Evanston RoundTable, May 18,2017
For Charles Johnson, Evanston was a great place to grow up. The multi-award-winning author and winner of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” was born in 1948 (“on Shakespeare’s birthday”) in Community Hospital, the City’s African American hospital, delivered by its founder, Dr. Elizabeth Hill. He went through the public school system, graduating from Evanston Township High School in 1966.
“The Evanston I grew up in had a very strong sense of community that was founded in the churches, such as the one my family went to, Ebenezer AME,” he said in a recent interview from his longtime home in Seattle. “I grew up on the same block. Right across the street was the black YMCA.”
In his 2016 book “The Way of the Writer” Dr. Johnson wrote, “Something to understand about Evanston in the 1950s and ’60s is that, unlike many places, the public schools were integrated. From the time I started kindergarten I was thrown together with kids of all colors, and I found it natural to have friends both black and white.” Of ETHS he wrote: “In its progressive curriculum we found an education provided, clearly, by the wealthy white Evanston parents who sent their children there. I took advantage of all the art and photography, literature and history classes. And to its credit, ETHS offered a yearly creative-writing class taught by the short story writer Marie-Claire Davis.”
Later, Dr. Johnson established an annual creative-writing award named for Ms. Davis.
Dr. Johnson’s great uncle was William Johnson, who started a construction company in Evanston. “He built Springfield Baptist Church,” Dr. Johnson said. “All over town there were buildings the Johnson Construction Company created—residences, churches, apartments. He lived in a house he built. We used to go there for family gatherings like Thanksgiving.
“So I grew up in a town where I could see the industry and creativity of members of my family. It was his construction company that brought my dad and his brothers to Evanston from South Carolina in the 1940s. Because he told his brothers and sisters in South Carolina that if your sons and daughters need work they can come work for me. So my dad took him up on that offer when he was 25 years old. His brother had come before then, and he introduced my dad to my mom.”
Dr. Johnson met and dated his wife in 1968. “She was going to National College of Education. I’d drop her off and walk across town to my dad’s house at 1321 Dodge Ave., a block south of the high school. And it was safe, it was not a dangerous place at all.
“It was a place I felt very comfortable growing up in.”
Dr. Johnson is the author of four novels, including “Middle Passage,” which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1990; three short-story collections, many screenplays for movies and television; and two children’s books co-authored with his daughter, Elisheba; plus more than a dozen works of non-fiction including essays on philosophy, aesthetics, spiritualism, and cultural criticism.
“We are all drawn to Johnson’s writings for their philosophical rigor, their profound engagement with the most pressing issues facing American society—justice, race, politics, history—and also the great stories his writings contain,” said Marc Conner, co-founder and secretary of the Charles Johnson Society, provost of Washington & Lee University, and author of “Charles Johnson: The Novelist as Philosopher.”
Among his many talents, Dr. Johnson is also a skillful illustrator, a passion he developed as a boy, drawing hundreds of cartoons that were published in The Evanstonian, the ETHS’s student newspaper, as well as in his college newspaper, national newspapers, and later to accompany his children’s books.
After high school Dr. Johnson went to Southern Illinois University, taking degrees in journalism and philosophy, and received his Ph.D. in philosophy at State University of New York at Stony Brook. Even before finishing his doctorate he was offered a teaching position at University of Washington in Seattle, eventually holding an endowed chair in creative writing until his retirement eight years ago.
In his fourth novel, “Dreamer,” about Martin Luther King’s 1966 Chicago protest marches, he wrote that Evanston was “a pocket of tranquility…. There were white millionaires, black homeowners bonded by church affiliations, an integrated school system, stores and movie theaters (three), and some years the best public high school in the nation.
“…[W]hile pariahs to the white population, [the City’s blacks] worked in white homes, and saved to send their children to college—that after forming their own neighborhood YMCA and colored Boys and Girls Scout chapters; some held down three jobs a week, always struggling and sacrificing to free their sons and daughters from the curse of color that hung over their own lives. The idea of public assistance was anathema to many of them, such a blow to their southern pride that they never considered for a moment turning outside their own families—or extended families—for help. They treated all the black children at [the local church] as their own, scolding them and telling their parents if in public they behaved in ways that reflected badly on the struggling community as a whole.”
Regarding his novels, Dr. Johnson explained that he prefers to work slowlys rather than cranking them out every year or two as many writers do.
“With each new book I realized what was increasingly at stake,” he explained. “‘Oxherding Tale’ [his second novel] is set in slavery times and I did a lot of research in that era. For ‘Middle Passage’ I spent six years researching the literature of the sea, and 17 years (including a draft for an early, unpublished version] on the slave trade. And ‘Dreamer’ I spent seven years on, and threw out 3,000 pages.
“My feeling is these big novels are like your last will and testament in language,” he said. “It is extraordinarily important, when we present our ideas and feelings to the public, that they should be a gift in every possible sense of the word, the finest gift and the very best I can muster, in terms of thought and feeling.”
His first motivation to write seriously, he said, was to fill a literary void. “There was no tradition in 20th century American literature, specifically black American literature, for a robust philosophical novel. So that has been my mission, to create works that fulfill the requirements and standards of the best philosophical fiction, that address big questions and issues. I draw very deeply on Buddhism, because I’m a Buddhist, but also western and eastern, and modern and ancient philosophy.”
He said his Buddhism helps him come to terms with his own reactions to the nation’s current racial climate.
“I feel much sadness about the lives of young black men taken by police violence (and also taken by black-on-black murder, which is a well-known problem now in Chicago). But 10 years ago I took formal vows as a lay Buddhist. One of these vows is ‘Do not get angry.’ Obviously, feelings of anger or anything else do arise in consciousness. But I know I am not those feelings so I am not attached to them, and I can simply observe them, then let them go, and instead act upon emotions or feelings that are more positive, constructive, and aimed at helping other sentient beings achieve happiness and freedom from suffering.”
His next publication will be a collection of short stories being published by Scribner next year.