Dr. Johnson:

I don't think I ever told  you this and something's pushing me to say it now before I forget. Here it is:

Do you remember the B. Dalton bookstore chain? They went out of business, but they were really popular in American malls in the 80s and early 90s. Anyway, I remember being 12 and 13 years old and going to B. Dalton at Livonia Mall just outside Detroit. And in their super small African American lit section, I would just stand there sometimes and look at those few books and get so frustrated. It seemed the vast majority of those books (almost all of which were fiction) were written by black women who had a grudge (legitimate or not) against black men (The Color Purple, Beloved, The Women of Brewster Place, For Colored Girls Who've Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, etc.), or vice versa. And I remembered wondering why there was no novel dealing with the transport of enslaved Africans to the Americas. Even then, I sensed somehow that the Middle Passage and subsequent enslavement of those millions of African people lay at the root of all the hurt, hatred and bitterness that black female and male writers were slinging at each other. And it seemed to me that if some author would just come along and deal with the original sin, horror and pain of the Middle Passage, then African Americans (or at least African American writers) could lay their weapons down, and (although while never forgetting) move on and be happy and at peace and love each other again.

And then, a few years after I stood in that black book section of B. Dalton pondering my thoughts, I came across a novel by an author named Charles Johnson that addressed all the things I had wondered about the Middle Passage, and answered for all time my question about if any author in this world believed in writing about the romantic love between a black man and a black woman.

MIDDLE PASSAGE is one of those novels that changed me on a cellular level: so deep and quiet I had no idea it was happening, but profoundly and permanently. Thank you for that, Dr. Johnson. I don't know why, but I just thought you ought to know.

And a third source of renewal that restored my faith in the possibilities for American literary culture was the take-no-prisoners courage of the nonpareil cultural critic Stanley Crouch, who wrote for The Village Voice a two-page review of Oxherding Tale, originally published by a university press, that led directly to its being leased by Grove Press (It has never been out of print since its publication in 1982, and has been translated and taught and written about widely). Crouch, whom I fondly call the "Hanging Judge" was our H.L. Mencken, John Gardner (see his controversial work On Moral Fiction) and Albert Murray (See his Omni-Americans and must-read essay "The Hero and the Blues") all rolled into one street-wise, two-fisted, and morally incorruptible champion of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Read his Notes of a Hanging Judge. Or The Artificial White Man. Or Always in Pursuit. If you pick up these works, you will find yourself in the presence of a truth-teller, a very hip, cosmopolitan black man (and authority on black music, literature and culture) who, if necessary, will knock the stuffings out of you if you doggedly persist in thinking poorly, if your ideas do violence to the common good, or if you cowardly cave in to literary and political fashions and polite foolishness that have no foundation in reality: a man who is a patriot because he knows America could not have come into existence without the countless contributions---cultural, political, and economic---of the Negro since 1619. (Believe me, we desperately need clear-thinking men and women like this in 2011.) Judge Crouch has served this nation very well since the early 1980s, and does so in his writing today. Every day. Always at work to correct the dumbing down of our cultural discourse. He was born with one of Hemingway's "built-in shit detectors." He signs off his email messages to me with the letters VIA, meaning, "Victory Is Assured," for truth crushed to the ground must rise again. He gave me (and countless others) the courage to resist in the early 80s the mind-dulling, unquestioning conformity and lazy, ideological thinking involved in socially "going along to get along."

And that is a debt, a gift of personal and professional integrity, I shall never in this lifetime be able to repay. Thank you, Judge. You've won your wings and a seat in heaven.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Philosophy: (Gr. philein, to love---sophia, wisdom)

The most general science. Pythagoras is said have called himself a lover of wisdom. But philosophy has been both the seeking of wisdom and the wisdom sought. Originally, the rational explanation of anything; the general principles under which all facts could be explained; in this sense, indistinguishable from science. Later, the science of the first principles of being; the presuppositions of ultimate reality. Now, popularly, private wisdom or consolation; technically, the science of sciences, the criticism and systematization or organization of all knowledge, drawn from empirical science, rational learning, common experience or wherever. Philosophy includes metaphysics, or ontology and epistemology, logic, ethics, aesthetics, etc. (From Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Dagobert D. Runes, Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1962.)       

Science has been an integral part of Western philosophy from its beginnings. The great concern of the pre-Socratic philosophers was an effort to understand nature. For example, Democritus presented nature as consisting of atoms, that is, entities differing only in shape and size and being qualitatively indistinguishable.  Like Plato, Aristotle affirmed the existence of an objective, public knowledge---the goal of science---and laid the foundations for the natural science of biology. (That goal of a shared, public knowledge has never changed, only the methods we deem appropriate for achieving that goal.) Aristotle gave us even more: logic, political theory, a psychology and theory of perception, a poetics (or aesthetics), and metaphysics. Put another away, all the intellectual disciplines were originally part of the enterprise we call philosophy. It is only in the modern era that various fields of inquiry broke away, specializing and establishing themselves as separate fields, but the intimate relationship between science and philosophy has endured.  Typically, as philosophy students immerse themselves in intellectual history, they must absorb the positions taken and discoveries made by Ptolemy, the Pythagoreans, Francis Bacon, William Gilbert, Nicholas Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johann Kepler, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, Benedictus Spinoza, John Locke, George Berkeley, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and numerous other philosophers and scientists throughout history.

Once upon a time, back in 1914, 75% of American colleges made an introductory course in philosophy mandatory; by 1993, only 4% made it a requirement. As you might guess, I consider this decline to be tragic. I fondly remember that during my graduate study at SUNY-Stony Brook, the Philosophy and Physics Departments were located in the same building, and one of our former chairmen had a Ph.D. in physics, as did one of the philosophy graduate students with whom I shared an office when we were teaching assistants. I also fondly recall discussing the relatively new (at the time) discovery of black holes in the early ‘70s with one of the physics professors as we both hurried from our shared building across campus to teach our classes. My dissertation advisor Don Ihde has been at work for forty years interpreting, as one of this nation’s leading phenomenologists, the meaning of technology for our lives. I highly recommend his Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (Indiana University Press, 1990). 

In my late teens and early twenties I found it inconceivable that anyone (including fiction writers) would hope to write significantly about culture, ideas, and the human experience and not have a solid background in philosophy---its methodologies---or Western intellectual history. A strong background in philosophy empowers one to write and think well (i.e., systematically) about almost anything. It is, indeed, “the science of sciences.”

Friday, March 18, 2011


“Sweet Dreams,” a satirical, science fiction story about a future dystopia, was the first story I wrote for Bedtime Stories, the most exciting literary experience every year in Seattle. This literary event began quietly in 1999 when Margaret Ann Bollmeier, then director for Humanities Washington, asked me to serve on the board of that organization.  With that membership, there came a duty---people on the board served on different committees, and so I needed to select one. As it turned out, the board was thinking about having local authors read their fiction at a fund-raising event that would help Humanities Washington’s outstanding activities devoted to encouraging literacy in Washington state, for example, Mother Read/Father Read, a program that empowers parents to learn how to read, and then to do so with their children.

 Now, I have nothing against authors reading their published work, which at the time was something I’d done for twenty-seven years; and since the late 1960s, I’d been to literally hundreds of poetry and fiction readings like the one board members were naturally thinking about. The format was commonplace.  But I confessed to Margaret Ann how weary I was, personally, of reading my own stories written years ago. Try to imagine what it’s like for me to read today a chapter from my National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage, which was published in 1990. It may be fresh for a new generation of listeners, but for this author twenty-one years later, it’s a work I've progressed far beyond in my life. Where, I wondered, was the artistic challenge in reading old material? Furthermore, I said, the writers who I hold in highest esteem are, first and foremost, storytellers. I have always envisioned my ideal writer to be a raconteur with a robust imagination, a man or woman capable of conjuring on demand a spirited entertainment on any subject he or she is asked to dramatize. “ Can we do something like that?”  I asked. “Have all the participants this year create a new story?” And Margaret Ann, bless her, said okay.

That first year the theme or topic was simple “Bedtime Stories.” And what a happy choice that was, for in every child’s life, during those early years of innocence and trust, the magical story filled with mystery and wonder told at the end of the day---by parents or perhaps grandparents---to help us sleep and seed our dreams pre-dates all the other kinds of stories we experience in life. Or think of this in terms of our ancestors spinning tales around a campfire, holding the other members of their tribe enthralled for hours on end, there in the darkness where the story and its characters---and the question “What happens next?”---was as brightly lit in their minds as the embers of the campfire itself.

Just before this first fund-raiser, I had paid my quarterly taxes and was feeling---ahem---a bit raw. I dutifully pay my taxes because that’s the law, not because I enjoy doing so. I'm not interested in winding up like Wesley Snipes. But for me to say I enjoy it would be for me to tell a lie for the sake of political correctness. And, as a philosopher who is obliged to always value the truth,  I don't like lying.  So “Sweet Dreams” depicts a not-too-distant future society in which the government taxes people’s dreams in order to raise revenue. Quite possibly people in the Tea Party Movement might enjoy this tongue-in-cheek tale, but it pre-dates that grassroots phenomenon by a decade and wasn't intentionally written for them or their political agendas. Later, “Sweet Dreams” was reprinted in an anthology devoted to black science fiction, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, edited by Sheree R. Thomas (Warner Books, 2004). It is also the first story in my third short story collection, Dr. King's Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories (Scribner, 2005).

With that first Bedtime Stories fund-raiser a tradition began. Every year since 1999, the board has selected a topic---always a surprise for the writers who participate--- related to the nocturnal. Some years they have caused this writer to dive deep into the well of my imagination, finding depths I never knew were there. For these themes have been nothing if not diverse from year to year: “Insomnia” (2000), “A Kiss Goodnight” (2001), “Midnight Snack” (2002), “In the Wee Hours” (2003), “Dreamland” (2004), “Moonstruck” (2005), “Night Watch” (2006), “Night Light” (2007), “Night Hawk” (2008), “In Your Dreams” (2009), and “Night Flight” (2010).

 The most recent, 2010 event raised $110,000 in a single evening for Humanities Washington’s programs for encouraging literacy and the humanities. As daunting an enterprise as it has been every year to create a new story for that wide-ranging list of topics, I must say that this rare opportunity to do so has been a creative blessing for me, demanding but also deeply rewarding (and full of self-discovery) as few assignments have been in my forty-six years of publishing fiction. Over the span of a decade, the Bedtime Stories event has nudged me to create an expansive range of short fictions that I simply would never have dreamed of doing on my own. Never! Furthermore, all the stories I've written for this event have been published, several of them reprinted and anthologized often, broadcast on radio station KUOW in Seattle, and one (“A Kiss Goodnight,” which I renamed “Cultural Relativity”) was made into a short film by David S. DeCrane and shown at the Newport Beach Film Festival on April 17, 2004. Five of the stories are in Dr. King’s Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories (the title story sprang from the topic “midnight snack”), and four appear  in the philosophy textbook  I co-authored in 2010 with Michael Boylan, Philosophy, An Innovative Introduction: Fictive Narrative, Primary Texts, and Responsive Writing.

My friend, the late playwright August Wilson, also greatly enjoyed creating fiction for Bedtime Stories when his always demanding schedule allowed him to be in Seattle during the fall. Like medieval troubadours, we both relished the chance to test anew our storytelling process and see what the other had managed to come up with. During our conversations before the event (We receive our theme from the board in spring and have until October to get the story done), August would ask me (or vice verse), “You got yours done yet?” and in this playfully asked question there was always a poke of the elbow to one’s ribs, a gauntlet thrown down, a twinge of the competitive delight that two veteran artists experience when they are handed the exact same problem to solve (or two kids daring each other to do something), and the immense pleasure they have when the other stands at the microphone and delivers for the first time a job well done  (which the rest of the world will only learn about later)---but not for money. Or even publication. No, all the writers have created their Bedtime Stories for free, and in the spirit of generosity and giving of themselves that jazz musicians enjoy when they sit down for an after-hours jam session, trading off riffs on a single musical theme (“Yeah,” one might say, “That was good, but can you top this?”), and learning from each other during a festive evening of good food, good fellowship, and good fiction.

Thanks to Humanities Washington, you can read some of the best Bedtime Stories in Nightlights: Stories & Essays from Northwest Authors. Twenty-one authors are represented in this book, which you can order through Amazon. (Sales support Humanities Washington's many programs.) You are certain to enjoy it, for these are entertainments that sprang from the purest creative impulse, from the pleasure skillful literary artists enjoy when they are given the chance to just do their thing---like world-class athletes relaxed and at play, performing not for a gold trophy but simply because exercising their hard-won skills feels so danged good.
(The above is my introduction for Nightlights: Stories and Essays by Northwest Authors.)