Sunday, October 30, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "If you were interviewing Charles Johnson what might be the first question you would ask him? Are there any questions you would love to discuss and talk about but few people ask you?"

If I were to interview me, I would begin with these 10 questions:
         (1) "Given that you were born just after World War II in 1948, just before America became a super-power and an empire in the second half of the 20th century, and only seven years before the Civil Rights Movement that ended racial segregation and completed the work left unfinished by the Civil War, how would you describe the specific challenges---artistic, intellectual, political, and personal---that you encountered and had to deal with as a citizen and a black member of the Baby Boom generation?" 
        (2) "We know that art does not happen outside history. Art is always forged in the tempestuous crucible of a particular historical moment. It is a specific hour in cultural history, in the enveloping society, and in the state of one's profession(s) at a moment in time, which define and determine the real creative and imaginative possibilities for the work of any artist, scientist, educator or scholar. His methods, the styles the artist selects from, even the questions he asks---all these are shaped by the specific cultural and historical forms in play (and sometimes out of play) when he begins to create. This being the case, in your work as a literary artist and philosopher, what was the state of these professions when you showed up? When you, as a young man, entered the domains of literature and philosophy, who was already in those rooms, so to speak, preceding you and whom you had to react to, positively or negatively? (And what did they think of you?) What forms were out of play in black and/or American literature, philosophy, and English departments when you showed up as a writer? Which were dominant?"
      (3) "Who are your ideal examples of black Americans? Which black predecessors do you draw inspiration from and why? Which blacks folks, past and present, disappoint you, make you want to pull out your hair, and turn in your Race identification card?"
      (4) "What is your attitude toward white people? Do you like any? If so, which ones and why? What do white and black Americans do that annoys you most?"
      (5) "What sort of hurts and pain happened to you when you were growing up that made the Buddhist message that begins with the fact of suffering so compelling to you? Do you think you will experience liberation in this life, and finally get off the Wheel of Rebirth?" 
      (6) "How have you and your wife managed to be married for 41 years? How did both of you change over time, but still manage to love each other and take each other's happiness as a priority? Do you enjoy Platonic relationships with other women?"
      (7) "What are your hopes for your children?"
      (8) "If you could have devoted your life to different professions than the ones you found yourself immersed in, what would those be?"
      (9) "Do you think that black Americans on the whole and in general will be competitive with other groups in a knowledge-based, global economy as the 21st century wears on?"
      (10) "What are your personal fantasies? The ones your imagination keeps returning to? The ones you practice meditation to free yourself from?"
            These 10 questions are just the start of what I would ask in a self-interview. I could go on with more questions. But, listen: if you ask me any of these questions, I won't answer some of them, because I intend to take the answers with me to my grave.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


In fiction there must be a theoretical basis to the most minute details. Even a single glove must have its theory. Prosper Mérimée
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "How does one remove ego from the creation of art?"
I was recently at a reading. I won't tell you where it was, or the day, or who read with me, or who sponsored this event. I was the evening's main reader so I read last. This gave me a chance to focus on the younger artists who preceded me. One was a spoken-word poet who, with neither notes or a manuscript, talked remarkably fast, nearly hyperventilating, and at the highest volume her voice could achieve as she blasted every kind of person she disliked (homophobes, rich people), and became so worked up, there on stage, that she nearly broke down in tears. (Really. She was spilling her guts, giving us theater and all her fears, all her angers, and so at one point she had to pause to calm herself down.) Another reader detailed her sorrow at being still poor in her forties, and how a great writer in similar circumstances gave her inspiration to keep on keeping on. As I sat listening before it was my turn to read, I realized that the works I was listening to were all about the egos of these performers. These presentations were nothing if not confessional. These young writers had feelings in great abundance to share, but no story to tell (or certainly not one that created suspense and made a listener wonder "What happens next?"). Their subject matter was derived from some aspect of the biography, likes and dislikes of the performer herself or himself. Each performance, therefore, became simply a small stage or theater for the display of  I, me, myself.

 Over four decades, I've been to countless readings like this one. They help me understand, for example, why so many of my former students write to me for help with getting their often rejected works published---works that are about their struggles with bad marriages, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and other personal problems. With these young (and some old) writers, and with performances like the one I just described in the preceding paragraph, literary art is understood, rightly or wrongly, to be about the artist himself or herself. A listener cannot separate the performance from the writer's ego needs. They are understood to be one and the same. And sometimes an over-the-top spectacle of emotionalism---chewing the curtains, as I think they say in theater---is seen as "art." (But we know, of course, from Aristotle's Poetics that while "spectacle" momentarily hits every audience hard because of its shock value, spectacle is not art.) There can be no question, at least in my mind, that this naked display of ego takes a certain amount of courage---or perhaps a degree of exhibitionism (which, once again, is yet another name for ego.). I'll let you decide which is the appropriate designation.
But there is another, more satisfying way to envision the job of the artist, especially the professional storyteller, who is able to write about any subject he is called upon to dramatize. In his excellent book, The Golden Theme: How To Make Your Writing Appeal To The Highest Common Denominator, film-maker Brian McDonald says this:
             "As a storyteller, you are a servant of your story, not the master. You must do what it requires, not what you want to do. You remove your ego from it. Art is not to show people who you are; it is to show people who they are."
 I think that is the best answer to today's question. The story I read on the evening I've described was one I worked on for a month, day and night. I spent that amount of time on it because every imaginative story presents numerous problems of techne to solve and decisions that have to be made. Who are these characters (who, by the way, are not me)? What names will I give them that are appropriate for their class, and the culture and era in which they live? How do I incarnate or give flesh to the theme or idea we all were asked to write about nine months ago? What is the setting? The conflict or ground situation from which the dramatic action will arise? Do I open with scene or narration?  (And, if narration, should this story be told in first-person, second-person, or third-person?) Do I open before the protagonist is thrown into a state of dis-equilibrium (in other words, before his conflict aries?) or in media res when he is already in the thick of things?  Two places for emphasis in a story (as well as in a sentence) are at the beginning and end. So what intriguing line (narration or dialogue) would be best to open the story? What would be the most appropriate balance of dramatic scene and narration for this story? All questions related to Who, What, Where, When, Why and How had to answered.
For months prior to writing the story, I assembled a fat folder of articles related to the theme we were given to write about. As my deadline for the story approached, after I had a first draft I could massage and rewrite and tinker with, I devoted a full week and a half to revisions, i.e., looking at each sentence, each image, each line of dialogue hundreds of times. With dialogue, each speech had to be in language appropriate to the character's level of education, his or her individual background, etc. I started with one working title, then abandoned it for a different, better one that appeared on the page mid-way through the story, which I could not have thought of when I began writing weeks earlier. In fact, the slow work of developing a first draft for three weeks was all about discovery, keeping my mind open to possibilities. Where did my protagonist live? With his mother? All right, then, what is she like? As I began to carefully sculpt details for his mother a shift in the story appeared. That is, once I began to know her better, I knew the protagonist better, and that enabled me to see more clearly how he would possibly behave in part three of the story when he must finally resolve the conflict that arises for him in part one. 
Week after week, this is how things went. Asking questions about the performers. Patiently waiting for the developments in the story to surprise me. And for lines I revised over and over again to reach that point whey they delivered through layering a revelation or linguistic surprise that I didn't know was coming. During the last week and a half, I scoured 40 years of my writer's notebooks, looking for any idea, scrap of description, or thought I'd jotted down 10 or 20 or 35 years ago, any individual words that would be right for this in-progress story. I drilled down on details. Each and every object, prop, and article of clothing had to be moved from a generic description (if possible) to a concrete, individuated one with poetic inscape---it wasn't good enough to just say there were anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs in a character's bathroom cabinet; we needed these objects to be Zoloft, Paxil, and Risperdal.  It wasn't enough to say a character entered a kitchen; it needed to be a Viking kitchen where moonlight streamed through the windows. On and on, this is how I revised, working to achieve maximum specificity for as many details as possible to create a convincing, imaginative world, trying to see in my mind's eye the story and its scenes at every moment. Did the characters drive south from north Seattle to Sea-Tac airport? Then what route did they take? I typed in their starting point and destination in MapQuest to determine the best directions. Did one character live in the affluent Seattle neighborhood called Interlaken? I did a little quick research on that (Google)---what homes there sold for, what they looked like, inside and out, the history of homes built there in the 1920s. I also drilled down on sentences. What would be the rhythm between short and long sentences? Between ones that were periodic and loose (the periodic sentence is always good for creating suspense)?
 Then, in the final two or three days before I had to read the story, I cut mercilessly---ruthlessly---removing anything that slowed the pacing, anything I personally loved in earlier drafts that didn't actually serve the story and its characters, anything that was more about my own subjective quirks and eccentricities than the needs of the story at a particular moment. I let my wife read the story and give me feedback. She felt one small detail needed rethinking. I made that change, and even down to the eleventh hour I was polishing and re-polishing the final sentence, the one that would bring closure to the story. After a month of labor like this I was sick of the story and a bit exhausted. A pile of drafts had grown steadily, day after day, in one corner of my study. But by that time I couldn't remove a single sentence without disrupting the meaning and music of the sentences that came before and after it. That is when I knew the story was as done as I could possibly make it after 30-plus days of work and concentration. All questions raised by the story had been answered. Every word and sentence had been subjected to scrutiny hundreds---if not thousands---of times. 
Then the night before the reading, I test-read the story out loud to determine how to perform it. How to be "in character" when I read the speeches by different characters. (And especially for the first-person narrator, a bright, 22-year-old black taxi driver whose education only went as far as one year at a community college.) Where to speed up the reading, where to slow it down. Where the silences or pauses should occur. Naturally, a few hours before the reading I sat in formal meditation to bring myself a degree of tranquility in mind, body and spirit. To "let go" the work of the previous month, to offer it in the spirit of sacrifice, and with the hope that it would be of service to others.
 During that month of work, of focusing on hundreds of details in the story, there was simply no place for my ego. No room for it to arise. The fictional world, the object incubating in my consciousness day and night, forced out all thoughts or concerns of ego. Of me, myself, or I. Doing this work was no more about my ego than would be the building of a chair or a table for which I would lovingly dwell on each and every detail until I made what struck me as being the right and inevitable choices. All this is captured, I think, in an epigraph I used for an earlier post, one from Concentration and Meditation by Christmas Humphreys:
           "As a student wrote: If one is trying to do something really well, one becomes, first of all, interested in it, and later absorbed in it, which means that one forgets oneself in concentrating on what one is doing. But when one forgets oneself, oneself ceases to exist, since oneself is the only thing which causes oneself to exist."

Friday, October 28, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "What are the challenges and pitfalls of becoming a public intellectual? Has our media redefined this term? What key subjects should a public intellectual study or master before talking to the public?"

 Many, many books have been published on this subject, which has been an on-going matter of debate stretching from 1897 when Alexander Crummell, W.E.B. Du Bois and A.H. Grimke established the American Negro Academy to Harold Cruse's highly influential The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), and finally to the new generation of black public intellectuals that emerged in the 1980s. Among the important works that trace this debate is Linda Furgerson's Selzer's Charles Johnson in Context. A third of her book is thematically devoted to exploring in great detail the complex role of "black public intellectuals" in American society and the dangers inherent in that role. I strongly recommend that E-Channel readers interested in this question read Dr. Selzer's thoroughly researched account of the ways different people have defined "public intellectual" in general (for example, "as thinkers who directly engage with or are engaged by nonacademic publics") and how those definitions can be applied in particular to black Americans today (a "thoroughly credentialed and completely professionalized black intellectual class"). In her book, Selzer observes that:

          "Many other critics and black intellectuals, however, are suspicious of the celebrity status of new black intellectuals and are worried about its consequences for scholarship. Partly because he believes that the term 'intellectual' is trivialized by its associations with celebrity, Johnson prefers the word 'scholar.' He explains: 'When one's reputation is founded not so much on a ground breaking work of scholarship but rather on being well known, it follows that one most strive mightily to stay newsworthy, no matter how shallow, hastily executed, or ephemeral one's work becomes. The painstaking, slow work of scholarship becomes replaced by media appearances, often shameless self-promotion, and even the dubious distinction of being 'controversial' buys one a headline in the press and Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame on the Oprah Winfrey show.' (Hortense) Spillers also expresses serious reservations about the performative conditions that obtain in the new public sphere for black intellectuals. She argues that 'public discourse has been  immeasurably diminished since the late sixties and the explosion of image industries.' Criticizing Cornel West's decision to leave Harvard for Princeton (after his confrontation with then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers), Thulani Davis notes that the new black scholar's increasing celebrity can lead to 'power plays' driven by a desire 'to enhance...already cushy careers.' In short, with the growth of blogs, talk shows, twenty-four-hour news cycles, sound bites, and what Spillers calls the increasing 'theatricalization of culture,' many critics and public intellectuals---including Johnson---are concerned that the public sphere now privileges the fleeting cameo appearance over the sustained scholarly project." 

 There is very little I can add to Dr. Selzer's thoughtful examination. In the above paragraph, she quotes from my essay, "The Role of the Black Intellectual in the Twenty-first Century," which readers should examine if they wish to see my entire argument. That essay is reprinted in Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (Scribner, 2003). To this day I remain uncomfortable with (and find myself dismissive of) artists or intellectuals who hunger after fame and celebrity, because I cannot forget the wisdom given to us 108 years ago by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk:

              " make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living---not sordid money-getting, not apples of gold. The worker must work for the glory of his handiwork, not simply for pay; the thinker must think for truth, not for fame. And all of this is gained only by human strife and longing; by ceaseless training and education; by founding Right on righteousness and Truth on the unhampered search for Truth." (Italics mine)

Thursday, October 27, 2011


 Today's question isn't from E. Ethelbert Miller, but instead was a comment on October 22, 2011 by Rossi Lamont Walter in response to my "A Return to the Old Pad" post. Rossi Lamont Walter asks: "I am very curious about the origins and ideology behind this Free School at SIU that Charlie mentioned. Could you ask him to elaborate on what this was, why it was, and what kind of people took advantage of it?"
I had to dig deep into my old, yellowed files to come up with information on Southern Illinois University's Free School in the late 1960s. Here is a schedule, dated January 20, 1969, which was printed (I think) in an off-campus publication, though it might have appeared in the campus newspaper The Daily Egyptian:
Free School Classes
           The following weekly classes are offered free of charge to all. Classes begin week of January 20, 1969.
Poetry                                         7:30 pm Library Lounge
Chemical Warfare                        7:30 pm 212 E. Pearl
Marshall McLuhan                       8:00 pm Matrix
Free School Concept                    9:00 pm 212 E. Pearl
Social Biology                              9:00 pm Library Lounge
Film Making                                8:00 pm Matrix
Leadership                                  7:30 pm Library Lounge
Indian (East) Culture                    7:30 Univ. Center Rm C
Harrad Experiment                       5 pm    "       "  (cafe)
Allan Watts Philosophy                7:30 pm 212 E. Pearl
Cartooning                                   7:30 pm Main 201
Creative Can Smashing                 7:30 pm 212 E. Pearl
Poetry Workshop                         2:00 pm 212 E. Pearl
Art of Essay                                 7:30 pm Main 102
Tape Recording                            7:30 pm Main 206
Experience                                   9:15 pm 212 E. Pearl
Music Aesthetics                          7:30 pm Home Ec. 206
Democratic Communism               3:00 pm Main 203
International Issues                       12 noon 913 S. Ill.
Marcuse, New Left                       7:30 pm 212 E. Pearl
Photography (Begin)                     7:30 pm 212 E. Pearl
Photography Composition)            8:00 pm Main 102
Guitar (Advanced)                        2:00 pm Matrix
Guitar (Begin)                              2:00 pm Library Lounge
Bodypainting                                2:00 pm 212 E. Peral
Free School at University Park "Intercourse"
Group Dynamics                          (Tim Weber)
Art                                              (Dave Johnson)
Physics Help Session                    (Larry Bennett)
Jazz                                            (Jon Taylor)
Philosophie                                  (Tim Weber)
Rap                                            (Larry Bennett)
For more information---Student Activities Office 435-3093.
 If memory serves, both students (grad and undergrad) and faculty could teach any course they were passionate about in Free School. My class met on Wednesdays at 7:30 PM in the Old Main Building, room 201 on campus. One of my best friends at the time, Dr. Scott Kramer, another undergraduate philosophy major (who for 20 years or so now has taught philosophy in a community college in Spokane, WA), taught Beginning Guitar Lessons on Sundays. But please don't ask me to remember what the courses entitled "Chemical Warfare"  or "Experience" were about. Nor do I have any idea what the second section called "Intercourse" refers to. Remember, Free School happened in the late '60s during the height of the Vietnam War (and at SIU the Vietnam Studies Center was thought by many students, and faculty, to be involved with the CIA; it was the target of continual student protests), and during the height of counter-cultural sensibilities. If Free School had an "ideology," it was probably based on the idea of expanding the curriculum beyond what was officially offered by the university. Students were not given course credits for taking any of these classes. One of my fellow students, Buzz Spector, who is an installation artist, sometimes collaborator with Adrian Piper, former Department Chair of Cornell's Department of Art and currently Dean of the College and Graduate School of Art in the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis (he was also my fellow student at Evanston Township High School, but was a poet and just called himself Franklin Spector in those days) once remarked to me that SIU, unlike elite ivy league schools in the 1960s, was "wide-open" for student activism; it had no hoary traditions to uphold that might hold one down, and so the possibilities for Baby Boomer student creativity---and political activism---were plentiful. In that place, at that time, blue-collar, working-class kids from the city (Chicago, St. Louis), were brought together with Vietnamese exchange students, and kids from the country (one of my dormitory roommates who was drafted and sent to 'Nam was from a place called Flatrock, Illinois).
Looking through my old scrapbooks, I see that I asked students in my cartooning class to turn in weekly assignment, which I graded. The list of topics the course covered were: The Cartoon Figure; The Cartoon Head (Expressions); Exaggeration and Realism; Cartoon Composition; Light and Shadow; Perspective; Pen and Ink Delineation; Cartoon Types; Cartoon Animals; Cartoon Landscapes; Comic Strip Techniques; Marketing Cartoons; Reproduction Procedures; The Cartoon Rough; Editorial Cartooning; Basic History of Cartooning; Caricaturing; How to Create Gags; Tools of the Trade; Cartoon Juxtapositioning; Cartooning Backgrounds; and Analysis of Contemporary Cartooning.
  Rossi, I hope this post will suffice as a partial answer to your question. Thank you for asking it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


If literature isn't everything, it's not worth a single hour of someone's time. Jean-Paul Sartre.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Where are our writers like Orwell and Wells? Do you consider yourself a visionary writer?" 

This is a question of genuine interest to me. I've spent my entire adult life thinking about and working on the issue of literary and philosophical vision in my oeuvre. In her work of literary scholarship, Charles Johnson in Context (2009), Linda Ferguson Selzer says on page 6, "As a writer whose career has spanned a period of several decades, it is not surprising that Johnson has developed a number of intellectual and cultural interests, or that concerns left unanswered by one pursuit have sometimes been addressed by his immersion in another." (Italics mine) What Selzer is saying about my work did not come about by accident. All the things I've created, and various disciplines I've studied, were part of a very conscious, systematic effort to create an inter-disciplinary, multi-cultural body of work that is broad and deep, inventive and expansive. If we are speaking of philosophical vision in all its fullness, we expect for it to exhibit three things: coherence, consistency, and completeness. 
Regarding completeness, you will recall in my longish post on phenomenology, "Creative Philosophy: What You Need to Know" (Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011), that I said, "As one profile (of an object or subject) is called forth, the others recede from view. Thus to reveal (a meaning) is also to conceal (other meanings). To describe an object (to say) is also to show. But that saying or showing renders other things unseen or 'invisible'." In terms of intellectual and creative practice, what that means in terms of my work is that I've attempted to show as many profiles (meanings) as possible across creative works that span novels, short stories, essays, literary criticism, literary journalism, screen-and-teleplays, drawings, etc. (If I have not written about a subject, there is a very strong possibility that I drew something about it.) But we know the field in which meanings unfold has an ever-receding horizon. In other words, we shall as historically situated subjects never be able to describe all possible profiles or meanings for anything. (And that insures that life will always be surprising and full of the unexpected.) However, I have worked during my lifetime at consciously trying to disclose as many profiles for racial and cultural phenomenon as I can. (And my current interest in science fiction---stories like "Popper's Disease," "Sweet Dreams," "Guinea Pig," and "One Minute Past Midnight" as well as the in-progress novel I'm working on with Steven Barnes, A War in Heaven---arises specifically from the need to make a greater presence for contemporary science and technology in my body of work, because phenomena seen from the standpoint of the various sciences reveal a unique meaning, as my dissertation director Don Ihde makes so very clear in his many books.) 
 In one of my writer's notebooks, I came across this statement I jotted down for myself: "If a writer presents only one side of a problem, one meaning in exclusion to all the others, then that writer is guilty of oversimplification, one-dimensionality, a lack of depth, and an act of violence to the phenomenon itself. He has denied its richness, scaled down the possibilities of being, frozen the process of meaning at a single fixed point, and cheated the efflorescence of meaning. His (or her) work may be emotionally powerful, it may be rhetorically strong, but it does not have the integrity of real thought, which presents an open-ended series of phenomenological profiles, the light as well as the dark." I feel comfortable with standing by that statement.
 Something else that should be said is that, in my humble opinion, a body of work should deliver both theory and practice. Thus, you will find stories and visual art in my oeuvre alongside works that are theoretical (Being and Race, "Philosophy and Black Fiction," "A Boot Camp for Creative Writing," "Whole Sight," "Storytelling and the Alpha Narrative," even a very early 1973 article I wrote and illustrated entitled "Creating the Political Cartoon"), i.e., philosophical and critical books, essays, and articles that clarify the aesthetic principles that are the foundation for artistic practice. I recall decades ago my dear literary agent asking me "why" I was writing Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970. Her question was reasonable. Creative writers seldom write works of aesthetics. But my reason for doing it was that, in addition to it being my Ph.D. dissertation, we lacked in our literature a phenomenological aesthetics applied to works of black fiction. 
It is truly my hope that when scholars and students (or general readers) examine my body of work they will find interpretations (or creative renditions) that cover a wide range of subjects; they should be able to find something that addresses ontology or metaphysics, the nature of (Buddhist) perception, the nature of the self, theory of knowledge, politics and race and culture, aesthetics, theory of language, ethics, religion, American history, etc., etc. (I should note here that I probably have more yet to do with theory of science and logic because, as Buddhist scholar Richard Hayes once said, ""99.98% of all discourse in the United States is made up of informal fallacies," with the two worst offenders being argumentum ad hominem or an attack on someone's character instead of their argument; and argumentum ad verecundiam, or an appeal to authority.)
 In his introduction for Charles Johnson: The Novelist as Philosopher (2007), in the section entitled "Charles Johnson and Western Philosophical Traditions," literary scholar Marc Conner remarks that, "Johnson has long been intimately engaged with the very roots of western philosophical thought: the pre-Socratics, those Greek thinkers who preceded the great age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle by several generations...Intriguingly, when it comes to the more famous successors to the pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, John's engagement is much diminished. This is not surprising: for Plato's adherence to rationalism and idealism, and Aristotle's adherence to empiricism and realism, are neither particularly sympathetic to Johnson's own thought."
When I read those words by Dr. Conner, I realized and had to confess that he was right. I've worked with Heraclitus and Parmenides far more often than I have with Plato or Aristotle (and for reasons that he carefully explains). But this "diminished" presence in my body of work, this intellectual weakness, if you will---and Marc pointing that out---mildly annoyed me. So to clear up this matter, I wrote in 2007 a short story entitled "The Cynic," a tale narrated by Plato, who speaks at length about his teacher Socrates, Diogenes, and many other philosophers. Aristotle even makes a cameo appearance as a young student of Plato. In other words, Dr. Conner's critique inspired me to make an effort to fill in this obvious intellectual and creative "gap" in my body of work.
 For years now I've expressed (to myself) my particular literary vision in a single phrase that joins together East and West, the ancient and the modern, the rigorously philosophical and the spiritual: phenomenological Buddhism.
 And is there more to say on this subject of vision? Well, yes, of course. Much more. But let me conclude with yet another notation from my writer's workbook: "Any discipline or field at any moment has areas where it is both strong and weak, and it is the latter that always makes discovery, innovation, and creativity possible. There are areas in any field that are gray, weak, inconclusive, and uncertain in development---this is a guarantee that a significant contribution can be made in that field."

Saturday, October 22, 2011


"In our myriad deeds, whatever we do,
We reap our own rewards, it's true.
Who can we blame for our woe in the hells?
Who can there be to blame but ourselves?"
From The Buddha Speaks the Sutra of Cause and Effect in the Three Periods of Time.

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "How does a Buddhist deal with concepts like fate and destiny?"
The traditional, Buddhist answer to this question is that our "fate" or "destiny" is determined in the strictest cause-and-effect fashion by the karma we create (intentional deeds) in our present and past lives. This is simply another way of saying, "As you sow so shall you reap."

 On my desk in front of me right now is a 20-page pamphlet for Buddhist children, entitled The Buddha Speaks the Sutra of Cause and Effect in the Three Periods of Time. It was translated by the Buddhist Text Translation Society, Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, Talmage, California in 1988. The illustrations are by Lee Fei-meng (Nyou Ge) and Feng Dz-Kai. One of my martial art friends acquired this powerful---and sometimes disturbing---instruction manual on karma for kids when he was attending a Seattle Buddhist temple for lessons in Chinese.

 Everything one reads in this instruction book is correct from a traditional point of view, and applies to the realm of conventional reality (saṁvrti-satya). "All men and women of the world," it says, "whether they are poor and lowly, or wealthy and noble, whether they are undergoing fruitless sufferings or enjoying blessings without end, are experiencing causes and effects from their past lives." In this text, this pre-scientific formula is presented literally, along with illustrations, that supposedly "explain" why certain people are living with certain pleasant or unpleasant conditions. For example:

"Sometimes people have plentiful goods,
The reason, in fact, again is quite fair.
 In the past those people gave food to the poor."

"Others don't have food or drink,
Who can guess the reason why?
Before those people were plagued with a fault:
Stingy greed made them squeeze every penny."

"The well-to-do among us dwell
In tall mansions and vast estates.
The reason is they gladly gave rice,
Lavishing gifts of grain on monasteries."

"Some people's features are fine and perfect.
Surely the reason for such rewards
Is the beautiful flowers they offered to Buddhas."

This book for kids even goes so far as to state "Servants and slaves made that bondage themselves/By neglecting repayment of goodness done them."
With our modern, liberal-humanist and Western eyes we can easily see the inherent problem with this method for interpreting someone's "fate." Thousands of years ago, this inflexible method of interpretation was used in India to not only "explain" but also justify the exclusion of Untouchables from society. Here, on page 10, it is used to "explain" why some people are destined or fated to be slaves and servants. (Obviously, those with a Marxist orientation, who believe that "behind every great fortune there is a great crime," will not buy this explanation for why some are poor and others are not.) This narrow conception of karma gives us a bit of insight into the feeling that lay Buddhists throughout southeast Asia have that they must make "merit." In Thailand, you can buy merit. Venders with birds in cages will, if you pay them, allow you to open the cages and let the birds go free: instant good karma! And, yes, I did that when I was in Chiang Mai. But let's not forget one thing: this book I'm describing is for children.

 Personally, and in terms of my experience, I know nothing about past lives or reincarnation. Nothing! And a wise Buddhist abbot I interviewed in Thailand in 1997 didn't simply tell me not to talk about reincarnation, he urged me to not even think about it. (He saw his people's concern with merit-making as a sad, backward practice. As a philosophy based on change and impermanence, Buddhism itself is clearly obliged to change and evolve beyond erroneous ideas from its early, pre-scientific history.) I believe his suggestion was wise (and it fits well with my own insistence upon epistemological humility, and my certainty that the Other will always to some degree remain a mystery). According to legend, Shakyamuni Buddha saw his past lives during his night of awakening. Good for him, I say. But we, as practitioners today, should forget about the empirically unverifiable proposition of past lives. We should also "let go" thoughts about the future. And devote ourselves 100% to mindfully living in the present moment. If we do that, following the Precepts and the Eight-Fold Path, and if there is any truth to karma (which I am not claiming here), then---according to one poplar argument---it follows that the seeds we plant in the present moment will lead to good results in moments to come (the future). That is one of the beauties of Buddhism---its promise to practitioners that right here, right now, we can through our actions liberate ourselves from suffering past and present, and know happiness. We, and no one else, are in control of our lives and "destiny" moment by moment.

 But listen: even that is beside the point. Even that begs the question. If those seeds planted in the present do not lead to the "reward" we desire, so what? Our actions in the present, those devoted to alleviating the suffering of sentient beings (i.e., the Bodhissatva vow), should be performed free of the desire for personal results and rewards. Selfless doing is its own reward. Furthermore, who or what is this "self" that experiences reward? We know it, of course, to be a fiction. A construct. 

 We also find in the literature of Buddhism (and I was also told this by the abbot in Thailand) the understanding that as we progress along the path, the day eventually comes when we create neither "good" nor "bad" karma. We move beyond the realm of relativity. (And if we still unfortunately cling to that notion of good and bad karma, we can offer our good karma to others to ease their suffering.) Farther along on the path, and in terms of absolute reality (paramārtha-satya) we come to see that there is no doer. And no deeds. And the entire issue of karma---"fate" and "destiny"---becomes moot.


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "I've asked you many questions for the last ten months, now comes the big one. What is the good thing?"
Today's question won't take long to answer. In Faith and the Good Thing when the Swamp Woman is asked about the Good Thing, which is based on a popular black phrase in the 1970s and obviously refers to Plato's notion of the Good, she replies, "The Good Thing? You sure you ain't committin' the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness, girlie?" Well, of course, Faith Cross is committing that fallacy described by Alfred North Whitehead. The Swamp Woman tries to get her to see that what she desires cannot be---not ever---a thing. Later, at the novel's end, Faith's odyssey comes to rest provisionally and tentatively on her belief that the Good Thing is love.
Ancient Greek philosophy is much concerned with three, grand themes: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. (Even the Swamp Woman conflates goodness and beauty, but playfully elevates them above whatever we mean by "truth.") I have absolutely no desire to rewrite that early novel (for I still believe that the experience of love in its many manifestations underlies those things we judge to be good); but if I were to revise that text 37-years after its publication, I would want to add to the many philosophical explanations of the Good that Faith encounters (2,000 years worth of ethical positions from the Greeks to the existentialists appear in that novel) the voice of W.E.B. Du Bois in 1926 when in his address "Criteria of Negro Art," he imagines with clarity of vision and hard-won wisdom the conditions required for the realization of "a beautiful world":
             "...if we had the true spirit; if we had the Seeing Eye, the Cunning Hand, the Feeling Heart; if we had, to be sure, not perfect happiness, but plenty of good hard work, the inevitable suffering that comes with life; sacrifice and waiting, all that---but, nevertheless, lived in a world where men know, where men create, where they realize themselves and where they enjoy life." (Italics mine.)
In other words, my sense in 2011 of the Good Thing is a good life, one lived within the contours so eloquently and realistically described by Du Bois.


Thursday, October 20, 2011


"I'm a nigger. I can do anything." Statement by black, Northwestern philosophy student Gilton Cross to me in 1974.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: Could you talk about the campus TV show you hosted while at Southern Illinois University?

When I think about the how-to-draw PBS television series I created, hosted and co-produced in 1969, "Charlie's Pad," I'm reminded that public television at that time had the wide-open, freewheeling character that commercial television had in the early 1950s. Anything was possible, as it had been during the early years for Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky.  The year before I approached my campus station WSIU-TV with the idea for this show, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the major source for PBS programming) had just been created by Congress. All over America, local PBS stations were hungry for content. There can be no other explanation for why WSIU-TV went with a proposal for a 52-part series by a 21-year-old, black undergraduate. Of course, there was another reason, too, but I'll get to that in a moment after the following aside:
It's always been amusing to me that I'm primarily known as a "writer," because before the age of 30 I had to prove and distinguish myself in three different professional fields. In other words, between the ages of 17 and 30, I had to start all over again from scratch and Square One three different times in three "worlds" that had their own vocabulary, grammar, "school rules," and expectations. (No wonder I feel so existentially tired some days.) Those professions are (1) As a professional cartoonist/illustrator and journalist; (2) As a black doctor of philosophy and Buddhist scholar; and (3) As a literary artist, and black literature scholar. What I also find amusing is that workers in those three fields tend to believe their field is the only one of importance. As an undergraduate taking as many philosophy courses as I did those in journalism, I once had one of my journalism professors take me to one side and in all seriousness and "concern," tell me that I would have to choose between philosophy and journalism for my career. Later, John Gardner said to me that my earlier work as a visual artist and comic artist was just "preparation" for writing fiction. And I recall in graduate school the late, distinguished philosopher Justus Buchler (a major figure in American pragmatism) inviting me to chat in his office at SUNY-Stony Brook after the publication of Faith and the Good Thing so he could let me know that he knew of no one who had ever distinguished himself as both a great philosopher and great novelist. I dredge up these memories because some people in the three, professional "worlds" I've worked in tended to be provincial and protective of their bailiwick. Those in philosophy and the literary world expressed no interest in my life as a cartoonist/journalist. Many in the "creative writing" world seem to have an aversion to philosophy. And so on and so forth. But, obviously, I ignored them all, because in each case the person was speaking through the lens of their own creative and intellectual limitations. (And I've also loved, too, the very existential epigraph for this post, which was something said to me by a brilliant young black philosopher after he read Faith.) In short, one of my individual life's challenges was always to ignore the kind of negativity and professional parochialism I've just described, to keep working at the diverse things I love, and to find as many ways as possible of bringing all of them together.
In 1969, I came up with the idea of a how-to-draw show for PBS after working intensely---and exhaustively---since the age of 17 in 1965 as an editorial and panel cartoonist, illustrator, and comic strip artist. I'd already taught other students cartooning in a 1968 class that took place in SIU's "Free School," where anyone could teach anything they wanted (for free, of course). I was publishing in the black press (Ebony, Jet, Black World, Players, St. Louis's Proud ) and white newspapers (The Chicago Tribune, my campus newspaper, and The Southern Illinoisan), and selling one-page scripts (drawn by others on staff) to Charlton Comics, which was the low-man on the totem-pole of comic book companies in the late 1960s (their best artist was the brilliant, eccentric, and reclusive Steve Ditko, who was also the original artist for Marvel's "Spiderman.") I was publishing drawings anywhere and everywhere I could, including some soft-core porn for men's magazines (all those magazines vanished after the rise of feminism, thank heaven). You name it, I did it---or rather drew it--- in my youth (a lot of this I see as juvenilia), and to be honest I've forgotten some of the places I published visual art. By 1970, I'd published around 1,000 drawings, and the same year "Charlie's Pad" was broadcast (1970) my first book of political cartoons Black Humor was released by Johnson Publications in Chicago, and followed quickly by Half-Past Nation Time in 1972. (I also did other full-length cartoon manuscripts on slavery and Buddhism, but those have been lost over time.)
          So here is how "Charlie's Pad" happened:
 One spring day in 1969 when I bored, I sent a letter to WSIU-TV, summarizing my work as a cartoonist and pitching the idea for the show. I never expected them to write back. But they did, and called me to come in and talk about the project. I think what they liked about the idea was that it was inexpensive. All they needed to have was me sitting at a drawing table in front of two cameras. I designed each of the 52 programs (or lessons) for a 15-minute slot, and based the lessons on the correspondence course I took with writer/cartoonist Lawrence Lariar between the years 1963 and 1965 when I was in high school. We started shooting in fall of 1969. We shot three shows at a time. Director Scott Kane came up with the title, "Charlie's Pad," which I thought was cute at best. The series began running locally in southern Illinois in the spring of 1970, even before we'd shot the last lessons. Then it ran in Chicago. And Boston (on WGBH). And all over the country on different PBS stations for about eight to ten years. It was even broadcast, or so I heard, in Canada. Some stations ran one show a week for a year, which was my original intention. Others ran two shows together for a 30-minute block of programming. It was the kind of series PBS stations could assemble in different ways depending on the time slot(s) they needed to fill.
"Charlie's Pad" was, in a way, the culmination of my work at the time as a cartoonist. No sooner than it was on the air in 1970, I started writing novels, and by 1971 I was working on my master's degree in philosophy. In other words, I moved on.
But back in the early 70s I received a lot of mail from viewers around the country who would send me their drawings for commentary after they watched a particular show. (I have a box of that old mail somewhere in my attic, but I haven't looked at it in decades.) Personally, I can't watch "Charlie's Pad" because I was so young at the time I did it that what I see on the screen seems like an animated high school yearbook photo of myself. (But the demands that came with doing that show did teach me how to be relaxed on camera, and how to develop a voice appropriate for TV or radio.) And even today, within the last year or so, I still receive mail from people who saw the show when they were kids, learned a little something about how to draw from it, and wrote to thank me because they said "Charlie's Pad" gave them the ability to draw for their own children. (Here's a footnote: that series led to my first speaking engagement in 1970 at Xavier College in New Orleans, which invited me there to do a talk on cartooning.)
You will probably never see this series. It was broadcast before the era of VCRs. I have a DVD with three sample shows on it, sent to me by WSIU-TV. That station, I was informed recently, now only has those three shows left. The rest, 49 15-minute lessons (preserved on very old technology) were lost when one of the out-going station directors did some housecleaning. But the director who replaced him said he grabbed those three shows at the last minute. A couple of years ago, that director broadcast those three shows locally in southern Illinois as part of a series WSIU-TV did on the early days of PBS programming. It was an exciting era in the history of PBS, and I guess "Charlie's Pad" is a kind of window onto those wild and wooly early days.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: In his essay "I Was My Father's Father, and He My Child": The Process of Black Fatherhood and Literary Evolution in Charles Johnson's Fiction" William R. Nash writes about the fatherless males in your work. This seems far from your personal experience and life. Since this theme appears in some of your early work can we conclude that you would not write about it today?

When I was growing up in a Chicago suburb in the 1950s, I was one of the few black kids in my neighborhood who had a father (and an excellent one, at that). Many of my black friends were being raised by single mothers. This was an extraordinarily painful social situation then, as it is now. I remember talking with one of my best friends about our future dreams just before we graduated from high school. He was a good kid, always joking and cheerful. But that day, as we stood on the sidewalk in front of my father's house, he confessed that he feared he wasn't smart enough to go to college. And then he said, "I don't even know who my father is." I was at a loss for words. Clearly, this confession hurt him. It was something---a burden, a pain, an ache---he carried every minute of every day, but never spoke about. (That friend enlisted in the Navy after we graduated, then became a minister.) Decades later, when my daughter brought one of her boyfriends by our house for the first time to meet my wife and myself, that childhood event was echoed when this young man said (later to my daughter) that ours was the first house he'd been to in his thirty years of living where there was both a black mother and a black father.

Seventy percent of young black children today have no father in their homes. As newspaper columnist William Raspberry once put it, this is no longer a "problem." It is a condition. I remember talking once with my former editor at The New York Times Book Review about the plays of August Wilson. After some discussion, it became clear to both of us that the play August always wanted to write---but didn't---was one about the anguish he felt from childhood caused by the absence of his white (German) father from his life. ("He wasn't around much," was the way August put it, bitterly.) Why he didn't write about that is understandable. It's too painful. I remember, too, once giving an interview to a white woman reporter in my office in the English Department at the University of Washington. At some point during that interview, I mentioned my childhood and my father. And what did this woman say to me? "Oh! You had a father?" Pardon my English, but I've long regretted the fact that I didn't bitch-slap this person right then, right there, when she said that. I should have kicked her out of my office. (She was very lucky, believe me, that I try to live my life non-violently as a Buddhist. But remember: I grew up in the environs of Chicago. Bitch-slapping was a thought that crossed my mind but, thanks to vipassana and being raised right, I let it go to maintain Right Action and Right Speech. Black Buddhists have to practice such restraint in the white world all the time.)

Because I did have a strong black man as a father, one who was the most moral man I've every known. Who loved black people. Who taught me how to work, be a man, and take care of my loved ones. I thanked him all my life for that gift. The gift of his example, which I grew up seeing night and day. (Today, my South Carolina relatives remark all the time about how uncanny it is that I look so much like him, that they often think they're talking to my late Dad when they're talking to and looking at me.) But so many of our young black men today do not have their biological father living with them or significantly present in their lives. I've written many times, and in many places, that this situation profoundly destabilizes the black family. And that destabilizes the entire black community. 
Just yesterday, columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. of the The Washington Post, wrote in his piece "A Bargain For the American Family," that "The impact of the single-parent family on the well-being of children has sometimes been an explosive matter because it is often discussed in relation to the African-American community. Obama himself has made this explicit link...'We know that children who grow up without a father are more likely to live in poverty...They're more likely to drop out of school. They're more likely to wind up in prison. They're more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They're more likely to become teenage parents themselves.' Growing up without a father (Obama said) 'leaves a hole in a child's life that no government can fill.'...Black men do face a crisis...It does not demean the heroic work of dedicated single mothers to say that two-parent families have a better shot at prosperity."

 So, yes, in my fiction I've often grappled with this problem that is so raw, so  intractable, and so old that we usually prefer not to even speak its name. Rutherford Calhoun in Middle Passage and both Matthew Bishop and Chaym Smith in Dreamer have never known their fathers. I've always wondered: How can you honor your father if you don't know who he is? How do you determine, then, who you are? Believe me, I will return in my fiction, today and tomorrow, to this genuinely dire sociological and existential characteristic---the Absent Father---of black life in America, because nearly all of our problems as a people can be traced to it. It was a problem that I did not have, personally. But it has left a deep scar, a wound, on so many black people, male and female, that I've known in my life. Actually, if we cannot repair this generations-old problem, then I am not optimistic about the future of black America.