Saturday, May 28, 2011


There are a couple of different but related questions on the table to answer today. Things that need to be tidied up.

Between 1969 and 1972, I did several book-length cartoon manuscripts. Johnson Publications in Chicago (the Ebony, Jet, Black World people) published the first one, Black Humor (1970), which I drew in one intense week after hearing a campus lecture by Amiri Baraka; and a fly-by-night west coast publisher, Aware Press, did the second, Half-Past-Nation Time (1972), but after that book came out, its publisher disappeared into thin air with a third book-length manuscript of drawings I did devoted entirely to the subject of slavery. (This second book from 1972 is extremely hard to find and I only have one copy of it myself.) Yet another book-length manuscript (unpublished) was on meditation and Eastern philosophy---some of those appear in a little book called Buddha Laughing (Bell Tower, 1999), which the editors at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review put together. (These drawings were published in that volume shortly before I started writing essays for Tricycle and later was selected to be one of their contributing editors by publisher Helen Tworkov just before she stepped down from running that magazine.)

The two published cartoon volumes deal a lot with black cultural nationalism, which was very much with us (tyrannical so, in my opinion) in the late 1960s and early '70s. Critics are right to point out that emphasis in the drawings, and to note the absence of that now dated subject in my fiction and non-fiction.

In addition to asking for the above clarifications, Ethelbert asks, "What themes do you feel critics overlook in your work? What order would you suggest your work be taught? Is it important to study the cartoons, too?"

I suspect one underlying, general theme critics often overlook in my work is the question raised in my story about Plato and Diogenes, called "The Cynic": How does one live a life of moral and spiritual integrity in a broken, corrupt society? That is a question that drives Faith Cross, Andrew Hawkins, Rutherford Calhoun, and Matthew Bishop.

From my days as an undergraduate forward, my work has always been very inter-disciplinary. One form of artistic and intellectual expression nurtures and feeds the others. Whatever it is we call creativity and the imagination--those two great mysteries---can be for some creators experienced as "global" in their lives, not localized in a single form of expression, but rather spreading or spilling from one genre to another, one artistic or intellectual discipline to another, for all the humanities (along with the sciences) are related, interconnected. When some people wake up each day they're as liable to pick up a drawing pen as begin a new story on their word processor, as likely to grapple with a philosophical essay about the mind/body problem as they are with the first stanza of a poem. (Frankly, for a Buddhist, one's daily life itself can be seen as a  canvas, a work-in-progress shaped by each and every one of our creative and rational deeds until the day of our death.) Or see creative imagination as the roots and trunk of a tree that shoots forth many branches of expression that arise from the same mysterious, inexhaustible source. (And isn't there something very quintessentially American, even Emersonian and Ellisonian, about an individual artist---or any person---who embodies the Many in the One, who is creatively free in a democratic republic to do this and this and, naturally, that, too?)
 However, for the sake of convenience people in general---and not just critics---always feel they need to label and categorize an artist.(This is especially true for artists of color.) We like to put things in neat, little boxes. After his or her name, they'll say "novelist," and ignore the others fields in which that individual works. 

Or they'll say,"poet." Or "screenwriter." All of this speaks to the natural, inevitable and annoying human tendency to oversimplify people and things (or any phenomenon) to make them manageable. But a polymorphous creator doesn't want, of course, to see any of his children slighted or ignored. (However, that's a situation he or she may simply have to learn to live with.) A sort of ars poetica statement I was asked to write for the Academy of Arts and Letters when I received their Academy Award in Literature in 2002 best expresses, metaphorically, how I see this situation in respect to my own body of work. Here is a slightly abbreviated version of that statement:

 "I see my body of work as being like a mansion with many rooms.  The foundation for the mansion is the novel Oxherding Tale.  Inside this imaginative “house” are rooms you can wander through or dwell in for awhile.  One has novels.  Another has short fiction. A third has 295 interviews from radio and television, in newspapers, and scholarly journals.  In the fourth you’ll find screen-and-teleplays. A fifth has philosophical essays such as “Reading the Eightfold Path.”  A sub-room of that has essays on many subjects---on Indonesia, how to draw political cartoons,the craft of storytelling, a pedagogy for writing workshops, the history of black cartoonists, an overview of black literature since the Harlem Renaissance, film critiques, and critical appreciations of many writers. Yet another room is devoted to book reviews. Other rooms have editorial and panel cartoons, comic strips, texts for studio photo books, and many public addresses and lectures. On and on through this house, from the basement to the attic, you’ll find prose and visual art in numerous aesthetic forms (the slave narrative, the sea adventure story, the folktale, the animal fable, the fabliau, and political novel).  There is fiction and non-fiction on the martial arts, affirmative-action, “exchange value,” Dr. Martin Luther King’s refrigerator, and a future in which the government taxes people’s dreams as well as traditional fables and parables in a sub-room of the bigger room devoted to short stories.  This is my conception of what a total body of work should be, one that is evolved over a lifetime, is generous in form and content, and offers a variety of different aesthetic experiences."

Thursday, May 26, 2011


At the peak of the intense and thoroughly enjoyable seven years I spent as a professional cartoonist and illustrator (starting when I was 17-years-old), and before I became a "writer," I would produce five finished drawings a day, Monday through Friday, for a total of 25 by week's end. I was in early graduate school then (1971), and I would usually sell 5 of the 25, and that was enough for my wife and I to buy groceries every week. More even than the comic idea, I prided myself on my draftsmanship, which was at its best between 1970-73. 

But sadly (for me), this is an important side of my life and work that literary scholars and other writers usually ignore because their training is in English (words), not art. They don't know how to talk about the work of cartoonists and illustrators, though so many Americans have been both writers and visual artists, for example, James Thurber and John Updike. If you want to blow your mind and see just how many writers have been excellent artists, look at The Writer's Brush: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers, edited by Donald Friedman with essays by William Gass and John Updike (Mid-List Press, 2007). I was very pleased that work from that book was on exhibit in two galleries on the east coast shortly after its publication, and that my humble offerings were included. To be honest, I often talk about writing and aesthetics in terms of the grammar of the visual arts, because that was the first professional Tribe I belonged to.

These days when I have a drawing assignment, I prefer to spend eight hours on  just one composition. Since my childhood I've immersed my mind in the visual arts of the world, comic art especially, everything from Zen drawings to Honoré Daumier,  Thomas Rolandson, Thomas Nast, George Cruikshank, the late great black editorial cartoonist Ollie Harrington (a friend of Richard Wright) who I had the pleasure of meeting at a cafe in Berlin in 1989, everything. This wide-ranging interest in visual art is, I suspect, the basis for my similar interest in world literature, and in the possibilities of formal variations, for a journeyman artist must learn to work in many styles and have many approaches for solving a particular creative problem.

My first published article was on this subject, "Creating the Political Cartoon" in Scholastic Editor/Communications and Graphics (1973), and for that I did both the text and illustrations. The hope for any artist is to create something worthy of being reprinted over the years. But I also love writing about cartoonists. See my introductions for Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History, by Fredrik Strömberg (Fantagraphics Books, 2003), and Still I Rise: A Cartoon History of African Americans, by Roland Owen Laird, Jr (W.W. Norton & Co., 1997).

First comes the idea. Then I do some research on the costuming and the setting I want to use. After that, I play with sketches to arrive at a composition that I feel is balanced. The pencil work takes the most time, but since I was a kid I've loved the ekagratha (Sk. for "one-pointedness") of focused attention to detail (every line, every stroke), and the total absorption I experience at this stage.

Then comes the fun part, the inking. As when doing calligraphy, you must feel free and flexible when the ink pen is in your hand. I prefer bold strokes and strong outlines. (You can identify every cartoonist by his style; and that was the premise of one of my teacher Lawrence Lariar's detective novels.) Your whole body is involved, not just the mind. Indeed, drawing is a right-brained activity, and I relax into this final stage like a man easing into a warm bath, with music from a Seattle soft jazz station playing in the background on my radio. After that comes shading by using wash, half-tone screens, or Photoshop (which I'm still learning how to use). In other words, I'm in heaven. Truth to tell, like John Updike, I'd rather draw than write on most days. I love the feel of the paper, the ink sometimes staining my fingertips, the wholeness that comes from the experience of drawing. (Words are symbols, so abstract and cerebral  by comparison.)

If readers would care to see a portfolio of what I think is some of my best work, please go to my author's website at Look toward the left and you'll see "Cartoons 1970-2004." Click on that. It also has a publicity photo from my 1970 PBS how-to-draw series, "Charlie's Pad." (To this day---even just two weeks ago---I hear from people who tell me they learned how to draw from watching that show when they were kids.) 

For one of the best articles written on my work in this area, check out cartoonist Tim Kreider's essay on my first published book, "Brighter in Hindsight: Black Humor by Charles Johnson," posted in The Comics Journal, Jan. 18, 2010. The link for this is Brighter in Hindsight: Black Humor by Charles R. Johnson « The Comics Journal.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


As I compose these words, writer Tom Williams, an associate editor of the American Book Review, is working to finish by the end of May a commentary on the philosophical, science fiction story "Popper's Disease." That commentary will be published in the online literary magazine The Collagist, which Williams tells me reprints "a classic story with commentary by an admirer of that story." I haven't seen Tom's commentary yet. Since I don't want to influence or interfere in any way with his interpretation of that tale (which I am very thankful for), I think it's best for me to keep this statement about the story, originally published in Callaloo and reprinted in my first collection The Sorcerer's Apprentice, brief.

If memory serves, I wrote that story during the summer of 1978 and, believe it or not, it was the first story I composed on an electric typewriter, everything prior to that having been written on a manual. (And I didn't start writing on a word processor until 1989.) Partly inspired by Kafka's "A Country Doctor" (which inspired John Gardner's sci-fi story about clones, "The Ravages of Spring"), "Popper's Disease" is about a black physician in southern Illinois who witnesses the crash of an alien spacecraft. The doctor is a man who has "integrated" into the white world in the post-Civil Rights period, but with a certain social uneasiness due to the fact that blacks and whites so often misunderstand each other---indeed, they are often opaque and mysterious to one another. He enters the wreckage to help its occupant and discovers that this alien, called the Creature, is suffering from a fatal affliction and has been exiled by its species to the Earth where that disease is common. The hope is that perhaps earthlings, who are familiar with this sickness, can find a cure.

I hope readers find this story to be as funny as I intended it to be. When the telepathic Creature describes the symptoms of his illness to Dr. Popper (whimsically named after philosopher Karl Popper), it's clear that what he is suffering from is a severe case of Sartrean existentialism as it is presented in Being and Nothingness. The alien senses that he is pour soi or "being for itself," an individual and separate consciousness, but everything else is en soi or Being-in-itself, which is intrinsically opaque and massive. As philosopher Herbert Spiegelberg explains in The Phenomenological Movement: A Historical Introduction (Vol. Two), "Consciousness as such, beginning with its questioning behavior...proves to be the opening wedge for the 'nothing'; without it there would be no place for the 'nothing' in the universe of Being...Consciousness sets itself off against Being by a fundamental act of negation..." 
        And so our poor suffering space traveler says: 
"Well," he said, touching the tips of his tentacles, looking away, "for no apparent reason, and without the slightest warning, I experience feelings of first a tightness in the cerebral area, a tremor or unpleasant quiver, then a shock of dislocation, cold sweat, followed by vomiting, vertigo---the sense of falling, the inability to ascertain precisely what things mean, and the peculiar sense that I am somehow dependent upon everything in my perceptual field: xlanthia, hbeds, or sploks, which have a curious opacity, a marvelous beauty"---here he burst into tears---yet threaten to absorb me, engulf me, annihilate me complete, because I am, in a word, deeply and inexorably different from them." His anguish exploded in my mind. "It's nauseating, do you see?"
(Remember Sartre's 1938 novel La Nausée?)

Ah, but those are just the annoying, surface symptoms of his disease. As the tale progresses, Dr. Popper sees to his shock that he is being cuckolded by his white wife (that vision appears on a surveillance screen/computer called the Telecipher in the creature's ship). Like the alien from beyond the stars, he feels all at once that he, as a black man, exists as an alien in his own social world in America. He also realizes that he is now trapped in the wreckage of the downed space craft, and his extra-terrestrial patient is dying.

The story eases away from Sartrean existentialism to Buddhist metaphysics. On the Creature's home world, ontological dualism does not exist. There is only the appearance of "difference" and a separate identity, which are illusions. Everything is interdependent. The Aristotelian logical rules of identity are overturned, as they are in quantum physics where a quanta of energy can be either a particle (A=A) or a wave (A=not-A), depending upon where and when you glimpse it.  Trapped inside the ship, frantically working with the Telecipher to unlock the mystery of the disease, Dr. Popper is startled when the machine suddenly and surprisingly diagnoses the sickness: It's the Self and There is no cure.
Do I believe in the existence of aliens? Well, I'd love to see an extra-terrestrial spacecraft land on the White House lawn at noon with all the world's cameras recording that event. But we don't have, I'm afraid, a single shred of empirical evidence so far to support the existence of life anywhere except on Earth. We may be alone in the universe, an accident of evolution on our little, blue-green planet in its Goldilocks orbit around the sun. (A huge amount of evidence supports that thesis.) On the other hand, the probability of something similar to that "accident" happening elsewhere in a universe with stars as numerous as grains of sand on a beach should not be dismissed.

I've longed believed that aliens in our popular imagination serve much the same purpose that angels did during the Middle Ages. Like angels, they descend from the heavens, usually shrouded in light. Their science and technology border on resembling the supernatural. Aliens, then, are a metaphor---and that is how so many science-fiction writers have depicted them. (We really can't imagine an alien precisely because it is alien to everything we know.) In a sense, then, they are our projections of an apparently deep-seated human need for an encounter with mystery and wonder.
         And what could be wrong with that?
         P.S. I guess I didn't keep this "brief" after all.

Monday, May 23, 2011


 E. Ethelbert Miller asks if Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or any spiritual tradition can help black men overcome the difficulty they have being good fathers. I don't need to recite the dire statistics. You know what he's talking about.
I'd like to angle in on this question by introducing E-Channel readers to the work of a man I have long admired and learned from, the late, great meditation teacher Eknath Easwaran. After a career as an English teacher in India, Eknath Easwaran came to America in 1959 on the Fulbright exchange program, and once he established himself in California he founded the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in Berkeley in 1960. He was a remarkably prolific writer, one very literary and with a delicious sense of humor, as you might expect from a retired English professor. Like his hero Gandhi, Easwaran embraced and taught those things that are positive and valuable in all spiritual traditions. 
I began reading Easwaran's works in 1981, all his books and translations of Hindu classics, and every issue of his journal The Little Lamp (that was the pet name given to him in Kerala by his grandmother, Eknath Chippu Kunchi Ammal, whom Easwaran saw as his most important spiritual teacher). And I have long been in the habit of giving to friends and former students either interested in meditation or experiencing suffering his concise, compressed, 16-page pamphlet Instructions in Meditation (1972), available through a press he founded, Nilgiri Press. 

That little instruction manual summarizes the eight-point program for meditation and leading a spiritual life that we find in Easwaran's other books. I trust it completely. The first thing I came to realize when I became a father at 27-years-old in 1975, is that when you have a child you must cease being a child yourself. You must put aside childish things and childish ways, and this can be especially hard for some people in America's infantile, narcissistic "youth culture" that seems to trap so many people in prolonged adolescence. You must become a practicing grown-up because you have brought into the world a helpless, completely vulnerable life that depends on your care and unselfish devotion 24/7 for at least 18 years (but usually longer) until you empower him or her to become self-reliant. Parenting is the most important job any human being can have. And as someone once said, it does involve a" life-time sentence." Easwaran's Instructions in Meditation is an infallible guide for being such a parent and a grown-up.

           The eight points of his program are as follows:

1). Meditation. "Most of us have grasshopper minds dispersing our attention, energy, and desires in multitudinous directions, and depriving us of the power to draw deeper and richer resources for creative living," Easwaran writes. Meditation is the antidote for those characteristics of what Vivekananda famously called the ever agitated and out of control "monkey mind."

2). Japam. This is "repetition of the mantram or holy name." In Sanskrit, mantram  literally means "mind refuge," or "mind protection." Think of this in terms of how you've seen elephants swinging their trunks wildly until a mahout gives the elephant a stick to curl its trunk around. This always calms the elephant. The mind is like that and during times of emotional turmoil simply needs something to hold onto in order to steady itself. Japam is that stick and serves that purpose. (Just before I have to give a reading or a lecture, I always find myself silently doing japam as I sit listening to someone introduce me to an audience.)

3). Slow down. Easwaran quotes British poet John Donne when he says, "Be your own home and therein dwell. Let us find our center of gravity within ourselves by simplifying and slowing down our life."

4. Ekagratha. Or one-pointedness. "Everywhere in the modern world we see people splitting their attention in many ways." In Sanskrit, ekagratha is translated as eka which means "one" and gratha, meaning "to hold or grasp." Thus, concentration is a single-grasping by consciousness of an activity or object.

5. Sense Restraint. Easwaran writes, "Sense stimulation is the slogan of the network of mass media all around us. A Western historian goes to the extent of calling modern civilization a sensate one. Therefore we have to be extremely vigilant to ensure that we do not come under its tyranny...In order to train our senses we have to exercise discriminating restraint over the food we eat, the books we read, the movies we see, the music we listen to, and the places we frequent. Gandhiji was fond of pointing out that control of the palate helps in controlling the mind."

6. Putting Others First. To answer the question put to me today, I would like to quote at length what Easwaran says about putting others first:
"Our emphasis on the family context is because it gives us countless opportunities every day for expanding our consciousness by reducing our self-will or separateness. When we are dwelling on ourselves we are constricting our consciousness. To the extent that we put the welfare of others first, we are able to break out of the prison of our own separateness.
"This need not mean following the wishes of the other person always, but when it seems necessary to differ, it must be done tenderly and without the slightest trace of resentment or retaliation."

7. Reading the Scriptures. "We need to benefit from all the sources of inspiration we can find and the sacred scriptures of all religions should come first on our list."

8. Satsang. "Association with spiritually oriented people. We need companionship and support when we are changing the very basis of our life by changing our old ways."
Most of us are house-holders, not monks. We are the laity and have not renounced the world by entering the monastery (yet). By following Easwaran's Instructions in Meditation, we all can be better fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, students and teachers, employees and employers. The context of the family, and fatherhood (or motherhood), are fertile ground for daily spiritual practice and refining our ability to give generously and unselfishly.

Sunday, May 22, 2011



I told him that black literature is often approached as records of oppression, but that my students don't focus on white cruelty but rather its flip side: black courage. Jerald Walker, "Dragon Slayers."
In the future, whenever we talk about the black American narrative or story, I  hope that my 2008 essay in American Scholar entitled "The End of the Black American Narrative" will be part of that discussion (It has been reprinted often, used in classes and by one think tank, and I did interviews for this with radio programs from Los Angeles to Australia). But what I really want to talk about, and have other people talk about, is Jerald Walker's brilliant essay "Dragon Slayers," originally published in Iowa Review.

Walker says that in his courses on black American literature, he betrays "the belief that blacks are primarily victims...a common view held by both races. I, too, held it for many years. When I was in my early twenties and making my first crude attempts at writing fiction, I'd sit at my word processor and pound out stories brimming with blacks who understood only anger and pain. My settings were always ghettos, because that was what I knew, and the plots centered on hardship and suffering, because I knew that, too."

It was one of his distinguished teachers in the Iowa Writers Workshop, Pulitzer-prize author James Alan McPherson, who helped Walker see that what he was doing was easy art, as I've often called it since 1988 when I published Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970: a form of writing that is as false as gangster rap written by rappers who live in wealthy white suburbs and send their children to private schools. McPherson said, "What some gangster rappers are doing is using black stereotypes because white people eat that stuff up. But these images are false, they're dishonest. Some rappers are selling out their race for personal gain...That's what this writer is doing with his work." Later, McPherson added, "Less time needs to be spent on the dragons, and more on our ability to forge swords for battle, and the skill with which we've used them."
Initially, says Walker, he was crushed by this brutally honest critique in a creative writing workshop. But then he realized this was a long overdue awakening.

"I had become my own stereotype," writes Walker, "a character in one of my short stories who insisted on seeing himself primarily as a repository of pain and defeat, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The very people with whom I had been raised and whom I had dedicated myself to rendering in prose had become victims of my myopia. My stories showed people being affected by drug addiction, racism, poverty, murder, crime, violence, but they said nothing about the spirit that, despite being confronted with what often amounted to certain defeat, would continue to struggle and aspire for something better. That old slave song 'We Shall Overcome' pretty much says it all."

Jerald Walker, in my view, has published an essay that provides for a younger generation of writers (and some older writers, I would add) an aesthetic statement as important as Richard Wright's 1938 manifesto "A Blueprint for Negro Writing" or Ralph Ellison's "The World and the Jug." It is reprinted in The Best American Essays, 2007. Please read it.

And let it be a touchstone for all your future conversations about the black American narrative or story.


According to my records, my work has been translated into Dutch, French, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Greek, South Korean, and Russian (with U.K. editions, too, of course). And I was recently contacted by someone who wants to translate them into Chinese. Predictably, the book most often translated is Middle Passage.
I've seldom had the opportunity to work with foreign translators of my books. A couple of times, but not many. That fact led to some foreign editions that are, to put this politely, problematic. For example, in 1986 the French publisher Flammarion did a translation of my novel Oxherding Tale as Le Conte du bouvier. They brought me to Paris for a week of book promotion, and at that time I had the pleasure of speaking with the delightful young woman, Hélène Devaux-Minié, who did the translation. She explained to me that the novel's final chapter, entitled Moksha, had given her much trouble. (In Sanskrit, it means "liberation from the cycle of birth and death, complete freedom, salvation.") She couldn't find, she said, that Hindu word in any of the French dictionaries she consulted. So instead for that chapter title she substituted the word Mokry, which means "mockery." That word-choice, sad to say, is entirely wrong and misleading.
And I have one other translation "war story" I can share.
Before I retired, I lined up on the bookshelves on one wall in my office at the University of Washington all the American and foreign editions of my books (Just in case we ever had a fire at our house and my other copies were destroyed). One was an Italian edition of Oxherding Tale entitled Il Racconto del Mandriano, published by Edizioni E/O in 1990. One day a student came into my office for a conference, sat down in a chair, and looked at that edition's cover. Then he asked, "Why is Langston Hughes on the cover of your book?"
Yes, that's right: Edizioni E/O had used as the novel's cover art an illustration based on a well-known photo of a young Langston Hughes. What were they thinking? Your guess is as good as mine. If only that publisher so far away had contacted me about their plans for the cover! But such was not the case. Moral of the story? If you can work with a foreign publisher and translator for one of your titles, I highly recommend that you do so.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


The work of Hermann Hesse has been more influential on my fiction than I sometimes publicly admit. Literary scholars seldom recognize this connection, and I've never bothered to fully explain it, allowing them to emphasize instead the influence of my black American predecessors like Ellison (or John Gardner), as they wished to do. 
However, during my student days, whenever I became interested in a writer, I binged on his work, buying and reading everything in print with his name on it. So in my library I have everything published by and about John Gardner, the complete works of Charles Dickens (an edition from the 1920s), all the published work of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Jean Toomer, a full set of works by Mark Twain, and everything by D.H. Lawrence---the novels, short stories, essays, correspondence, poetry, and critical studies of those writers. Immersing myself in a single writer's entire oeuvre that way allowed me to see their performances at their best and not so best, and that's a good way for a young writer to unlock the mysteries of their techniques, style, and their individual visions. It also serves one well when called upon to write critically about their work.

So it was with Hermann Hesse when I was an undergraduate and translations of his work were very popular with young people on college campuses in the 1960s and '70s. A friend in philosophy gave me a copy of Demian, which I found to be only mildly interesting at the time. But that led me to Siddhartha, which connected perfectly with my own passion for Buddhism and eastern thought. It was a novel that haunted me because Hesse was working with one of the greatest philosophical stories ever told in human experience, in the East or the West: the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, an archetypal, spiritual adventure and quest for liberation. (Thomas Mann, Hesse's friend, also attempted an imaginative "journey to the east" in his story The Transposed Heads: A Tale of India, but I found this foray into eastern thought far less satisfactory than Hesse's work.) Siddhartha haunted me for years and years. I knew I had to respond to it from a black American perspective, and so I did in Oxherding Tale.

But Siddhartha is only one expression of Hesse's vision, albeit the most famous for American readers along with Steppenwolf; I found the others equally fascinating, and realized much of his spiritual probings (and sources) were similar to my own, in addition to his interest in exploring different literary forms like the bundesroman in The Journey to the East, and künstlerroman, the novel of an artist’s growth to maturity in Narcissus and Goldmund. (As a younger man, I read and reread the excellent critical study by Theodore Ziolkowski, The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A Study in Theme and Structure, and often refer to it today.)

For example, in Faith and the Good Thing, when the protagonist Faith Cross contrasts the "magical thinking" of her storytelling father Todd to the materialistic and deterministic visions of the other men she encounters in that novel, "magical thinking" is a direct reference to a phrase by Hesse. And "magical thinking," an alternative to the reductive scientism that so troubled phenomenologist Edmund Husserl and others in the early 20th century, lead Hesse---as it did me---to the possibilities of the tale as one of the ancestral forms of fiction that free writers and readers from the constraints of a naive naturalism (Faith, for example, is told as a black American folk tale), a form that permits greater exploration of spiritual questions. (See The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse, trans. by Jack Zipes, Bantam Books, 1995.)

Thus at the end of Magister Ludi (aka "The Glass Bead Game"), which locked down Hesse's Noble prize for literature, we find poems and stories supposedly written by that novel's protagonist. One final, longish story, "The Indian Life," was inspired by a Hindu legend. Since I figured Hesse did not own that legend, I wrote my own version of it in "The Gift of the Osuo."

I could go on and on with these deliberate comparisons: for example, an existentialist speech by Chaym Smith in Chapter Five of Dreamer that echoes one in Demian; or one by the character Wendy Barnes in my story "Alethia" that is indebted to Hesse. But I've always been content to let literary scholars make these discoveries on their own. And if they don't? Well, that's OK, too.

Monday, May 16, 2011


  Let me talk a little bit about Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
Sometimes I feel I know this book as well as I do my own work. I've been reading and teaching and writing about it since the late 1960s. Last year Intiman theater in Seattle was planning on having me adapt it for the stage. So I spent all of May, 2010 and part of June once again taking that novel apart page by page (I also did that in 1978 when WGBH in Boston hoped to adapt it as a series for PBS), image by image (Ellison, I realized for the first time, had a great affection for doll imagery: automatons that represented life lived inauthentically or artificially), scene by scene (it is a very violent story, with seven fight scenes plus a Harlem riot at the end), speech by speech, then putting it back together as a play (3 acts, 19 scenes). In addition to doing a 20-page, single-spaced Scene Outline and Synopsis, I also wrote with the help of dramaturge Marvin McAlister a 10-page, single-spaced outline for just the director, focusing on physical and psychological actions for all the characters in each scene. Unfortunately, Intiman theater lost the rights to do this novel as a stage adaptation, and because of financial problems recently canceled the rest of its season for 2011. A stage adaptation for the novel---or at least a workshop for a production that must be approved by trustees of the Ellison estate---will apparently be done now by Classic Theater of Harlem.

Clearly, Invisible Man is a segregation-era novel, but one that is distinguished from other fiction by black authors in the first half of the 20th century by its muscular exploration of ideas. Ellison himself in an interview some years after its publication expressed the feeling that it became socially and politically "dated" after the Civil Rights Movement swept away the experiential world of Jim Crow in which it is set. I can only agree with the author's assessment of his own work. But I don't think the adventurous engagement with perennially important questions in the novel has been tarnished by time. For more than 50 years Invisible Man has had a powerful influence on three generations of American writers and readers. Its place and importance in the canon of American literature is, like that of equally classic novels by Mark Twain and William Faulkner, secure.

But should it be the standard by which we measure black American writing in 2011?  My answer is, no. And, yes. (Pardon me for being dialectical, and giving an answer that "boomerangs," as Ellison would say.) I would not tell writers today that they should embrace Ellison's Invisible Man as the only standard for literary excellence in black letters. But they would do well to embrace the underlying vision that inspirits his reflections on the demanding enterprise we call serious literature, especially when he says, "The thing that Americans have to learn over and over again is that they are individuals and have the responsibility of individual vision."

Sunday, May 15, 2011


My stories are often the result of the serendipity that occurs when several ideas are brought together in a thought-experiment. I know from much personal experience that I always need at least three good ideas in order for me to conceive, then execute a story---one potentially fertile idea at the beginning for the premise or conflict or what John Barth once called the "ground situation"; a second good idea in the middle that develops or complicates the conflict, often taking it in unexpected directions that surprise me; and, lastly, a good idea that arises in either Act One or Two that at last brings the story to rest.
An example of this kind of serendipitous discovery is "Dr. King's Refrigerator," one of my most reprinted stories. It was composed in 2002 for Humanities Washington's annual "Bedtime Stories" fund-raiser. The idea given to those of us who wrote a new story for the event that year was "a midnight snack."
I started writing the story---about 300 words---clumsily and uncertainly, having only a vague idea about a man awakening hungry at midnight. But who was this man? What was his biography or background? I didn't have answers for those questions (in fact, I didn't even have a "story" yet) so I decided to go to bed and start the story over again from scratch the next day.
On the second day I decided to take a phenomenological step back from the theme or prompt of "a midnight snack" by bracketing or setting aside my own assumptions and presuppositions about the subject. I wanted to regain what Buddhists call "Beginners Mind," with my cup (mind) emptied of what I thought I knew about food. I wanted an attitude of innocence.  I asked myself, "What is a snack?" Well, obviously, it's food. But what is food? On my bookshelf I have a  memento from my childhood, a complete set of The World Book Encyclopedia from 1956, which my parents bought for me. I grew up with them and as a kid I could lose myself for hours reading the entries. So I pulled from the bookshelf the volume marked "F," and began reading its ten pages on Food as Trade, Transportation of Food, Food Through the Ages, Religion and Food, etc. And what struck me more powerfully than anything else was how a meditation on food forced one to see the interconnectness of all life, and what Buddhists call dependent origination or pratitya samputpada.
So now I had a fresh perception of "food." But who would be the story's protagonist having such a perception? Suddenly, I knew. After more than a decade of immersing myself in studying Martin Luther King Jr., who believed that all life was "a network of mutuality," with all beings "tied in a single garment of destiny," I realized he was the perfect candidate for this. But not when he was a world-historical figure changing America during his 14 years as the nation's preacher and gadfly of the state. Rather, I saw him earlier in life, exactly a year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, when he and his wife Coretta were newly married, and he was still a Ph.D. candidate, ABD (all but dissertation) and trying to make a good impression on his first job at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.
When the story opens he is enveloped by what one of my students once called a quotidian "chronic tension"---that unfinished dissertation and weekly sermons to write, a strangulation-tight schedule, and a nagging sense of guilt that his work is keeping him away from his wife (the conflict or story's first good idea). The second good idea is his epiphany about food when he opens his refrigerator. And the third arises at the story's end, which turns way from a meditation on the metaphysics of food to a more tender moment when the protagonist prioritizes his wife over his work.
All in all, this is one of the "quietest" (and for me most satisfying) philosophical fictions that I've published, one that offers an imagined version of King before he became internationally famous, politically powerful, and found himself at the white-hot center of America's racial agonies, which is the way he is portrayed in my novel Dreamer. Why do I like this story so much? Well, for the same reason I've always admired James Joyce's "The Dead" and Gabriel Conroy's revelation about his wife Gretta. Profound, perception-altering epiphanies that forever change our lives happen not exclusively during big public events recorded by the world's cameras, like the electrifying Birmingham campaign, but also and perhaps most often in the quieter, private spaces we move through---a Dublin hotel room, say, or a kitchen in Montgomery, Alabama at midnight.

Friday, May 13, 2011


I'm trying to make sure with my answers that I provide information and details not present in the 6 critical books literary scholars have published about my work, or in the book of interviews that Jim McWilliams published.
For me, this has been---and still is---a great, rare opportunity to get "said" some things never said before, to set the record straight and clear up any misconceptions. In NYC, Nathaniel Nesmith gave to his students the post on "Progress in Literature" (I spoke with his students last Friday on Skype). So these posts are useful, not just for literary scholars, but also for students. Others have given to their students the "Craft and Revision" post.

I think you've started something original here that has potential. One of my agents says she enjoys seeing them every day when she gets up,  because she's never before had this kind of look into a writer's life and thought. I know others must feel that way. Literary scholar Robert Abrams also told me that he enjoys them, especially the one on dogs.

If you line up people in future years to do this, I think you'll create a great deal of excitement. A historian. A poet. A film-maker. An actor. The sky is the limit. But you might want to get someone who is an old man like me with a lifetime of experience in his or her field. Can you imagine the kinds of questions you might ask Albert Murray? Or bell hooks? Or Jan Willis? Or an older black actor? 

They could open up cultural history for readers. But they need to be people who can write and deliver copy---a brief essay---fast. I don't think this is the kind of feature where someone should labor on their prose as they would a novel, story or essay. That's why I said in a recent post that these brief essays are as close as I get to releasing first-draft material. You need to select people who are motor-mouths. Conversationalists. Talky and chatty. But---and here's one last point---the answers people give shouldn't be like diary entries. The answers should clarify some subject. 

You'll notice how I try often to refer readers to books that relate to the subject of the question I'm trying to answer. I quote from others as often as I can. I DO ground many pieces in my biography, something that happened to me, but I always try to nudge the autobiographical into a larger cultural or philosophical context so the answer isn't just about me since that wouldn't, in my opinion, serve the greater good.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I will praise thee for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Psalms 139:14

 I'm a practicing Buddhist, but I grew up as an only child in a quietly pious Christian home and within the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest independent denomination among black churches, founded in 1816 by Rev. Richard Allen in Philadelphia. Faith was simply part of the fibre of our black American lives in the 1950s. The central lived "locations" of my early childhood were three: home, where I had loving, supportive, and unselfish parents; Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, where I embraced a religion that was two millennia old and shaped every aspect of Western civilization; and Noyes Elementary School, where the teachers in that integrated institution were first-rate, as they would be when I went to Evanston Township High School (it was often rated in the 1960s as the #1 public high school in America.) All three of these places were within short walking distance, and symbiotically nurtured each other.

Naturally, home was the foundation, a location my parents made a fun place to be, especially my Mom because she aspired to be a teacher and had an artistic sensibility (and sometimes taught Sunday school.) The black church provided a clear moral and spiritual vision as well as a community of people with shared values. And the school offered exciting knowledge about the wider world. This basic triad was essential for forming my values in the 1950s and a major influence on my future as a liberal humanist. No one point on this triad could adequately do all the work of the others. All three working together were necessary. I believe that if one of those elements in the triad had been removed, my early life would have been poorer for that, and less complete.

Never a night passed when I did not see my father, a strong black man who loved black people, on his knees in prayer before bedtime. (And my own kids can say that about me.) He was reliable, solid as a rock, a guru (the Sanskrit word means "too heavy to be moved"). When he died at age 81, he had five preachers at his funeral in rural South Carolina, and what one said in his eulogy let me know he knew my father very well. He said Dad was never in the choir, nor did he volunteer to be a deacon or on different committees. But he was there every Sunday (and apologized to the pastor if for some reason he couldn't make it), smiling as he absorbed the sermons and loving it when the choir sang. (Some of my southern relatives have their own traveling gospel group and sell CDs of their work.) This pastor said my Dad never talked scripture or spoke of his faith. It was simply an integral part of his life. He'd work three jobs a week sometimes, but I remember that he told his white employers that he'd never work on Sunday because, as he put it, "Sunday was for church."

Given this background, I can confess---now that I'm retired----that my movement through the secular (and often anti-religious) academic and art worlds was sometimes less than easy. Indeed, sometimes it was downright hard, spiritually. I kept my liberal Christian background to myself when in college during the late 1960s, and during my 33 years in higher education (I do wear a cross, and once one of my now successful students, novelist Gary Hawkes, said to me after class, "That must be awfully heavy around your neck"). For me, there was always a moral "bright line" that I was conditioned not to cross, so often in the art and academic worlds I felt "in it but not of it." I'm sure my easy relationship with John Gardner had something to do with his being, as one critic put it, "shyly Christian." 

My being a Buddhist was always much more "acceptable" in academic and artistic circles, especially to atheists, because that spiritual path makes no reference to God, and for that reason was originally classified as a "philosophy" not a religion by Christians when they first encountered it. (I think this initial Western classification has much truth to it.) Inwardly, I've always cringed whenever I found myself in the company of people who dump on or trash Christianity, and I've promised myself these days to politely---or maybe not so politely---leave the room whenever that kind of myopic intolerance rears its head. (Yet in my youth I often found myself arguing passionately, angrily, with dogmatic, fundamentalist Christians---who get on my last nerve---because they were dismissive of science and philosophy.) I probably pray silently a hundred times a day. When I tell a sick or suffering friend or former student that they will be in my prayers and meditations, I mean it. They will be in them that night.

So, like Dr. Jan Willis, who calls herself a "Baptist/Buddhist," and Thich Nhat Hahn, who has an image of Jesus on his meditation shrine in France and authored the best-selling book Living Buddha, Living Christ, I'm really a product of two spiritual traditions, and I would never deny or reject my past. In Asia, you'll find quite a bit of spiritual blendings of this kind. And, of course, Buddhists are ontologically non-dualistic, and believe in the interdependence of all things.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


"One can no longer write African-American literature, any more than one can currently write Elizabethan literature." Kenneth W. Warren.
"Progress in Literature" was an article I was commissioned to write for a book entitled Making Progress: Essays in Progress and Public Policy, edited by C. Leigh Anderson and Janet W. Looney (Lexington Books, 2002). It is reprinted in Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (Scribner, 2003).
In that work I argue that technical and thematic progress in literature can easily be demonstrated if we trace, for example, the English novel from the 18th century work of Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe through later practitioners of the form such as Fielding, Sterne, and 20th century writers like Faulkner and Hemingway. The same evolution can be demonstrated for the modern short story, beginning with Poe's almost single-handed creation of the form, and tracing it through a period of formulaic writing circa 1900 to the revolt against that formalism in the work of such writers as D.H. Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson, Katherine Anne Porter, James Joyce, Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor, and others. 

There is no question that in terms of craft we are better writers today than most of our predecessors, and much credit for this progress must be given to the more than 300 writing programs that have sprung up since the end of World War II; and to writers themselves becoming teachers while at the same time democratizing and de-mystifying the creative process as it pertains to literary fiction. 

But Ethelbert has asked me to tailor this question specifically to black American literature, a request that should allow me to refine and expand a bit upon "Progress in Literature."
Every teacher (or student) of black American literature discovers very early that this body of work was created largely during the periods of slavery and segregation. That is the ground from which so much of it---slave narratives, protest novels---arises. And how could it be otherwise? In What is Literature?, when Sartre discusses Richard Wright in the 1940s, he says, "if an American Negro finds that he has a vocation as a writer, he discovers his subject at the same time. He is the man who sees the whites from outside, who assimilates the white culture from the outside, and each of whose books will show the alienation of the black race within American society."     

The protest novel, as Sartre indicates, was understandably taken to be the form sine qua non for black writing. Famous debates raged over this issue, leading to classic essays like James Baldwin's "Everybody's Protest Novel," and Ralph Ellison's "The World and the Jug." Both those black authors (and many others) wished to move beyond the narrow constraints placed upon black writing in the segregation era, although this was the sort of black novel liberal or progressive white readers were most interested in seeing from black authors: the kind, as Sartre says, that "gives society a guilty conscience; he (the black writer) is thereby in a state of perpetual antagonism toward the conservative forces which are maintaining the balance he needs to upset."

But, as I argued in a recent, widely-read essay, "The End of the Black American
Narrative" (The American Scholar, Summer 2008), we are now over 40 years into the post-Civil Rights period. Has black American literature changed? Has it "progressed" in terms of reflecting the new 21st century realities and experiences of black Americans?
Without mentioning my essay, Kenneth W. Warren, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, published a piece entitled "Does African-American Literature Exist?" in the February 24, 2011 issue of The Chronicle Review. He explained that his aim was to "make a claim that runs counter to much of literary scholarship." His claim is this:

"African-American literature was the literature of a distinct historical period, namely the era of constitutionally sanctioned segregation known as Jim Crow...Like it or not, African-American literature was a Jim Crow phenomenon, which is to say, speaking from the standpoint of a post-Jim Crow world, African-American literature is history. While one can (and students of American literature certainly should) write about African-American literature, one can no longer write African-American literature, any more than one can currently write Elizabethan literature."

Warren also points out that, "Writing in 1942 in the short-lived journal Negro Quarterly: A Review of Negro Life and Culture, edited by Angelo Herndon and Ralph Ellison, for example, the upstart young black critic Edward Bland lamented the lack of literary accomplishment among Harlem Renaissance authors in the 1920s: 'One of the outstanding features of the Negro novels that appeared during the twenties was their literary incompetence'."

Obviously, that complaint about techne and craft has been finally put to rest by a very large number of award-winning black authors who are master craftsmen and craftswomen. But the larger issue raised by Warren remains: Is there "progress" in the content of black literary fiction? And, more to point, is it even possible to write "black" literature anymore? As Warren says, "Sever that connection (to slavery and Jim Crow), and works, however accomplished, would settle into the literary universe according to style, theme, genre, or whatever."

 In other words, "black" literature in the early 21st century, the era of President Barack Obama, America's first black president, can be said to have progressed to the stage of being seen now as simply human literature. It was that before, of course, but today it is neither limited to the protest novel, nor does it bear the burden of having to somehow represent and speak for the experiences of an entire people in their liberation struggle. Do John Updike, Stephen King, John Gardner, or Joyce Carol Oates speak for all white people? Obviously not. Nor can it be said today that John Edgar Wideman, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Charles Johnson, Walter Mosley or any black writer working in 2011 speaks in an all-inclusive, exhaustive way about the so-called "black experience" which, as writer Reginald McKnight once put it, is "as polymorphous as the dance of Shiva."

All American writers, then, can only be be approached today in terms of their individual voices and visions. And the quality of their literary and intellectual performances. That is the basis on which each will be experienced and judged. And isn't that the dangerous freedom---the progress---that writers during the Harlem Renaissance dreamed of having?

Friday, May 6, 2011


When some Americans are in the presence of a person who is black and Buddhist, you can see the cognitive dissonance---the confusion--right there in their eyes as they struggle to process this information that so rudely unsettles their cultural and racial presuppositions. 
Over forty years I've seen people react to this phenomenon with emotions that range from fear to anger, as if they had somehow been personally betrayed, insulted or threatened; and I've seen others who know something about Buddhism delight in this revelation, as if to say, And why not? But just as James Weldon Johnson stated in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man that, "I believe it is a fact that the colored people in this country know and understand the white people better than the white people understand them," so too, I have to say that the vast majority of Americans are very poorly informed about the theory and practice of Buddhism.

Over 2600 years, many branches or traditions of Buddhism have sprung from the bodhi tree. One of these that is especially attractive to black American Buddhists is Soka Gakkai (Nichiren), which claims to have approximately 15,000 black practitioners, among them Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson, Tina Turner, and the jazz great Herbie Hancock. My sister-in-law in Chicago is a practitioner of this school that also attracts a large number of Hispanics. Unlike other Buddhist traditions, Soka Gakkai is proactive and proselytizes, seeking out members in urban areas with large black populations (practitioners urge their friends to join)---this is very different from the image most convert American Buddhists have of Japanese Zen traditions where, for example, stories are told of a spiritual seeker made to sit for a full day or two outside a zendo before he is finally admitted, and then only at first as a visitor. (In other words, you need to show that you really need and want this.)

Soka Gakkai members chant chapters from the Lotus Sutra, and if you have ever been lucky enough to be in a room where they are chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in unison you will experience anew the elemental power of sound as their collective voices move like a strong, cleansing wind or an ocean wave through every cell and fibre of your body. Although I tilt toward the Theravada tradition, and took a lay person's formal vows in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition founded by Dogen, I have a deep appreciation for the way Herbie Hancock described his practice in a 2007 interview for Beliefnet:

 "The idea of cause and affect, which Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is about, made sense to me," he said. "I'm a guy that's always been attracted to science---and cause and effect is what science is about...The cool thing is that jazz is really a wonderful example of the great characteristics of Buddhism and the great characteristics of the human spirit. Because in jazz we share, we listen to each other, we respect each other, we are creating in the moment. At our best we're non-judgmental. If we let judgment get in the way of improvising, it always screws us up. So we take whatever happens and try to make it work...At the same time---and just think about this---within the life of a human being is the universe. So, we all have the universe inside at our core."
Those words don't sound as if they are coming from a person who sees himself as a "victim," do they? Such a conceptualization poisons the mind and the human spirit. Mr. Hancock, like all Buddhists, is not mired in a past that cannot be recovered or a future that will never come, but instead works to anchor himself "in the moment." And he is not ensnared in what black Buddhist teacher Lama Rangdrol describes as the debilitation, bitter, polarized and cliched "mentality of an angry black man." Added to that, Hancock's comparison of his egoless listening and non-judgmental approach as a jazz musician to the Dharma reminds us that Buddhist practice has much in common with the process we associate with creating art, which demands an openness to all things. (Buddhism, some commentators have pointed out, is a form of artistic practice with your life itself being the material you are shaping.)
What unites black Buddhists, regardless of the tradition they belong to, is the desire to be free. Truly free. The practice of Buddhism is the practice of life itself. Last week I had the great pleasure of reading, then endorsing a book entitled Tell Me Something about Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner, by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, a black Soto Zen Priest. 
Her book, which includes a foreword by Thich Nhat Hahn, will be published in October by Hampton Roads. In the future when anyone asks me questions about black people and Buddhism, I plan to simply tell them to buy Zenju's beautiful book. She is acutely aware of how we can be enslaved by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. By the concepts and words that obscure our experience of reality. Just reading her clear, beautiful and inspiring answers to questions about Buddhist practice quiets and calms the mind as quickly as the wood striking wood sound of a han calling us to awakening. (In Japanese Soto Zen a han is a mallet and piece of wood that are struck to summon practitioners to the zendo). Each page is rich in wisdom, as when one of her teachers points out that, "All emotions are from the past."
Meditate for just a moment on that.