Thursday, June 30, 2011


I received some kind comments and email responses to my last post that were thought-provoking. I'm very thankful for them. And I feel I should respond a little more to what I wrote just a couple of days ago.

The courses I taught at the University of Washington ranged from black American literature to workshops on literary craft, from critical theory and aesthetics to advanced essay writing, from children's literature (once) to independent studies on a wide range of subjects (the philosophical novel in general, Eastern philosophy and the Novel, screen-writing, etc.) Students didn't need to know my past or biography (except for my professional credentials, i.e., who I studied with, what I'd published on the subject of the course they were taking, and so forth); rather, what they needed to know was, say, what Ralph Ellison meant on the pages of his novel Invisible Man (and perhaps his biography as it relates to that novel, his short fiction and essays); they needed to know objective content they would be tested on (they certainly weren't being tested on me), and to do well enough on their exams and term papers and dissertations for me to give them the "A" grade they wanted, then later for me to be able to write for them a glowing recommendation on precisely what they had mastered in my workshops on writing craft---letters of reference they would use for graduate school or employment. 

Every day that I taught for three decades, I checked my personal life outside the classroom door. I didn't bring it into the classroom because the students weren't paying their hard-earned money to hear about my personal problems or my political views. As their professor, I naturally had to listen to and be open to their personal problems, and to provide assistance---emotional support, when they needed that. (Outside class, in my office or elsewhere, I felt it was appropriate to share, if need be, my personal experience if that would help an individual student; I did not feel class time should be used for that since not every student would be interested in hearing it, or even need to hear it.) One old phrase that people once used for faculty is in loco parentis, "in the place of a parent." That's how I saw and still see a professor's job----we, the faculty, are there to serve our students as their own parents would while they are under our care in the classroom and on campus.

My own "conditioning" in the classroom during my student days was this: in undergraduate and graduate school in the late 60s and early 70s, I had professors who used their classrooms as a private stage, and who regarded their students as a captive audience for their cranky opinions, professors who made their classes as much about their egos and ego-needs as the actual content of the course. I much disliked the experiences of those classes and I promised myself that if I ever became a college professor, I would never do as they did. I always felt my writing workshops should be a labor-intensive "skill acquisition" courses, emphasizing the sequential acquisition of fiction techniques and providing the opportunity to practice them. For those who might be interested in a full description of how I taught my workshops, please read the article, "A Boot Camp for Creative Writing," which originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 31, 2003), and was reprinted in Writers Digest (January 30, 2009). The link for the latter is:
 I hope some of the above clarifies a little bit and expands on that recent post.

Monday, June 27, 2011


During the summer of 1989, I taught a week-long fiction-writing workshop at Indiana University. When the students (all white) and I met during a Sunday evening set aside for orientation, I explained what I expected them to do over the next five days---the relentless writing and rewriting, the challenging exercises on craft, and the lectures I would daily give on various aspects of literary technique. When I was done, one student said, "Wow, you teach a really high-powered class."
And so it went for three days of delightful, total immersion in the craft of literary fiction. Then, at the end of the third class, one student raised his hand and said he wanted to ask a question for himself and a few other people taking the workshop. I was fully anticipating---and girding myself for---a question about contemporary and ancestral literary forms, about the different ways to approach viewpoint, or the intricacies of plotting, or characterization or some other matter we'd been so absorbed with for days.  Instead, he said: 
          "We've never had a black teacher before. Can we talk about race?"
I know they all could tell from the expression on my face, and my silence, that I was stunned and, for a moment, disoriented. Race? I thought. This is a workshop on applied aesthetics. Their request blind-sided me completely. I hadn't given their "race" more than a passing thought. My concern had only been to professionally deliver a body of knowledge that was non-racial. Slowly, I said, "Sure. But since we only have two more days left, let's not take up class time with this. We can meet for dinner tonight, if you like, and you can ask me all your questions."       
 I went back to the dormitory room where I was staying, deep in reflection, wondering, "What just happened here?" Then I met with the handful of students who could make it to dinner at a pizza parlor off campus. By that time they were reluctant to ask me questions about "race," probably after seeing my first, stunned reaction. My expression in class probably cast a chill over the whole matter. Needless to say, that dinner was a dead affair, and saddened me considerably.
This is an incident I thought about often during my 33 years as a college professor. And it is by no means an isolated one. Black colleagues of mine have similar (and far worse) war stories they can tell because we were the first generation of young, black professors right after the Civil Rights Movement to integrate in significant numbers formerly white American universities. We were the "shock troops" sent in after racial segregation ended, right after the "long hot summers" of riots in northern cities. And we did have to live through our own racial incidents of "shock and awe" in the late 1970s, '80s, and even into the '90s. Many of our white students (and colleagues) had never known a black person---but suddenly here one was, at the front of the room, talking about philosophy or literature or physics, and so they just had to use that rare opportunity to engage their professor on a matter of national (and for them, personal) interest even though it had nothing to do with the content of the course. Race was a matter, there in their minds, as they sat listening to their professor lecture on prosody or Plato's Myth of the Cave. Some of them just couldn't see past it.
  For a black professor at a predominantly white institution of higher education, who must teach students of all races and backgrounds equally and in a color-blind fashion, this added factor of race consciousness in either the faculty or students is, obviously, not something included in one's "job description" when one is hired. For a black American professor, there is far more to be dealt with than appears on that innocent job description. It is a real and sometimes psychologically draining dimension of the social world black educators must daily train themselves to negotiate with infinite amounts of grace, patience, compassion, generosity, discipline (self-control), equanimity, and humor. (Believe me, as a Buddhist, that situation made me work all the time and even harder on the pāramitās  or "virtues" that are part of the bodhisattva ideal.)
 Yet, for all that, my decades at the University of Washington were good, rewarding ones during which I received the generous support of my colleagues and students. I have no complaints and only praise to dispense for UW. Perhaps for the new generation of black professors at colleges and universities in the 21st century things are a little less racially rough around the edges. But one should never---ever---assume that the daily exigencies, trials and duties on campus (or off campus) for black American and white educators are the same.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks, "What challenges have African American writers faced when attempting to use Negro Dialect or Black English in their work?  Is there an "authentic" black voice? How do black people talk?  Is it difficult to convey the full texture of our language on the page?"

I thought I would take a stab at this question because in October I've agreed to read a new story (on income inequality) for Richard Hugo House in Seattle, and teach a three-hour workshop on narrative voice or ventriloquism. Voice can be an elusive dimension in fiction, but it is an element of craft I've devoted myself to exploring since 1972. In his recent essay on "Popper's Disease," writer Tom Williams also touches upon other stories in that collection, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and describes the tale "Exchange Value" as "a story in dialect...that rivals Hurston and Twain." 

Obviously, the "dialect" Williams refers to in that story is nothing like the Negro dialect we associate with, say, the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Nor does it resemble the caricatured form of black speech we see in the Plantation school writers or, for that matter, in Mark Twain's black characters. In those cases, you will notice, all the black characters speak the same way in a kind of generic, butchered English that fails to individuate one black speaker from another. This is simply the wrong way---the lazy way---to put speech in the mouths of black characters, because like all human beings every black person speaks differently. Consider this observation by philosopher R. G. Collingwood:

          "Speech is after all only a system of gestures, having the peculiarity that each gesture produces a characteristic sound, so that it can be perceived through the ear as well as through the eye. Listening to a speaker instead of looking at him tends to make us think of speech as essentially a system of sounds; but it is not; essentially it is a system of gestures made with the lungs and larynx, and the cavities of the mouth and nose. We get still farther away from the fundamental facts about speech when we think of it as something that can be written and read, forgetting that what writing, in our clumsy notations, can represent is only a small part of the spoken sound, where pitch and stress, tempo and rhythm, are almost entirely ignored. But even a writer or reader, unless the words are to fall flat or meaningless, must speak them soundlessly to himself. The written or printed book is only a series of hints, as elliptical as the neumes of Byzantine music, from which the reader thus works out for himself the speech-gestures which alone have the gift of expression." 

As an exercise, think of how you might portray different cadences, intonations, accents, tempo, inflections, and speech-sound qualities in dialogue for Barack Obama, Fifty Cent, Rev. Jeremy Wright, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday or Ethel Waters. Is it possible to have something of their unique sound "cling" to the words we place on the page for them to speak? In other words, to not ignore, as Collingwood puts it, "pitch and stress, tempo and rhythm"? Personally, right now and whenever I think of the next story I wish to write, whether in first or third person, regardless of whether it is set in the past or the present, I'm intrigued by the idea of creating a character who primarily speaks in periodic sentences---like this one you just read. 

When I wrote "Exchange Value" with the story in the voice of the character Cooter, my aim was to see if a philosophical fiction, one about our experience of money, could be the vehicle for a voice entirely rendered in contemporary (at the time, the late '70s) black slang. That language is 180-degrees different from the first-person narrator of "Popper's Disease," who is a physician acquainted with many sciences; and it differs yet again from the third-person narrative voice of the title story for the collection, which is the voice of the traditional folk-tale or fairy-tale storyteller. The first observation to make, then, is that there are potentially as many black narrative voices as there are black people---voices flavored with a West Indian patois, or ones that are black and British. None is more "authentic" than any other. Compare the voices of Frederick Douglass, Rev. Richard Allen, Phyllis Wheatley, and the character Tiberius in the Soulcatcher and Other Stories collection. Each differs in diction based on their background, education, and the way each individually tailors language to his or her vision of the world. The ideal in a work of fiction would be for the dialogue for each character to be so unique and specific to him or her that we could dispense altogether with the tags "he said," or "she said," just as we don't need them to recognize people we know speaking around us in a room. For an example, see my story "Poetry and Politics," which is all dialogue without a single line of description or narration.
The second observation to make is that achieving narrative ventriloquism requires that (1) a writer must have an ear sensitive to the rich variety of black (and white and other) voices around him; (2) he or she must carefully weigh each possible word choice so that the voice is consistent; and (3) the writer, like an actor, must enjoy playing a role or putting on a mask for the duration of the story.

Ideally, a line by a first person narrator in, for example, Middle Passage cannot be lifted from the text and simply dropped into Dreamer. In the former novel, Rutherford Calhoun's speech is textured by the language of sailors and the sea---I read an academic study of Cockney slang (and all of Melville's sea stories) in order to occasionally sculpt his sentences (word choice, syntax, rhythm) and those of the sailors with language appropriate for their Life-world and lived, daily experience. (One of the delights of doing that was discovering just how much of the language of sailors and the sea is a part of our ordinary daily discourse, and the fresh possibilities for creating metaphors that it allows.) Now, contrast that language to the third-person narration in Dreamer, which is saturated with two millennia of theological words and concepts appropriate for the Christian vision and voice of Martin Luther King Jr. Then contrast the voice in both of those books to that of the first-person slave narrator, Andrew Hawkins, in Oxherding Tale, where his language now and then is a mock version of narrators in the early English novel and, in one instance, the one we find in Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shanty. A world is invoked by each word the narrators use in those novels and, therefore, their voices are not in any way interchangeable when those narrative voices are at their purest. 

We see how this works most clearly with first-person narrators because there each line of narration is also a revelation of the individual character---it is both narration and a character line; the narration could, in fact, be a monologue (or testimony) by a character. (See my story "Confession," which is a monologue in which only Tiberius speaks until the end of the story.) 

 However, the presence of voice---a personality infusing the narrative---should also be recognizable in third-person narratives where the narrator is not a character in the story. This can happen in two ways. First, if the story is third-person-limited to one character (usually the protagonist), the narration can occasionally employ the individuated speech of that person, i.e., when he perceives something or makes a judgment, the narrator uses his idiosyncratic diction as happens in the story "The Education of Mingo." The second way of approaching a third-person narrator who is outside the story (like God would be if he was narrating a tale) occurs, for example, in one contemporary fiction I recall, where the narrator employs full omniscience by first physically describing a character for us, then saying, "Now let's go across town to her bank and see what's inside her safety deposit box." There, the narrator---although not a performer in the story----becomes as much of a "character" through his voice as someone in the dramatis personae. He can stand back from them, comment on and judge them as the narrative unfolds, and in the hands of a skillful writer this can be highly enjoyable. (Yet another approach for third-person full omniscience, one that attempts to achieve the neutral illusion of the "objective" camera's eye, is one where the writer scrubs clean all personality from the narration, but we see that in this case objectivity is an illusion because where one places the supposedly unbiased camera is already a decision and a judgment and a choice saturated with subjectivity.)

Let me conclude this post on voice by saying that every fiction is experienced as a "whole." In order to discuss different aspect of a story, we only isolate them for the purpose of pedagogy. But it should be clear that any analysis of voice inevitably segues into a discussion of viewpoint, and that---like pulling a thread of a sweater---leads one to an examination of the character that particular viewpoint represents.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Charles Johnson on W.E.B. DuBois

“One ever feels his twoness---an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks.

 For most of the afternoon I've been searching in vain for a copy of my 1993 New York Times book review of Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity and the Ambivalence of Assimilation, edited by Gerald Early. This is a heuristic starting point for any discussion of whether DuBois's more than one hundred year old description of black American being still has relevance. In it twenty black American writers and scholars examine DuBois's formula. The contributors include Molefi Kete Asante, Toni Cade Bambara, Stephen L. Carter, Wanda Coleman, Stanley Crouch, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Nikki Giovanni, Darlene Clark Hine, Kristin Hunter Lattany, C. Eric Lincoln, Glenn C. Loury, Reginald McKnight, James McPherson, Kenneth R. Manning, Ella Pearson Mitchell, Wilson J. Moses, Itabari Njeri, Alton B. Pollard III, Robert Staples, and Anthony Walton.

 A century after Dr. DuBois published his trenchant (for the times) and often quoted definition of black being, I find that today one element most in need of revision is that which speaks of "two unreconciled strivings" insofar as the first black American president is presently campaigning for his second term. 

Before Barack Obama's election, the world held its breath at the unprecedented possibility of a black man taking up residency in the White House. On the day of his inauguration, celebrations were held all over this planet. A watershed moment in world history unfolded before our eyes. But just two or three months into his first term a reporter asked him about the nearly magical spell caused when he, his wife and children became the First Family. Obama's reply was telling and important: "That lasted about a day."

One day, I believe, is all that the celebration of the first black president deserved, especially in Obama's case, for this country was struggling (and is still struggling) with its greatest financial meltdown since the Great Depression. No one much cared by March, 2009 if President Obama listened to Lil Wayne on his I-Pod or if the White House chef put soul food on the menu or if he was reading black authors before going to bed at night. What citizens wanted to know was how the president they elected to serve all the people would save their jobs and save their homes from foreclosure---indeed, how he would salvage the crippled American economy. To borrow a phrase from Herbert Marcuse (and to leave the critique that comes with it  off to one side), what is operative here is---not DuBois's 1903 description---but the Performance Principle, and in much the way we judge athletes, i.e., not by how much melanin they possess, but their performance on the playing field. 

Today, then, the concern of most Americans who are not bigoted or brain-dead is less with whether you are black, a Muslim, a woman, or gay, as with what you can do. At this moment I'm reminded of the phrase esse est operari, or "To be is to act." That phrase has received much interpretation from theologians and students of process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. But at this moment, and in the context of this discussion of Du Bois's century-old definition, as well as the "global, knowledge-based economy" we presently find ourselves within, I will venture to say that at the dawn of the 21st century and a new millennium, what we call "identity" is (or should be) overwhelmingly defined by our individual actions and deeds. As Sartre suggested when he wrote, "Existence precedes essence," we---each and every one of us---are creating our "essence" or being (the meaning of our lives) every day, moment by moment, through what we do and don't do. The meaning of what and who we are is not pre-given. Being a Buddhist, I have no empirical evidence to support a belief in DuBois's "two souls." In terms of a conventional approach to talking about either "identity" or the "self," I feel both are best seen as a process, not a product. A verb, not a noun.

 For these reasons, I would happily in 2011 retire DuBois's segregation-era description (along with its sensational imagery of inner warfare ) and replace it with something a bit more dynamic such as esse est operari.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Cartoonist Shary Flenniken, a former National Lampoon editor (her well-drawn feature "Trots and Bonny" appeared on those pages from 1972 to 1990), published in 1994 a hilarious, 112-page book entitled Seattle Laughs: Comic Stories about Seattle (Homestead Book Company). It contains the work of 38 cartoonists. My very humble contribution is a two-page comic strip called "A Dragon's Tale." 

Set in Lake View Cemetery, where martial artist Bruce Lee is buried, the story presents in 13 panels a young karate student at Lee's grave site. He seeks inspiration for his own practice as he relates for the reader Lee's history from his early days in Seattle when he bused and waited tables at Ruby Chow's restaurant, was for 3 years a student at the University of Washington (he was a philosophy major), where he met his wife, to his Hollywood career and early, sudden death. All that happened years before I moved to the Pacific Northwest. It took me weeks to draw, ink and letter those two pages on Lee's life, and I gained enormous appreciation for the great comic book artists---the Jack Kirbys, Denys Cowans and John Romita Jrs---who produce hundreds of pages of art like this every year. 
 Like most teenagers in the 1960s, I was introduced to Bruce Lee, a student of Wing Chun grandmaster Yip Man for two years starting when he was 13-years-old, through his role as Kato in the dreadful "The Green Hornet" series. At the time what he did on screen looked impossible---just like the spontaneous, inside crescent kick he did in his screen test for that role as he's talking to the camera looked incredibly fast. He was the only thing worth watching in that show. In Alex Ben Block's quickie book, The Legend of Bruce Lee (Dell Publishing Co, 1974), Lee---who struggled against Hollywood's racist attitude toward Chinese and Japanese actors---is quoted as saying, "You know why I got the 'Green Hornet' job? Because the hero's name was Brit Reed and I was the only Chinese guy in all of California who could pronounce Brit Reed, that's why." One assumes from this that other Chinese actors who auditioned perhaps pronounced the name as Blit Leed.
Naturally, I admired Lee as the non-white martial artist who, after repeated rejection in Hollywood (he really wanted the lead role in the "Kung Fu" series that starred non-Chinese actor David Carradine), found he had to leave this country in order to get a break in his career. In 1970, he began starring in films for Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong. Those made him a pop cultural icon in the East. By the time he returned to Hollywood to do "Enter the Dragon," he was earning $1 million per movie and had single-handedly started a genre of American martial arts "action movies" (as he liked to call when he did) that created careers for numerous other practitioners of Asian martial arts in the 1970s and '80s. 
 Equally interesting, though, is the fact that Lee, a martial arts fanatic, created his own fighting system, Jeet Kune Do ("The Way of the Intercepting Fist"), which combines techniques from several martial art systems---he saw it as graduate school for those who already had black belts, and after his death this system was taught by his friend Dan Inosanto, a master of Escrima, or Filipino stick fighting. 
Here in Seattle, just before I went to San Francisco and started training in Choy Li Fut kung-fu in 1981, I briefly studied "modern Wing Chun" with John Beale, a student of James W. DeMile, who was one of Lee's original students when he arrived in the northwest. Sifu DeMile was the first person to teach me how to meditate in the early '80s. Wing Chun is a system known for its close-in fighting techniques, and Lee once said he studied it with Yip Man because (1) He was in a gang after his career as a child actor in 20 Hong Kong films starting when he was 6-years-old (he came from an acting family) and he needed to know how to fight; and (2) Because he was near-sighted and wore glasses, so close-in fighting suited him well if his glasses got knocked off, which always happens in a fight or sparring situation. (That is the only reason I started wearing soft contact lenses in the '80s, i.e., for martial arts class.)The workouts at that Seattle school, where Sifu Beale was the instructor, were intense, rewarding, and memorable.
So, yes, there are things I admire about Bruce Lee. Why else would I work for weeks on a 2-page comic strip about him?


  E. Ethelbert Miller asks why there are not many photos of me on the Internet. I'm not sure I can answer that question, but I can say a few things about the sometimes ludicrous subject of author photos. 

 In 1973, as Viking Press was preparing to publish my first novel, Faith and The Good Thing, my editor arranged for me to sit for a photo with Jill Krementz, who (he said) "collected" writers, and was at the time the wife of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I went to the photo shoot in NYC mainly because I was hoping to bump into Vonnegut, but he was off doing something else that day.That photo was a good one, "flattering," as people concerned about superficial, surface things tend to say.
The author photo I generally use these days was taken by renowned Northwest photographer Mary Randlett for Jim McWilliams's collection of my interviews, Passing the Three Gates. University of Washington Press arranged for that one. The picture on the cover of Linda Selzer's work of literary scholarship, Charles Johnson in Context, was taken by a local photographer Brian Smale, who was hired by Smithsonian magazine to do a photo to accompany my article on Seattle for that publication. That shoot took hours and hours over two days, and it explains why I'm posed with the Pike Place Market---one of the city's iconic locations---in the background.
Other photos were taken on the fly for various books by my former students Gary Hawkes and Nicholas O'Connell, and once by my daughter. After the long labor of creating a book, the photo is truly the last thing I think about, and if I had my druthers, I wouldn't think about it at all. Often I'll ask a friend or family member to grab a camera so we can get this obligatory chore out of the way.
 Personally, I consider the chore of producing an author photo for every new book to be a royal pain in the posterior.
 I'm sure readers have noticed how beginning in the early-to-mid-1970s, around the time People magazine first appeared, a great many pictures of writers became "glamour photos." Or what I'd call vanity photos. Sometimes when you went to hear an author read at a bookstore you were in for a mild shock---he or she didn't look like that photo on the book jacket at all. (See my cartoon on this by going to my author's website at and clicking on the portfolio for "Cartoons, 1970 to 2004.) One famous author, who I will not name, used the same author's photo for what seemed like twenty or thirty years. And don't get me started on the number of male writers who pose wearing leather jackets. (Yeah, I did one of those, too, for my second novel when I was in my early 30s, and my agent Anne Borchardt classified it as my "angry, young man photo." But, hey, I was buff and "cut" back then from choy li fut kung-fu and weight-lifting.) 
The Buddhist in me can't help but feel sometimes that the use of a vanity/glamour photo is silly and reduces the text to the status of being no more than a trinket or ornament for the writer's ego. (Especially if the text turns out to be abysmal.)Strange as this may sound to say, I just want to see the baby---the book or artwork---more than I do the mid-wife who delivered it. When he passes on to his just reward, that's all we're going to have to work with anyway---the book, and that's only if it embodies the kind of excellence required for it to endure.
 For me, when I read an author's work, his (or her) photo is just a minor distraction, and it might prejudice my experience of the text. I'm interested in the quality of his (or her) mind and their literary skill, not the quality of work by their hair stylist, dermatologist, plastic surgeon, make-up artist, tailor or clothier, or the skill the photographer has with lighting and various lenses. I.e., with creating an illusion. In other words, I couldn't give a rat's rear-end about what they look like.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


 "It is impossible in a discussion to bring in the actual things discussed; we use their names as symbols instead of them; and therefore we suppose that what follows in the names, follows in the things as well...But the two cases (name and things) are not alike." Aristotle, De Sophisticis Elenchis.     


To name something is to give it a nature. A meaning. Over the decades I've used in my writing all the approved names that have been created for black people, making my selection at any given time usually for poetic or aesthetic reasons. In other words, because one term worked better in respect to the rhythm, alliteration, or the music of a particular sentence than another word. Black. Colored. Negro. African American. In my first collection of cartoons, Black Humor, there's even an old drawing circa 1969 that addresses the confusion that arises from our desire or need as a people to rename ourselves every few decades or so as our self-conception changes or evolves. 

But this topic is for me a tedious and tiring one. Whenever it comes up, I  always want to quote Thomas Hobbes when he says in Leviathan that, "And where speech is not, there is neither truth nor falsehood; for speech has something in it like a spider's web." It will probably sound strange for someone who loves language and made his living as a writer and teacher with words to confess that I am highly suspicious of words. Or perhaps it's better to say I appreciate their power to ensorcell and create illusions. My being so cautious is partly based on the different ontology of words and things, but this is not the place to enter fully into that issue. (See my discussion of this in the chapter "Being and Fiction" in Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970, pages  33-40.) As a Buddhist, I look at language somewhat skeptically, as a conventional tool but a limited one, and words as provisional ("providing or serving for the time being only"). Given the experience of change and impermanence, I simply don't believe in enduring "substance" or "essence" of any sort. Two of the dangers of language---traps we fall into often---are reification and (racial, gender, and nationalistic) essentialism.

Sometimes in the past when well-meaning people who didn't want to make a faux pas have asked me how I prefer to be referred to---black, colored, Negro, African American or whatever---I would just get playful, and say, "All my friends call me Chuck," which usually caused a startled, amused reaction, because it says what we all know anyway, which is that ultimately you're going to have to deal with me as an individual, not as a general term.

 Nevertheless, we find ourselves falling into this energy-draining discussion all the time. Just for the record, these days you won't see me using the term "African American" in my prose. I'm old enough to remember the campaign, led by Jesse Jackson, to install that term as a replacement for "black American" or "Afro American." At that time, a majority of black people polled in January, 1991 said they preferred "black American" to "African American" and, if pollsters had asked me (which they didn't), I would have agreed with the majority back then. But our newspapers and media people rushed to decide that "African American" would be the proper, journalism style manual term. Many argued that it established an equivalency with terms such as "Irish American" or "Italian American," and therefore was more accurate.

I'm afraid I see the arguments for this neologism as problematic at best and, at worst, as flawed. Africa is a continent of more than 54 sovereign states. If the desire is to establish equivalency with, say, "Irish American," wouldn't it be better to say "Ethiopian American" or "Kenyan American"? John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, was born in Mozambique. Could she be properly called "African American" then? There is a certain murkiness in the way we use general, abstract terms like "Asian," "African," and "European" that erases the cultural complexity, differences, and outlooks of people when they are lumped together under these labels for the sake of convenience and simplification.
 It's easy to see that each of these terms for naming involves not only an interpretation of native-born black people (some of whom in complexion can accurately be called "black" while most others range from shades of brown to tan to white enough to pass as Caucasians) but also a very transparent political agenda or doctrine. "African American" as a term contains the desire, which can be historically traced back to the late 19th century and certainly to Marcus Garvey, and which was again very strong in the late 1960s and early '70s in black ideologies like cultural nationalism (and in the '80s in Afrocentrism), to ancestrally link blacks born on these shores with a location most have never experienced or visited.  I understand the often admirable political motivations behind this move---we all do---but in each act of naming we should be fully aware of exactly what we are doing, why we are doing it, and whether it is accurate or violates common sense, intuition, and direct experience.

The prolific writer Charles Mudede, who was born in Zimbabwe and is associate editor for the Seattle-based publication The Stranger, has written powerfully over the years about the importance of one's specific tribal affiliation as the traditional basis for an African identity (his family is Manica). If Mudede is right, wouldn't one need to know something about one's individual tribal background to be properly called "African American"? These specifics matter in the Lebenswelt (Life-world) or daily lived experience for individuals and groups, and they cannot easily be ignored for the sake of achieving Pan-Africanism or racial unity. I recall an Eritrean student in Washington state in 2003 writing in The Seattle Times that "I don't know about 'chitlings' or 'grits.' I don't listen to soul music such as Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin...I grew up eating injera and listening to Tigrinya music...After school, I cook the traditional coffee, called boun, by hand for my mother. It is a tradition shared by mother and daughter."

No doubt the identity politics behind the term "African American" are what led GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain to state just a few days ago that, "I am an American. Black. Conservative...I don’t use African American, because I’m American, I’m black and I’m conservative. I don’t like people trying to label me. African American is socially acceptable for some people, but I am not some people."

According to one news article, Cain went on to add---counter-punching with identity politics of his own---that he considers himself to be "a black man in America" and feels stronger ties to the United States than to Africa. He suggested his perspective has been informed by the fact that he can trace most of his ancestors to the U.S. and it also "goes back to slavery."

One need not be in the camp of the GOP (as I am not) to question the appropriateness of the term "African American." In his speeches and writing, Martin Luther King Jr. relied heavily on the terms "Negro" and "black," and there was at the time a strategic, political reason for that. Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray in his very important book The Omni-Americans, persuasively argued over and over again for the historical, cultural and existential uniqueness of the black American experience. Neither wished to see that diminished or forgotten. Like King, Ellison, and Murray I did grow up knowing chitlings, grits, and the music of Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, which I love. (The singers, not chitlings or grits.) As my body of work amply shows, I've always been open to learning from other cultures (injera sounds like it might taste good), and eager to do so. But given contingency, the accidents of birth and chance, only one country can be rightly called my default position: the one in which I was born and raised. Therefore, I tilt toward using the term "black American" whenever I have to make a choice---and my stance toward America is, of course, always critical and questioning. Sometimes it is even oppositional. (Which is a right that comes with my American-ness, a right no African nation has granted me.)  For readers interested in a very passionate, heart-felt defense of "black American" as the term we should be using, please take a look at, or click on this link:

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Beyond all doubt, the finest and most exhaustive critical explication of my story "Alethia" is by Dr. Linda Furgerson Selzer, an associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, in her recent book Charles Johnson in Context (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009). With advanced degrees in both philosophy and literature, and with a scholar's background in black American history and culture, Dr. Selzer delivers a reading of that particular work that explores every note and nuance, and almost every philosophical level and allusion in the text. There are times when I read her critical examination of this story, and my other stories and novels, that I get the uncanny feeling she sometimes understands my thought processes and creative decisions better than I do. Her analytic powers at play on the page are a wonder to behold. They set a very high standard for what literary scholarship should be. So there is very little that I can add to her superb examination of "Alethia."

 However, I can provide some background---previously unknown information--- for the origin of one of the story's two principal characters, student Wendy Barnes, and for some of its literary antecedents.

 During my first two years at the University of Washington, I taught an introductory course on black American literature as well as creative writing. That was the original agreement in my contract when I was hired in 1976. (I used a textbook and syllabus kindly provided by my colleague, writer Clarence Major who, I think, had earlier taught the same course at Howard University.) In one of my black American literature classes I had a student, a young, single mother whose name I will not mention. She was bubbly, outgoing, aggressive, and loved to engage her peers in very spirited conversations about black American issues in the Student Union. She was majoring in Communications and her hobby was photography. One afternoon she came to my office to show me a portfolio of her work. As I sat looking at it, she circled around my desk, came up behind me, and gently rested her arms on my shoulders, her mouth close to my ear, talking about each photo as I turned the page. This was---um---a rather awkward situation, but it fast became even more dicey.

I suggested to her that we chat over coffee, maybe the next day, a Thursday. "No," she said, "that's an ugly day," meaning, I guess, that she didn't bother with fixing herself up on Thursdays. And she immediately interpreted my suggestion of a chat over coffee to mean that I was inviting her out to dinner. She told me she would be ready within an hour or two. So there I was, suddenly committed to dinner (a date, as one of my colleagues said when she heard about this) with a student when I was a married, 29-year-old, nontenured professor trying mightily every day to keep my head above water. I arrived at her place, which was in off-campus student housing, and she introduced me to her son, a cute kid. Then she showed me other photos she'd taken---one was of a naked, young black man she'd dated, and her remark about him was, "He couldn't wait to get out of his clothes." 

At any rate, I took her to dinner. The academic quarter ended. During final exam week I ran into her again on campus. She was, as usual, effervescent, and told me she'd just received her first job in journalism, somewhere back east. Then, there on the street, she threw her arms around me, and gave me a bone-snapping hug that (again) totally obliterated the proper distance cautious professors try to maintain from their students. I never saw her again.
Some time after that encounter when I began work on "Alethia," this former student was lingering in my thoughts, and so I made her the basis for the character Wendy Barnes. But her fictitious avatar is a much brasher, more calculating and manipulative student who roughly guides a shy, self-loathing, 50-year-old, sexually repressed, highly rationalistic black philosophy professor on a journey of self-discovery into a world where "Meaning was in masquerade": a world with forms so fluid they defy his rigid categorizations and, in some cases, even defy identification. He allows himself to be seduced by Wendy, but even more importantly he is seduced by the world's inherent ambiguity---an ambiguity based not so much on things being vague but rather, in Merleau-Ponty's sense, on things having a surplus of meaning. On things being so phenomenologically abundant that they mean too much, and for that reason they forever outstrip our perception. 

One of Wendy's startling, apocalyptic monologues is a speech that critics have commented on often. She dissects the Professor and the state of contemporary black American life circa 1978 like a frog. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that monologue was inspired, in part, by one of Hermann Hesse's brief descriptions of the decay and collapse of European man in one of his essays, but don't ask me which essay, because I've forgotten and would have to dig through 30 years of writer's notebooks to find it. The drug-drenched South Side Chicago party Wendy takes the unnamed professor (with his slight resemblance to Harry Haller) to should have, or so I hoped, a bit of the feel of "The Magic Theater" in Hesse's novel Steppenwolf.

    As Dr. Selzer's analysis makes clear, "Alethia" is a short story very much informed by the phenomenological tradition. I strongly recommend her analysis for readers.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I do not wish to argue that a novelist or any writer should be a trained philosopher. But I will say categorically that I believe anyone in the western world who wishes to be a serious writer (or thinker) should be acquainted with the geography of Western intellectual history (as trained philosophers are).

The basis for this argument is a no-brainer. Writing does not take place in a historical vacuum. If one hopes to make an artistic or intellectual contribution to Western literature, it follows that one should know what has come before, i.e., what one is making a contribution to, and what our predecessors have thought and achieved. Or if you prefer  Matthew Arnold's phrasing, "the best that has been known and said in the world." What they have left us is our intellectual inheritance. 
Even if a fiction writer limits himself just to reading "stories" (and I can't imagine why someone would do that since our greatest literary predecessor's didn't), he will find that they plunge him into the history of ideas. Can one fully comprehend and appreciate Voltaire's Candide with no knowledge of Gottfried Liebnitz; or John Gardner's Grendel and Richard Wright's The Outsider and "The Man Who Lived Underground" without some understanding of existentialism; or even Charles Olson's poetry with no knowledge of Alfred North Whitehead's "process philosophy"? 
 I will cop to the fact that over the last forty years I've known a great many fiction-writers who were egotists, loved to hear the sound of their own voice only, seemed to feel the cosmos rotated around their wonderful selves and, like far too many Americans, didn't feel they had any need for intellectual self-improvement. Perhaps that comes with the territory of being a writer---a large ego in order to sustain oneself during the vicissitudes in one's career. But there is a truly annoying arrogance and naivety involved when someone says, usually defensively and in an effort to protect his ego, that he doesn't need to know what our ancestors and contemporaries of all races, backgrounds, and cultural orientations have thought and felt. Or when someone believes that his limited personal experience during 80 or 90 years of living (which is preposterously brief given the 4.5 billion-year-old history of the Earth) can take the place of two or three millennia of intellectual or philosophical discourse. 
 Furthermore, most of the ideas expressed by writers today are not new. Far too many writers are simply unaware that an idea they believe is original was actually thought and expressed---and presented with eloquence and sophistication---more than 2,000 years before they were born. Writing well is thinking well. That necessarily involves knowing---and caring about---the best thoughts of others. The kind of writer I'm talking about needs not just "personal experience" but also years of systematic study and, most important of all, a sense of humility: that is, the knowledge that better minds than his own have probably addressed the problem or experience or question that he is wrestling with today, and done so memorably, with sophistication and subtlety. You don't need a Ph.D. in Philosophy, I'm saying, to write well. But you do need to have an open, inquisitive mind, one eager to learn what others---as many intelligent others as possible---have reported down through the ages on the very human question you are trying to clarify.
When thinking about this matter, I always find myself remembering writer Julius Lester's essay collection, Falling Pieces of the Broken Sky (1990), and especially what he wisely says in one lovely piece entitled, "The Cultural Canon." Let's listen to his historically important voice for a moment: 
        "The function of education is not to confirm us in who we are; it is to introduce us to all that we are not. Education should overwhelm us to such an extent that we will never again assume that our experience as individuals or as part of a collective, can be equated with human experience. In other words, education should impress us with how vast creation is and how small we are in the midst of it; and in the acceptance of that is the beginning of wisdom.
          "My education did not confirm me as a black man; it confirmed me as one who had the same questions as Plato and Aristotle. And my education told me that as a black person, it was not only right to ask those questions, it was even okay to put forward my own answers and stand them next to those of Plato and Aristotle. The cultural canon was presented to me in such a way that I was thrust into that vast and complex mystery which life is; and I graduated from college with an intense and passionate curiosity, which led me to study that which my formal education had omitted---namely, black history and literature and women’s history and much, much more.
         "It is the function of education to introduce the student to the terrifying unknown and provide not only the intellectual skills to make known the unknown but the emotional stability to withstand the terror when the unknown cannot be made known. Such an experience gives the student the self-confidence to go forth and face that mystery which lies at the core of each of us: Who am I?"

Monday, June 13, 2011


Every culture I've studied has in its storytelling tradition the animal fable. In the West, we immediately think of Aesop's fables, Orwell's Animal Farm, and native American stories when this form is mentioned, and in the East we remember the Jātaka tales. The form is old, very old, and totemic. (I've read that Aesop chose it in order to disguise his commentary on political life in his time and thereby avoid the wrath of the authorities.) So I always felt that somewhere in my body of work there should be at least one philosophical story in which all the characters are animals. Over the decades, "Menagerie: A Child's Fable" seems to continue to be a popular story that readers enjoy interpreting many ways, especially politically. I just noticed that there is a Study Guide for it on the internet, and Symphony Space has a recording of it read by Gloria Foster for their "Selected Shorts" audio-tapes.

The idea for the story came to me in the early '80s when I felt concerned about what I saw as the increasing balkanization of American society and culture. That was during Reagan's first term when the "Culture Wars" reached a boiling point. The story is set in a Seattle pet shop. Its conflict arises when the somewhat cruel owner of the shop, Mr. Tilford, simply doesn't appear one day, which leaves the animals inside trapped and on their own. 
Existentially, the disappearance of the pet shop owner, who kept order, is for these animals equivalent to the death of God. (Yes, the sub-title for the story, "A Child's Fable," is tongue-in-cheek.) But even though he never returns, the story's loyal and pious protagonist, Berkeley the watchdog, desperately hopes he will make a "second coming" and save them all. The watchdog is no rocket scientist or brain surgeon. He lives by faith. Waiting for Tilford's return, believing he must return some day, Berkeley does everything he can to keep the various caged animals alive. He tries to stand-in for Tilford but, being a dog, what he can do is limited. As I was writing the story, I kept thinking of a statement by Edmund Burke that has haunted me for decades:

        "Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites...Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free."

Berkeley has his nemesis in Monkey, a clever instigator who feels the watchdog keeping everyone caged to maintain order is fascist. Among all the caged animals, he is closest to man or humankind on the evolutionary scale. The ape (think of the old phrase "God's ape," which is a reference to the Devil) is an eloquent and persuasive speaker; he convinces Berkeley to release every creature in the shop, arguing that democracy and civil liberty are the only fair political and social arrangements. The watchdog hopes with all his heart that Monkey is right.

 But, as Chinua Achebe might say (or Yeats), things begin to "fall apart" as the days wear on and the food supply becomes scarce. Needless to say, the beasts in Tilford's pet shop do not "police" themselves, as Burke recommended. Each species in the shop resembles a tribe. When scarcity descends upon them, they abandon any semblance of the share values required for democracy and equality---which Berkeley has tried to maintain---and divide themselves along the lines of species and gender. Some animals raid the food set aside for others, like the more helpless and vulnerable fish who cannot leave their fishbowls. Then comes cross-species rape and the likelihood of genetic mutations. As violence, chaos, and a dark, Darwinian "survival of the fittest" approach increases and the pet shop catches on fire, the story moves toward its tragic ending, and Berkeley just before his death ironically realizes that only one creature will probably survive the conflagration: Tortoise, the shop's resident Taoist whose habit is to retreat into his protective shell (a metaphor for meditation or monastic retreat) whenever conflict arises among the other animals (i.e., in the social world).

Democracies strikes me as being flexible, but a balance of forces and shared values and the abandonment of tribalism must be maintained from one generation to the next. The dangers to such a system can be many (Think of Eisenhower's famous warning about the problem posed by a "military-industrial complex"). In the Middle East, the experiment with democracy will have to find a solution for tribalism and the very old conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Europe faces its own version of a dilemma posed by democracy: namely, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's announcement in October, 2010 that in her country, "This multicultural approach, saying that we simply live side by side and live happily with each other has failed. Utterly failed." French President Nicolas Sarkozy probably agrees with that.

The main point here, I suppose, is that democracy is a delicate, on-going experiment. A messy one, as President Barack Obama observed last year. But it is better than any top-down authoritarian alternative that I can think of. And perhaps "Menagerie: A Child's Fable" captures a little bit of its inherent drama and dangers.