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Charles Richard Johnson (born April 23, 1948)[1] is an African-American scholar and the author of novels, short stories, screen-and-teleplays, and essays, most often with a philosophical orientation. Johnson has directly addressed the issues of black life in America in novels such as Dreamer and Middle Passage.

Charles R. Johnson
Johnson in 2013
Johnson in 2013
Born (1948-04-23) April 23, 1948 (age 71)
Evanston, Illinois, US
OccupationWriter, academic, artist, philosopher, Buddhist and Black American literature scholar
Emery's World
Johnson with Ralph Ellison

Middle Passage won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1990[2] making him the second African-American man to receive this prize after Ralph Ellison in 1953. Johnson's acceptance speech was a tribute to Ellison. Johnson received a MacArthur Fellowship or "Genius Grant" in 1998. He is also the recipient of National Endowment For The Arts and Guggenheim Fellowships, and many other prizes such as a 2002 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his most recent award is The Humanities Washington Award 2013 for creating and contributing for 15 years a new, original short story to a literary event called "Bedtime Stories," which since 1998 has raised a million dollars for the literacy programs of the non-profit organization Humanities Washington.

The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English says that his works "combine historical accuracy, parable, and elements of the fantastic in rendering the experience of African Americans."[3]


Johnson was born in 1948 in Evanston, Illinois. He first came to prominence in the 1960s as a political cartoonist and illustrator. At the age of 15 he was a student of cartoonist/mystery writer Lawrence Lariar. After a two-year correspondence course with Lariar, Johnson began publishing his artwork professionally in 1965, drawing illustrations for the catalog of a magic company in Chicago, and publishing three stories in his high school's newspaper as well as panel cartoons and a comic strip that in 1966 took two second place awards in the sports and humor divisions of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association's cartoon contest. He continued drawing and publishing prolifically during his years as an undergraduate journalism major at Southern Illinois University, which in 1977 awarded him the Delta Award "for significant contribution to intellectual commerce of our time" (sponsored by Friends of Morris Library) and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1995.

In his first career as a cartoonist (1965–72), Johnson churned out hundreds of drawings, comic strips, panel cartoons and illustrations for the student paper The Daily Egyptian, regular editorial cartoons for The Southern Illinoisan, illustrations for The Chicago Tribune, national African-American publications including Black World (formerly Negro Digest), Ebony, and Players, one-page comic book scripts for the now defunct Charlton Comics, and taught cartooning in SIU's "Free School." One of his earliest published articles is "Creating the Political Cartoon," published in Scholastic/Editor/Communications and Graphics (March 1973).

Inspired by a lecture he heard in 1969 by Amiri Baraka (né Leroi Jones), Johnson drew the collection of racial satire titled Black Humor (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 1970). A second collection of political satire appeared in 1972, Half-Past Nation-Time (Aware Press, California), but is extremely difficult to find, though copies are in some rare book collections at libraries.

In 1970, he created, hosted, and co-produced at WSIU-TV Charlie's Pad, an early PBS how-to-draw series broadcast nationally. It consisted of 52, 15-minute lessons in cartooning based on his earlier two years of lessons with Lawrence Lariar. Today only three episodes of this series have survived.

Johnson received his B.S. in journalism and M.A. in philosophy from Southern Illinois University in 1971 and 1973 and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Stony Brook University in 1988. In 2013, Johnson was awarded by his old philosophy department the first "Don Ihde Distinguished Alumni Award", 78-year-old Ihde being one of America's preeminent phenomenologists, and the director for Johnson's dissertation, Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988), a literary manifesto published by Indiana University Press that used the methods of Continental philosophy to examine African-American literature and create an aesthetic position. After writing six of what he calls "apprentice novels" between 1970 and 1972 (one of these was an early draft of Middle Passage), Johnson wrote his seventh and first philosophical novel, Faith and the Good Thing, in nine months with his mentor, the late John Gardner, providing him with feedback. This novel was published in 1974 by Viking Press, and Johnson stated then, as he would over the years, that his goal was to contribute to and enrich the tradition of "African-American philosophical fiction". He identified early practitioners of this genre as being Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.

In 1976, he was hired to teach at the University of Washington, Seattle (UW).[4] He received early tenure in three years at UW, then early full professorship after another three years, following the publication of his second novel, Oxherding Tale (1982), a slave narrative steeped in Eastern thought, and referring to the classic 10 Oxherding Pictures of 16th-century artist Kakuan Shien. A student of Buddhism and Eastern thought all his life, as well as a student of Sanskrit since 1998, Johnson took formal vows on November 14, 2007, in the Soto Zen tradition (the 10 Precepts) with mendicant monk Claude AnShin Thomas, author of At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey From War to Peace (2004). Johnson is a contributing writer for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and publishes regularly in Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, and has contributed to Turning Wheel: The Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism. A collection of these writings appeared in Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (Scribner, 2003), and will be followed by a sequel from Shambhala Publications in November 2014, Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories, and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice.

In 1986, Johnson's first story collection, The Sorcerer's Apprentice was short-listed for the PEN/Faulkner, and he was identified in a survey conducted at UCLA as one of the ten best short story writers in America. His other story collections include Soulcatcher and Other Stories (2001), which were 12 fictions written to dramatize the historical record in the companion book to the PBS series Africans in America, broadcast in 1998 (these are the only stories a writer has been commissioned to do for a history book). His second collection is Dr. King's Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories (half of the stories in this collection were written for Humanities Washington's yearly "Bedtime Stories" literary gala). His short stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories (1982, 1995), O. Henry Prize Stories (1993), Playboy Stories: The Best of Forty Years of Short Fiction (1994), Best Buddhist Writing (2006, 2007, 2008), Best Spiritual Writing (2010), and, like his novels, have been translated into several languages like Russian, Italian, Spanish, South Korean, and Chinese. Two of his stories, "Menagerie: A Child's Fable" and "A Soldier for the Crown" were dramatized by actors for National Public Radio's Symphony Space "Selected Shorts."

For the U.S. Information Agency (now the State Department) he has lectured in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Portugal, France, Indonesia, Japan, and Spain.

For 20 years, and after his series Charlie's Pad, Johnson wrote approximately 20 screen and teleplays. The first was Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree (1978), which was about the at the time the oldest living American, 136-year-old Charlie Smith. With John Allman he shares credit for Booker (1985), a story about the childhood of Booker T. Washington that received a Writers Guild Award for being the "outstanding script in 1985 in the category of Television Children's Shows, and many other awards. In 1981, he served as one of two writer-producers for the second season of the PBS series Up and Coming.

As a book reviewer, he published over 50 book reviews in numerous publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post Book World, The Los Angeles Times, The Seattle Times, The Times (London), Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Shambhala Sun. For 20 years, between 1978 and 1998, he was fiction editor of the Seattle Review. He has served as a judge for many literary prizes, among them the Pulitzer Prize in fiction (1992, 1995, 2010) and National Book Award in fiction (1988, 1999, and 2009), twice chairing the fiction panel for the latter. He sponsors the for a writing student at Evanston Township High School, and the Charles Johnson Fiction Award at Southern Illinois University, a national competition open to all college students.

Johnson has been a practicing martial artist since 1967 when he trained at Chi Tao Chuan of the Monastery in Chicago. Since 1981, he has been a practitioner and sometimes teacher in the Choy Li Fut kung-fu lineage of grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong in San Francisco.

In 2003, the Charles Johnson Society was inaugurated at the American Literature Association. This is a literary society devoted to scholarly papers and articles on Johnson's work and the genre of philosophical fiction in general. Several literary studies of his work have been published, among these are Charles Johnson's Spiritual Imagination by Jonathan Little (University of Missouri Press, 1997); Charles Johnson's Novels: Writing the American Palimpsest by the late Rudolph P. Byrd (Indiana University Press, 2005); Charles Johnson's Fiction by William R. Nash (University of Illinois Press, 2003); Understanding Charles Johnson, by the late Gary Storhoff (University of South Carolina Press, 2004); Charles Johnson: The Novelist as Philosopher, edited by Marc C. Conner and William R. Nash (University Press of Mississippi, 2007); and Charles Johnson in Context by Linda Furgerson Selzer (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009). After Johnson's retirement from teaching, a festschrift book celebrating the author's work was published in India, Charles Johnson: Embracing the World, edited by Nibir K. Ghosh and American poet E. Ethelbert Miller (Authorspress, 2011).

Early in his writing career, Johnson's mentor was the novelist John Gardner. In an interview,[4] Johnson wrote of Gardner:

Gardner, as I've said often, was the hardest-working writer I've ever known in my life. "Writing is the only religion I have," he once said, and this was true. He was prolific, innovative, learned (a scholar of medieval literature ), radically independent, a translator who said he knew twelve languages, a poet, librettist, novelist, short story writer, a composer of scripts for radio and films, a critic and literary scholar, player of the French horn: a true cornucopia of creativity. He could write for 72-hour stretches without sleep. But, no, he was not a gifted storyteller, as he would have admitted. His most enduring novel is Grendel, which is, of course, derived from the story we receive from the Beowulf poet. But he was an American philosophical writer, like Saul Bellow.[4]

Until his retirement in 2009,[5] Johnson was the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Endowed Professor of English at the University of Washington.


In an online interview, Johnson described his beliefs and American Buddhism this way:

Buddhism was really unknown to the general public in the West before World War II. After the 40s, when American black and white soldiers came back with Buddhist wives, and the first teachers (Suzuki was huge back then) came to these shores, Zen Buddhism flourished among artists and so-called hip people, like the Beats. But they misunderstood a very great deal ... The steps on the Eightfold Path are nothing like the Ten Commandments. Buddhists never command anything. We have no interest in imposing our will on others. Like the precepts, the Eightfold Path offers a blueprint for ethical living that leads to awakening or nirvana (The word suggests to blow out the illusory sense of self, nir meaning "out" and vana "to blow".) The Buddha made it clear that we are not to accept the Four Noble Truths or Eightfold Path on his (or any) authority. Rather, we are to confirm (or deny) their truth in the depths of our own experience, and proceed from there, adapting the Eightfold Path to our own experiences, time and place. No two people arrive at awakening on the same path.[4]

In that same interview, Johnson said this of race and racism in America, and white views of African Americans:

During the age of slavery, then the era of Jim Crow segregation, when whites separated themselves from blacks, they needed a black individual to tell them what black people thought, desired, needed, etc. (How else were they going to find out?) Often that person was the black community's minister; later writers served that purpose, from Richard Wright to Ralph Ellison to James Baldwin. I personally think in the post-Civil Rights period a black person is wasting his (or her) time, the preciously few years of their lives, by devoting their energy---as a 'spokesman'--- to explaining so-called 'black' things to white people. Whites can---and should---do their own homework. Read from the vast library of books on black American history and culture. Take a course, for God's sake, on some aspect of black history. Then black individuals can be free to pursue the whole, vast universe that awaits their discovery (as it does for any white person), leaving behind emotionally draining racial discussions to investigate astrophysics, DNA sequencing, cosmology, Sanskrit, the Buddhadharma, mathematics, nano-technology, everything in this universe that remains such a mystery to us.[4]

Johnson described his working methods this way:

I've kept writer's workbooks since around 1972. They fill up a whole shelf in my study. Almost every day I'm recording a thought or image on the pages of my current workbook for future use. The workbooks, as I see them, are a memory aide. When I revise a story or novel, I go through all those workbooks to see if there is an image or idea that I might have had, say, thirty years ago that is useful for an in-progress fiction or essay. It takes me about eight hours (at least) to tramp through all those workbooks when I'm in the final stages of revision. I do the same with old drafts of novels. For one of the six novels I wrote between 1970 and 1972, I did research to describe a character using heroin. When writing Dreamer, I dug up those old pages and used the details for my character Chaym Smith, the fictitious double for Martin Luther King Jr.[4]

He also stated this about the necessity of rewriting:

Writing itself is the best teacher of writing, so a young or old writer must learn that, if necessary, his ratio of throwaway to keep pages might turn out to be 20 to 1. 90% of good writing, as the saying goes, is rewriting.[4]


  • The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder: Bending Time (with Elisheba Johnson, illustrated by Charles Johnson, 2013, ISBN 978-1-62015-181-5)
  • Dr. King's Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories (2005, ISBN 0-7432-6453-3)
  • Soulcatcher and Other Stories (2000, ISBN 0-15-601112-3)
  • Dreamer (1998, ISBN 0-684-85443-0)
  • Middle Passage (1990, ISBN 0-684-85588-7)
  • The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1986, ISBN 0-452-27237-8)
  • Oxherding Tale (1982, ISBN 0-253-16607-1)
  • Faith and the Good Thing (1974, ISBN 0-7432-1254-1)
  • Philosophy: An Innovative Introduction: Fictive Narrative, Primary Texts, and Responsive Writing (with Michael Boylan, 2010)
  • Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988, ISBN 0-253-31165-9)
  • The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (Scribner, 2016)
  • Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories, and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice (Shambhala Publications, 2014)
  • The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson (Dzanc Books, January 2015)
  • Passing the Three Gates: Interviews with Charles Johnson (edited by James McWilliams, 2004, ISBN 0-295-98439-2)
  • Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (2003, ISBN 0-7432-4324-2)
  • King: The Photobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. (with Bob Adelman, 2000)
  • I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson (edited by Rudolph Byrd, 1999)
  • Africans in America (with Patricia Smith, 1998)
  • Black Men Speaking (with John McCluskey Jr., 1997)
  • Half-Past Nation Time (1972)
  • Black Humor (1970)


  1. ^ University of Washington.
  2. ^ "National Book Awards – 1990". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-28.
    (With essay by Sherrie Young from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  3. ^ Head, Dominic (2006-01-26). The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Cambridge University Press. pp. 577–. ISBN 9780521831796. Retrieved 13 September 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d e f In-depth interview with Charles Johnson Archived December 22, 2008, at the Wayback Machine, Monsters and Critics, accessed September 13, 2008.
  5. ^ Bartley, Nancy (August 24, 2009), "Retired UW professor still enlivening the literary world", The Seattle Times
  • Nishikawa, Kinohi. "Charles R. Johnson." In Hans Ostrom and J. David Macey, Jr. (eds), The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. 865-67.

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