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.

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