Charles Johnson

Start Free Trial

Arend Flick (review date 24 June 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1571

SOURCE: Flick, Arend. “Stowaway on a Slave Ship to Africa.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (24 June 1990): 1, 7.

[In the following review of The Middle Passage, Flick compliments Johnson for skillfully combining beautiful language with a philosophical examination of the nature of racism.]

Charles Johnson's first book, Black Humor, was published 20 years ago in Chicago, and that collection of drawings—political cartoons, really—startles now, when viewed through the lens of history, his and ours. The art is skillful, the captions trenchant. The theme is race relations, but the tone not what we might have expected from a young black college student living near one of the most racially polarized of American cities, in one of its worst times: Bobby Seale bound and gagged at the Chicago 8 trial; Fred Hampton dead in a police raid on his southside apartment.

Johnson remembers these cartoons as inspired by the black separatist philosophy of Amiri Baraka, whom he'd heard lecture at Southern Illinois University, taking no questions from whites. What strikes you about Black Humor now, though, is its gentleness, and its tentative exploration at times of territory beyond racial polarization. A raceless kangaroo whose pouch contains two joeys—one black, one white—reads a newspaper with the headline “New Open Housing Rules.” A black rally speaker, having excoriated black integrationists as Uncle Toms, leaves through the stage door with a white woman who calls him “Tom.” A black couple prepare to tell their white child what he apparently hasn't yet figured out.

Fast forward two decades, and Johnson—having done graduate work in philosophy and turned from visual art to fiction—is director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Washington, with three published novels to his credit, as well as a collection of short stories (The Sorcerer's Apprentice) nominated in 1986 for the PEN/Faulkner award and a recent book-length study of black writing since 1970.

In his highly readable though densely philosophical fiction, Johnson gives us characters forced to chart a middle passage between competing ways of ordering reality: sensual or ascetic, Marxist of Freudian, Christian or pagan. They quest for a unity of being beyond all polarities, for what the heroine of his first novel calls “the one thing all … things have in common. And happily for them and for us, they usually find it.

Johnson describes Middle Passage as an effort at “serious entertainment,” a blurring, in other words, of another ancient pair of opposites, philosophy and art. He shares with his mentor, the late novelist and critic John Gardner, the Tolstoyan conviction that all true art is moral, not the promulgating of doctrine (which inevitably distorts morality) but the exploration and testing of values.

The formula fits Middle Passage. Though never preachy, it's informed by a remarkably generous thesis: that racism generally, and the institution of slavery in particular, might best be seen as having arisen not from political or sociological or economic causes, not (God help us) from pigment envy, but from a deep fissure that characterizes Western thought in general, our tendency to split the world into competing categories: matter and spirit, subject and object, good and evil, black and white. One of the novel's epigraphs, from the “Upanishads,” grows increasingly rich in implication as we read Middle Passage: “Who sees variety and not the Unity wanders on from death to death.”

Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed 22-year-old slave from southern Illinois, drifts into New Orleans in 1829 and experiences a shock of recognition. For Rutherford, who narrates the story, the city is a place of sensory overload, an assault...

(This entire section contains 1571 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

of smells, “if not a town devoted to an almost religious pursuit of Sin, then at least to steamy sexuality.” The city suits his desire for adventure, experience, excess; it seems to be himself. His opposites are the Creoles downstream, who “sniffed down their long Continental noses at poor, purebred Negroes” like him. So he falls in among the thieves and gamblers upriver and becomes one of them.

Rutherford further defines himself in opposition to Woman. Isadora Bailey, whom he encounters one morning at the waterfront, is pretty “in a prim, dry, flat-breasted way,” and everything Rutherford isn't: “frugal, quiet, devoutly Christian.” She is completely, in other words, out of place in New Orleans. Rutherford regards this daughter of a large Boston family free since the Revolutionary War as “positively ill with eastern culture.” Naturally, she wants to reform him. Naturally, he resists reformation—to the point of stowing away on a slave clipper bound for Africa to escape marriage to her. (She has arranged the marriage with his creditor by paying off Rutherford's debts.)

By turns mimicking historical romance, slave narrative, picaresque tale, parable, and (finally) sea yarn, indebted (among many other writers) to Swift, Coleridge, Melville, and Conrad, Middle Passage invites but frustrates categorization. And that's exactly its point. The storytelling sounds historically credible at first (Johnson's research and command of language are impressive), but the counternaturalistic signals begin early, and they're intended. Idioms have sometimes a distinctly modern flavor: “down to earth” to describe Isadora's father, “hung over” to describe Rutherford. All the characters in Middle Passage in fact, sound as if they're double majors in classics and philosophy. “It seemed so Sisyphean,” says Rutherford of a lovelorn fellow sailor, “this endless seeking of a single woman's love … in all others, because they would change, grow old, and he'd again be on a quixotic, Parmenidean quest for beauty beyond the reach of Becoming.” His narrative comes to resemble an act of ventriloquism, a dreamlike projection of 20th-Century writer into the voice of roguish ex-slave, the writer winking behind the mask at time, blurring past and present. There's no clear line between Rutherford's world and our world, his journey and our journey. All polarities collapse by design here.

The opposition between Ebeneezer Falcon and Peter Cringle, captain and first mate of the metaphorically named Republic, furthers Rutherford's process of self-definition on the passage to Africa. Cringle is Isadora in drag: a gentleman whose “whole air spoke of New England gentility.”

Falcon, by contrast, is a carnival sideshow: a pederast, solipsist, and dwarf. He too seems to have taken a first in philosophy. Dualism is a permanent biological condition, he tells Rutherford: “Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other—these ancient twins are built into the mind like the stem-piece of a merchantman. We cannot think without them, sir. And what, pray, kin such a thing mean? Only this, Mr. Calhoun, they are signs of a transcendental Fault, a deep crack in consciousness itself. … Slavery, if you think this through, forcing yourself not to flinch, is the social correlate of a deeper, ontic wound.”

No wonder Cringle plans to set him adrift.

Between Cringle and Falcon, Rutherford can't choose, though both try to force him to. He can't find his loyalties, though he seems to take up and put down each of their perspectives at times. His unwillingness to choose makes sense, since Johnson blurs all ethical categories, showing the ministerial Cringle unable to “see himself, his own blighted history, in the slaves,” the satanic Falcon (“known for his daring exploits and subjugation of the colored races” capable of generosity in the end. Not until The Republic takes on its cargo in Africa—40 Allmuseri tribesmen and their mysterious totem—does Rutherford finally begin to declare an allegiance.

Johnson creates the Allmuseri for pretty obvious thematic reasons. An ancient tribe of magicians, they are less a biological clan than one held together by shared values. For Rutherford, who feels “the presence of countless others in them,” they are the “Ur-tribe of humanity itself.” Without fingerprints, incapable of abstract thought, unable to distinguish the white crewmen as individuals, the Allmuseri envision Hell as the failure to experience “the unity of Being everywhere.” And their god—which Falcon has plundered for the most Western of reasons, fame and fortune—is King Kong, Tolkien's ring and Spielberg's ark all rolled into one. Even Falcon recognizes it's beyond dualism: “The Allmuseri god,” he tells Rutherford, “is everything, so that the very knowing situation we mortals rely on—a separation between knower and known—never rises in its experience.”

The Allmuseri become Rutherford's vehicle for self-knowledge, providing him with a passage beyond categories, beyond opposites, beyond desire and fear, and toward what we would want for him, and for ourselves. Middle Passage, suffused with the quasi-Buddhist sensibility that seems increasingly common in Western writing today ends quietly, surprisingly.

What always saves the novel from the intellectual scheme that would otherwise kill it is the sheer beauty of its language. Here is Rutherford's vision of his father's death 20 years earlier: “I beheld his benighted history and misspent manhood turn toward the night he plotted his escape to the Promised Land. It was New Year's Eve, anno 1811., For good luck he took with him a little of the fresh greens and peas Chandler's slaves cooked at year's end (greens for “green-backs” and peas for “change”). then took himself to the stable, saddled one of the horses and, since he had never ventured more than ten miles from home, wherefore lost his way, was quickly captured by padderolls and quietly put to death, the bullet entering through his left eye, exiting through his right ear, leaving him eternally eight and twenty, an Eternal Object, pure essence rotting in a fetid stretch of Missouri swamp.”

Philosophy and art are not simply joined here. They are one.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1314

Charles Johnson 1948-

(Full name Charles Richard Johnson) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, nonfiction writer, and political cartoonist.

The following entry presents an overview of Johnson's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 51, and 65.

Johnson's distinguished contribution to American literature was acknowledged with his reception of the 1990 National Book Award for fiction for his novel The Middle Passage (1990). Johnson's novels, short stories, and works of nonfiction address the African-American experience and the legacy of slavery in American culture. Johnson's fiction is notable for its unique application of both Eastern and Western philosophical thought to an African-American perspective on slavery and the Civil Rights era. His prose style is comprised of a hybrid of narrative genres, incorporating the slave narrative, the picaresque bildungsroman, and the oral tradition of the folk tale, among others. His works of nonfiction cover such topics as contemporary African-American literature, the Civil Rights Movement, and the experiences of African-American men in modern culture.

Biographical Information

Johnson was born in Evanston, Illinois, on April 23, 1948. He graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. While attending college, he worked as a journalist and cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune. In 1970 Johnson married Joan New, with whom he has two children. Also in 1970, Johnson scripted the television series Charlie's Pad, a 52-part series on cartooning for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). In 1973 he completed a master's degree in philosophy from Southern Illinois University. During his graduate study, Johnson began writing fiction under the mentorship of the novelist and creative writing professor John Gardner. From 1973 to 1976, Johnson attended graduate school in philosophy at State University of New York at Stony Brook, but left before completing his Ph.D. Johnson had written six unpublished novels before his seventh, Faith and the Good Thing, was published in 1974. Beginning in 1976, Johnson held a position as a professor of creative writing at the University of Washington in Seattle. He became the fiction editor of the Seattle Review in 1978. When Johnson received the National Book Award in 1990, he became the first African-American author to receive the award since Ralph Ellison in 1953. Johnson has received a number of awards, including the Governors Award for Literature from State of Washington for Oxherding Tale (1982), the Callaloo Creative Writing Award for his short story “Popper's Disease,” and the MacArthur Fellowship in 1998.

Major Works

Johnson has published a variety of works during his career, including novels, short story collections, nonfiction works, and collections of political cartoons. Throughout his oeuvre, Johnson's overriding theme is the examination of the African-American experience and the legacy of slavery in American culture. Johnson's novels provide a complex perspective on issues of race, class, and gender in America through the lenses of both Western and Eastern philosophical thought. His graduate work in philosophy and his personal belief in Zen Buddhism also inform his perspective on the African-American experience. Johnson's fiction is also unique in terms of the way in which he combines the narrative voices of different literary genres, including the slave narrative, sea tale, folk tale, and historical fiction. Johnson's first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, is an intricate, often humourous philosophical work in which he combines fantasy, realism, folk wisdom, and satire to depict a young African-American girl's journey to Chicago in search of the “Good Thing,” or the true meaning of life. During her odyssey, Faith, the novel's protagonist, suffers physical degradations but nonetheless attains spiritual fulfillment. The title of Oxherding Tale, Johnson's second novel, comes from a series of twelfth-century Buddhist paintings known as the “Ten Oxherding Pictures.” In these paintings, a young man in search of an ox that has strayed from his herd serves as an allegory for the individual's search for the self. With Oxherding Tale, Johnson again employs humor and philosophy to trace the development of his protagonist from innocence to experience. The plot is modeled on the slave narratives of nineteen-century author Frederick Douglass. Using a combination of realism and allegory while mixing modern slang with nineteenth-century vernacular, Johnson follows a slave's escape to freedom and his quest for knowledge through the guidance of an eccentric mentor. Set in 1830, Middle Passage chronicles the misadventures of twenty-two-year-old Rutherford Calhoun, a well-educated, mischievous freed slave from southern Illinois. Released in New Orleans by his former master—a clergyman who provided him with a broad education—Rutherford revels in the city's sordid underworld. Intending to escape his numerous creditors and an impending marriage to a priggish schoolteacher that would free him of his debts, Rutherford boards the first available boat, which, to his horror, is a slave clipper bound for Africa. On the dangerous round-trip voyage, Rutherford becomes divided in his allegiance to his white American crewmates and his sympathy for the suffering Allmuseri tribesmen. Rutherford ultimately sides with the captives when they mutiny and, through his traumatic experience with his oppressed shipmates, gains new knowledge about slavery, race relations, and himself. Johnson's collection of short stories, The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1986), also exhibits the author's interest in morality and self-discovery. The stories examine the cultural alienation of African-Americans through a blend of formal language and street argot. Dreamer (1998), Johnson's first work of contemporary historical fiction, is set in Chicago in the 1960s during the final months in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dreamer combines historically factual details with fictional characters in a story that focuses on Chaym Smith, a man who happens to look exactly like Dr. King. After suffering various forms of harassment due to being mistaken for King, Smith offers his services to the civil rights leader as an imposter. The increasing threats on King's life necessitates Smith's role as a decoy who appears in public in order to throw potential assassins off the trail of the real Dr. King. Johnson explores issues of racial identity and political activism while paying homage to King as both a leader and a flawed human being. In 2001 Johnson published Soulcatcher and Other Stories, a short story collection that examines significant events in African-American history. Johnson has also written and co-written a number of nonfiction books, mostly concerning various aspects of African-American history and the African-American experience. Among his nonfiction works are Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970 (1988), Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery (1998), and I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson (1999).

Critical Reception

Critical attention to Johnson's work has focused primarily on his novels, which have been compared to such celebrated works as Herman Melville's “Benito Cereno” and Moby-Dick, Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of an Ex-Slave, Homer's Odyssey, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. However, Johnson's integration of philosophical discussion into his narratives has received mixed responses from critics. Many reviewers have appreciated how Johnson allows unlikely characters—such as the captain of a slave ship—to espouse philosophical insights, while others have found such incongruities to be unconvincing and overwritten. Commentators have applauded Johnson's ability to apply both Eastern and Western philosophy to the African-American experience in order to provide a fresh perspective on the nature of racism and the legacy of slavery in American culture. Considered one of Johnson's strongest works, Oxherding Tale has been noted by many critics for its fluid integration of philosophical ideas into the storyline, prose style, and well-drawn characters. Although Middle Passage has received mixed criticism for anachronistically interspersing modern idioms, nineteenth-century maritime jargon, and naturalistic prose, many commentators have praised Johnson's adroit blending of disparate literary genres. Critics have also commented on the unique role of the lead character in The Middle Passage as a middleman mediating between the enslaved Africans and the crew of the slave ship. Reviewers have commended Johnson's imaginative mixture of fictional and historical details in Dreamer, and have complimented the novel's theme of the doppelganger, or double, as an effective device for exploring issues of race and political activism.

Jennifer Hayward (essay date winter 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6086

SOURCE: Hayward, Jennifer. “Something to Serve: Constructs of the Feminine in Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale.Black American Literature 25, no. 4 (winter 1991): 689-703.

[In the following essay, Hayward discusses Johnson's representation of women and the feminine in Oxherding Tale.]

In the seventh chapter of Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale, Andrew Hawkins, a fugitive slave, watches a family's morning routine from his hiding place in the loft of their barn. While carrying a bucket of fresh milk up to the house, the father spills some “in an accident so suggestive of casual abundance and unconscious prosperity, of surplus and generosity, that I cannot now, with pen or tongue, make you feel the wretchedness and envy that descended upon me, the fugitive, as I watched this white family dine. Beyond this, I thought, there was nothing of lasting value” (107).

This scene seems to me to condense the novel's most urgent themes: the slave overlooking white “freedom” (with the manifold ironies implied in Andrew's heightened position); the male awed by the “casual abundance and unconscious prosperity” of the feminine, as symbolized by the spilling milk; and the voyeurism of the fugitive, cut off from this “dumb domesticity” (107), doubly cut off from the abundant female life-source. Andrew, who has just escaped from a period of sexual slavery to a white woman, sees the farmer's life as a utopia, one which is ostensibly the right of all Americans but from which he is excluded because of his race.

Oxherding Tale acknowledges the marginalization not only of black men but of women, black and white. Johnson explores questions of race and gender by locating them within a complex, experimental network of slave narrative conventions, Afro-American tropes, eighteenth-century narrative strategies, literary constructs of the first-person narrator, and philosophical constructs of the self and of freedom—all of which are subsumed in Johnson's version of Zen Buddhism. Johnson has described his book as “a modern, comic, philosophical slave narrative—a kind of dramatization of the famous ‘Ten Oxherding Pictures’ of Zen artist Kakuan-Shien” (Stefani 235) that represent a young herdsman's search for his rebellious ox, which symbolizes his self.

In this paper, I will first discuss Johnson's unusual combination of influences and genres before exploring one of the book's central issues—Andrew's relationship with women. Johnson's attitude towards women tends towards a glorification of the Eternal Feminine, an attitude which can (and, in this book, several times does) flip over into the concomitant terror of women as all-encompassing and all-powerful. The fact nevertheless remains that Johnson makes a strong attempt to understand feminist issues and to inscribe them in his book. And his technical innovations—particularly the shifts in narrative and temporal perspective—help break the bounds of canonical (Western androcentric) literature.

Andrew's introduction to his tale recalls the conventional opening of the slave narrative: He inscribes his place of birth and his genealogy. Instead of providing a date of birth, though, he invokes a legendary time “before the Civil War” (3). This uncertainty echoes the temporal blankness with which most slave narratives begin, while Andrew's genealogy recalls, and inverts, the conventional paradigm of a protagonist of mixed blood, split between house and field, with an absent or repudiating (white) father and an all-powerful and supportive (black) mother or grandmother. Andrew's birth mother, plantation owner Anna Polkinghorne, refuses to acknowledge him; his adoptive mother, slave Mattie Hawkins, seems almost equally distant; on the other hand, both his master Jonathan Polkinghorne and his father George Hawkins claim and nurture him.

Another important slave narrative trope is the role of education in the slave's quest for freedom, and again Johnson twists the paradigm to signify on tradition. When Andrew is five years old, Jonathan Polkinghorne, childless himself and frustrated by Anna's refusal to have anything to do with the son (Andrew) she has never acknowledged, decides to hire a tutor, “the best that money can buy.” And so Ezekiel Sykes-Withers arrives. Ezekiel's system inculcates self-consciousness, the inability to communicate on an everyday level, and morbidity. Karl Marx's visit to Cripplegate confirms Andrew's increasing suspicions of Ezekiel's shortcomings: The contrast between Marx, a modest, cheerful family man who achieves a great deal, and Ezekiel, a deadly serious but ineffective aesthete, makes explicit the danger of taking oneself too seriously. So although Johnson reinforces the importance of education as a crucial step towards achieving “freedom” in whatever sense, he also comments on the unsuitability of the white educational tradition for blacks with very different needs and historical imperatives—as well as underlining the unbridgeable gap between the tenets of Western education and the institution of slavery. As a direct consequence of Ezekiel's guidance, Andrew is forced to realize that he “owned nothing. My knowledge, my clothes, my language, even, were shamefully second-hand, made by, and perhaps for, other men. I was a living lie, that was the heart of it” (17).

The tale also draws on the Afro-American naming tradition, which reflects a strong belief in the power of language. African and West Indian tribespeople may have two names, one for strangers, the other, the “real,” only for close friends and family; be named for some event associated with their lives, either at birth or later; take new names at different life stages. These practices survived in America in the ritual renaming slaves underwent when freed, to displace the slave owner's hold on their lives; and they survive to this day in, for example, the associative names of blues and jazz artists: T-Bone Walker, Luke Long Gone, Fats Domino, Jelly Roll Morton, and so on.1 Ralph Ellison discusses the difficulty, for blacks, of achieving identity with their names:

For many of us this is far from easy. … we bear, as Negroes, names originally possessed by those who owned our enslaved grandparents, we are apt, especially if we are potential writers, to be more than ordinarily concerned with the veiled and mysterious events, the fusions of blood, the furtive couplings, the business transactions, the violations of faith and loyalty, the assaults; yes, and the unrecognized and unrecognizable loves through which our names were handed down to us.


The importance of naming is reiterated throughout Oxherding Tale. Andrew Hawkins is not named after his white mother lest people guess that he was a result of that horror, sex between a white woman and a black man; becomes James when denying his blackness to the Soulcatcher; is associatively named Freshmeat by Reb when he arrives to serve as gigolo on Flo Hatfield's estate; becomes William Harris (and invents a biography to accompany the new name) when at last he runs away. Andrew repeatedly invokes the African tribes from which he or his fellow slaves are descended: the Wazimba, Wolof, Fulah, Maraboui, Griffe, Zeudi, the ancient “clan-state of the Allmuseri” (116). And he is finally forced to acknowledge the ineluctable power of “the veiled and mysterious events … through which our names were handed down to us” (Ellison 148) when Minty, a slave and the first woman Andrew loved, stands outside the cabin Andrew now owns and calls him by his slave name instead of the “free” name he has chosen for himself, “and, in her speaking the name I was called in the quarters, she gave me a nature that broke my mastery over the cabin forever. I stood stock-still: the sweaty fieldhand, a machete between his teeth, who has crawled through his master's window” (159-60).

The slave narrative thrust of a slave's progress from servitude to freedom is central to Johnson's retelling; again, though, he simultaneously invokes and signifies on the tradition. Oxherding Tale's concept of freedom (which I will explore more thoroughly later) is at once intertwined with and challenged by a concomitant figuration of women and of Buddhism. It is important that Minty, Andrew's icon of Black Womanhood, first awakens his desire for freedom; in fact he doesn't even seem conscious of his slavery until he realizes that, as a slave, he cannot possess Minty. Here the black slave-white master dichotomy becomes entangled with the female object-male subject split; here Andrew becomes implicated in the very oppression he seeks to escape. At this point we hear, for the first time, of Andrew's status as one “forever poised between two worlds. … I owned nothing. My knowledge, my clothes, my language, even, were shamefully second-hand, made by, and perhaps for, other men. I was a living lie, that was the heart of it” (17). Having realized this, he asks the kindly, concerned white father, Jonathan Polkinghorne, for his freedom—and is promptly sold downriver, into the service of a sexually insatiable white woman.

So the tale opens with clear reference to its Afro-American precursors. At the same time, it rewrites the introductory pages of Tristram Shandy. Andrew's father, a black man and a slave, was spurred on to Anna Polkinghorne's bed by a “great Swiss clock” which “chimed twice” (5); the miscegenation which resulted in Andrew's birth also predetermined his exclusion from both the world of the masters and the world of the slaves. He might well say, with Tristram,

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concern'd in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.

(Sterne 5)

Tristram's words, intended to refer to the existential human condition, reverberate in even more complex ways when reread as signifying on the historical difficulties experienced by the child of a black father and a white mother.

Andrew continues to echo Tristram throughout the novel. He draws attention to his own limited omniscience, emphasizing the anecdotal, secondhand nature of much of his material; he occasionally brings the reader into the text by invoking a diverse audience (addressing us as “good folks,” “Sir,” “Madam,” “You,” plural or singular, as Sterne's Tristram does also) and by including putative readers in asides concerning the mechanics of telling a story. Johnson's self-reflexivity works through frequent use of interruptions, such as “—but wait; this had best commence a new chapter,” followed by the heading “A NEW CHAPTER” (66-67); direct anticipations of the reader's response, such as “you will understand me when I say. …,” “bear with me,” or “I ask the reader to ride in with me, and see how the case goes” (117); as well as the intermissions “On the Nature of Slave Narratives” (118-19) and “The Manumission of First-Person Viewpoint” (152-53), which will be discussed later.

By using a rhetoric which brings the audience within the bounds of the fiction itself, Johnson follows Sterne in creating an active audience, breaking down the “objectivity” of the fourth wall to demand a reader participation which is as central to his project of self-explication as the story he is telling. As James Swearingen explains the role of the audience in Tristram Shandy, “It is within this complex texture of self-relatedness that the phenomenon of understanding oneself through speaking may be explained. [The narrator's] consciousness is ecstatic; it is outside of or beyond itself in the exchange with the reader, and only from that point beyond itself can new understandings arise” (92). Johnson understands the intellectual advantages to be gained by creating a “writerly” text; he also understands the spiritual advantages, perhaps better than Sterne. The call-and-response format is central to Afro-American culture, where it has a clear religious origin, and the idea of needing many voices to create a whole completes the philosophical polyphony of Sterne. Also, the radical diversity of the reader implied in Johnson's shifting modes of address serves to reinforce the miscegenation of the narrative itself.

So Johnson signifies on Tristram Shandy in order to draw on its network of philosophical assumptions. On the other hand, this troping on literary forefathers also emphasizes the historical and temporal construction of fictions by drawing attention to the difference among the story Tristram can tell in the eighteenth century, the one Andrew is restricted to in the pre-manumission South, and the actual 1980s time of the tale's (re)writing. Johnson's postmodern approach makes explicit the text's distance from itself by including anachronisms to emphasize its status as just that—an historical novel, written in the present time about the past. He forces us into a writerly consciousness of the discrepancy between the story we are ostensibly reading and the one that has actually been written.

One such anachronism is Ezekiel's explicit modeling of Andrew's education after John Stuart Mill's (despite the fact that Mill's Autobiography detailing that education was not written until 1856, thirteen years after Ezekiel's arrival at Cripplegate). Other, more blatant historical jokes are Marx's visit to the plantation; the historical hindsight of the footnote encapsulating the fate of James Travis, Jr., the toll guard; the use of contemporary literary terminology such as race and gender; the wedding reception racial slurs and jokes, my favorite of which is the bridesmaid's saying “‘My problem is that whenever someone gives me a quick feel in a crowded room, I wheel round, naturally, and slug him, then I realize he's Indian, black, or Mexican, and I feel simply dreadful for the rest of the day because I've hurt someone disadvantaged’” (141). These anachronisms jolt the reader out of Andrew's antebellum milieu and force awareness of the tale as a parable for man's—not just a slave's or a black man's, but any man's—search for himself.

All these technical innovations appear to be postmodern, but in fact they are more closely tied to the organizational principles of the Afro-American literary tradition. In Flash of the Spirit, Robert Farris Thompson identifies among the characteristics of African music: a percussive performance style (which Thompson describes as “attack and vital aliveness in sound and motion”); a tendency towards multiple meters, all competing at once; a “metronome sense,” or ability to maintain a common denominator beneath these meters; interlocking call and response of solo and chorus, voice and instrument; and, subsuming all these, a metacritical thrust within the music itself which pushes it beyond simple performance into “songs and dances of social allusion (music which, however danceable and ‘swinging,’ remorselessly contrasts social imperfections against implied criteria for perfect living)” (xiii).

Johnson's literary technique encompasses many of these musical principles. He incorporates quick cuts in point of view (from omniscient third to limited first to plural first), in time frame (from historical realism to postmodern awareness), and in action; and these ensure the “vital aliveness” of the text by demanding the reader's active participation. Beneath these cuts and multiple shifts of writing style, tone, and time, he “keeps the beat” of the basic philosophical thrust of the novel. Andrew is searching for freedom, and although his definition of that term changes many times over the course of the novel, the song remains the same. As I have already mentioned, Johnson also incorporates the call-and-response paradigm, since Andrew is the chief but by no means the only voice in the novel and is echoed, responded to, and challenged by other voices. Furthermore, the tale proceeds as call and response does—by indirection, not stating but accumulating meaning over the process of its writing, progressing through an intertwining network of voices to reach a conclusion which echoes and reverberates through each one of these voices. As Houston Baker says of another Afro-American novel, Invisible Man, “All these stories reflect, or ‘objectify,’ one another in ways that complicate their individual and composite meanings” (176). Finally, the tale “remorselessly contrasts social imperfections against implied criteria for perfect living” (Thompson xiii) in its deliberately transhistorical exploration of the subjugation of black men, of women in general, and of the individual to the needs of the group.

Swearingen sees Tristram Shandy (and, indeed, eighteenth-century fiction in general) as concerned not with the individual but with the individual's relation to the group. Tristram purports to tell the story of himself, but in fact explores the lives of everyone but himself, save at those nodes where his life touches theirs. And “… through his examination of his family and their relation to the structure of his own being, he reaches an understanding of ‘intersubjectivity’ or the social character of the self that contrasts markedly with the individualism presumed to be normative in the work” (76). Andrew is initially involved in a close network of family and community ties, but from adolescence onward he repeatedly finds himself alone, running from those who would enslave him. His isolation seems to reflect not only historical conditions but also contemporary alienation.

I suggest that, in this respect, the book perhaps escapes its postmodern self-ironicization and pursues unconscious American imperatives, because after the appearance of the Soulcatcher, the method of man's (and I deliberately limit myself to the masculine possessive) search for himself becomes the archetypal American solitary journey into the wilderness—this in spite of Andrew's reiterated yearning for a community and his apostrophization of women. Even after his marriage, Andrew's wife has no part in the dark struggle of his soul, and the novel ends with Andrew's leaving wife and friends to face the forest and single combat with the Soulcatcher, the primordial Enemy. Only then does he achieve the strength and independence—the freedom—he has been seeking.

Andrew's role in Oxherding Tale parallels the slave's role in society. By rights the hero of his own tale, he seems at times its victim and object. His racially and existentially determined sense of “otherness,” of being merely a pawn in the workings of history, is reinforced by Johnson's two “intermissions,” short chapters which remove the reader to the level of the author, above or beyond or behind Andrew's handiwork, and which discuss the progress of the tale so far while calling attention to its techniques. The first intermission emphasizes the affinity between the slave narrative and the Puritan salvation narrative, then discusses Johnson's own “worrying” of these conventions; the second, “The Manumission of First-Person Viewpoint,” informs us that a first-person narrator “is, in fact, nobody; is anonymous. … the I—whatever we call the Self—is a product of experience, and cannot precede it. … The Subject of the Slave Narrative, like all Subjects, is forever outside itself in others, objects. … a narrator … is less a reporter than an opening through which the world is delivered …” (152-53). In case we had missed the extratemporality and the shifting sense of self-identity that permeate the book, Johnson calls our attention to them here. The narrator is neither Johnson nor Andrew Hawkins, but an aporiatic gap through which the central questions of the text can be investigated and dismantled. This intermission concludes, “Having liberated first-person, it is now only fitting that in the following chapters we do as much for Andrew Hawkins” (153).

The structural principles so far discussed recreate, in form, the content of the tale's discussion of the nature of the Self as composed of many Selves—or, alternatively, of nothing. But that “nothing” is exactly what becomes problematic in Oxherding Tale. In a way, and I will come back to this later, “nothing” is the ideal towards which the narrator strives. Women represent the necessary positive to this negative; they are the all-inclusive Being into which nothingness disappears. Anna, Minty, Flo, even Fruity—all are more (and thus simultaneously less) than human. Andrew's education reinforces his tendency towards glorification of the eternal feminine, since Ezekiel teaches that “‘It is not easy to be a full-grown man, Andrew. We are not like women. … We are weaker’” (30). Women are more essential to Being: “‘All our works, male works, will perish in history—history, a male concept of time, will vanish, too, but the culture of women goes on, the rhythms of birth and destruction, the Way of absorption, passivity, cycle and epicycle’” (31). The choice of nouns is particularly interesting here: not birth and death, but birth and destruction—which rewrites the role of women from passive objects of fecundity to deliberate agents of doom.

As I have noted above, Johnson significantly reverses the classic slave narrative by giving Andrew two strongly supportive fathers and no mother. This is just one indication (and, perhaps, partial explanation) of Andrew's (and Johnson's?) conflicted attitude towards women. Early in the book, Johnson repeatedly enforces awareness of the insidious power of gender and race constructs. Reb compares Flo Hatfield's need for a man with slavery, saying, “‘Some women learn, like slaves, to study men. They learn to think like men. … They have to keep one step ahead. If you got no power, … you have to think like people who do so you kin make y'self over into what they want. She's a slave like you'n me, Freshmeat’” (62). Andrew, on the other hand, realizes that “‘again and again, and yet again, the New World said to blacks and women, “You are nothing”’” (75). The woman Andrew marries, Peggy, is a thin, androgynous being with lesbian tendencies whom her father scares Andrew into marrying her to short-circuit those tendencies. “Fruity,” as Andrew calls her because of her Transcendentalist, perhaps Pierre-inspired obsession with gnawing on fruit, was a lonely child who at age six wrote a fantasy which justified her own sense of exclusion by reinscribing herself as a Negro boy. Peggy intuits the connection between women and other oppressed peoples, but her childish awareness of marginalization gives way to adult resignation: On her wedding night, thrilled to feel herself doing the “right” thing at last, she says, “‘You start feeling that goodness and beauty are for other people. For men, if you're a woman. Whites, if you're nonwhite’” (143). Peggy provides insight into the position of women within a society that purports to idealize women: She is shy and awkward, knowing her intelligence and aggressive impulses have no place in a patriarchy.

But Andrew's women repeatedly break the bounds of this politically correct racial/feminist parallel. His mother, Anna Polkinghorne, is first described as “a whole landscape of flesh, white as the moon, with rolling hills, mounds, and bottomless gorges. … George had never seen the old woman so beautiful. … Wouldn't man rise new-made and cured of all his troubles after a night in this immense bed?” (6). Anna seems to have become the earth itself, with a planet's nurturing capabilities. Minty, who impels Andrew's transition into adulthood, represents “all the highbreasted women in calico and taffeta, in lace-trimmed gingham poke bonnets and black net hose, that I had ever wanted. … her eyes … with a hint of blue shadow and a drowse of sensuality … made her seem voluptuously sleepy, distant, as though she had been lifted long ago from a melancholy African landscape …” (15). This woman has become an icon; the portrayal seems to be intended positively but is in fact reductive as well as patronizing.

The narrator's equation of women with Nature becomes clearer during Andrew's service to Flo Hatfield. Flo herself is presented ambiguously: She is beautiful, fascinating, but also deadly; her identity collapses into an identification with Nature (she wears a dress like a landscape and has a spidered face, vegetable sensuality, and a deep, steamy, deer-like voice); she eats only candy (which is interesting in view of Peggy's equally singular, though ethereal rather than sensual, diet); has childish ways but a relentless sexual appetite; jumps from forty years old to eighty-three and back to fifty. And after she transfers her affections to Andrew, causing Patrick's suicide, Andrew questions the relentless indifference of Nature (and Flo?) to Patrick's death:

… the voice of my education sang the earth as man's home, Being as a vast feminine body. … These rolling hills, these timeless trees and vegetation we genderized … without asking whether Being, like Anna Polkinghorne and my stepmother, bore an ancient grudge against men. … That morning I thought this vision contained the menacing idea that men, not Man in the abstract, but men were unessential, and in the deepest violation of everything we valued in Woman.


By this point in the novel it has become clear that women are Other, irreversibly opposed to men. Andrew perceives his marriage with Peggy as transcending conventional male-female relations; in fact, Peggy is utterly subordinated to Andrew. Peggy first appears as an independent, intelligent woman with a highly developed sense of irony. All this changes after her marriage, which Andrew presents as her salvation since it (he) rescues her from the “metaphysical outrage” (138) of lesbianism or old-maidenhood. Immediately after the ceremony, Peggy acquires the habit of crying, happily, at the drop of a hat, as if this is a positive sign of femininity she has long been obliged to repress; what is more, she adores Andrew unquestioningly, while he accepts her adoration as a given and reserves his passion for someone else.

That someone else is Minty, who reappears at a nightmare slave auction which Andrew attends in his new role as white citizen. He watches in horrified fascination as the girl is hauled up onto the block, like a reproach from his past. (Johnson here seamlessly introduces one of the anachronisms at which he excels and which emphasize the tale's relevance to our own time: Minty is compared with “the token black girl at the beauty contest, forever told, ‘Maybe next year’” [154].) After buying Minty, Andrew takes her home, where Peggy of course does not question her arrival: “‘I don't know what she means to you, William, but if you care, I care, and I will ask Daddy for the money’” (162). This is hardly the sort of response an independent woman with a highly developed sense of irony would be likely to make under the circumstances. Minty soon dies, and Johnson's description of her death reveals the terrifying underside of his apostrophization of women:

She was disintegrating. Sugar in water. Form into formlessness. Her left leg had separated from her knee, flowed away like that of a paper doll left in the rain. … She had bitten off her middle finger. … The envelope of her skin expanded, stretched, parted at the seams.


I would hesitate to dismiss this as intentionally misogynistic, but there is certainly something very disturbing in the violence of the images chosen, an indulgence in detail which cannot be excused as simply a graphic portrayal of the consequences of slavery. That American horn of plenty, the Eternal Feminine, here bursts its bounds to reveal the putrification underneath—or, conversely, the sodden and commodified two-dimensionality of “a paper doll left in the rain.” What does it mean that Minty has to disintegrate before Andrew can become free? How is it that manumission leads not to the whole body but to decay—a decay inscribed on the body of a woman, a decay out of which springs the reborn figure of “her” man? This scene speaks to the difficult debate over the respective positions of black man and black woman in a white man's world.

By the end of the book, Andrew does seem to have overcome the dichotomy of black versus white, but only by figuring both black and white men, as opposed to women. He feels “an ancient war” or “crisis in the male spirit” unfolding equally in his father's cabin and his master's house, with the women, somehow, perceived as coming out on top:

This frightened me, I confess. … Men had glimpsed, as my stepmother claimed, the algebra and alphabet of Nature, but knew nothing of feeling; men had charted Being and knew its mutations like the Periodic Table, but men were as children when it came to the heart. … All the more urgent, then, was it for me to know, in this age of sexual warfare, my heart, make it my meditation, and be forever creating some meaning for what it meant to be male, though with what real satisfaction, and with how much resemblance to the promise of my gender, I did not know.


So Andrew's solution will be an attempt to develop his heart, to learn to control it—and this he does, I think, by attempting to remove himself, as Buddhism teaches, from the world. After Patrick's death, he entertains

nervously … the possibility that the sexual war was a small skirmish—a proxy war, with women as the shock troops for a power that waited, mocking the thoroughly male anxiety for progress, ready to (s)mother the fragile male need to build temples to the moon; ready, as in Patrick's case, to remind us, without hope of redemption, that though men were masters—even black men, in the sexual wars—we could not win.


The postmodern (s) forces the reader's awareness that Oxherding Tale is not an attempt to recreate an historical era but is, rather, a parable into which contemporary issues are inscribed. But the (s) further confuses the issue of how we're meant to take Andrew's mystical mutterings about the nature of Womankind, as well as his final brutality to Flo. Is it Andrew who deifies women, or is it—as the (s), as well as words like genderize and racialize, by insisting on the narrator's distance from his pre-Civil War milieu, would seem to confirm—the narrative aporia, into which Andrew himself sometimes seems to disappear?

Andrew's final response to Flo will serve to clarify another disturbing aspect of the tale's portrayal of the feminine. Granted, Flo is abnormally demanding; but Andrew does not seem to mind—seems, in fact, to admire her immensely—until she actually says, “‘I love you’” (71). This statement pushes him over the edge; his fear and anger overwhelm him. He seems to feel that, by loving—or “serving”—her, he is losing his Self; his reaction to her confession is to withdraw from her, asking her repeatedly for his wages and attempting to reconstruct Minty's face in place of Flo's as they make love. When she, in turn, reacts to his alienation by “using me as a kind of scratching post,” he succumbs to fury and self-hatred, feels that he “d[oes] not … truly exist” (73) and ends by smashing her. Andrew's fear of women seems to be tied into his attitude towards slavery: Both threaten a loss of Self. Love of a woman is in fact explicitly paralleled to slavery. When Ezekiel decides to devote himself to Shem Moses' (nonexistent) crippled daughter, he does so because he feels himself nauseatingly free-floating: “Even Cripplegate's bondsmen possessed, it struck Ezekiel, a greater sense of purpose than he …, the thing that, once the furor over freedom died down, made real freedom intelligible: Something to serve” (91). That something is, of course, a woman. Again, when Andrew believes himself about to die he cries “because the woman I had sought in so many before—Flo Hatfield, Minty, Peggy—was, as Ezekiel hinted, Being, and … I … became unworthy of her, having squandered to a thousand forms of bondage the only station, that of man, from which she might truly be served” (172). Again, the narrative privileging of the Eternal Feminine does not seem to be intended misogynistically. Nevertheless, the equation of women with Nature (and with terror) effectively reinscribes the oppression of women within another rhetoric. True, this is a rhetoric which valorizes women, rather than denigrating them; but it is oppression nonetheless.

One solution to the complex conundrum of freedom from oppression is personified in Reb the Coffinmaker, whose cabin shows no traces of his presence and whose soul is a kra he sends freely out into the world. Reb becomes Andrew's ideal. He wonders “if Reb hungered for freedom as I did. What did he want?” (75) and eventually decides that Reb wants nothing, has learned to renounce desire and has thereby become free. Reb cannot be killed by the Soulcatcher because he has no soul to absorb, no desire or emotion pinning him to the world. Johnson offers Reb's absence of desire as a positive quality, and reinforces the message by incorporating African and Buddhist parables which repeatedly enact the freeing of Self from World.

Andrew, though, is not yet free of desire. At the slave auction, Minty becomes “a distant Call I could not but answer, the final knot of the heart that is broken—as Bannon said—from inside, … delivering destiny as your deepest wish” (151). Again the implicit relation between a woman and slavery is projected; and Andrew's deepest wish, as well as his deepest fear, is finally revealed as just that loss of self represented, for him, by both terms of the equation.

When first leaving the comparatively safe haven of slavery, Andrew, whose experience of fragmentation and alienation marks him as a postmodern man displaced into this contemporary rewriting of history, steps outside the bounds of both history and the text, and addresses the reader directly: “Sir, we were already in the midst of Civil War. Blacks and whites. Blacks and blacks. Women and men—I was in the thick of diversity, awash in the world's rich density. But things were becoming too dense. Everything seemed to create its own cancellation. I wanted this movement to go no further …” (50).

Things becoming too dense—in a sense, this phrase applies to Oxherding Tale itself. The novel's conflated vision of women, slavery, and the self establishes a peculiar relationship between the first term and the last two—which, when coupled with the novel's simultaneous threat and promise of cancellation, inscribes within the text a desire for that total merging which is equivalent to death. Johnson raises crucial questions; he offers only partial answers. His response to the irreducible fragmentation and multiplicity of the postmodern world is a Zen-inspired annulment of all differences beneath one “‘Way of absorption, passivity, cycle and epicycle’” (31). Ultimately, the novel perhaps deconstructs not only racial and sexual strife but history and time as well by saying, through Andrew: “I want this movement to go no further” (50).

In accordance with Johnson's view of Oxherding Tale as “‘a modern, comic, philosophical slave narrative’” (Stefani 235), its final symbol is the Many-into-the-One of the Soulcatcher, who both in his biography and in his tattoo encompasses all of life and death, neutralizing all contradiction into a single amorphous Whole. The dense, carnivalesque language which images the tattoo as “an impossible flesh tapestry of a thousand individualities no longer static, … where behind every different mask at the party—behind snout beak nose and blossom—the selfsame face was uncovered at midnight” (175) recalls Houston Baker's “black (w)hole,” a collapsed, deconstructive, powerfully expressive reappropriation of (white) dominant schema of perception and discourse.

Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon forges such a (w)hole out of the American dichotomy of white and black. Milkman is essentially a white man, a product of his middle-class family's attempt to deny their blackness; Guitar is a black man so conscious of his difference that he has become a killing machine. Over the course of the book, Milkman learns to reappropriate his blackness, and is finally able to join with his militantly black brother to create something stronger than each, something that will fly. Oxherding Tale dares even more, attempting to reconcile not only the white-black but also the male-female and master-slave splits. While the novel may not entirely succeed in its apocalyptic task, its complex call and response between divergent literary and philosophical traditions is both thematically pertinent and technically successful; and its irreducible complexity and self-contradiction (and even, in a sense, its collapsed vision of women) can be read as strengths, adding to the evocative power of this strange and fascinating book.


  1. This paragraph is indebted to Dillard and to The Book of Negro Folklore (Hughes and Bontemps).

Works Cited

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

Dillard, J. L. Black Names. Hague: Mouton, 1976.

Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Random, 1953.

Hughes, Langston, and Arna Bontemps, eds. The Book of Negro Folklore. New York: Dodd, 1958.

Johnson, Charles. Oxherding Tale. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982.

Stefani, Susan. “Johnson, Charles (Richard).” Contemporary Authors: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide to Current Writers. Vol. 116. Ed. Hal May. Detroit: Gale, 1986. 234-35.

Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy. 1760-67. London: Oxford UP, 1936.

Swearingen, James E. Reflexivity in Tristram Shandy. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random, 1981.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 96

Black Humor (political cartoons) 1970

Half-Past Nation-Time (political cartoons) 1972

Faith and the Good Thing (novel) 1974

Oxherding Tale (novel) 1982

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (short stories) 1986

Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970 (essays) 1988

Olly Olly Oxen Free: A Farce in Three Acts (play) 1988

The Middle Passage (novel) 1990

Black Men Speaking [contributor; co-editor with John McCluskey, Jr.] (essays) 1997

Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery [with Patricia Smith and the WGBH Series Research Team] (nonfiction) 1998

Dreamer (novel) 1998

I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson [contributor; edited by Rudolph P. Byrd] (essays) 1999

Soulcatcher and Other Stories (short stories) 2001

Gary Wills (review date 17 January 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1394

SOURCE: Wills, Gary. “The Long Voyage Home.” New York Review of Books 38, nos. 1/2 (17 January 1991): 3.

[In the following review, Wills argues that Johnson's prose style in The Middle Passage transcends traditional ideological formulas about the African-American experience.]

Rutherford Calhoun is a naive wiseacre, a freed slave brought up on a remote Illinois farm, where an abolitionist stuffed his head with learning to arm him against a hostile white world, then set him loose on the streets of New Orleans where, at age twenty-two, he whores and steals, gambles and runs up debts, and tries to control danger with a distancing ridicule. As Charles Johnson presents him [in The Middle Passage,] he sounds like a stand-up comic wandered back into the 1820s:

You have seen, perhaps, sketches of Piltdown man? Cover him with coal dust, add deerskin leggings and a cut-away coat tight as wet leather, and you shall have Santos's younger, undernourished sister.

Santos is the monstrous slave bred up as a bare-knuckled fighter and freed into the service of “Papa” Zeringue, the Creole who presides over that world of interracial crime Calhoun has slipped into. Calhoun finds here a new form of slavery when his debts are bought up by a pious black schoolmarm who takes in crippled pets. Papa decrees a marriage with this reform-minded lady; but Calhoun sees himself sinking, like his brother, into a “gentleman of color”:

The phrase made me hawk, then spit in a corner of my mind. It conjured (for me) the image of an Englishman, round of belly, balding, who'd been lightly brushed with brown watercolor or cinnamon.

Fleeing to a New Orleans bar, Calhoun falls in with seamen:

All armed to the eyeballs with pistols and cutlasses, scowling and jabbering like pirates, squirting tobacco juice everywhere except in the spittoons—a den of Chinese assassins, scowling Moors, English scoundrels, Yankee adventurers, and evil-looking Arabs. Naturally, I felt pretty much right at home.

So to sea he goes, on a voyage that is part Robert Louis Stevenson and part Sebastian Brant, the fifteenth-century author of Ship of Fools. His ship, the Republic, is a process, always on the verge of sinking, remade with desperate patchings and repairs throughout the journey. The crew, too, seems assembled of replaceable parts, of eye patches, hand hooks, peg legs: “They had, like the monocular witches outwitted by Perseus, only two good teeth among them.” The first mate, who has “a core of aloneness within him that nothing on shore could touch”; makes up in worrying what the others lack: “So tense any clock he came close to ran, by my reckoning, forty seconds faster.”

The mad capitalist captain, who has stashed his cabin with spoils of the cultures he preys on, is shrewd and naive, more Melville's Captain Delano than his Ahab. But occasionally, from under Delano's complacent cap, the eyes narrow like Nixon's:

He keeps a list of personal affronts, insults and abuses he's received, or believes he's received, and dates them—he reviews them when he's drunk, keeps them alive, and always watches for a man's weaknesses once he's signed on.

More than once, his rages had sent men climbing to the crow's-nest for safety, and he'd turn to one of his officers, chuckling, “They think I'm loony.”

Johnson's method is to build neat little structures of period detail, then shatter them with a defiant anachronism. The captain explains why he cannot give Calhoun a paying share on the boat. Calhoun might make a passable mate, but he is not one “to advance the position, or make a lasting breakthrough of any kind”:

I believe in excellence—an unfashionable thing these days, I know, what with headmasters giving illiterate Negroes degrees because they feel too guilty to fail them, then employers giving that same boy a place in the firm since he's got a degree in hand and saying no will bring a gang of Abolitionists down on their necks.

Without realizing it, Calhoun has shipped onto an illegal slave ship, still bringing captives through the Middle Passage in 1830. On the shores of Africa, the comedy turns bitter:

How could I feel whole after seeing it? How could I tell my children of it without placing a curse on them forever? How could I even dare to have children in a world so senseless?

The most powerful two pages of the novel occur when Calhoun must throw a dead slave, a young man about his own age, overboard. The boy's decomposing flesh seems to seep into Calhoun's body as he handles it, effecting a weird transubstantiation.

Yet Calhoun continues to feel as distant from the captive “Allmuseri” as from their white captors. Even when an eight-year-old Allmuseri girl, Baleka, adopts him as her father, he has no trusted place with the Africans. They are as strange as their god, whom the captain has crated up (like a supernatural King Kong) and put in the hold—his climactic seizure of a foreign culture's soul. This is a god who feeds on the people who go near the crate, absorbing them into him and infusing himself into them.

When the inevitable mutiny comes, Calhoun is caught between the first mate and the captain, like Jim Hawkins torn between Long John and Doctor Livesey. But at the crisis—when he finally understands his own brother's nobility because he has come to care for someone (the Allmuseri girl)—he betrays both white factions to the Africans, who swarm up out of the hold bearing names taken from Benito Cereno. The captain, befuddled, asks:

“Then we underestimated the blacks? They're smarter than I thought?”

“They'd have to be.”

In the aftermath of the revolt, Calhoun and some Allmuseri allies have trouble with an African demagogue, who wants to draw up new maps uncontaminated by the white man. Sorting out his own attitudes toward Africa, Calhoun finally goes down into the hold, sent there by the girl Baleka, to face the mystery of his own origins in the native god.

As the voyage doubles back to its beginning, Calhoun sees previously hidden aspects of his New Orleans—the school-marm has revealed her odd charm, so that the Creole boss Zeringue is about to marry her, a suitor to Penelope. She has been delaying him by knitting booties for her stray pets and unraveling them by night. In a loving send-up of The Odyssey, Calhoun thwarts Zeringue with an Allmuseri martial arts trick (like Odysseus' bow feat) and a revelation from the ship's log (the secret of Odysseus' bed).

Johnson's previous novels were not entirely saved from the pretentiousness of his own graduate training in philosophy by the wit that keeps his fictional Republic poising over the abyss. Here he has used an even older skill—Johnson's first trade was as a cartoonist. The novel's language is inventive in zany ways, full of learned and slangy inventions (glim, chaosmos, pungled, flimmer, mubblefuddled, turngiddy).

It is ironic that Johnson's book won the National Book Award in a panel that was accused, by a judge on it, of choosing ideology over merit. Johnson's merit is as obvious as his opposition to ideological formulas. In the novel as in his critical writing, Johnson resists the idea of expressing “black experience” as opposed to a black's experience of his or her inevitably multicultural world. In the Republic every person is changed—for good and ill—by the presence of all the other persons on the ship. The process remakes the passengers as the boat is itself remade, by the task of sailing on. Everyone aboard goes to school to the others' terrors. Even when he has cast his lot with the African rebels, Calhoun does not, like them, yearn back toward a home in Africa:

The States were hardly the sort of place a Negro would pine for, but pine for them I did. … If this weird, upside-down caricature of a country called America, if this land of refugees and former indentured servants, religious heretics and half-breeds, whoresons and fugitives—this cauldron of mongrels from all points on the compass—was all I could rightly call home, then aye: I was of it. There, as I lay weakened from bleeding, was where I wanted to be. Do I sound like a patriot? Brother, I put it to you: What Negro, in his heart (if he's not a hypocrite), is not?

Jonathan Little (essay date autumn 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4531

SOURCE: Little, Jonathan. “Charles Johnson's Revolutionary Oxherding Tale.Studies in American Fiction 19, no. 2 (autumn 1991): 141-51.

[In the following essay, Little examines Oxherding Tale as a story of interracial romance that addresses issues of gender, race, and identity.]

Consistent with his call for literary experimentation and diversity in Being and Race (1988), Charles Johnson's metafictional Oxherding Tale (1982) opens up new areas for fiction dealing with black-white interracial romance. In casually endorsing interracial mixture, and in parodying sentimental and sensational precedents, Oxherding Tale signals the latest and most revolutionary stage of an evolving and important literary tradition.

Early African-American fiction consistently showed that solidarist interest should thwart any attempts at interracial romance. Understandably, for African-Americans writing before, during, and after the Civil War, racial loyalty was perceived as a necessary bulwark and a weapon against an inhospitable and often racist white America. Novels such as Frank Webb's The Garies and Their Friends (1857), Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy; or, The Shadows Uplifted (1892), Walter White's Flight (1925), and Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun (1929) and Comedy American Style (1933), clearly illustrate the psychological and physical dangers of crossing the color line for love, greater economic security, greater social status, or to avoid discrimination. Those characters who attempt to cross the color line permanently for these or other reasons are either punished through quick demises or soon learn the error of their ways and, chastened, return to the unified black community.1 The external warning in these novels is clear: the decision to pass for white is dangerous and potentially self-destructive.

This cautionary message is even more predominant in African-American fiction of the post-World War II period in which the story of interracial love is used in an increasingly polemical and sensational fashion to emphasize the need for racial solidarity and rebellion against white hegemonic power. Not surprisingly, the post-World War II consciousness of African-American writers reflected the increasing frustration and rage with second-class citizenship. As Joel Williamson points out, “a century of hard striving since the 1850s had not reduced white racism, but it had, as we have seen, increasingly melded the Negro people together, not only in the genetic sense but also in the all-important cultural sense. By the end of World War II Afro-Americans were preset for union, and they were poised to move with power.”2

One of the clearest examples of this revolutionary imperative can be found in John Oliver Killens' 'Sippi (1967), in which the African-American hero uses his affair as a means of revenge against the white patriarchy, eventually realizing, however, that even this kind of affair is incompatible with the interests of the Movement. Chuck Othello [emphasis added] Channey tells his white lover that “marrying the white man's daughter is not a part of the Black Power program,”3 which is based on “Power—strength—violence” (p. 408). In the end of the novel Channey mourns an assassinated Black leader who preached “Black union is the ship; all else is the open sea!” (p. 358). In 'Sippi, Killens' didacticism prevails throughout the novel to show the inappropriateness of interracial mixture in the interests of political and social activism, and he manipulates his black and white characters accordingly.

This politicized racial polarization is also evident in William Gardner Smith's Last of the Conquerors (1948) and South Street (1954) and Alice Walker's Meridian (1976), where characters must choose between interracial love or effective activism. In Walker's Meridian, for example, the tensions prove to be too much for the characters, as demonstrated in a passage in which the white Lynn Rabinowitz lashes out at Truman Held, who has left her:

You only married me because you were too much of a coward to throw a bomb at all the crackers who make you sick. You're like the rest of those nigger zombies. No life of your own unless it's something against white folks. You can't even enjoy a good fuck without hoping some cracker is somewhere grinding his teeth.4

In Walker, Killens, and Smith's works love quickly disintegrates under the pressures of racial loyalties and the demands of activist leadership.

More sensational yet in their depictions of interracial strife are Chester Himes' If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) and The Primitive (1955); Willard Savoy's Alien Land (1949); Frank Hercules' I Want a Black Doll (1967); and Calvin Hernton's Scarecrow (1974), all of which portray murders of one or more of the partners involved in the affair often in shocking detail. Intentionally recalling Richard Wright's Native Son, Hernton, for example, has his main character murder and dismember his white wife.

With few exceptions, post-World War II African-American fiction portrays interracial romance as an increasingly poisoned and often sensational battleground of racial antagonism. Reflecting the social climate of heightened racial strife, these relationships come unequivocally freighted with hatred, despair, violence, and futility, serving as often programmatic metaphors for America's bleak prospects for interracial harmony.

Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale, however, extends convention by showing an interracial romance that is not doomed to failure or fraught with unhappiness, and in doing so signals a new direction for a vexed issue in American fiction. Oxherding Tale shows an interracial relationship that quietly and matter-of-factly succeeds. Set in the antebellum South, Oxherding Tale conflates and juxtaposes past and present in Andrew Hawkins, the contemporary narrator. His origins are comic: one night, after sustained drinking, plantation-owner Jonathan Polkinghorne and his slave, George Hawkins, swap wives and the outraged Anna Polkinghorne becomes pregnant with Andrew. After a series of bizarre adventures and philosophical explorations—the novel is an entertaining mixture of picaresque and slave narrative forms (what Johnson calls “genre crossing”5)—Andrew decides to pass for white to escape to freedom.

Accompanying the freedom that Andrew finds is, unexpectedly, marriage to a white woman. He discovers that “my dharma, such as it was, was that of the householder.”6 Their happiness as a couple seems assured, as the closing passage makes clear: “After the war [the Civil War], Fruity [his wife] and I turned to the business of rebuilding, with our daughter Anna (all is conserved; all), the world. This is my tale” (p. 176). In naming their daughter after Anna Polkinghorne, Andrew and his wife Peggy Undercliff “rebuild” the world. Remarkably, considerations of race play no part in their relationship. This is without precedent in American fiction, African-American or white, in novels written before 1982.7 All American novels dealing with miscegenetic relationships foreground the issue of race, subordinating the characters to questions of ideology and racial politics, something that does not happen in Oxherding Tale, since, remarkably, “love conquered the illusion of race, this life-long hallucination that Thou and That differed” (p. 170).

The plot of Oxherding Tale, though it is complex and entertaining, is, as Andrew points out in the opening sentences, “mere parable” for deeper concerns of individual identity and spiritual development. Passing for white gives Andrew the opportunity to begin again, to “reconstruct his life from scratch.” As he admits later, he “milked the Self's polymorphy to elude, like Trickster John in the folktales my father told” (p. 159). Throughout the narrative, Andrew is many things: slave, student, lover, teacher, husband, nineteenth-and twentieth-century man combined, philosopher and writer. Andrew the narrator comments on the literary conventions as he experiments with them. He is hardly a “character” in the traditional sense of the term since he serves for Johnson more as a palimpsest: a fluid repository for metaphysical musings and literary echoes and experimentation. In one of his essayist asides (another metafictional defamiliarizing device), Johnson clarifies this strategy: “The Self, this perceiving Subject who puffs on and on, is, for all purposes, a palimpsest, interwoven with everything—literally everything—that can be thought or felt” (p. 152). Thus Andrew's decision to pass for white resonates at more than just the level of physical survival and expands into phenomenological issues of freedom and identity.

Andrew does, however, have to work through problematic aspects of his identity before he can reach the stage of spiritual contentment he achieves at the end of the novel. The slavery that Andrew endures is more than physical; he too is eventually crippled by the despair which afflicts his father, an embittered contemporary Black Revolutionary (the Polkinghorne's plantation is called Cripplegate). Andrew's legacy catches up with him near the end of the novel, and he heads towards self destruction. The problematic means of perception he inherits from his father, seeing distinctions, and fixating on racial differences and injustice, prevent him from appreciating Being in all its richness and diversity. The narrator, Andrew, addresses the reader: “I speak of myself; you will not make my mistake—became unworthy of her [Being], having squandered to a thousand forms of bondage the only station, that of man, from which she might truly be served” (p. 172). Johnson here clarifies his use of parable since slavery becomes an allegory for perceptual bondage or anything that prevents the true appreciation of being or life.

In order to free himself (in both senses of the word) Andrew must defeat the metaphoric “Soulcatcher,” a metaphysical bounty hunter who arises out of the characters' own desire for death and despair to destroy them: “When the heart broke under pressure, failed, losing the strength to revive hope, the Soulcatcher stepped in to perform the most merciful of services” (p. 170). The Soulcatcher is, significantly, described as having a collage of features, “a racial mongrel, like most Americans” (p. 67). Although never explicitly stated, his function finally transcends issues of race and applies to any of the “thousand forms of bondage” or despair that people can fall or be forced into, which can prevent a full perception and appreciation of experience.

For Andrew's father, however, it is his racial pride which both metaphorically and literally kills him. As the Soulcatcher tells Andrew, George Hawkins was an easy prey for self-destruction: “Now he was an easy kill, oh yeah, Ah did indeed snuff George Hawkins after the Cripplegate uprisin', but he was carryin' fifty-'leven pockets of death in him anyways, li'l pools of corruption that kept him so miserable he begged me … to blow out his lights—” (p. 174). Andrew contemplates his father's reaction to his decision to pass for white and marry a white woman.

He would reject me, claiming I had rejected him, and this was partly true: I rejected (in George) the need to be an Untouchable. … My father kept the pain alive. He needed to rekindle racial horrors, revive old pains, review disappointments like a sick man fingering his sores. … Grief was the grillwork—the emotional grid—through which George Hawkins sifted and sorted events, simplified a world so overrich in sense it outstripped him, and all that was necessary to break this spell of hatred, this self-inflicted segregation from the Whole, was to acknowledge, once and for all, that what he allowed to be determinant for his life depended on himself and no one else.

(p. 142)

George is crippled by his “self-inflicted segregation from the Whole,” due to his paranoia and obsessive racial pride. Eventually he destroys himself and his ability to slide unscathed, like Trickster John, through the very real difficulties and oppression he faces. Johnson, finally, has him suffer a comic fate, and one which, again, conflates past and present. George experiences “the reward all black revolutionaries feared: an eternity of waiting tables” (p. 175).

Although Andrew claims he has rejected the self-destructive past of his father, he realizes that he “desires the kill” at the hands of the Soulcatcher, whom he has produced from himself. Saving Andrew, however, is that part of himself that has resisted his father's perceptual limitations, his ability to take on new identities and keep his mind open to the evolving and ever enriching flux of experience. This part of Andrew is characterized in the Coffinmaker, Reb, who defeats the Soulcatcher through his individual freedom and his inability to be corrupted or pinned down. The Soulcatcher explains Reb's power: “—Yo friend, as Ah was sayin', didn't have no place inside him fo' me to settle. He wasn't positioned nowhere” (p. 174). Thus Reb retains the ability to “milk the Self's polymorphy” to elude the potential for corruption and death that kills off George Hawkins and threatens Andrew.

Since the Soulcatcher arises from within, Andrew must have retained some of that ability to escape the Soulcatcher's grasp. He is rewarded in the end with a mystical vision of the interrelatedness of things, a glimpse of the Whole from which his father separated himself. And in this vision, depicted in a filmic “impossible flesh tapestry of a thousand individualities no longer static” (p. 175) on the Soulcatcher's tattooed chest, Andrew regains the fluidity and resiliency he was in danger of losing. In this vision readers also see what Andrew has gained through his struggle and misadventures, the ability to relate himself to the Whole and to keep his mind open to the extravagant flux of experience. Andrew overcomes his bondage to the slavery of perceptual limitation, finally experiencing a rare sense of individual perceptual freedom while simultaneously regaining a deep connection with his father and his own past:

… And I lost his figure in this field of energy, where the profound mystery of the One and the Many gave me back my father again and again, his love, in every being from grubworms to giant sumacs, for those too were my father and, in the final face I saw in the Soulcatcher, which shook tears from me—my own face, for he had duplicated portions of me during the early days of the hunt—I was my father's father, and he my child.

(p. 176)

Andrew's character, if that term is even appropriate, becomes a joyous and restless experiential compilation. He becomes the truly inclusive and comprehensive Self, the palimpsest that Johnson referred to earlier in the novel, and one who, instead of forsaking his past and his father, incorporates them into himself and produces them from himself.

If for no other reason, Oxherding Tale is notable for its joyous and active denouement. Unlike most of the protagonists in similar circumstances, Andrew does not become overwhelmed by the horrors of white racist persecution, letting it destroy his marriage (or love affair) and himself. His interracial relationship does not crumble as an inevitable result of racial tensions and the exclusionary activist tenets. In fact, Johnson is self-consciously aware of the traditions and conventions before him and has his characters comment, comically, on them. Andrew, for example, is shocked by his wife's easy acceptance of the news that he is a runaway slave and part African.

For a longer time than I thought bearable, Wife was significantly quiet, and if this quiet occurred in fiction, if she were a character in William Wells Brown's Clotel, Delany's Blake, or Frank Webb's Garies and Their Friends (all books Wife read), it would have been the lull before a cheap emotional outburst, an embarrassing scene: the horror-stricken belle pulls out her tresses like chicken feathers, she throws her husband, the beast, out on his behind. But Peggy Undercliff was no character in a novel.

(p. 161)

Ironically, his wife is a character in a novel, but she is not limited by the predictable outrage found in early passing-for-white narratives. She becomes the personification of the compassionate other. Interestingly, it is through her interracial marriage that she overcomes the tendency to deny herself happiness, to think that “goodness and beauty are for other people” (p. 143). She finally admits “I have it all now” (p. 144) even after learning of her husband's racial background. She too has overcome a form of bondage by the end of the novel, that of self-denial; both she and her husband undergo a perceptual transformation that is linked more to their union than to racial categorizations.

Andrew, similarly, transcends stereotype. He continues to be shocked by his wife's reaction: “This was hardly the turn of events I'd expected; I had prepared myself for oppression by preliving episodes of disappointment, obstacles, and violent death; I felt a shade disappointed that everyone in the White World wasn't out to get me” (p. 162). Johnson is clear in his self-conscious parody both of the sentimental treatments of interracial relationships in nineteenth-century literature as well as the physical and psychological violence that accompanies more contemporary treatments.

How Johnson is able to write such a radically different treatment of this topic is made clear in his recent critical work, Being and Race (1988). Johnson wants African-American fiction to follow an aesthetic ideal based on artistic diversity and venturesome experimentation instead of being driven by polemical and ideological concerns or demands for political utility. He identifies African-American literature as only recently emerging from its “prehistory,” marked by “the overwhelming technical and thematic one-dimensionality of much black fiction prior to 1970, the apparent lack of adventure and creative ambition in Afro-American letters, the tendency by authors of color to plow the same racial and social ground over and over when an entire universe of phenomena lay waiting for investigation” (p. 119). While Johnson may be overly condemnatory of black fiction, he is not pessimistic about the present or future. Citing works by Clarence Major, Ishmael Reed, and William Melvin Kelley, Johnson is excited about the challenges and opportunities ahead for African-American writers, “the possibility that our art can be dangerous and wickedly diverse, enslaved to no single idea of Being …” (p. 122). Such aesthetic diversity will help African-American literature move “from narrow complaint to broad celebration” (p. 123).

In this light, especially, there are clear similarities between Being and Race and Oxherding Tale.Oxherding Tale is, in fact, a fictive enactment of Johnson's critical expectations and criteria. Andrew, Johnson's hero in Oxherding Tale, overcomes his father's perceptually limiting legacy to experience a celebratory and inclusive vision at the end of the novel. Andrew has moved away from his father's “narrow complaint” and enslavement to a single idea of being to an expanded and diversified appreciation of existence. In overcoming despair and paranoia, Andrew becomes Johnson's phenomenological and fictive hero on a grand scale—he embodies Johnson's definition of aesthetic and perceptual diversity. Importantly, Johnson's vision does not ignore race and ethnicity, since both will be incorporated into a transformative and inclusive apprehension of Self. Ideally, for Johnson, “we will see a fiction by Americans who happen to be black, feel at ease both in their ethnicity and in their Yankeeness, and find it the most natural thing, as Merleau-Ponty was fond of saying, to go about ‘singing the world’” (p. 123), which is exactly what happens in the end of Oxherding Tale. Andrew “sings the world,” creating and expanding as he “puffs along.”

Especially dangerous to literary production, Johnson feels, is a confining commitment only to political and ideological agendas. Such dogmatic concerns run counter to truly creative and diverse artistic achievements, since “all presuppositions, all theories, must be suspended before experience and meaning can be brought forth in black literary art” (p. 29). However well-intentioned or necessary, doctrines such as Negritude or Cultural Nationalism shut off “the free investigation of phenomena” (p. 26) and calcify perception. Johnson is shocking and certainly controversial on this point:8

Like fascist art in Germany during the 1930s, Negritude—all Kitsch—is a retreat from ambiguity, the complexity of Being occasioned by the conflict of interpretations, and a flight by the black artist from the agony of facing a universe silent as to its sense, where even black history (or all history) must be seen as an ensemble of experiences and documents difficult to read, indeed, as an experience capable of inexhaustible readings.

(p. 20)

Dogma and ideology, however useful or expedient, often limit the artist's ability to experiment with form, characterization, narrative, and even perception.

Instead of political or racial doctrines, Johnson wishes to see African-American literature opened up to the intersubjective phenomenological freedom of “free variation” (p. 43), which encourages a divestment of individual perspective, at least temporarily, for purposes of expanded perceptual vision. Johnson condenses phenomenologist Herbert Spiegelberg's principles, all of which have real application and relevance to Johnson's work:

(1) Using imagination and the technique of variation, we try to occupy the real place of the other and view from this standpoint the world as it is present in all its texture, limitations, and possibilities. (2) In transporting ourselves in this manner we must divest ourselves of our own historically acquired peculiarities by adopting as much as we can of the other's viewpoint. We must quit the familiarity of our own lives momentarily to experience this. (3) After this transportation we move back and forth between the other's perspective and our own, comparing evidence, collating profiles, criticizing the other's perspective for what it lacks, and, according to what we find, amending our own.

(p. 43)

In philosophical terms, this is what has happened in the climax of the novel, when Andrew, viewing the tattoos, moves outside of himself, occupies others' viewpoints, “collates profiles,” and returns, enlightened, with an expanded perspective.

Johnson's literary tastes are clear. In calling for the sisterhood of fiction and phenomenology, he privileges metafictional writing, since traditionally it practices the transformation of perspectives, the juxtaposition of contexts, and the use of fantasy and self-conscious commentary. The phenomenological and metafictional techniques work to deform and defamiliarize experience (spiritual or literary) to achieve revelation and transcendence. As Johnson says in Being and Race, “to put this bluntly, language is transcendence. And so is fiction” (p. 39). To this list of liberating techniques, Johnson adds what he calls “phenomenological description,” which is “prose that is charged or poetic or surrealistic, to fling the reader of fiction toward revelation and unsealed vision” (p. 33). Andrew's final epiphany is also certainly an example of phenomenological description and shows Johnson working to employ his theoretical principles to break perceptual limitation.

Further, Johnson makes the point that there have been only two options for black characters in African-American fiction.

Once you are so one-sidedly seen by the white Other, you have the option of (A) accepting this being seen from the outside and craftily using the “invisibility” of your interior to deceive, and thus to win survival as the folk hero Trickster John does in the “Old Marster and John” cycle.

(p. 28)

The second option is to embrace “blackness,” which has been defined by an inversion of the white Other: “You applaud your athletic, amorous, and dancing abilities, your street wisdom and savoir faire, your ‘soul,’ the food your body eats, you speak of the communual (single-body) social life of your African ancestors before the fifteenth-century slave trade, their bodily closeness to the earth” (p. 29). In Oxherding Tale, Andrew is, until the end, defined by the first option. He wins his survival and “freedom” by repressing his African and slave past and by covering up the traces of his true feelings and thoughts. A cunning Trickster John character, he is protected by his outward assumption of a white identity: he is truly a “spy in the Big House.”

Johnson illustrates the dangers of such a role—it nearly kills Andrew. As the final important epiphany shows, Andrew has moved beyond the confining options that have been available to black characters in fiction. He is enslaved to no particular reactive identity or mode of being that is exclusively dependent on race in any way. Johnson's hero, finally, is a cumulative and free-floating independent creative force: “The Self, this perceiving Subject who puffs on and on, is, for all purposes, a palimpsest, interwoven with everything—literally everything—that can be thought or felt” (p. 152).

In the light of such an all-encompassing and grand denouement, issues such as racial polarization, racial antagonisms, even racial identity fall away as relatively trivial and secondary. While Oxherding Tale is very much about race and racial experience, it incorporates these issues into a larger whole, stressing transcendence and inter-subjectivity over any sense of a “fixed” (or calcified) identity, racial or historical. The novel operates allegorically, showing the limitations of a single political and ideological emphasis for literary (and individual) growth, and shows, finally, the aesthetic and spiritual rewards gained from a freer phenomenological and intersubjective investigation of experience, à la Spiegelberg.

Among African-American writers, such thinking about race and literature is almost without precedent. The closest parallels are found in Jean Toomer's post-Cane mysticism. Where Toomer was more concerned with promoting a biological “selective fusion” that would purify humanity into a universal Whole,9 Johnson stays largely within the literary realm. In their art, however, there are closer similarities. In one of Toomer's final poems, The Blue Meridian (1936), the commitment to mystical unification and the denial of individual or racial distinctiveness are evident:

Islanders, newly come upon the continents,
If to live against annihilation,
Must outgrow themselves and their own places,
Disintegrate tribal integrators,
And fix, as their center of gravity,
As their compelling idea
The symbol of Universal Man—
Must outgrow clan and class, color,
Nationalism, creed, all the fetishes
Of the arrested and dismembered,
And find a larger truth in larger hearts.(10)

For Johnson, similarly, there is no such thing as “race” or “nations.” To use these concepts is to think again in “essences,” something to be avoided: “There are no ‘blacks,’ or ‘nations,’ or even ‘men’ and ‘women,’ unless we mean, say, specifically my son, Malik, and my daughter, Elizabeth; but even that says little or nothing at all. …”11 As it relates to achieving a unified humanity (Toomer), or an expanded range for African-American writing (Johnson), both artists see obsessive racial and historical identification as limiting and potentially destructive.

Johnson hopes to promote, by the example of both his criticism and his fiction, a more aesthetically venturesome African-American literature, one more committed to artistic diversity, technical virtuosity, and metafictional experimentation. To this end, he breaks with and parodies tradition in Oxherding Tale by creating a playful tale of an interracial romance that succeeds. Oxherding Tale works on a deeper level as well, showing the precedence issues of spiritual and phenomenological intersubjectivity take over issues of racial and historical identity. Whether or not critics and writers are sympathetic with Johnson's privileging of metafictional and phenomenological criteria, or his relatively apolitical notions of individual identity, Johnson's achievements must be recognized as provocative and compelling examples of the “wicked diversity” he encourages.


  1. As recent criticism has shown, some of these apparently simple narrative structures and motifs are subtly ironized or internally dialogized, as early African-American novelists negotiated in an oppressive and restrictive political and social environment. For further discussion see William L. Andrews, “The Novelization of Voice in Early African American Narrative,” PMLA, 105 (1990), 23-34.

  2. Joel Williamson, New People (New York: The Free Press, 1980), p. 179.

  3. John Oliver Killens, 'Sippi (New York: The Trident Press, 1967), p. 396.

  4. Alice Walker, Meridian (New York: Pocket Books, 1976), p. 149.

  5. Charles Johnson, Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970 (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1988), p. 48.

  6. Charles Johnson, Oxherding Tale (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1982), p. 147.

  7. Even in Frank Yerby's unconventional Speak Now (New York: The Dial Press, 1969), which shows a relatively content interracial relationship, race is a primary factor in their relationship, and is constantly referred to.

  8. In his generally favorable review of Being and Race, Reginald Martin calls Johnson's comparison of Negritude to kitsch “demeaning.” See “Black Writer as Black Critic: Recent Afro-American Writing,” CE, 52 (1990), 205.

  9. Jean Toomer, “Race Problems and Modern Society,” in Problems of Civilization, ed. Baker Brownell (New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1929), p. 108.

  10. Jean Toomer, The Wayward and the Seeking (Washington: Howard Univ. Press, 1980), p. 225.

  11. Charles Johnson, Being and Race, p. 34.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 351


Asim, Jabari. “Celebrating the Vision of Martin Luther King.” Washington Post Book World (12 April 1998): 1, 10.

Asim describes Dreamer as a novel of ideas that addresses issues of individual identity and the nature of the self, commenting that the work provides “what we've come to expect from Johnson: a tale that's complex, richly told and open-ended.”

Bernstein, Richard. “Imagining a Cain to Shadow Dr. King.” New York Times (8 April 1998): E11.

Bernstein discusses the theme of the doppelganger in Dreamer, noting that despite Johnson's skilled writing style, the novel's ending is ultimately disappointing.

Cohen, Roger. “Middle Passage and Morgan Win.” New York Times (29 November 1990): C22.

Cohen reports on Johnson's receipt of the 1990 National Book Award for Fiction for The Middle Passage.

Datcher, Michael. “Speech, after Long Silence.” Washington Post Book World 27, no. 34 (24 August 1997): 11.

Datcher asserts that Black Men Speaking is a diverse collection of writings on the African-American experience that are noticeably uneven in quality.

Keneally, Thomas. “Misadventures in the Slave Trade.” New York Times (1 July 1990): E8.

Keneally discusses how The Middle Passage explores the continuing legacy of slavery in modern American culture.

McFarland, Dennis. “The Secret Sharer.” New York Times (5 April 1998): E14.

McFarland observes that Dreamer is a lively tale that offers insight into the lasting legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Retman, Sonnet. “‘Nothing Was Lost in the Masquerade’: The Protean Performance of Genre and Identity in Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale.African American Review 33, no. 3 (fall 1999): 417.

Retman describes how Oxherding Tale functions as a fictional slave narrative.

Seymour, Gene. Review of Dreamer, by Charles Johnson. Nation 266, no. 15 (27 April 1998): 27.

Seymour praises Dreamer as an inventive and insightful work of fiction that addresses issues of identity.

Additional coverage of Johnson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African American Writers, Ed. 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 6; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 2; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 116; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 18; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 42, 66, 82; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 51, 65; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 33; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; and Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4.

Charles Johnson and Jonathan Little (interview date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9182

SOURCE: Johnson, Charles, and Jonathan Little. “An Interview with Charles Johnson.” Contemporary Literature 34, no. 2 (summer 1993): 159-81.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1992, Johnson discusses his body of work in relation to the Black Arts Movement, issues of cultural and racial identity, and African-American literature as a whole.]

Like his narrator in Middle Passage (1990), Charles Johnson charts a course through the vexed and volatile issues of multiculturalism and racial politics in America. The rush of publicity Johnson received after his best-selling novel Middle Passage won the National Book Award in 1990 drew attention to his versatile and prolific career as a cartoonist, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and screenwriter. Whatever the medium, Johnson continues to address the charged philosophical questions surrounding cultural and individual racial identity.

Johnson began his artistic career with two collections of political cartoons lampooning American race relations, Black Humor (1970) and Half-Past Nation-Time (1972). His interests then turned to writing. After completing six unpublished novels, Johnson published Faith and the Good Thing (1974). The novel reflects his primary interest in blending philosophy and fiction as he depicts Faith's search for the truth or the meaning of life, the “Good Thing.” His next two novels, Oxherding Tale (1982) and Middle Passage, both set in the nineteenth century, also show African-American characters struggling to define themselves as they search for spiritual and metaphysical happiness in the face of difficult odds.

Johnson explains the link between philosophy and fiction in Being and Race (1988), his phenomenological study of African-American writing since 1970. In it he argues for the need for “aesthetically venturesome” and “wickedly diverse” philosophical African-American fiction that is not tied to any single genre or motivated by any single ideological or political agenda. Johnson's collection of short stories, The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1986), illuminates his range as he experiments with realism, allegory, fable, fantasy, and science fiction. His novel in progress concerns Martin Luther King, Jr., whose ability to draw from many different spiritual and cultural traditions has impressed and influenced Johnson.

Johnson's publishing career has coincided with an equally prolific career in television and film screenwriting. His credits include Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree (1978), a dramatization of the life of a 135-year-old African-American for the PBS Vision series, and Booker (1988), a program about the childhood of Booker T. Washington for the Walt Disney channel. He has recently completed a screenplay adaptation of Middle Passage for Tri-Star Productions.

Johnson was an energetic and engaging host during my stay from July 31 to August 3, 1992, in Seattle, where he teaches creative writing at the University of Washington. He showed me around the city he calls “the social correlate of my soul,” with its African-American mayor and harmonious mixture of Asian, African-American, white, Native American, and Latino-American populations. It seemed strikingly appropriate to Johnson's eclecticism that during our wanderings we toured an amphibious assault Navy vessel, a downtown bookstore where he has given several readings, a local artist's backyard studio, and, at Johnson's home, which was being remodeled, the boarded-up entrance to his home gym; he has for eleven years practiced Chinese choy li fut kung fu, and he now teaches it in a neighborhood center. As we walked, I had the uncanny feeling that I was momentarily participating in one of Johnson's fluidly polymorphic and international fictions.

[Little]: In all your novels it seems that your central characters are questing after some kind of enlightenment and that during this process they have to work through a variety of options embodied in other characters in the novel. Is this an accurate interpretation of the structure of your novels?

[Johnson]: In each one of the novels there is a progression from ignorance to knowledge, or from a lack of understanding to some greater understanding. Certainly that's true of Faith and the Good Thing. I know it's true of Middle Passage. The last chapter is “Moksha” in Oxherding Tale, meaning “enlightenment” or “liberation.” Yes, you're right. That is the structure of the books, probably the short stories too. There's usually a moment of awareness, an epiphany if you like, a place where the character is smashed into a larger vision under the pressure of events. Usually he goes through a lot of positions that other people hold, which are partial. It seems kind of Hegelian in that way. Not that the final position synthesizes all of them, but that the character goes through several moments.

What happens to individual identity during the process of development your main characters go through?

I think it dissolves. “What is individual identity?” is a central question for me. I personally don't believe in the existence of the ego. I think it's a theoretical construct. There's no empirical verification for it at all. And if there is such a thing as identity, I don't think that it's fixed or static; it's a process. I think it's dominated by change and transformation, more so than by any static qualities. It is many identities over the course of a lifetime. That identity, if it is anything at all, is several things, a tissue of very often contradictory things, which is why I probably have a great deal of opposition to anything that looks like a fixed meaning for black America. I just don't believe it. It's ridiculous as a thought.

Is this process of development similar to Ralph Ellison's statement, “Thus because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it”?

That's a nice quote. I'm not sure what it means, but I'm certainly willing to give credit to Ellison for anything. It's very interesting to me where we get the notion of the self. Hume, with his radically empirical approach, looks into his experience to see if there's anything that corresponds to the idea of a self. What he finds are memories, impressions, sensations, but no self. For Hume the self is inferred as a thing that holds all of this together. It's much the same in Buddhism, where the self is an illusion. In Buddhism all you have is this flow of impressions and sensations. The self is one of those objects we talk about without having fully examined it. For me, if there's any way to talk about it, it's as a verb and not a noun. It's a process but not a product, and never is a product, unless it's dead, and then there's no more possibility for action and change. Once dead, it becomes somewhat like Whitehead's idea of the eternal object.

So at the end of Middle Passage, Rutherford becomes a model for these ideas?

Andrew Hawkins's identity in Oxherding Tale is that of a free-floating creative force. That's true as well for Rutherford. What he's done is prehended or taken so much from all the people who are already on that ship, from the Allmuseri to the various members of the ship—but he's done that his entire life. That sort of tissue of world experience is what he is. He's become much more humble in terms of making assumptions about objects and others. He's more willing to listen and wait for them to speak, which is a very phenomenological position in the world. It's very simple. It's not a difficult idea.

His identity, though, I would say, isn't lost; rather, there's an accretion.

It's cumulative, if you like. It's Whitmanesque in a particular sense. I'd like to talk about it in the same sense that Toomer does in the poem “Blue Meridian.” Let's be more specific. When you say “his identity,” what do you mean?

Maybe I'm looking at calcified perceptions of identity, but I was thinking in terms of his development as a character. Does he lose himself, as Ellison would say, in the process of finding himself?

I like that formulation, yeah. There's a line by Husserl that's really very nice: “I lose myself in the objects and the others.” Yes. I do think that's what it is. What he finds is not a fixed notion of the self. It's something that's very expansive. You've seen, for example, the Necker's cube? When I show it to my students, they always see the initial kinds of variations, tilting left, tilting right. We write them down, and we do this for about half an hour. Then someone begins to see things that nobody else did in the room. The others don't see them until that person has narrated and described it—“I see a …” Everybody else is looking and straining, then, “Oh yes! I see that now too.”

We go through this, and we get maybe thirty possible disclosures of that one simple object in class, each based upon everybody's different backgrounds—where they're coming from and where they were born, how they grew up, the kind of mother they had, the father they had, the objects they looked at. All of that's brought to disclosing the object. But somebody will say, “I see a paper bag,” and nobody else is able to see it. Only if that person describes it will the other people see it. So at one point, what is entirely subjective becomes intersubjective. We share an image. When we go down the line, looking at profiles of the Necker's cube, you can never really get two of those images at once.

One of the things that's interesting is that people are sure in the beginning when they first look at it. “Oh, it's got to be this, it's got to be that,” they say. Then they become more humble as they get to the thirteenth profile, the fifteenth profile, the twentieth profile, and then if somebody new comes in the room there may be yet another disclosure of the object. If you said “What is it?” which is the final question I ask them, they know they can't answer that question, because it's a box leaning left, hyphen a box leaning right, hyphen a box leaning up, hyphen a box leaning forward; it's hyphen a fish tank, hyphen a paper bag, hyphen a stage, hyphen looking down at a pyramid. Its being is a hyphenated being, always open-ended. It is all of those perceptions, but only one of them can exist at a time before consciousness. Using Husserl's idea of consciousness, we must say that consciousness is always consciousness of something.

In much the same way, that is how I talk about every phenomenal object. Things are given to us in profiles. Sides, angles, but not the entire thing. We have to walk around, for example, that wall. That's given to us there. But empirically, we have no sense at all that there's a room on the other side. This all could be like a Hollywood movie set. Until you walk around and see the other side and confirm or refute that, you just don't know. That is much like where we find Andrew Hawkins and certainly Rutherford Calhoun at the ends of Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage. There have been so many profiles disclosed and revealed for the meaning of the world that one has a very humble attitude about making existential claims about it. You know that even if you've exhausted all the possible meanings at this moment, the next generation, given its experience and what it brings to that object's revelation, will find something new. Being is historical. I'm in agreement with what Merleau-Ponty says of perceptual experience, that the more revelations and disclosures and profiles you get for the object, the more ambiguous it's going to become, the more hazy. That's what interests me. The easiest images to get are the first two or three. Box left, box right, box forward, box back.

When I think about how we write it seems we always go with the first two or three perceptions. We don't go with the fifth or the fortieth, because you have to dig to get to those. You have to force the imagination. You have to go to the trouble of confirming with somebody else, “Did you see that?” Of course, all science begins that way too, with a first person seeing—the scientist looking into the microscope. It's one person, one consciousness and this object. He has to say to a colleague, “Come here, look at this, do you see that?” Then you have intersubjectivity. If you have three people, it's even better. That's what I believe in far more than objectivity. Inter-subjectivity is shared meaning, a shared vision.

But the problem with our writing is that we reach for the first one or two meanings. The reason we don't dig deeper is because the resistance is so great. In other words, you may have to free up all your presuppositions, all the prejudices, all of your background to be able to get to the thirtieth or fortieth profile or disclosure of the object. Usually, I think that happens in the social context. Somebody else on the other side of the room coming from another part of the world, or world experience, will through language, as Heidegger says, allow this object to be disclosed for somebody else. If you do it by yourself you have to fight against all the presuppositions and prejudices. I think that's what fiction ought to be about. It ought to be about getting beneath those sedimented meanings, all the calcified, rigid perceptions of the object.

For the average person, doing this, letting meaning flower in this way, can be frustrating. It doesn't allow them to use the object as they'd like to. For utilitarian reasons, they say, “That's a Necker's cube leaning left, or a Necker's cube leaning right.” But that's not good enough for the artist or the philosopher. I think we have to bracket the whole idea of utility if any object—or the world—is going to disclose whatever meaning it has. I think the same thing is true of racial phenomena. Very often we only deal with surface images, the most easily graspable meaning, which is usually the meaning we've inherited, or somebody else's vision, now our own. For the sake of progress, we have to go much, much deeper. Metaphor allows us to do that.

You seem heavily postmodern in your emphasis on parody and intertextuality. There's sense of creative theft or borrowing in your works, Rutherford perhaps being the best example of this, as he “trespasses” on other identities and becomes interpenetrated by them.

What do you mean by “borrowing”?

In terms of the structure—Homer's Odyssey, for example. You not only borrow structural elements but historical detail from sea narratives, slave narratives. You obviously spent a lot of time doing research for Middle Passage.

I did in fact. Let me see if I can make sense of that in terms of where we just were in our discussion. What I didn't have when I got to Middle Passage was knowledge of the sea, so I spent six years reading every book and rereading every book I could on that subject, anything relating to sea adventure. I read Homer, Apollonius of Rhodes, the Sinbad stories, slave narratives, Gustavus Vasa, and some material that was sent to me from Werner Sollors at Harvard. I looked at all of Melville again, Conrad. You name it, anything I could.

Why do that? Well, for two reasons. One is very writerly. I needed to know the parts of ships; I needed to know what that whole universe was like. But I needed to know the literary universe of the sea as well. What I needed to know were the profiles, again, the disclosures, the meanings that other writers for two thousand years have had for this particular phenomenon, the sea. I needed, in so many words, to look at that Necker's cube and see the phenomena of the sea disclosed over and over again. If one looks, and this is a simple matter, I guess, at any author who's written about the sea, whoever it is, the sea means something quite specific in the way that it is disclosed and experienced.

But why, why did I do that? Is that borrowing, is that stealing, is that intertextuality? I think it's something else. I think it's the fact that all knowledge, all disclosure, all revelation from the past, from our predecessors, black, white, and otherwise, is our inheritance, and most of the time we just don't know it. Seriously, we just don't know it. That's why we do research. Any sense that other human beings have made out of the world, any sense that they have pulled out of this universe of nonsense as Merleau-Ponty would say, any judgments—all that is what we have inherited as human beings. And in a way, that's how I have to write. I have to know that. We are perpetually indebted to our predecessors for that. It's not something I can ignore or something I can abandon. I may come upon a disclosure of the object that's different from anything that's come before, but I think it's predicated on all that came before. In the same way, I don't think you can get the Einsteinian universe without first the Newtonian universe. It's all a long conversation, and the writer does not come into this discussion ex nihilo, born with nothing behind him.

Does that make sense in terms of how Middle Passage came together, and why research? It isn't just to do a historical novel. It's not that. It's to understand what others have brought to the rendering and disclosure of the subject. You could call it borrowing, I suppose. My intention is somewhat different, a very synthetic technique.

I think you install the reference, but you also subvert it, or you do something new with it.

Yes, if I'm doing it, it's again much as we discussed that Necker's cube. I'm trying to say, “Yes, the sea is this, as so and so said, yes, the sea is that, as so and so said, but it's also this.” It keeps opening up, I hope, as we progress through the book. The same thing happens with the major characters. We're seeing sides of them disclosed in dramatic situations in the course of the novel as they interact with different people. They learn things about themselves that they could not have known except through these encounters.

In terms of African-American fiction now, where would you come down with Toni Morrison when she seems to rework the Black Aesthetic and the Black Arts Movement? She seems to reject political prescriptiveness but at the same time holds on to the aesthetic principles of black art. She identifies them as non-Western and oral.

Let me say a few things. I don't want to be unfair to Toni. I understand what the Black Arts Movement was and why it came about. It was very interesting and very exciting. It had a big impact on me when I was a cartoonist. But in Being and Race, I try to trace through some of the limitations that are imposed on creative freedom by that particular orientation, and also on intellectual freedom. If we were going through our Necker's cube and all those profiles, we would probably have to stop at a certain point if we had a Black Nationalist orientation or a Black Aesthetic position. That's why I had to move away from it. It just wasn't answering enough questions. It wasn't going deep enough in terms of investigating phenomena. People in the Black Arts Movement do not seem to be widely interested in questions that are crucial to all of us. Our relationship to the environment, for example, our relationship to technology. All the human questions. I do think it's a narrower focus.

Morrison is an extremely talented prose stylist. I happen to think that the earlier books are better than the later ones. Sula is a very interesting book. And in Beloved she achieves something I would talk about this way: I would say it is the penultimate or final fruit of the Black Arts Movement. It's extremely poetic. You can look and see that for six years she spent time revising and rewriting those lines. And she's very good at that. But on the other hand, I have real problems with the vision that animates that book. Again it has the problems that you find in the Black Arts Movement. I could take you through the book step by step and say why that's so. It's an interesting, middle-brow book. I don't think it's an intellectual achievement, because I'm not sure where the intellectual probing is going on. The last book, Jazz, is really—I don't know what to say about it. There are no characters, there's no story, there's no plot, and even the poetry which Morrison is so good at is not there. It just isn't there. I'm not sure why she released that book at all.

We still have to address the Black Arts Movement as an ideology and speak about it in those terms. There are wonderful things that came out of that period, and important things, but I'm not sure it led to very much literature that we would consider to be lasting. I've got first editions on my shelf of books from that period that I'm sure most people have never heard of. I found them to be interesting when I read them, but, unfortunately, they did not meet the standard that Ralph Ellison set in 1952 with Invisible Man, or the standards set by Albert Murray with his remarkable essays in The Hero and the Blues.

The question is this: Are there two aesthetics? Is there a white aesthetic and is there a black aesthetic? What constitutes a black aesthetic? The oral tradition? What's that? Take call and response, for instance. Everybody says that. Where is call and response in the novel? This is my question. I know what it is. It occurs in the black church when the minister and the congregation respond back and forth. Sure. As my friend Stanley Crouch points out, you can tell a story orally, but when you get to the novel you have to do things that are particular to the novel as a form for that story to come to life.

There's a lot of easy, simplistic thought that goes on in our discussion of black literature. A certain voice is supposed to represent the oral tradition. Well, there are lots of voices in the black community, lots of voices. Why is one selected over another? We have the voice of Du Bois, we have the voice of Douglass, we have the voice of Harriet Tubman, we have the voice of Malcolm X. Why is one voice chosen to represent the oral tradition? I also get really tired of people saying, well, black people have been telling stories for years and years. Everybody's been telling stories for years and years. Some of those are wonderful stories, such as when Julius Lester collected black folktales. They are beautiful, wonderful stories that were told orally and finally set down. But when you compose them on the page in one of the literary traditions that we inherit, you have to do things to those stories to make them effective as literature. Character development, connections, transitions, all kinds of things.

We have a way of talking about these so-called differences between the white and black aesthetic that do not make a great deal of sense. Skip Gates has this idea of signifying as somehow being a part of this. But again, if that's a general aesthetic proposition, then you should be able to go to any black literary work of art and find that it signifies in the way that Skip is talking about. You can't do that. All these works will defy that very simple notion of how you go about it. And the same thing with the oral tradition. I just don't believe it. I don't believe that there are two aesthetics. It cannot be universally demonstrated for all black literature.

So you would also reject Morrison's idea that literature should be used as a means of African-American empowerment?

What does she mean by that? What does that mean? African-American empowerment through literature? How does a book do that? Does a book empower me to vote? I don't get it. How do you interpret that?

It seems to me that she and others feel that you can maintain connection with a heritage, an ethnic identity that might be lost or appropriated by mainstream culture. Writers can use literature as a means of counteracting oppression and historical conditions.

That sounds great, but I still don't get it. We need a definition of empowerment. We need a definition of identity. I want a definition of how something is appropriated by something else and what that means.

First of all, as a writer, I don't believe that art imitates. There is a mimetic element, but I really think that what a writer does is create an experience on the pages of the book for the reader. You're creating experience. You're not transcribing experience. If you talk about the African-American past in your work, you're obviously interpreting an experience. Language will distort and transform, as William Gass points out. It's all filtered through a consciousness, and the consciousness obviously of the author.

I think that these claims about black writing are simplistic. I kind of understand the intention behind them, but I don't think they make a great deal of sense. How does Jazz counteract oppression and historical conditions? How does any literature do that? There are certain instances and times when books have a huge impact, as with Uncle Tom's Cabin during the abolitionist movement. There are direct connections—this led to that in the public sphere—but claims are being made here for literature that have not been demonstrated at all. Is The Great Gatsby about empowering white people, is that what that's doing?

Is that necessary? The privileged whites are already being represented. I think Morrison and Alice Walker, for example, are talking about people who have been left out of the tradition, left out of the representation. As writers they are celebrating an identity that had previously been silenced.

I think that's what they say they are doing. I think to put it that way, however, is really coded. People who were left out, silenced, marginalized. Yes, I buy that. You can write about people and publish works about individuals who have never had a story told about them before, or who have never been allowed to tell their own story. Of course, it's still Morrison telling the story, it's not that person. It's her imagining that person. Or Clarence Major can do that in his book Such Was the Season, where the protagonist is a black woman matriarch in an Atlanta political family. That does bring something new to our literature. It brings a new angle, a new perception, a new character's perspective to our literature. It may bring a different voice to our literature as well.

I'm not sure that American literature hasn't always done that. Bill Gass has an unusual and interesting analysis of character in fiction. He says that what we are dealing with on the page are concepts. And from Gass I have to go to Sartre. Characters are constructs, mental beings, who have more in common with mathematical entities than real people. They are not real people, but nevertheless, it is the act of consciousness that brings them to life during the reading experience, that creates a “fictional dream in the mind,” to use a phrase from John Gardner.

These are created objects. We draw and prehend from the world in the creation of any particular art work, and that means you draw things you've heard from other people, their behavior and so forth. But when someone makes the claim that what we've done is empowered a certain class of people by giving a representation of them on the page, I'm not sure what that means. I sort of say, yeah, that seems to be a little bit of what's going on. Ten percent of what you're saying sounds right, but I'm not sure that claim can be made as strongly as some people would like to make it.

Beloved is about a woman who kills her kids. How representative is that of women during the period of slavery? I have no idea. Morrison says that it's based on a real woman. I would have to say that woman is probably, if not psychotic, then someone who needs a lot of help. If black people had done that en masse, we would not be here today. People killing their kids to save them from slavery? Come on, we're still talking the sixties here, and certain very clever, cute ideas that I just don't think were the case. I don't think that the historical record confirms that.

So you don't feel that African-American literature has a social obligation or function?

I do, but not that one necessarily. I do think that art should be socially responsible. I do halfway believe most of the time in John Gardner's notion of moral fiction. Where social responsibility comes into play is in the simple fact that whatever the work is, whatever the book is, whatever the product is, it's something that we interject into the public space. It's a public act. It's our human expression, and we are responsible for all our forms of human expression, all our deeds and actions, of which art is one. The artist has a tremendous degree of responsibility. Whether it's the responsibility of promoting or supporting certain political ideas, I really don't know about that. I don't know if that's what art should be about. Somebody can write a book that is a political indictment, but should he or she write every book like that?

I would like for people to look at my books and feel that they are socially responsible. I say that because I try my very best to be fair to every character on one level. I remember when I used to pass drafts of things by John Gardner. I was still young, and I would set a certain character up to say and do things I didn't like, just so I could slap him around, and thereby slap around some people I knew who behaved like that. He would write in the margins of the manuscripts, “Shame on you. Why are you doing this? Why are you presenting this straw man to me? What am I supposed to do with this character, dislike him?” I really had to think about that aspect of John's criticism. I find that the most reprehensible characters, like a Captain Falcon, have to be characters I find enormously interesting, somebody I would like to poke at and get under the skin of and see as many sides of as I possibly can during the course of this fiction. That character must be subjected to the same kinds of things that everybody else is. Every major character for me is a character of evolution and change. They are not the same at the end of the book as when we first saw them. The ideal novel would be one in which there are no minor characters, where there are no flat characters. Everybody is in this situation of process and change. Everybody is being forced and pressured, as the main characters are, to move forward in their lives, to have their perceptions changed, to react differently in different situations. That would be the ideal novel. What I want is the process novel where everybody mentioned is a main character in the process of evolution. That would be the ultimate moral fiction.

Couldn't you also say that you and Morrison have different political visions?

What is her political vision? Can it be stated? We know that Baraka at various times said he was a nationalist, and later he was a scientific socialist, and he explained what that meant. What's Morrison's political vision?

I guess I was speaking more aesthetically, with her ties to the Black Arts Movement.

The Black Arts Movement, if you look at it as an ensemble of ideas, is contradictory. What was the Black Arts Movement? You've got to look at Larry Neal, you've got to look at Baraka, you've got to look at John Oliver Killens. Was there a systematic body of beliefs? No, there wasn't. Look at Malcolm X, who had a big impact on my generation. At the end of Malcolm's life, someone asked him what his philosophy was, and he said, “I don't know.” He was very honest. This was after his trip to Mecca. No, this was not systematic thought. Not in terms of having empirical evidence for what you're talking about. Not in terms of ethics hooking up in a systematic, intelligible way with epistemology and with ontology. No, it wasn't that. It was a passionate literary movement, in many ways, with a couple of ideas which took different form among different writers. If you talk about the Black Arts Movement, you need to look at just what that was for different sorts of people. Let's take Ishmael Reed. He says he first began to write in cultural nationalist workshops. When I read Reed's work, I see a particular spin on cultural nationalism. He's said things that are quite different from Baraka and from Larry Neal. You have to ask the question, If he comes out of cultural nationalism, and has some belief in the Black Aesthetic, what is the relationship of that to what Morrison is talking about? Where are the points of similarity and where are the points of difference? I'm sure people are doing extensive work on both of those authors to see the variations. I don't think the Black Arts Movement, as a body of thought, is coherent, consistent, or complete. By complete, I mean taking in as much as possible, taking in all the available profiles of phenomena. It's not philosophy, it's ideology.

I try in Being and Race to distinguish between philosophy and ideology. A philosopher is somebody who is perpetually asking questions. One who always goes back to his initial premise and presuppositions and is willing, if necessary, in the face of contrary evidence, to abandon them if he has to and start all over again from scratch. Ideological positions can't do that. They can't afford to do that. That's the problem I have with them. No philosopher can be comfortable with ideology. And I don't think everything is ideology. I don't think that every idea that we have, every ensemble of beliefs, must necessarily be ideology, whether in the scientific sphere or the philosophical sphere. Phenomenology, if I'm not mistaken, does not build up an architecture of propositions but rather goes back to try to eke out an understanding of what we think we already know. You're always standing in an interrogative mode toward the world.

I would like to believe that I could write book after book after book and someone could believe that they had been written by different people. In this book over here, Faith and the Good Thing black folklore has this particular function. But over there, there's none of that in Middle Passage. The sea has this particular meaning there, but in the next book the sea might have an entirely different meaning, given the fictive universe that has evolved out of its unique set of characters. Things could absolutely change in terms of the overall experiential effect, from book to book. That's the kind of freedom I would like to see from novel to novel, from story to story.

Let's say you are writing a novel on King and you are showing the inherent benefits of his position. Isn't that an ideological stance?


Because it's imbued with a political application.

A political application? You mean I'm promoting King?

You could be.

I'm interested in King. I think he's a very complex figure. I actually think we don't know enough about King. What I'm really interested in is the man, the evolution of the individual. I'm interested in a number of other things too, of a political-philosophical nature about the man. The vision of the civil rights movement—specifically integration—as it applies to King is there because that's part of the man. But I have to say of this man, that, when he first encountered racism, he wanted to hate white people. That's part of who he was. I have to have characters in there who represent the Black Nationalist position, because they're part of his world. All of the stuff that was there, as much as possible, I have to have it. I'm not sure that's an ideological position.

Someone will say, “Well, why did you write about this guy rather than Malcolm X?” I think we have a whole lot of popular material about Malcolm X, and very little on Martin. People don't really understand King, other than a couple of clichéd ideas about him, phrases and sound bytes. But I want to understand what his life was like after he led the Montgomery bus boycott at age twenty-six. I want to know that evolution, that history, up to his assassination. I want to know what a human being has to do to rise to that level of public service. He received fifty death threats. That's what interests me.

Why not Malcolm X? Other people have taken from Malcolm a number of things that they find interesting about him that aren't even true of the man. Even his daughter says that they don't take the whole man, and they've used him for political purposes that even Malcolm probably wouldn't agree with. Malcolm's just too much with us, and King not enough these days. I want people to see King in all his particularity and texture. I want to know how he shaved when he got up in the morning. He used a depilatory powder because he had very sensitive skin. The stuff stinks, I know exactly what it is. I want to know how much sugar he put in his coffee. That's what interests me.

If I did Malcolm, I'd do one different from the cliché. It would be about this unusual individual who goes from being a hustler to prison to the Nation of Islam to a break with the Nation of Islam, and a bloody public break at that. Nobody talks about the animosity between him and Elijah Muhammad's people. People forget that. And it almost spelled the end of the Nation of Islam. Things got very shaky. I'd go after what Malcolm's broader vision of Islam was about. It wouldn't be a couple of phrases or statements from Malcolm X. It would be his life in evolution, with all kinds of ideas and contradictions. As when he first joins the Nation of Islam, and he says, since he has a Jewish friend, “Do I have to hate Himey too?” This is a life in process. It isn't just one thing. That is the way I would do Malcolm X.

In Being and Race, while you recognize the achievement of contemporary African-American women writers, you also qualify this by saying that their writing is “more at the stage of criticism of social crimes.” In Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker dwells on the physical and mental mutilation of black women and its result—insanity. Would Gardner call this vision “responsible” and “moral”? Would you?

Alice is talking about clitoridectomy. There's a social crime for you. I shouldn't speak for John here. Some of the portraits of black men in those books are so limited and so one-profiled, as opposed to thirty or forty images of black men, that they don't seem moral to me. It's not just Walker. You could also talk about Morrison. You do not see black men like Colin Powell or W. E. B. Du Bois or astronaut Ron McNair or Frederick Douglass. It's an extremely narrow range of human beings. You basically see black men who are fuck-ups. And there's a lot that can be said about black men who are fuck-ups. But how does that tap into the general negative images we have of black males in the eighties, coming from the Reagan administration, with Willy Horton and Bush, and these comic images of black men in film and on television? Where, finally, are the images of human beings who are black and male and lead responsible lives? You don't see anybody like the mayor of Seattle, Norman Rice, who's a remarkable human being. Those are not characters in our books. Stanley Crouch is of the opinion that that is going to be the next wave.

If we're going to talk about politics and black writing, then we've really got to talk about politics. You can talk about Jesse, who won't run for office because it's a lot easier to get in front of the cameras. Or you can talk about Ron Brown, or Norm Rice, who will indeed go through what the political process is. You present yourself to people, you have a list of proposals, you get elected, and you go in day after day to confront all manner of problems to serve the greatest number of people at any given moment. That's politics. The other stuff, with the rhetoric, that's not politics. Even if that gets someone elected, that human being, like Norm Rice and the other black mayors, is going to have to go in every day and deal with all kinds of interest groups. Politics is the art of compromise. That's real politics. It's not rhetoric. It's not about ideology. It's about solving problems on a daily basis.

Stanley is right. Someday we're going to have to get those kinds of black people into our fiction. All those workers in the NAACP, all those people, year in, year out, going to every one of the civil rights hearings in Washington. The work is boring, it's dull, it's everyday, it's pedestrian. But that's how you get the passage of civil rights legislation. Somebody can get in front of a crowd and microphones and scream at the top of his voice, but I have to say, for all my feeling for that, it's not politics. We need portraits of lives like that of Norm Rice in our literature to really understand politics. The problem is those lives aren't flashy. They lack dramatic, sensational drama. King used to say that, even with all the attention focused on him. He was certainly charismatic, and so was Malcolm—but what about the thousands of people who made King possible? That's what's also interesting. The people in the background, in the shadows.

In a recent paper you gave at a conference for the National Council of Teacher Educators you cited Allan Bloom and Dinesh D'Souza and others who warn against the Balkanization of American society through multiculturalism. How do you feel about their ideas?

I first gave that paper as a way of providing an overview to foreign audiences of what the debate is in America, and I wanted to make it pro and con. I started out talking about the sixties, especially in historical terms, including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and the ideals of integration, and how we shifted to the Black Power Movement. It's about literature for the most part, the emergence of different authors of color during the last twenty or thirty years. And I quote D'Souza and Bloom to indicate that there is a counterargument, that there is opposition to what is called multiculturalism. I even quote President Bush, who gave that talk at Michigan a year ago. It came right out of Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals. He used the phraseology of that book and D'Souza's book. My paper was descriptive, not promotional. I ended with a quote from Julius Lester, who is a writer I deeply admire. He speaks about his education at Fisk. It involved the canon. He didn't have any problem with it. To be honest, I don't have any problem with it either. I have no problem with reading the pre-Socratics anymore than I do with reading the Vedas. We should read all those things.

One of the things we have to emphasize is that no student can hold the elementary school, high school, and university he attends responsible for his intellectual life. The only person responsible for someone's intellectual life is that person. The only thing we can do in the schools is create an atmosphere of curiosity so that people, after they get out of school, continue to be students to the very end of their days, and that's going to involve cross-cultural understanding.

I'm not sure I like the way the whole multiculturalism question is formulated. As I've said, I've been a student of Eastern philosophy since I was nineteen, when I got involved in the martial arts. All black students obviously are students of Western culture, if they are in America, right? So they're already multicultural. If you begin to look at the history of an idea, because all ideas have a history or biography, you find it threading back through time and all groups of people. For example, if you are going to study Aristotle, you've got to be able to look at what happened to Aristotle when he wasn't available in the Middle Ages but was very present in Arab countries. I think globally in that sense. I don't like some of the ways the arguments about multiculturalism have been formulated, although I think at heart they're absolutely right.

We should read as much as we possibly can from all cultures. It's that simple. For me, it never has been something I had to be noisy about. In the classes I taught, the texts were already from all sorts of different people and places. D'Souza's book pisses off a lot of people. But in a sense, he does say one or two things in there that are not all that bad. He's all for having study groups look at the work of W. E. B. Du Bois. I think we should all be looking at The Souls of Black Folks, and all that Du Bois did that was ground breaking in the area of sociology. Even look at his fiction. Du Bois is a major thinker of the twentieth century. But I'm not sure D'Souza would be happy if we have to look at Iceberg Slim. I don't know if you know Iceberg Slim. There are works within black literature and black culture that are definitive and important and should be looked at, but D'Souza is griping about mediocrity, about books that are not worth our attention. I can't help but agree with that.

Wouldn't you draw a distinction between D'Souza and Bloom? Bloom has his traditional great books canon.

He does. The thing that's interesting about Bloom is that he was a philosopher. A whole lot of that book is about Plato. I have philosopher friends who like what he does with philosophy in there, but his claims are pretty extreme about women and blacks, about black studies and women's studies. It's a book that feels threatened. It's amazing that it sold as many copies as it did. But he has one line in there that really made a lot of sense to me. He says our task is to understand how Plato saw the world. That was always my sense of philosophy. I wanted to understand how Schopenhauer saw the world. I wanted to understand how Nagarjuna, among the Buddhists, saw the world. The issue is not my going to school to get images of myself, because I don't need that. I don't need a feel-good education. As Julius Lester says, you go to school to learn everything that you are not. Of course, that's ironic, because finally we are all those things, but we are not aware that we're all those things.

I'm not talking about multiculturalism so much as I am about Afrocentricism—the idea that a black student will say something like, “I'm going to study myself.” I'm not sure what that means. The whole question of selfhood is a very large one. If you go back fifty generations in the life of any human being, you will discover that they share an ancestor with everybody else on the planet. Race breaks down fifty generations back. Alex Haley could trace his roots back to Africa following one side of his family—I think it was his mother's side. But if he followed his father's side, he would have ended up probably back in Europe. As a matter of fact, the book he didn't get a chance to write and was talking about doing was about how genetically mongrelized all Americans are. That, he felt, would be an even more powerful book than Roots. It will never get written now. That, you see, is the issue, the fact that we are a tissue of cultures. We are a tissue of races already; the concept of race, as Kwame Appiah points out, is false. Certainly in modern America there is mongrelization. So if the multiculturalists are using an outmoded notion of race, then their categories are problematic for me. I'm not going to read a book simply because it's by an Asian writer. I'm not going to read a book just because it's by a Native American, or just because it's by a black American. I want to read finely articulated thought, by whoever it is, anywhere on the planet, any culture. But it has to be something that meets the standards I bring to all literature, which means it has to disclose, reveal, and it needs to be worked over a lot in terms of revision and polishing. But I'm not interested in any work because it's by somebody from a particular race. That doesn't mean anything, finally.

I find your arguments about the fluid, intersubjective nature of education and knowledge fascinating. But you don't want to use those arguments to keep out nontraditional texts, or to construct an elitist canon.

What do you mean by “elitist canon”?

I mean in terms of Bloom's Eurocentricism.

Oh no. I don't believe that. You should have Confucius, Chuangtse, and Lao-tse, and you should have the Ten Ox-herding Pictures, and you should have the great documents out of the Hindu tradition. But those works have been around for a long time. You could go over to the philosophy department and get some of them, or you could go over to the Far Eastern departments and get other ones. They've been translated for a long, long time. They just weren't in the English departments, which were basically white male in their curriculum. Those texts are there, and the scholars are there to tell you about them, people who have devoted their entire lives to translations and interpretations. I feel extraordinarily enriched by their efforts. I couldn't have gotten it otherwise, prior to the rise of multiculturalism. That movement didn't bring those books into existence.

Now, when you say an elitist canon, I'm not sure what you're saying exactly. Some people would throw the canon out entirely. Why do we need a canon? I don't know about using the term “canon,” but I do think there are certain works that have been valuable to human beings for five hundred years. Some of those works still speak to us. I finally went back and looked at Thomas A. Kempis's The Imitation of Christ. Believe me, it does speak to contemporary life. The elegance of his thought, the way he delves into the human situation—it is beautiful. There are certain texts that we need to know because of the vast influence they've had on other people. That's why I say we need to know the teachings of Confucius, because they have influenced so much that people have done. We need to know the principal texts of Buddhism. We need to know the great literary works of China, India, Japan, Africa.

I do think that art is elitist. It is an elitist activity. That may sound like a strange thing to say, but I will say it. When I sit down to write a book I put in the best thought, the best feeling, the best technique and skill I can muster. I'll go over it twenty-five times over five or ten years, I don't care. Because this may be the last utterance I make to any human beings, my last statement in language. I have to be able to stand behind it. I push the language so that it's far above pedestrian, laundromat speech, or language you would overhear in the supermarket, because I care about the language. When I'm talking I can't revise my words over and over and over until they are as precise as I can make them. Also, when I write I can rethink my feelings, so that if I might hurt somebody I can look at that feeling again and try to create something that won't be harmful to others. I do believe in the masterpieces. I believe that a great work of art is a special appearance in our lives. There are works that do not have that intention. They are written for popular or commercial reasons. Some journalism has to be written too quickly for it to develop those layers of thought and feeling you find in masterworks, to reach that level where no sentence can be pulled out without disturbing the sentence in front of it, the sentence behind it, thereby making the paragraph in front of it and behind it collapse. That's the kind of art I'm talking about.

I do think art is elitist. I don't think you can substitute, just because it's a “text,” an African-American comic book for Melville's Benito Cereno. I used to be a cartoonist; I know how comic books are done. I know how much work goes into one and how much work goes into great fiction. That doesn't mean socially that I am elitist, because I'm not. But the reason I left journalism was because I couldn't do this in that field. The reason I left behind being a cartoonist was because I was looking for the means that would allow me to express the most I could. When I say best thought, best feeling, best skill, I mean even more than that. I mean the book will pull me to a new level of skill. It will demand that of me. When I start it, I will have to learn new things in order to finish it. I'm going to have to develop techniques I've never dreamed of to complete it. A great work of fiction has the same importance to me as a great work of philosophy. That's why I say it's elitist.

S. X. Goudie (essay date spring 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8321

SOURCE: Goudie, S. X. “‘Leavin' a Mark on the Wor(l)d’: Marksmen and Marked Men in Middle Passage.African American Review 29, no. 1 (spring 1995): 109-22.

[In the following essay, Goudie asserts that The Middle Passage expresses an African-American perspective that is influenced by Western philosophical and literary traditions.]

The point is not that acts of racial violence are only words but rather that they have to have a word. … racism always betrays the perversion of a man, the “talking animal.” … A system of marks, it outlines space in order to assign forced residence or to close off borders. It does not discern, it discriminates.

(Derrida, “Racism's Last Word”)

I knew I'd have to write frankly about black fiction, which is always a dangerous thing to do, tempers being hair-trigger on this subject, and I don't much care to have anyone firing at me.

(Johnson, “Whole Sight”)

For some time Charles Johnson has been both a marksman and a marked man. As an outspoken critic, Johnson has taken aim at African American fiction, claiming that it frequently stifles its own vision by relying too heavily on a “‘deadly sameness’ of sensibility” ([Being and Race] 121) as opposed to a “four-dimensional” view of the Black experience (“Whole Sight” 2).1 States Johnson:

We wonder, What Lord, are Black artists doing? Our interpretation of our experience … has become rigid, forced into formulae; it does not permit, as all philosophically (and aesthetically) genuine fiction must, an efflorescence of meaning or a clarification of perception.

(“Philosophy” 55)

To speak in such frank terms is akin to marking a bull's eye on one's back. Indeed, Johnson's agenda for emancipating artistic vision differs significantly from the vision of African American critics and writers who advocate a departure from “Western” critical and creative traditions as a means of liberation.2 Outspoken in his criticism of those who suggest that African American fiction can mature without engaging Western philosophy, Johnson has argued for a return to Western literary forms as a means of diversifying African American writing.3 “It would be a pleasure,” Johnson states in his 1988 critical study Being and Race, “to see our writers experimenting with the prerealistic forms of the seventeenth century … [including] the classic sea story, the utopian novel, and a galaxy of other forms that are our inheritance as writers” (52).4 Two years later, in 1990, Johnson published Middle Passage, a formal pastiche that rewrites the major historical event of African American slave history, not to mention Conrad, Melville, Swift, and Defoe.5 Marked extensively by Eastern and Western philosophy, the novel relies on “intersubjectivity and cross-cultural experience” (Being 38) as a way of rethinking the traumatic ordeal of the slave trade.

Crucial to Middle Passage's narrative and thematic structure, I wish to argue, is a “system of marks” characteristic of racism and racist discourse.6 On one level, Johnson uses marks, marksmen, and marked men as tropes for racism, and on another level racism becomes a trope for larger marks of the human condition. This reticulated game of marksmanship, along with racism's “system of marks,” is refigured, along with Western philosophical and literary traditions, by a singularly imaginative African American perspective.

Judging from the ambivalent critical reception of Johnson's novel, however, it appears that many critics of African American literature may not share this view. Since Middle Passage garnered the prestigious National Book Award in 1990, only a single article has appeared on the novel other than reviews and short features about the award. Such relative critical silence ironically marks both Middle Passage and the African American literary community. By not “marking” Johnson's novel, by not assessing or responding to it, some within the critical community appear to favor banishing the work—and perhaps Johnson himself—to “forced residence” in a textual no man's land. Perhaps such silence responds to the controversy that surrounded the award. Paul West, a jurist on the panel that chose Middle Passage, protested that the selection was based on “‘ethnic concerns, ideology and moral self-righteousness’” (qtd. in Cohen 13).7 In addition, reviewer John Haynes blasted the book, suggesting that the protagonist's “romantic racism” perhaps demonstrates “the extent of his incapacity to get in touch with his own history” (23). Extending his attack, Haynes argues that “black readers may feel that the dark night of the Middle Passage has been exploited simply for effect” (23). These critical stances, while possibly defensible, clutch at the surfaces of Johnson's text, and in that regard they miss the mark.

In truth, we do not see what we expect to see in this novel concerning the middle passage, and we do not hear what we expect to hear—about the physical horrors of slavery—or at least these are not the novel's primary focus. Fully aware of his non-traditional point of view, Johnson seems to have anticipated the controversy simmering above and below the critical deck: “To a degree, I get panicky [sic], peer around, and wait for a kick in the pants when speaking of Black fiction and philosophy in the same breath” (“Philosophy” 59). If Johnson appears willing to exploit his “marked man” status, it is not surprising that Middle Passage exhibits its own difference by refiguring the complex “system of marks” and deconstructing their ostensible signifiers.

Rutherford Calhoun, the hero of Middle Passage, is also a marked man. A freed slave whose cons and thieveries entangle him in a “web of endless obligations” (15), Calhoun flees the wrath of a New Orleans crime boss and a marriage-minded girlfriend by sneaking on board the Republic, a ship marked by “the memory of too many runs of black gold between the New World and the Old” (21). Rousted out of hiding by “the cold barrel of a pistol,” he is targeted as “a black stow-away” (22), demarcated from the rest of the crew by skin color and lack of papers. Thus begins his journey, one that positions Calhoun at the site of a dizzying dance of marksmanship that reverses roles, deconstructs polarities, and ultimately reshapes the very essence of seeing and being.

The ostensible situation aboard the Republic, on its return trip from a slave-trading outpost in Senegambia, sets the black slaves—members of a mysterious tribe, the Allmuseri—against the white slavers, headed by the wretched captain Ebenezer Falcon. The Allmuseri, although marked by the slave owner's brand, are strangely unmarked otherwise. Calhoun notes that “their palms were blank, bearing no lines. No fingerprints” (61) and that their expressions were “difficult to decipher. … they could not be uncoded” (124). Similarly, their culture, as indicated by the Latin anagram that structures their name, values unity—the lack of differentiations and demarcations—rather than the individual will-to-power that fissures Western culture into haves and have nots, oppressors and oppressed.8 In contrast, Ebenezer Falcon, the epitome of this dichotomized world view, is marked by visual impairment:

[His] imagination … was artistically limited to the finely wrought workmanship of pistols. … Maybe the reason for this was his being a natural marksman. From birth he'd lacked binocular vision. All his life he'd been squinting shut his left eye, so that when someone put a pistol in his hand at eighteen, he naturally sighted his targets and began blowing them away effortlessly.


While such vision enables marksmanship, Falcon's defective gaze undermines his ability to envision literally and metaphorically the “world from deep within his own heart” (164), as the Allmuseri slaves do.9 A Nietzschean superman whose cabin door is shot through by “three bullet holes” (26)—perhaps symbolic of the three investors for whom Falcon is a hired gun—Falcon serves as a “mental construct” of the “species of world conquerors [who] thrive upon … the desire to be fascinating objects in the eyes of others” (33), the need to be remarked upon, to be remarkable. In an attempt to satisfy this craving, Falcon targets an endless series of marks—things, ideas, people—although his control of those marks, and his ability to “impress” them, is predicated on their obliteration.10

Ironically, by behaving as marksmen, “leaders” such as Falcon themselves become “marked men”; they are always in the sights of those they have marked, oppressed, colonized, enslaved, and/or murdered. As Calhoun, the ship's crew, and the Allmuseri slaves discover, a slave economy built upon a monocular world view must inevitably turn on itself. “Marked men” ultimately rise up and invert the hierarchy, usurping the power of the marksmen. As Homi K. Bhabha suggests, “If discriminatory effects enable the authorities to keep an eye on [the enslaved], [the slaves'] proliferating difference evades that eye, escapes that surveillance” (154). The oppressor, because he privileges his own, narrowly defined dialogic with the Other in his racist psyche, is helpless to decipher or decode the proliferation of the system of marks he engenders. Thus, Falcon's complicity in the horrors of the human marketplace makes him paranoid about his grip on power: He “‘keeps a list of personal affronts,’” marking them in his log, always watching “‘for a man's weaknesses once he's signed on’” (63); his quarters are rigged with a “webwork of traps,” including “spring-released darts coated with curare” (53). Not surprisingly, the loyalty that might have allayed his fears escapes him. Among the crew “he had few allies. Only hypocritical lickspittles … who smiled in his face for favors and bad-mouthed him behind his back.” As a result, Falcon keeps “knives concealed in every cabin” and constantly suspects that someone is “plotting to kill him” (53).11 Most telling of all, the crippling effects of his monocular gaze cause Falcon to petition Calhoun's perspective: “‘I need a colored mate to be my eyes and ears. … I need someone to keep his eyes open and tell me of any signs of trouble’” (57).12

In fact, Falcon, the “natural marksman,” proposes that slavery is merely a metonym of a far more significant scar, one deeply embedded in the human psyche: “‘Mind was made for murder. Slavery, if you think this through, forcing yourself not to flinch, is the social correlate of a deeper, ontic wound’” (98). The nature of this wound is the glory and mystery of Middle Passage: From a Christian perspective, it may be original sin; from a Buddhist perspective (Johnson is a Buddhist), it may be incessant desire; from a deconstructionist perspective, it may be the nature of language itself13; from a socioeconomic perspective, it may be what Deleuze and Guattari call the desiring machine of capitalist production and its elevation of “exchange value” to its highest operating principle (261, 287). In any event, slavery everywhere marks this text with “cankers and cancerspots” (170).

For example, in addition to being born with monocular vision, Falcon is dwarfish, symbolic of his Napoleonic complex, and his entire body is covered by tattoos. Likewise, every white crew member is wounded by his complicity in the slave trade and the larger social and spiritual (dis)orders it represents. They are “pitted by smallpox, split by Saturday night knifescar, disfigured by Polynesian tattoos, or distorted by dropsy” (23). These marks are metonyms for the many facets of colonialist oppression around the world and aboard the Republic: disease (smallpox and dropsy); violence (knifescars); and cultural imperialism (Polynesian tattoos).14 Also, the Republic itself serves as a metonym for the artificial borders marked off by racist discourse, as well as the oppressive aspects of Western-based philosophy and imperialist economics.

In contrast to Falcon and the ship's crew, the llmuseri, as I noted earlier, are initially unwounded. Unfamiliar with the Western marketplace, they are described in adulatory terms by the awestruck Calhoun. Allegedly free from individualistic desire and the tyranny of representation, the Allmuseri are unable to “read” a female portrait sketched by a white male artist (75). Natural, “unmarked” men, they live in undifferentiated wholeness: “Eating no meat, they were easy to feed. Disliking property, they were simple to clothe. Able to heal themselves, they required no medication. They seldom fought. They could not steal.” Even their language is characterized by Calhoun as uncorrupted, not good for “deconstructing things” (78).15

Though he admires the Allmuseri sense of being, for much of the voyage Calhoun is a black man playing a white man's colonial game; consequently his marks, both physical and psychological, are complex and severe. When he is ordered to toss a slave's putrefied body overboard, a heap of decayed flesh attaches itself to his hand: “My stained hand … tingled. Of a sudden, it no longer felt like my own. Something in me said it would never be clean again …” (123). This tingle seems to be Calhoun's mark for transgression. Calhoun confesses that he had felt it before, the “familiar, sensual tingle that came whenever I broke into someone's home, as if I were slipping inside another's soul.” Calhoun adds that the tingle of theft “was the closest thing [he] knew to transcendence. … it broke the power of the propertied class …” (46-47). Once aboard the ship, he feels the tingle almost immediately upon his introduction to Falcon: “… I felt skin at the nape of my neck tingling like when a marksman has you in his sights …” (29). The tingle reminds Calhoun that he too is being trespassed against, being marked for exploitation and subjugation by the rapacious monocular gaze, being colonized by the “propertied class” that Falcon represents.

This crucial intersubjectivity mirrors the discursive ambivalence that all on board the Republic exhibit. For example, Falcon “knew seven African coastal dialects and, in fact, could learn any new tongue in two weeks' time” (30), and the Allmuseri learn English remarkably quickly. What Abdul R. Jan Mohamed has termed the Manichean structures of identity that split colonialist discourse into binary oppositions (61) are rendered inadequate as terms of identification, as ways of marking the condition aboard the Republic.16 Jacques Derrida calls this sort of intersubjectivity “the structure of the double mark” (Dissemination 4), a metaphor for demonstrating how discourse “is constantly being traversed by the forces, and worked by the exteriority, that it represses: that is, expels and, which amounts to the same, internalizes as one of its moments” (5). In other words, discourse is “ceaselessly marked and remarked” (6), and consequently resists absolutism or essentialism. Similarly, Maurice Merleau-Ponty—whose writings have significantly influenced Johnson's critical and creative work—suggests discursive interdependence when he claims that “the highest point of truth is still only perspective.” He adds, “We shall completely understand this trespass of things upon their meaning, this discontinuity of knowledge which is at its highest point in speech, only when we understand it as the trespass of oneself upon the other and of the other upon me …” (133). Thus, in order to control the proliferation of the “system of marks,” Calhoun must come to understand the discursive double mark, its interminability, and ultimately the creative power that it affords him.17

In the novel, the most compelling metaphors for intersubjectivity, for the instability of double-marked meaning, are spawned by revolution. As a result of Falcon's fundamentally flawed tyranny, the crew mutinies, only to be displaced by the very bottom of the hierarchy, the shackled and branded Allmuseri “tight-packed” below deck. However, despite the success of their uprising, the previously immaculate Allmuseri begin to contract “dark spots” (107) on their cheeks, marks of cultural infection. Ironically, white crew members attribute their own facial blotches to their being infected by an Allmuseri girl: “‘I think she give all them boys somethin' …’” (108), explains the ship's cook, refusing to see the spotting as the metastasizing mark of slavery. Soon Calhoun finds it difficult to distinguish the girl's wounds from his own, confessing that, “‘if she bruises herself, I feel bruised’” (195).

Other borders deconstruct, and the double mark begins to interrogate universalist philosophy. In Middle Passage, intersubjectivity suggests that universals exist but are constantly in flux, being acted upon and acting upon the Other.18 More specifically, the Allmuseri uprising seems less a function of free will than of necessity; the revolt remarks abstractions such as freedom and victory. As Frantz Fanon has argued, the violence inherent in the entire concept of colonialism mandates anti-colonial revolution.19 Unfortunately, even victorious rebellion entails loss; the Allmuseri are marked psychically in ways that prove more problematic than their physical wounds. That mark is the re-marking of their universalist faith, the undoing of their trust in undifferentiated wholeness and the closure of universality.20 As Johnson argues, “Universals are not static … but changing, historical, evolving” (Being 56). Though the Allmuseri once prided themselves on nonviolence and a philosophy that posits “the unity of Being everywhere,” they fall prey to the Captain's corrupting system of values. For instance, during the successful uprising, a liberated slave turned marksman takes aim at the Captain, now a marked man, and blasts a cannon shot through Falcon's door, severely injuring him and hastening his subsequent suicide. Thus, despite the overthrow of power, it seems, as Calhoun remarks, “that Falcon had broken [the Allmuseri] after all; by their triumph he had defeated them. From the perspective of the Allmuseri the captain had made … [them] as bloodthirsty as himself …” (140). Falcon colonizes the Allmuseri's collective psyche, rupturing it indelibly and eternally.21

Falcon, in turn, is no longer the same either. In his death throes, reports Calhoun, the “natural marksman” seemed to struggle against not only “a physical pain involuted and prismatic but deeper wounds as well” (143). His monocular world has been shattered by the blast of his own cannon turned against him by the dispossessed Other.22 As a result, Falcon is dispossessed of the racist notion that African peoples lack intellect, and that Western imperialism (despite its disregard for human liberty and decency) is acting according to some predestined historical course. The cannon ball—especially at the precise moment it blasts through Falcon's triply penetrated door—is a symbol of the Derridean double mark, a revenging movement that leaves Falcon, and the unwitting investors he represents, remarked upon, stunned, and no longer “whole.” “‘Then we underestimated the blacks? They're smarter than I thought?’” queries Falcon. “‘They'd have to be,’” responds Calhoun (146).

The double mark signifies a metamorphosis in the psyches of all aboard the Republic; all become aware of the endless remarking of one's discourse and culture. As Calhoun states,

I pitied [Falcon], as I pitied ourselves, for whether we liked it or not, he had changed a people simultaneously for the better and worse. … Centuries would pass whilst the Allmuseri lived through the consequences of what he had set in motion; he would be with them, I suspected, for eons, like … a rapist who, though destroyed by the mob, still comes to you nightly in your dreams. …

(143-44; emphasis added)

The Allmuseri identity becomes “something different—a mutation, a hybrid” (Bhabha 153); their name, a Derridean “double mark,” a mongrelized signifier, is forced to signify both the idyllic, peaceful people of the past before contact with the slavers, and the redefinition of a people post-contact. By taking up arms and assuming the role of marksmen—revolutionaries—they are fractured physically and psychically, forever altered by the desire of “Icarian” (143) man. Adrift in the unreadable universe of the post-rebellion stage, where neither stars nor European maps can be used to chart the ship's course (the universe itself may be said to be double-marked), the revolutionary Allmuseri, Calhoun reflects, are transformed: “No longer Africans, yet not Americans either. Then what? And of what were they now capable?” (125).

In fact, the Allmuseri show themselves to be capable of a host of human transgressions. Their murder of white crew members marks the commission of “the blackest [whitest?] of sins”; like the Europeans who, according to Allmuseri belief, were once “members of their tribe,” they inherit “the madness of multiplicity” that traces itself backward in Christianity to the “mark of Cain.” Accordingly, Calhoun tells us, “the thought of it drove them wild …” (65). They become hostage to “racial outrage,” holding anger close, “like a possession” (153). Their cooption is metaphorized by physical marks. These first show themselves as mysterious skin bruises, then erupt symbolically in an extravagance of wounds, most of which require amputation: “… the newly liberated Africans … were lurching about their tasks minus one leg, or with only two fingers on one hand, or without an arm.” Formerly able to heal themselves, the Allmuseri are overwrought by a “maddening fever degenerating into a frenzy so violent that the victim ripped away his clothes, shredded his skin, or that of the man next to him” (156). In sum, the “Unity of Being” that guided their culture in Africa—or so they tell Calhoun—is quite literally ripped asunder.

Indeed, Calhoun reflects that the purity of their natural, unmarked state may have been a “pure” misreading on his part. Although the Allmuseri initially appeared to him to embody a meta-wholeness of Being, a supernatural power shared by their captive god in the ship's hold and symbolized by their “presence of countless others in them, a crowd spun from everything” (61), Calhoun confesses that his universalist desire may have caused him to overlook the power of the double mark:

Stupidly, I had seen their lives and culture as timeless product, as finished thing, pure essence or Parmenidean meaning I envied and wanted to embrace, when the truth was that they were process and Heraclitean change, like any men, not fixed but evolving and as vulnerable to metamorphosis as the body of the boy we'd thrown overboard.


In addition, Calhoun learns after the uprising that the Allmuseri dealt ruthlessly with thieves back in Africa, that their tribe was a class society, and that various members of the community were known to tyrannize each other. As Ngonyama, an Allmuseri who assumes leadership of the ship, tells Calhoun, he fears a fellow Allmuseri more than any of the ship's crew:

You know, in our village I was a poor man, like you, but [Diamelo's] father was well-to-do. Diamelo is used to getting his way. I worry less about your captain now than how Diamelo can sway my people.


By deconstructing his own longings, Calhoun comes to realize what Marianna Torgovnick identifies as the West's false image of the primitive, one that implies “singularity, universality, that there is a truth about primitives not only available but comprehensive” (3). Thus Calhoun begins to understand the need to comprehend the double mark and the reality that “experience” aboard the Republic has transformed marksmen into marked men, and vice versa.

The degeneration of the Allmuseri causes Calhoun to acknowledge “a cruel kind of connectedness” between all on board the Republic; he realizes that “in a sense we all were ringed to the skipper in cruel wedlock” (144). For example, Falcon literally espouses Calhoun by placing a ring on his finger—significantly, one capable of unlocking the captain's custom-designed pistols. Nevertheless, just as Calhoun overcomes his primitivistic illusions about the Allmuseri, he begins to unlock his link to the exploitative ideology Falcon represents. This un-linking involves rejecting Falcon's essentialism, the tainted conviction that imperialist philosophy is a universal, monolithic truth: “‘Dualism is a bloody structure of the mind,’” the captain tells Calhoun early on. “‘Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other—these ancient twins are built into mind. … We cannot think without them …’” (98).

Falcon himself, ironically, facilitates Calhoun's rejection of his own dualism. On his deathbed Falcon charges Calhoun with his destiny, with the control of not only his text—his ship's log—but his story/history as well by begging him to be his “biographer”: “‘I cannot write, so you must keep the log. … Do your best. Include everything you can remember, and what I told you, from the time you came on board’” (146).23 Falcon's desperate quest for textual inheritors represents how significantly the cannon (canon) blast has ruptured him psychically, and it also suggests his lack of community and the consequent instability—and interminability—of his text, its susceptibility to being remarked upon. Calhoun accepts Falcon's bequest, but rejects his discriminatory agenda, the way he “cuts the border(s)” (Spillers 16) of his text: “I took his logbook from the ruins. But I promised myself that even though I'd tell the story (I knew he wanted to be remembered), it would be, first and foremost, as I saw it since my escape from New Orleans” (146).

After the Republic founders and sinks, the rescued Calhoun fulfills his destiny, his compulsion to repossess history, by superseding the Falconian desire that acts as a “‘transcendental Fault’” (98) in the imperialist consciousness. As a literary inheritor, Calhoun borrows from and moves beyond his literary precursors—the philosophers he studied while still a slave on Reverend Chandler's plantation, Falcon and his imperialism, and even the Allmuseri and their idyllic universalism—in order to remember and recreate perspective. Calhoun remarks upon the above oral and literary traditions in order to establish “his own distinctive sense of form” (Frye 41). Having reassessed the game of destructive marksmanship, Calhoun emerges as a strong novelist by demonstrating a remarkable, mature command of the double mark:

Looking back at the asceticism of the Middle Passage, I saw how the frame of mind I had adopted left me unattached. … The voyage had irreversibly changed my seeing, made of me a cultural mongrel, and transformed the world into a fleeting shadow play I felt no need to possess or dominate, only appreciate in the ever extended present.


His conversion indicts a crew member's searing words, uttered shortly before the Allmuseri uprising, which characterize Calhoun as a shallow, worthless, anonymous piece of cargo: “‘Once we reach New Orleans the rest of us kin sign on to other ships, and Calhoun'll go on his own way, like he's always done, believin' in nothin', belongin' to nobody, driftin' here and there and dyin', probably, in a ditch without so much as leavin' a mark on the world—or as much of a mark as you get from writin' on water’” (88).

The crew of marksmen perish in the Atlantic's “ditch,” in an unmarked grave, but not Calhoun. Contrary to their fatalistic forecast, upon being rescued from the sea Calhoun announces that he feels compelled “to transcribe and thereby transfigure all that we had experienced” (190; emphasis added). The deceased crew can never know how completely the captain's remarked log demonstrates Calhoun's talent for “writin' on water”; how faithfully it memorializes the Allmuseri “Day of Renunciation” of desire (180)24; how compellingly it deconstructs and remarks the marksman's way of “leavin' a mark on the wor(l)d”; how profoundly it extends the reader's perspective of the middle passage, for we have been reading Calhoun's remarked log all along.25 Reunited with his still-marriage-minded girlfriend, custodian of the only surviving Allmuseri children, reenwebbed with the crime boss who ensnared him in the first place, Calhoun evades repeating the marksman/marked man cycle: “… I found a way to make my peace with the recent past by turning it into Word” (190). His achievement reflects Johnson's conviction that “the lived Black world has always promised a fresh slant on structures and themes centuries old” (“Whole Sight” 56-57). Calhoun uses the word—the salvaged and remarked ship's log—to silence Papa Zeringue, the crime boss, whom the log reveals is one of the Republic's three investors, an imperialist who has hired Falcon to enslave not only peoples from his own ancestral Africa, but “to salvage the best of their war-shocked cultures too” (49).26

Calhoun's “cross-cultural fertilization” has allowed him to “move closer to the objective of whole sight” (“Whole Sight” 4).27 Writes Toni Morrison, “… for both black and white American writers, in a wholly racialized society, there is no escape from racially inflected language, and the work writers do to unhobble the imagination from the demands of that language is complicated, interesting, and definitive” (12-13). Calhoun's retracing of the middle passage allows him to literally and metaphorically “unhobble” himself after he has been physically and psychically wounded by the voyage. Even if the achievement of the Allmuseri ideal, because of colonization and slavery, is no longer possible, Calhoun's odyssey argues for the importance of the pursuit of that ideal while simultaneously exploring intersubjectivity, the positive and empowering aspects of his double-marked consciousness. Calhoun's language and perceptions are both Western and African, allowing him to do the cultural work Brook Thomas suggests is necessary for historically oppressed peoples: “to construct and legitimate new histories in which they are finally represented” (191). As Calhoun states, “Sometimes without knowing it, I spoke in the slightly higher register of the slaves …” (194). Above all, Calhoun's “double-voiced” text (Gates 110-13) erases “the notion that the Middle Passage was so traumatic that it … create[d] in the African a tabula rasa of consciousness” (Gates 4).

If, as Fredric Jameson asserts in The Political Unconscious, narrative “must be read as a symbolic meditation on the destiny of community” (70), then Middle Passage's meditation seems to be that “strategies of containment” (Jameson 53), prescribed ways of thinking and writing about experience, repress valuable expressions of reality inside and outside the African American community.28 For example, after the Allmuseri uprising, Calhoun confesses that Squibb, the white cook and the only surviving white crew member,

anticipate[d] my pain before I felt it. … His breathing even resembled that of the Allmuseri. … I felt perfectly balanced crosscurrents in him, each a pool of possibilities from which he was unconsciously drawing moment by moment, to solve whatever problem was at hand.


Though perhaps not fully conscious of his blossoming humanity and intercultural sensitivity, Squibb has transformed the wounds of competing discourses and ideologies into spiritual empowerment; he has shifted closer to the Allmuseri, not in racial dimensions, but in human devotion. He has conquered the “ontic wound” of dualism, of which racism is but one manifestation. In addition, by noting such a transformation in the once alcoholic and crippled ship's cook, Calhoun himself moves closer to “whole sight,” toward a four-dimensional world view.

I opened the paper by noting that Johnson has his detractors; in closing I shall allude to someone who supports his mission. Instead of adhering to a political agenda of a particular group, Johnson claims that he responds to the call of a much celebrated African American novelist: “‘Proponents of the black arts movement of the 1960s have urged us to control our images. But since the late 1940s … Ellison has counseled us to expand our images’” (qtd. in Williams D8). It is fitting, then, that at the 1990 National Book Awards ceremony held in New York City, the place where the protagonist emerges at the end (and beginning) of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison exclaimed in response to charges that Johnson's victory was racially motivated, “‘You don't write out of your skin, for God's sake, you write out of your imagination’” (qtd. in “Writing” 6).

Similarly, Johnson states, “‘I think we have in some cases forgotten the remarkable triumphs of black people … remarkable human beings who understood racism but stepped over it the way they would a puddle’” (qtd. in Monaghan A3). The Atlantic, as Middle Passage points out, is an awfully significant “puddle,” and so is the will required to “outlast the Atlantic's bone-chilling cold” (209). But remarking the achievements and potentials of Black peoples in a way not bound exclusively to the dialogics of racism seems a logical alternative to perpetuating Manichean oppositions, as Johnson believes Black cultural nationalism does. One alternative: Johnson shuns the role of speaking for his cultural group. “‘Traditionally, since the time of Richard Wright, black writers have been expected to be spokesmen for the race,’” Johnson explains. “‘But I find it difficult to swallow the idea that one individual, black or white, can speak for the experience of 30 million people’” (qtd. in Williams D1). Middle Passage, however, certainly does speak to the experience of some of those 30 million people, and to the experience of many white readers as well.29 Johnson may believe he can evade ideology. Yet, in Jameson's words, “the mirage of an utterly nontheoretical practice, is a contradiction in terms”; even Johnsonian metaphysics and ethical humanism present as pervasive or personal “what are in reality the historical and institutional specifics of a determinate type of group” (58-59). With Middle Passage, Johnson contributes a valuable dimension to African American literature and its creative and critical sensibility: By demonstrating self- and communal empowerment through cross-cultural literacy and refertilization, Johnson's novel, placed in its proper perspective, argues the potential rewards awaiting African American writers, and American writers in general, who fully explore their double-marked American texts, selves, and consciousness.


  1. Johnson hasn't spared many writers from his critical gun, though perhaps the group of writers of whom he has been most critical has been contemporary African American women writers. While commending writers such as Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and Paule Marshall for their superior analysis of the “nuances … and eccentricities of human behavior” and their shared ability to write like “prose singers, golden-throated speakers,” Johnson suggests that these writers are often guilty of shabby plot constructions and a lack of “formal virtuosity” (Being 118). I am hardly in agreement with Johnson on much of what he has to say about African American female writers; I only point out his recurrent challenge to suggest one way in which he has set himself up as a target for others in the African American literary community (a cursory look, for example, at Naylor's Linden Hills or Morrison's Song of Solomon suggests that these writers are capable of remarking upon Western forms and of sophisticated plot constructions, though their emphasis is often on spiraling structures as opposed to linear ones). See Being 54ff.

  2. See, for example, Barbara Christian's often discussed position in “The Race for Theory,” wherein she states that some African American literary critics “have changed literary critical language to suit their own purposes as philosophers” (67), and Joyce A. Joyce's well-known discussion about contemporary critical language in “The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism,” in which she challenges the methodologies of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Houston A. Baker, Jr.

  3. Calling movements such as “Afro-centric” education “‘the new name for black cultural nationalism’” (qtd. in Williams D8), Johnson argues against any “‘monolithic, ideological fiction’” and stresses the importance of “‘celebrat[ing] black American life and achievement … in a philosophical mode’” (qtd. in Monaghan A3). Johnson contends that “‘a serious student of philosophy, or a serious artist’” cannot be comfortable with the idea that he or she need not read European literature or philosophy: Artists “‘ought to know as much as they can about as many cultures as they can’” (qtd. in Williams D8). This notion does not jibe with the thinking of some nationalistic African American critics, like Christian, who argues that critics risk cooption by writing in poststructuralist and philosophical terms. Notes Christian, “At least so far, the creative writers I study have resisted this language” (68). Until now, indeed. Johnson's manumitted slave protagonist is well-versed in Hegelian dialectics and often speaks in discipline-specific philosophical terms.

  4. Johnson recognizes Ishmael Reed—“a pioneer in literary experimentation”—Alice Walker, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove as three writers who have attempted to reinscribe traditionally “Western” literary forms by applying an African American perspective (Being 4, 118).

  5. The novel, as Paul Gilroy has recently pointed out, also has a “neat intertextual relationship with [Martin] Delany's Blake” (218). It signifies, too, on a number of slave narratives, perhaps most significantly on that of Olaudah Equiano.

  6. As the epigraph makes clear, Jacques Derrida labels racism a “system of marks” in “Racism's Last Word.” A more complete discussion of marks and marking in discourse can be found in Dissemination. Johnson uses this system of marks and marking, I'm suggesting, as the foremost trope in the novel, moving beneath the boundaries of racism to ask logical questions about the ethics not just of racist discourse, but of any discourse that essentialize or discriminates.

  7. Catharine Stimpson, chairperson of the fiction jury, disagreed with West's characterization of the selection process, stating that, although the committee members expressed “‘differences’” of opinion, the meeting at which the final decision was made was “‘delightful’” (qtd. in Cohen C18).

  8. All-museri/erimus, meaning ‘We shall be All.’ Though occasionally difficult to uncode, anagrams mark meaning in several of the names in Middle Passage. For example, Ngonyama, a leader of the Allmuseri who bemoans his loss of purity upon his corruption by the white man and withers away, can be reconfigured as “Agony Man.” The double signification (double-marking) of these names symbolizes the interrelationship of discourses in the “fallen world” of the Republic.

  9. In this respect, the play of the gaze in Middle Passage could be dealt with profitably in Lacanian terms: Although what structures the gap is the absence of the Other, the not-there, human subjectivity explodes when the gaze is deflected back on itself. See Lacan 285; MacConnell 71-72, 154.

  10. A “mark” of Western empiricism, Falcon, Johnson states, is loosely based on Sir Richard Francis Burton: “‘He was an explorer, an imperialist, a translator, a quasi-genius, and also the biggest bigot in the world’” (qtd. in Blau C9). Melville's Captain Ahab comes instantly to mind on a fictional level. States Johnson, “‘I went back and looked at every sea story from Apolonius of Rhodes, to Homer—oh God, all the way through Melville, Conrad, London, the Sinbad stories, slave narratives that took place on boats—about the middle passage’” (qtd. in Williams D8). This sort of reliance on Western tradition has marked other African Diaspora writers for criticism. Compare, for example, the backlash in the 1960s and '70s in the Caribbean and elsewhere against Derek Walcott, the 1992 Nobel Prize-winning poet. Walcott's argument, like Johnson's, has consistently been that such forms are as much his inheritance as anyone else's. See Ismond 54ff.

  11. Though colonial and postcolonial theories have often highlighted the “mimicry” and “mockery” present in racist and colonialist discourses on an inter-racial level (see Bhabha 150ff), Johnson's exploration of the intra-racial ambivalence created by imperialist discourse—in this case between the various members of the ship's crew—in Middle Passage is a dimension of colonial and postcolonial discourse frequently overlooked by theorists, critics, and creative writers, perhaps because of the understandable interest in highlighting the inter-racial dialectic (white/black, slaver/enslaved, etc.).

  12. Falcon also selects Ngonyama, the leader of the Allmuseri, to be a “confidence man” above deck. In this regard, Falcon grants both Calhoun and Ngonyama the capacity of assimilating into the white power structure. Thus, their respective roles—Calhoun as an unpaid ship's cook and Ngonyama as a privileged liaison between enslaver/enslaved—function as camouflage for the slave uprising that both of these characters have a hand in plotting. In short, their “black skins/white masks” prove extremely problematic for Falcon's hold on power. See Fanon, Black Skins 109ff.

  13. See Hartman (118-57) on the nature of “words and wounds.”

  14. There are many ways that this oppression manifests itself in mis-markings of Allmuseri culture. Such mis-markings include wild speculations by crew members as to the identity of the Allmuseri god caged below deck, as well as shallow and primitivistic notions concerning the Allmuseri themselves. For example, the only sentence to be found in explorers' logs concerning the Allmuseri identifies them as “‘Sorcerers’” and “‘devil-worshiping, spell-casting wizards’” (43). States Abdul R. Jan Mohamed, “Just as imperialists ‘administer’ the resources of the conquered country, so colonialist discourse ‘commodifies’ the native subject into a stereotyped object and uses him as a ‘resource’ for colonialist fiction” (64).

  15. Calhoun's initial assessment of the Allmuseri mirrors Gulliver's idealization of the Houyhnhnms in Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Calhoun observes that “… they so shamed me I wanted their ageless culture to be my own …” (78). This is one of many examples of Johnson re-marking not only Swift, but others in the Western tradition.

  16. Bhabha and Jan Mohamed have involved themselves in an angry feud, one that in many ways reflects the tension surrounding Johnson's texts. While Bhabha argues that both colonized and colonizer are implicated in the development of colonialist discourse, Jan Mohamed resists merging binaries into a discursive and cultural hybrid, a unified colonial subject (59). Johnson's novel argues for intersubjectivity of culture and discourse while simultaneously acknowledging differences in perception according to the dynamics of one's particular community and life experiences.

  17. Such recognition lies at the heart of a number of major studies in African American and African Diaspora criticism. W. E. B. Du Bois recognizes this play as part of his concept of “double consciousness”; Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s assessment of the signifying monkey trickster figure, a metaphor of “double-voiced” texts within the African tradition that speak both inter- and intra-racially, is another example (see The Signifying Monkey 21ff). A related Diaspora concept is VéVé Clark's “marasa consciousness” (41ff). Also, Francophone Caribbean critic Françoise Lionnet argues that “a given space (text) will support more life (generate more meanings) if occupied by diverse forms of life” (17-18). In fact, each of the “Western,” “African American,” and “Caribbean” critics listed here, by arguing essentially the same concept but in culturally specific ways, points out the infinite possibilities of the “double mark” (in a sense, double becomes a misnomer) and seems to support Johnson's faith in cross-cultural fertilization as a mode of literary production.

  18. Johnson has frequently expressed frustration with African American critics who fail to understand the phenomenological concept of the universal. As Johnson has painstakingly noted, contrary to mistaken fears of totalized experience, the universal in phenomenological terms suggests that meaning is always in flux, that perception of “truth” must always be reinterpreted. Religion, for example, may be a universal, but Haitian Voodoo “is a cause for reflection on that theme.” See “Whole Sight” 55ff. Thus, Calhoun is marked upon and remarked upon and must reevaluate his very existence as a manumitted black slave; his sense of being is markedly different upon the completion of his near-fatal journey than it was at the beginning.

  19. Fanon makes it clear that successful decolonization by the native cannot be achieved without bloodshed: “From birth it is clear to [the native] that his narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called in question by absolute violence” (Wretched 36). Applied to the Allmuseri, such a tenet suggests that their cultural purity is destined to self-destruct.

  20. “Meaning” aboard the Republic resembles the operations explored by reader-response criticism, which allows for meaning but only as it is experienced by individual discourse communities according to their interpretive strategies, which necessarily undergo change. Such a theory denies that there is any predetermined, absolute meaning at which we are striving to arrive. Falcon believes that he is carrying out some preordained historical will, and the Allmuseri idea of the universal turns out to be similarly flawed in its faith in closure. As Stanley Fish argues, communication occurs and meaning is made within social structures that cohere in normative social practices, purposes, and goals, yet structures that change as situations change.

  21. In the sense that the colonialist's mark remains furrowed in the psychic subsurface, no matter how transient surface marks may be, it resembles structurally the mystic writing pad, or magic slate, as metaphor for the psyche and for memory. See Derrida, “Freud.”

  22. Calhoun, the crew member whom Falcon has called on to be his “eyes and ears,” manipulates three violent plots on board the Republic—one by the Allmuseri, one by the ship's crew, and a counter-plot by Falcon—because each of them is to one degree or another dependent on him for success. If the goal of African American literature is to achieve a “four-dimensional” consciousness, as Johnson has argued, then Calhoun, by exploiting his awareness of the four competing schemes (the three above plus his own desire to manipulate those three), serves as a metaphor for such a consciousness. One might also connect four-dimensionality with Derrida's concept of “marks of dissemination,” which “cannot be summed up or ‘decided’ according to the two of binary oppositions nor sublated into the ‘three’ of speculative dialectics. … they cannot be pinned down at one point. … They ‘add’ a fourth term the more or the less” (Dissemination 25).

  23. Falcon's desperate attempt to memorialize and stabilize his “text” of oppressive cultural and ideological dogma is a pathetic act of denial, as Hortense Spillers makes clear in her essay “Who Cuts the Border? Some Readings on ‘America’”: “No ‘real’ biotext (and/or culture text, for that matter) ever achieves much more than an unstable relationship to some abidingly imagined, or putative, centrality, even though one is surely loathe to admit that possibility” (16).

  24. As Ashraf H. A. Rushdy argues, in Middle Passage Johnson outlines an enabling phenomenological perspective that involves the “transcendence of relativism” by Calhoun in favor of a more community-oriented sense of being: “The ideal of intersubjectivity includes the condition of the individual's being ‘unpositioned’ in the world, of each person's having a relationship with the tribal community that is so integral that the individual is rendered ‘invisible’ in the ‘presence of others’” (377).

  25. My use of parentheses represents a predominant intersubjectivity in the African American tradition that Johnson acknowledges: “Black writing assumes, as it must, the traditionally held correspondence between word and world … and I am going to say flat out that I don't believe this ancient faith in fiction is entirely without foundation” (Being 37).

  26. In fact, Philippe “Papa” Zeringue's henchman, Santos, reveals that he is a direct descendant of the Allmuseri. When he learns from Calhoun that Papa Zeringue has enslaved his tribe, he turns on him and threatens to beat him up. Thus Calhoun succeeds in destabilizing the neocolonialist hierarchy in New Orleans.

  27. Johnson's notion of “whole sight” is an idea that has been remarked upon in connection with other Diaspora traditions. For example, in a study that addresses the political implications of Third World literary history, Michael Valdez Moses concludes that “to be alert simultaneously to both the Western and African literary traditions, to rely upon the knowledge of both to make fruitful comparisons and judgments strikes me as eminently reasonable and just” (226).

  28. On a critical level, Barbara Johnson has warned against positing a black vernacular theory that claims to be unaffected by cross-cultural exchange: “Cultures are not containable within boundaries. Rhetorical figures are not Euclidean. New logical models … [should] acknowledge the ineradicable trace of Western culture within the Afro-American culture (and vice versa) without losing the ‘signifying black difference’” (42). See also Mae Gwendolyn Henderson's notion of ‘Glossolalia” (speaking in tongues), based largely on the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin and Hans-Georg Gadamer, which argues that African American women's writing “speaks as much to the notion of commonality and universality as it does to the sense of difference and diversity” (137).

  29. Certainly the novel speaks to Johnson. Like his protagonist, Johnson was trained in philosophy: Calhoun on the plantation of the Reverend Chandler in Southern Illinois, and Johnson at Southern Illinois University. Calhoun, as a result of his contact with the Allmuseri, becomes a disciplined martial artist; Johnson has practiced as a martial artist for many years. Calhoun ultimately marries the schoolteacher who was partly responsible for his remarkable journey; Johnson is married to a schoolteacher who has enabled his own.

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. “Signs Taken for Wonders.” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 144-65.

Blau, Eleanor. “Charles Johnson's Tale of Slaving, Seafaring and Philosophizing.” New York Times 2 Jan. 1991: C9+.

Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Feminist Studies 14 (Spring 1988): 67-80.

Clark, VéVé. “Developing Diaspora Literacy and Marasa Consciousness.” Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text. Ed. Hortense J. Spillers. New York: Routledge, 1991. 40-61.

Cohen, Roger. “Charles Johnson and Ron Chernow Win Book Awards.” New York Times 28 Nov. 1990: C13+.

Deleuze, Giles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. New York: Viking, 1977.

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.

———. “Freud and the Scene of Writing.” Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978. 196-231.

———. “Racism's Last Word.” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 290-99.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skins, White Masks. New York: Grove, 1967.

———. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove, 1963.

Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.

Frye, Northrup. The Educated Imagination. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1964.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Hartman, Geoffrey H. Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981.

Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Woman Writer's Literary Tradition.” Reading Black, Reading Feminist. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990. 116-42.

Ismond, Patricia. “Walcott versus Brathwaite.” Caribbean Quarterly 17 (Sept.-Dec. 1971): 54-71.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. London: Methuen, 1981.

Jan Mohamed, Abdul R. “The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature.” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 59-87.

Johnson, Barbara. “A Response to ‘Canon Formation and the Afro-American Tradition.’” Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Patricia Redmond. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989. 39-43.

Johnson, Charles. Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

———. Middle Passage. New York: Macmillan, 1990.

———. “Philosophy and Black Fiction.” Obsidian 6. 1-2 (1980): 55-62.

———. “Whole Sight: Notes on New Black Fiction.” Callaloo 7.3 (1984): 1-6.

Joyce, Joyce Ann. “The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism.” New Literary History 18.2 (1987): 335-44.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Signification of the Phallus.” Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977. 281-91.

Lionnet, Françoise. Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

MacConnell, Juliet Flower. Figuring Lacan: Criticism and the Cultural Unconscious. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Prose of the World. Ed. Claude Lefort. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973.

Monaghan, Peter. “Winner of National Book Award Won't Be a ‘Voice of Black America.’” Chronicle of Higher Education 16 Jan. 1991: A3.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

Moses, Michael Valdez. “Caliban and His Precursors: The Politics of Literary History and the Third World.” Theoretical Issues in Literary History. Ed. David Perkins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991. 206-26.

Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. “The Phenomenology of the Allmuseri: Charles Johnson and the Subject of the Narrative of Slavery.” African American Review 26 (1992): 373-83.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Who Cuts the Borders? Some Readings on ‘America.’” Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text. Ed. Spillers. New York: Routledge, 1991. 1-25.

Thomas, Brook. “The New Historicism and Other Old-Fashioned Topics.” The New Historicism. Ed. H. Aram Veeser. New York: Routledge, 1989. 182-203.

Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Williams, Marjorie. “The Author's Solo Passage: Charles Johnson on Race and Writing.” Washington Post 4 Dec. 1990: D1+.

“Writing and Skin.” New Republic 24 Dec. 1990: 6-7.

Charles Johnson and Michael Boccia (interview date winter 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4515

SOURCE: Johnson, Charles, and Michael Boccia. “An Interview with Charles Johnson.” African American Review 30, no. 4 (winter 1996): 611-18.

[In the following interview, Johnson discusses his personal history, his literary and philosophical influences, and issues of cultural identity.]

When approached to participate in this interview, Charles Johnson responded with his usual enthusiasm: “Send me questions! I'll try to provide everything on my end.” So I sat down and produced questions dealing with three general areas—artist, art, and audience. To these questions, Johnson responded with insight and wit, providing information that illuminates his writing.

[Boccia]: Is there any little-known or unknown autobiographical information that would help us better understand your fiction?

[Johnson]: As you probably know, my creative work did not begin when I started writing fiction. In 1967, when I was 17, I began publishing as a cartoonist (my first three short stories were published that same year, but in my teens the only thing I desired to be was a commercial artist). For seven years thereafter, I studied with cartoonist Lawrence Lariar; this career consumed me, leading to over 1,000 published drawings in dozens of publications ranging from Black World to The Chicago Tribune; to scripting for Charlton comic books and working as a political cartoonist; to creating, hosting, and co-producing an early PBS how-to-draw series called Charlie's Pad; to publishing two early collections of comic art, Black Humor (1970) and Half-Past Nation-Time (1972). My passion as a child was—and to a certain extent is still—for the visual arts. It occurs to me sometimes when I'm writing literary criticism, as in Being & Race, or discussing aesthetics, that I often cross genres in the language I use for analyzing fiction, borrowing certain terminology from the realm of drawing.

Thus, drawing was my first passion. My second, which I discovered when I was 17, was philosophy. Writing was something I did strictly for fun: ghost-authoring papers for other students in my college dormitory, collaborating on metaphysical plays with my best friend at the time (another philosophy major), religiously keeping a journal, composing about 80 bad poems during my undergraduate days, and writing news articles (my other major was journalism). I read fiction hungrily, but mainly the authors who would appeal to a lover of philosophy—Sartre and Camus, Mann and Hesse, Hawthorne and Melville, etc. In the late 1960s and early 1970s my friends and I were very cross-disciplinary in our interests, and we understood fiction and philosophy to be sister disciplines. But no, I had no specific intention to become a writer of fiction. However, I did realize something when my interests turned to black American fiction—namely, how few black authors were concerned with probing the perennial questions of Western and Eastern philosophy in their stories. Only three black writers qualified (for me) as philosophically engaging: Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.

I began writing novels in earnest in 1970 with one specific goal in mind, that of expanding the category we might call black philosophical fiction; i.e., opening up black literature to the same ethical, ontological, and epistemological questions—Western and Eastern—that I wrestled with as a student of philosophy. From the very beginning, I've had no other aim as a literary artist.

Can you tell us something about your life that we cannot find elsewhere, something which sheds light on your work?

Two things, I suppose, have importance: the martial arts and Buddhism. When I was 19, I trained at a Chicago martial-arts kwoon called Chi Tao Chuan of the Monastery, a very rough school that I've written about (see the author's preface to the new Plume edition of Oxherding Tale). Over the years I've trained in three traditional karate and three kung-fu systems, and for the last eight years have co-directed the Blue Phoenix Kung-fu Club in Seattle. I started with this system in 1981 in San Francisco at the main studio of grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong, and many of my closest friends today are also practitioners of this style. For me, traditional martial arts was a doorway into the theory and practice of Buddhism, a philosophy (or religion) that attracted me since my teens. I've published two stories that thematize Buddhism in the martial arts, “Kwoon” and “China,” and elements from Eastern thought—Taoism, Hinduism—can be found in virtually every story or novel I've published.

Is there a hidden uncle or maiden aunt, a childhood love or a hated enemy, your alter-ego or a shadow of yourself in one of your characters? For example, was there an innocent and beautiful Faith Cross in your life? (And if so can I have her telephone number?)

All of the above appear in the stories and novels—people I've known, or characters who are composites of people I've known, but I'd better not reveal any of them by name. (One of my relatives once contemplated litigation against me for my use of her brother's name in a story.) As for Faith Cross, her description parallels closely that of my wife Joan in 1972 when we were both 24 years old, and I started work on Faith and the Good Thing. You can have her (our) phone number anyway.

We are all members of various sub-cultures. My family is Sicilian and African and Hispanic, and I grew up on the streets of New York City, all of which have impacted my life. What do you identify as your sub-cultures, and how did they affect you?

This is a tough question for me. The only thing I can identify as a “sub-culture” is the black American experience, but that is—as we know—a cultural experience that has shaped American politics, economics, music, religion, entertainment, athletics, and the arts since 1619. Sub-culture, indeed! It's best to say that from my childhood forward I've always seen myself first and foremost as an American, because it is impossible to separate out black people from this nation's evolution.

How and where did you grow up? What was your family like? What was your socioeconomic situation?

On my mother's side of the family (all deceased now), I can trace back my ancestors to a New Orleans black coachman born in the 1820s. I think his name was Jeff Peters. My father's people come from rural South Carolina near Hodges and Abbeyville. My dad was one of twelve kids—six boys, six girls—born to a man who was a farmer and blacksmith. What brought my Dad north to Evanston, Illinois, where he met my mother, was a promise of work from his uncle, William Johnson, who'd moved to Illinois in the 1920s. There, he started his own milk company to serve the black community (whites didn't deliver to them), and I have under glass one of his milk bottles, one that was sealed up in a building in my home town 60 years ago and not unearthed until the mid-1970s when that building in the downtown area was torn apart for remodeling. Uncle Will's milk company went belly up during the Depression. He started another company, the Johnson Construction Co., and once it was going (it continued into the 1960s), he invited his brother's sons in the South to come to work for him. So Dad and his brothers traveled north to work for my great-uncle; my father was introduced to my mother by his brother, and all of this led to my being here.

As a kid I remember riding around Evanston and my father pointing out to me places Uncle Will had built—Springfield Baptist Church, apartment buildings, and residences. He erected architecture all over the North Shore area, so I always had a sense that my family members had created parts of the world in which we lived. Those structures remain today long after Uncle Will's death at age 97 in 1989. He was something of a character, the family patriarch (a role my father later inherited), a man who surely was a student of Booker T. Washington in the 1920s, and who over and over counseled me when I was a kid to, “Get an education; that's the most important thing.”

My mother and father were a complementary pair. Both were quietly pious, and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Evanston, where I was baptized and married (and my son Malik baptized) was a valued part of our lives. (My mother sometimes taught Sunday school there.) She, an only child (like me), had always wanted to be a school teacher, but health problems (asthma) prevented this. Still, her interests ran toward books—she belonged to numerous book clubs in the 1960s—which we often shared, and toward whatever was unusual, exotic, unique. She was a Democrat, a passionate woman with a wicked sense of humor who encouraged my childhood passion for drawing, and she was someone my father relied on completely. As for my father, there is simply this to say: He is the hardest working, most moral man I've ever known. In the South he went as far as the fifth grade before his parents needed him full-time to help with farmwork during the Depression. After moving to Evanston, he often worked two jobs a week—construction and as a night watchman—as well as odd jobs for an elderly white couple in the suburbs on the weekends. He was—and still is at age 73—a proud, never-idle man who voted Republican in the 1950s before my mother got him to switch parties, and he demanded the same Protestant work ethic from me when I was growing up. We were, I suppose, looking back, lower middle-class, but my parents clearly had middle-class values.

Something else to say is that my hometown and high school were integrated long before I was born; in fact, my mother graduated from Evanston Township High. When I was there between 1962 and 1966, black students made up fifteen percent of what was then the third best public high school in America—we were proud of this distinction. And proud too, I believe, that integration was something we all took for granted. My friends from kindergarten through high school were white as well as black. Bigotry, as we understood it then, was simply “uncool.”

Did your idea of your cultural identity change over the years? How would you say this has shaped you and your work?

Given my childhood, I think I can safely say that I was a child of integration. I never questioned its validity until I went away to college and met other black students more affected by Black Power than integration, by Malcolm X than Martin Luther King, Jr. The ideology of “blackness” was something I learned in the late 1960s and early 1970s on campus, not from the piously Christian black folks in my family or their friends. A part of me sympathizes with black nationalist concerns, such as economic self-sufficiency—remember, my Uncle Will was a black businessman devoted to helping his own. But I just never bought into black cultural nationalism. It always struck me as naïve (all cultures we know about are synthetic, a tissue of contributions from others). The way its proponents portrayed other races—whites, for example—had nothing to do with the supportive people I knew when I was growing up. In the end, black cultural nationalism only served to remind me of how thoroughly American my family and I have always been.

What works of art do you consciously imitate? Clearly your works have parodied or imitated escaped slave narratives and visual art such as “Ten Oxherding Pictures.” What books would you suggest we read to better see the structure of your novels?

Parody may not be the right word here. My first (and only) writing mentor was novelist John Gardner. There was much we had in common—as teacher and apprentice—but one thing about Gardner stands out for me. In his work there is formal virtuosity, a deep knowledge of literary forms from within, whether we are talking about the triple-decker Sunlight Dialogues, the pastoral Nickel Mountain, or the explosion of forms that inform his other works. In other words, something I deeply appreciated in Gardner—and have always tended to do myself—is take form itself as a meditation when I'm writing. Each story in The Sorcerer's Apprentice should upon examination profile a different form—the tale, parable, animal fable, science fiction, etc. I suspect this way of approaching fiction is something we owe to the creators of the “New Fiction” that emerged in the late 1960s—including Gardner, John Barth, Robert Coover, Ron Sukenick, Ishmael Reed, and John Fowles, at least in terms of his magical novel The French Lieutenant's Woman.

What books did you read as a child or as you evolved as an artist? What films or paintings or cartoons did you see?

Although I spent a summer devouring James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan Trilogy when I was in high school, my personal tastes don't incline much to “naturalism,” which I see as being an interesting but limited theory and literary approach that began in the late nineteenth century. (For example, the life-world of naturalism falls short of adequately portraying the life of the spirit and, for that matter, anything we know about the sub-atomic realm of physics). Generally, I prefer the tale. In high school I made myself read at least one book a week, everything from science fiction (I joined a book club) to Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians. As a young philosophy student I loved Candide, had fun with Jack London's Martin Eden, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Sartre's plays, all of D. H. Lawrence (including his letters), Dickens, Kafka, P. G. Wodehouse. This list could go on and on. When I discover an author I tend to read everything I can by him or her until I'm saturated by their work.

As for films, I've loved since the 1950s Paddy Chayevsky's Marty, Disney's Fantasia, Capra's beautiful Lost Horizon, Sidney Poitier in All the Young Men, and Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? I'll confess to admiring Peckinpaw's The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, but right now a discovery I'm giddy about is Ang Lee's Pushing Hands.

As a kid, I regularly visited the Evanston Public Library and checked out all their books on art. I did the same as a student at Southern Illinois University, then at SUNY-Stony Brook. Diego Rivera is a favorite of mine. Also—and especially—Nicholas Roerich. Among cartoonists I deeply admired Jack Davis, caricaturist Mort Drucker, Charles Schultz, Gahan Wilson, Burne Hogarth, the prolific Jack Kirby, Wallace Wood, and the seminal Will Eisner. This, believe me, is only a partial list.

Who are the “dead” writers you most admire? I choose dead writers so that you will have no opportunity to offend by omission, but you need not limit yourself in any way.

Where to begin? Start with Homer and Plato. Move on to St. Augustine and Hegel. Throw in Voltaire, Melville, most of the phenomenologists—Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Scheler, Merleau-Ponty, Mikel Duferenne—then ease on to Toomer, Wright, Ellison, Albert Murray (still going strong), and Gardner. Again, this list is woefully incomplete. I think my favorite “dead” writers are those who are involved in what has been called the “epic conversation”; that is, the writers dialoguing across centuries with each other about the nature of Being.

Your work has touched upon issues ranging from entropy to Asian philosophies. What are the central themes that run through all your work?

At last, an easy question! If the principal novels and stories in my body of work have a central theme it is the investigation of the nature of the self and personal identity. As a phenomenologist, I cannot help but believe that consciousness is primary for all “experience”—that the nature of the I is the deepest of mysteries, and that all other questions arise from this primordial one, What am I?

Do you feel that certain themes have been misunderstood?

Yes. One of the greatest mistakes that critics and readers make when approaching a novel by a black author is the tendency to read that work as sociology, anthropology, or as a political statement of some sort. By taking such a limited and narrowing approach, critics and readers miss time and again the remarkable passages on “history” and perception in Ellison's Invisible Man, the treatment of temporal experience in Wright's Native Son, the Buddhist-Hindu-Taoist meditations in Oxherding Tale, and the dramatization of Buddhist epistemology in my story “Moving Pictures.” As educators, I feel we simply must help our students to become better readers—and to make clear the point that for many black writers “race” is not the only subject they can write about with authority.

You have told us that there's nothing worse than being haunted by a philosopher's ghost. What ghosts haunt you?

Gautama, the 25th Buddha. Lao tzu and Chaung tzu. Gandhi when he speaks of satyagraha. Martin Luther King, Jr., when, as a philosopher, he speaks so beautifully of the “beloved community,” of agapic love and the “network of mutuality” that binds all life as one.

You mention numerous world views and philosophies in your work. What was the path of your growth and personal philosophy?

I may have indirectly answered some of this already. Early in life, I found Buddhism deeply appealing and made the study of Eastern scholarship a lifelong avocation. But in college I encountered black cultural nationalism, which I felt the need to respond to, mainly as a cartoonist. Shortly thereafter I settled into Marxism, did my master's thesis on Wilhelm Reich and how he was influenced by Freud and Marx; then I taught Marxism as a Ph.D. teaching assistant at Stony Brook—everything from the 1844 Manuscripts to Mao—while immersing myself in the history, theory, and practice of phenomenology. I still believe the Marxist critique of capital, though I no longer much believe in Marxist solutions to social and economic problems. My philosophical method, the one I fall back on whenever in doubt, is phenomenology. And on the deeper spiritual levels, I fully embrace the so-called “three refuges” of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. (Early Buddhism, by the way, has often been called a very rudimentary form of phenomenology—the two have much in common in respect to their forms of “radical empiricism.”)

Assuming for the moment that there is an “American Culture,” how do you think that this society affected your work?

The work I've done could only have been attempted and could only have found its audience in America. Why? I've visited many countries in Europe and the Far East as a lecturer, and something that struck me repeatedly was how closed many societies are. There is nothing in England that equals our First Amendment. In Indonesia, writers are routinely tossed in jail for criticizing the government. In Czechoslovakia in 1989 I met with PEN authors who'd only been released from jail three days earlier during the “Velvet Revolution,” authors who explained to me how the former Czech government had its list of “approved” writers (none of them were on the list), most of whom they said were mediocre. There, I met with publishers who only after their Revolution felt they could translate certain American authors who previously had been banned (Gardner was one of them).

Whatever our faults as Americans, we have protected freedom of expression. Often I wonder if our cultural nationalists and Afrocentrists value this feature of American public life—this philosophical demand that we permit the airing of views contrary to our own—as much as I do. In a different, more closed society, or in another age (that of Copernicus or Socrates), I suspect my own work would be buried or banned as “ideologically unacceptable.”

Do you feel that mainstream culture accepts your work?

It's hard to know what is meant by “mainstream culture.” However, I do know that Middle Passage, the short stories, and even Oxherding Tale are taught nationwide in colleges, high schools (public and private), and even some middle schools. Courses have been designed around Middle Passage; dissertations have been—and are being—written; it's been taught at the U.S. Naval Academy, is read by book clubs, and is in its tenth printing.

How has winning the National Book Award affected the popularity of your work?

Let's just say the NBA gave it a nice boost in 1990.

Are there any plans for films of your fiction?

To date, I've written more than twenty screen- and teleplays. No need to list here those projects, but I have been working now for four years on the movie project for Middle Passage, first at Tri-Star, then at Interscope with the Hudlin brothers, Reggie and Warrington. I've written two screenplays for this project, and it's been optioned three times. We're about to option it again this June, and my hope is that we can be in production soon. I should say that this is an expensive movie—between $40 and $70 million—which is quite a challenge for an studio, particularly since Hollywood has no track record yet with doing black epics. Nevertheless, we're confident it will get done.

Can you describe what you see as our historical era?

In twenty-five words or less? Okay, here goes: I think the best, most prosperous days for America came after World War II, when this country emerged unscatched from the battles that left much of Europe in smoldering ruins. Through the 1950s the Baby Boomers—and I am one—saw a decade and a half of unparalleled growth and opportunity. The Civil Rights Movement only improved upon this. Then, with the escalation of the Vietnam War, a decade of political assassinations, and Watergate, American self-confidence was badly wounded. Next came the rise of Japan as a serious competitor (China will take that role in the twenty-first century), and the transformation of American capital—the loss of the kinds of jobs my father relied on in the 1950s and '60s, with the inner cities all but abandoned, and corporations no longer restricted by national boundaries. This is the end, I believe, of an era. To be honest, I think we are at a crossroads as we approach the eleventh hour of the twentieth century. Though still a “super power”—in fact, the only super-power left after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union—the United States is facing, not its youth, but instead its middle age. A time of cutting back. Downsizing. Of letting some of its dreams go by the board; while other societies at last free of colonialism take their places as major players on the world stage.

In the battle between the ancients and moderns, how are we distinct?

As a Buddhist, I believe deeply that all things are impermanent, transitory. The Chinese have a lovely phase, “A thousand years a city; a thousand years a forest.” In other words, all things—nations included—go through the process of rising and passing away. Yet I think this country will be remembered, perhaps as a glorious oddity, for the way it struggled mightily to resolve the difference between its ideology of freedom and its treatment of blacks, minorities, women, and gays. No other nation has wrestled more with the ideals of “equality” and the commitment to individualism. The major domestic events in our history—the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement—attest to this. Whether or not we succeed in these social goals, it must be said of Americans in our time that we tried. We pushed the envelope of the question of social justice farther than any society in recorded history. Are we being fair? is our daily koan, and I think this defines the character of modern Americans.

What has happened to you as a human and as an artist that marks you as distinctly of our historical period?

Obviously, the Civil Rights Movement was of central importance in shaping the lived-world (Lebenswelt) of my young manhood. I came of age at a time when America was still “the land of opportunity” but also fluid during the 1960s. As one of my friends during that time put it, “I'm a nigger, I can do anything!” That was the sense of life that I soaked up around me—there were no artistic or intellectual restrictions. If I wanted to be a cartoonist, a philosopher, a fiction writer, a college professor, an essayist, a screenwriter, a martial artist, all I needed to achieve any or all of these things was my own talent, disciplined labor, and the blessing of God. In other words, the self was a verb, not a noun—a process, not a product. You defined your life through action, deeds; or, as Sartre might put it, “Existence preceded essence.” In the late 1960s, you did not see yourself or your essence—your life's meaning—as defined wholly by the past, or by race or class. As an artist, you were not confined to any single tradition; rather, you could creatively cross genres and in doing so bring something fresh in the way of meaning and form into existence. Whether we are talking about the arts, politics, or the art of living, the one word—the single driving idea—of this historical period is freedom.

What contemporary social, political, or cultural issues are reflected in your writing that have been generally overlooked by your readers?

In his yet unpublished literary study of my work, critic Jonathan Little says, “Critics have surprisingly downplayed the spiritual in Johnson's fiction, tending to stress instead Western philosophy. As few critics have pointed out, Johnson's fiction and aesthetic have evolved into a pathway to the divine; they have come to show us the sacred already existent within the network of human interrelatedness and connections. His art and criticism now imply the preeminence of the intangible spiritual realm as a foundation for ethical, political, and social strategies in ways that are more liberal humanist than postmodern.” I believe Little is absolutely right.

As I mentioned, I became a writer specifically to develop black (and thereby American) philosophical fiction. But over the last three decades I found that intellectual integrity demanded that along with the dramatization of Western philosophical concerns I also had to acknowledge and explore the central questions in Eastern religions. In short, the life of the spirit has been something I could not—and did not want to—ignore. And sometimes, late at night when I think back over the products of thirty years, it seems to me that my fiction is at bottom a form of spiritual literature—that I want it on the shelf beside Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, Hesse's Siddhartha, James Hilton's Lost Horizon, Thomas Mann's The Transposed Heads, Toomer's poem “Blue Meridian,” beside St. Francis's famous prayer, beside The Dhammapada, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the work of Shankara. For in the pre-taxonomic space cleared by the phenomenological epochē, the little boxes and categories into which we sort “experience” do not exist. There is only Being, which holds within itself spirit, mind, and body without our limited, racial, parochial, and self-interested distinctions.

Brian Fagel (essay date winter 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5526

SOURCE: Fagel, Brian. “Passages from the Middle: Coloniality and Postcoloniality in Charles Johnson's Middle Passage.African American Review 30, no. 4 (winter 1996): 625-34.

[In the following essay, Fagel explores the role of the central character in The Middle Passage as a “middleman” between competing forces in the colonial power structure.]

I know that if I want to smoke, I shall have to reach out my right arm and take the pack of cigarettes lying at the other end of the table. The matches, however, are in the drawer on the left, and I shall have to lean back slightly. And all these movements are made not out of habit but out of implicit knowledge. A slow composition of my self as a body in the middle of a spatial and temporal world—such seems to be the schema.

(Fanon 111)

The book is filled all but a finger's breadth. I shall lock it, wrap it and sew it unhandily in sailcloth and thrust it away in the locked drawer. With lack of sleep and too much understanding I grow a little crazy, I think, like all men at sea who live too close to each other and too close thereby to all that is monstrous under the sun and moon.

(Golding 278)

Middle Passage—the very words conjure up violent images of movement, the wrenching of Africans from their homes, their families, and their freedom, and the ill-fated voyage to hostile territory. Middle Passage describes not only the aqueous route of the slavers, but also the notions of origin and destination embedded in the phrase. For the Middle Passage's “passage,” its conveyance of human African cargo across space and time to America, the “New World,” is what makes the Middle Passage “the defining moment of the African-American experience” (Pedersen 225). Charles Johnson's novel Middle Passage, by its title and narrative space, necessarily suggests similar conceptions of colonial movement, of traversing the globe from America to Africa and back. But Johnson's novel is less about movement and “passages” than about “middle-ness.” Middle Passage's narrator and central figure, Rutherford Calhoun, is confined, spatially and temporally, to a space “in-between”—in-between the ship's crew and the Allmuseri, in-between factions of the ship's crew, and in-between generations of African Americans. How Calhoun negotiates between the borders1 provides Johnson's metaphor of a middle passage: Johnson, through Calhoun's experiences, envisions a particular colonial moment that is not about passages, but about mediation. At the level of narrative, Calhoun personifies the “middle” of the Middle Passage. But Johnson's novel works on another level, the level of discourse: The fact that Calhoun, the African-American subject, speaks from the space of the middle creates a moment of postcoloniality. And thus two effects are at work here: the confinement to middle-ness of Calhoun's colonial moment, and the transcendence of coloniality via enunciation from the point of confinement.

The first of these effects, the colonial moment—Calhoun's spatial and temporal location in the middle—surfaces from a reading of Middle Passage's narrative. Calhoun exists in “colonial space … the terra incognita or the terra nulla, the empty or wasted land whose history has to be begun, whose archives must be filled out, whose future progress must be secured …” (Bhabha 246). Calhoun cannot identify with the borders, where culture exists, because he is excluded from every community; he only mediates, mapping out the constricted space in-between. One site of Calhoun's middle-ness is between the Republic's crew and the Allmuseri: This is the uncharted space between America and Africa, white and black. As with every instance of Calhoun's middle-ness, his confinement is a combination of externally imposed exclusion and internally realized difference. This mode of subject construction—or, in this case, subject placement—is not unfamiliar, as it opposes any totalizing version of the self: Calhoun's subjectivity is neither entirely self-constructed nor entirely socially constructed. He is the product of many forces.2

Calhoun's first experience of inter-position between the crew and the Allmuseri illustrates his multiply generated subject construction well. During Calhoun's first evening in Bangalang, Squibb warns Calhoun that he might be mistakenly captured and sold like the Allmuseri: “‘Better yuh keep your noodle down, Illinois. … Or yuh'll be sold too. … These blokes don't know you're a sailor. And they don't care’” (60). Calhoun's exclusion from the rest of the crew suddenly becomes apparent (not that it was unnoticed before); Calhoun is excepted from the society of the crew because the slave dealers just don't care that he is also a sailor. His difference, signaled only by the color of his skin, is all that matters. But at the same time, Calhoun must isolate himself from the Allmuseri—a self-imposed, but necessary, exile. He is neither here nor there. He retreats into the shadows, treading the space between sailor and future slave.

A similar moment occurs when Calhoun, angry at the memory of his brother, offhandedly remarks that his brother could be Allmuseri: “‘Hell, Squibb, he could be from their tribe, for all I know.’” Of course, this necessarily implies that Calhoun himself is also an Allmuseri, a fact that Calhoun, at the time he makes the statement, does not realize. When Squibb suggests this possibility—“‘That'd make you one of 'em too, wouldn't it?’”—Calhoun outright denies it. He writes, “This I doubted” (109). The fact that Squibb, a member of the white crew, considers it possible that Calhoun could be Allmuseri (thus drawing attention to Calhoun's blackness)—and Calhoun's immediate dismissal of any affinity with the Allmuseri—helps construct the in-between nature of Calhoun's existence. He is externally excluded from the crew, and internally excludes himself from the Allmuseri.

The Allmuseri, by recognizing Calhoun's difference from the rest of the Republic's crew, also position him in the middle space between sailor and Allmuseri, America and Africa. Ngonyama, whom Falcon selects as an overseer, is the first of the Allmuseri to make this recognition. As Calhoun writes of Ngonyama,

At first he could not distinguish any of the white crew individually, and asked me, “How do their families tell them apart?” I suppose he selected me because I was the only Negro on board, though the distance between his people and black America was vast—his people saw whites as Raw Barbarians and me (being a colored mate) as a Cooked one.


This reading of Ngonyama's construction of Calhoun's identity is complex; Calhoun feels the weight of a doubly inscribing look. On the one hand, Calhoun knows that he has been singled out because, unlike the rest of the crew, he is black. But on the other hand, at least in Calhoun's mind, Ngonyama maintains significant cultural separation from Calhoun—Calhoun may be a lesser barbarian than the whites, but he is a barbarian nonetheless. Thus, at the moment of recognition, a moment which determines Calhoun's eventual survival amongst the Allmuseri “mutineers,” Calhoun suddenly becomes part of a nether space, neither Allmuseri nor white American.

Eight-year-old Baleka and her mother also contribute to Calhoun's exclusion from the social space of both crew and Allmuseri. When the mother's imposition of guilt forces Calhoun into sharing his meals with Baleka, Calhoun again notices his relegation to the middle at the point of recognition. Calhoun is different from the whites, and therefore must act as liaison: “By and by, we were inseparable. This was how Mama wanted it, having decided her child's survival might depend on staying close to the one crew member who looked most African, asking me to decipher the strange behavior of the whites and intercede on their behalf” (79). Calhoun only “looks” most African—significantly, the Allmuseri never, for a moment, actually think he is. As one reviewer writes, “Even when an eight-year-old Allmuseri girl, Baleka, adopts him as her father, he has no trusted place with the Africans” (Wills 3). By recognizing Calhoun as distinct from the rest of the crew, Baleka's mother also, in effect, excludes him from whiteness. This imposed separation from both sides of the historical colonial equation (American and African), and the resultant carving out of an intermediate space, stem from a tenuous solidarity: The Allmuseri distinguish Calhoun from the other crew members, yet they will never invite him into their legions.

In his own mind, too, Calhoun is incapable of experiencing togetherness with the Allmuseri. Even though Calhoun's ancestors were also brought from Africa to America, Calhoun finds himself too far removed from any sense of African roots. Of the Allmuseri, he says cryptically: “Truth to tell, they were not even ‘Negroes.’ They were Allmuseri” (76).3 Calhoun sees the corruption that America has inscribed upon him, and the impossibility of identifying with the Allmuseri: “As I live, they so shamed me I wanted their ageless culture to be my own, if in fact Ngonyama spoke truly. But who was I fooling?” (78). Thus Calhoun, by constantly reminding himself of his difference from the Allmuseri, never allows himself to get too close to their culture. He keeps his distance.

Once the Allmuseri revolt and take control of the Republic, Calhoun's position in-between the crew and the Africans is cemented. Ngonyama makes an effort to draw Calhoun into the social space of the tribe, but he resists.4 When Ngonyama says, “‘No one will hurt you here, Rutherford. These men are your brothers,’” Calhoun's thoughts reveal his refusal to make allegiances: “How I wished I could believe him!” (131-32). Calhoun, comparing himself to the Allmuseri, can only see difference. In his words, “Yes, I was black, as they were, but they had a common bond I could but marvel at” (132).5 Calhoun takes a non-essentializing view of race: Just because he shares skin color with the Allmuseri, he is not automatically joined with their culture. In other words, Calhoun wishes to deconstruct the simple bond of color, to speak, instead, “of civilizations where we now speak of races” (W. E. B. Du Bois, qtd. in Appiah 38). To this end, Calhoun attempts to mesh with the white crew,6 to blend in with the civilization of white America.

But the Allmuseri do not share Calhoun's vision of race, and they impose their mild version of essentialism on him: They insinuate a necessary separation between Calhoun and the white crew.7 As Ngonyama's initial recognition of Calhoun reveals, the Allmuseri consider Calhoun, because he is black, to be different from the crew. In spite of Calhoun's belief that he belongs to the society of the crew, the Allmuseri, by recognizing difference, remove him from this affinity. Even Diamelo, who does not trust Calhoun, recognizes him as distinct from the remainder of the crew; he offers Calhoun the chance to prove his loyalty to the Allmuseri, an offer no white crew member would be given. As Diamelo says, “‘On whose side is he? I wouldn't trust this one. … Not until he has broken away from them’” (135). And even though Calhoun fails to execute Cringle, the Allmuseri still accept him as their intermediary (but not, again, as one of them). Although scared, Calhoun continues to negotiate for the life of Captain Falcon; he offers them a tantalizing suggestion: “‘I ask you to make him your slave’” (136). Here, not entirely at the level of consciousness, Calhoun acknowledges the vast space between him and Falcon, the space of difference. The proposed enslavement of the captain and the catergorical reversal it implies demonstrate Calhoun's sub-conscious realization that his bond with the crew was illusory. Contrary to Calhoun's wishes, race, via the external agency of the Allmuseri, plays a crucial role in setting him apart from the crew—while, at the same time, he consciously maintains distance from the Allmuseri.

Calhoun becomes painfully aware of his middle-ness (and the remarkable attendant feelings of isolation) moments later, when Cringle marvels at Calhoun's willingness to side with the Allmuseri. Calhoun responds,

I'm not on anybody's side! I'm just trying to keep us alive! I don't know who's right or wrong on this ship anymore, and I don't much care! All I want is to go home!


These expressions of rage not only reveal the frustration inherent in being unable to identify fully and comfortably with the borders, but also highlight another problem in Calhoun's colonial existence—the problem of “home.” For in considering “home” to be the location of salvation, Calhoun accentuates the impossibility of such a place. Calhoun's dilemma lies in his automatic invocation of home as a better place, a place of fixed borders as opposed to middles.8 At the level of Calhoun's consciousness (that is, the level of narrative), “home” serves only as a signifier of non-middle-ness—home is where allegiances are sound, where Calhoun believes he is capable of knowing where he stands. What Calhoun fails to realize is that, once aboard the Republic, he no longer has a place he can rightly call home. The slave ship, in its relegation of Calhoun to the middle space, not only posits him in opposition to a domestic space, but also eradicates the possibility of a return to home. Hortense Spillers' thoughts on the Middle Passage, although written in reference to the African slaves themselves, further this point: “The human cargo of a slave vessel—in the fundamental effacement and remission of African family and proper names—offers a counter-narrative to notions of the domestic” (72). Calhoun, albeit not the “cargo” of the Republic, dwells in a similar counter-domestic space—a nether space from which there is no return. Home is an empty signifier, the only signifier Calhoun thinks (or knows) to turn to when he lies dying: “There, as I lay weakened from bleeding, was where I wanted to be” (179). But he must forever remain in-between.

When the voyage ends, Calhoun is still at sea, bound to Isadora but unable to consummate the union. The Middle Passage has left an indelible imprint on Calhoun's psyche, a haunting reminder that home and roots no longer have meaning. Any sense of domesticity rests snugly in the future; home has lost its previous nostalgic feel. As Calhoun notes, while trying to ignite his old passion for Isadora:

… my memories of the Middle Passage kept coming back, reducing the velocity of my desire, its violence, and in place of my longing for feverish love-making left only a vast stillness that felt remarkably full, a feeling that, just now, I wanted our futures blended, not our limbs, our histories perfectly twined for all time, not our flesh.


Calhoun's sexual longing for Isadora, like his previous longing for home, has been consumed by the violence of his confinement to the middle.

Calhoun's spatial location between the crew and the Allmuseri does not fully account for his colonial moment of middle-ness on board the Republic. Calhoun is also spatially situated between factions of the crew—on one side, Captain Falcon and his loyalists and, on the other side, First Mate Cringle and the mutineers. Calhoun first becomes aware of division on the ship when Falcon asks him to be his spy; at that moment, Falcon apprises Calhoun of the secrets each crew member keeps hidden. Calhoun is confused:

Why was he saying these things? I could only speculate that something was seriously wrong with the ship—he never specified what—and his solution was the oldest and simplest in the world. Divide and conquer. Poison each man's perception of the other. By making me hear of each man's faults (I had no choice) he subtly compromised me, made me something of a betrayer too. …


Even if Calhoun wishes to remain loyal to the crew, just another sailor, he cannot; he has implicitly agreed to be loyal to Falcon. The disclosure of the secrets initiates Calhoun's placement between Falcon and the mutineers.

When the mutineers draw Calhoun into their planning, he is amply poised to make a decision. And it seems he does, that he will remain loyal to the crew and help them with the mutiny. When Cringle claims that “‘Rutherford is on our side,’” Calhoun replies, “‘Yes … How can I help?’” (87). But the mutineers' plan insures that, even if Calhoun is supposedly on their “side,” he is not fully embraced: The plan requires Calhoun's difference, in this case his status as a stowaway, to serve as an excuse for the mutiny. As McGaffin explains,

But suppose he done it? Suppose we tel 'em a stowaway done in the skipper? Well, what abaht that? Huh? Once we reach New Orleans the rest of us kin sign on to other ships, and Calhoun'll go his own way, like he's always done, believin' in nothin', belongin' to nobody, driftin' here and there and dyin', probably, in a ditch without so much as leavin' a mark on the world. …


The final plan, while allowing for Falcon's survival, still requires Calhoun to act as the middle-man and, in that regard, as the fall guy. Calhoun must sneak into Falcon's cabin and defuse all his weapons and security devices. If caught, “‘Nobody'll think nothin' … It's his nature to be in places he ain't supposed to be. Worst come to worst, he'll get a few stripes, that's all’” (91). Calhoun's difference plays an integral role in the mutineers' decision to use him in their plan. And thus, instead of accepting him outright as a fellow conspirator, the mutineers keep Calhoun at arm's length. Calhoun has no choice but to agree to their plan—but his assent is tentative, at best: “… encircled by conspirators such as these with the nerve tips of my index finger throbbing where I'd nervously torn off a nail, I could only do as they wished and say, ‘'Tis done’” (92). At this point, Calhoun has, in some sense, sworn loyalty to both sides—loyalty to act against the other side. Regardless of whom he decides to trust, Calhoun is a betrayer.

Here lies the moment of indecision, where Calhoun realizes the difficulty of his position. Middle-ness is painful and confusing:

But here, let it be said, that in waters strange as these, where any allegiance looked misplaced, I could no longer find my loyalties. All bonds … were a lie forged briefly in the name of convenience and just as quickly broken when they no longer served one's interests. But what were my interests?

(92; emphasis added)

Calhoun wants someone to blame, but from this place in the center he can find no easy target. His confusion leads him to confess the conspirators' plan to Captain Falcon. Yet the decision to side with Falcon (for the moment) is not a reasoned one, but rather just another sign of Calhoun's passivity. His willingness to be easily swayed illustrates the impossibility of real faithfulness from the position of the in-between. As the intermediary, he can know no constancy.

At this point, Falcon believes he has an ally. But Falcon is misled by the constraints of his own philosophy. Falcon speaks of binaries, claiming that consciousness depends on opposition:

Conflict … is what it means to be conscious. Dualism is a bloody structure of the mind. Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other—these ancient twins are built into mind like the stem-piece of a merchantman. … They are signs of a transcendental Fault, a deep crack in consciousness itself.


What Falcon fails to realize is that Calhoun dwells at the crack, constantly negotiating between the borders.9 When Falcon manages to get Calhoun to admit that he “submits,” Calhoun's “‘I guess so’” is a false victory (98). Calhoun is no more sure of allegiance with Falcon than he was sure of allegiance with the mutineers. The middle space is “confinement” because it holds no easy answers, only incessant contingencies.

Once Calhoun's loyalty (to either Falcon or the mutineers) is put to the test, middle-ness shows its damning power. It unleashes a moment of paralysis, of rocks and hard places. In Falcon's cabin, capable of enacting either plan, Calhoun freezes:

And then suddenly I could not breathe. I felt caged. Wrong if I did as the first mate asked. Wrong if I sided with Falcon. I began hiccuping uncontrollably … a palpable feeling of dread. … With so many men at odds, each willing something so different from the others … and some not even fully aware of their will, the result could only be something unforeseen that no one willed or wanted. … “God,” I asked, “is this some kind of test?” My worldly wits were gone. …


This is worse than indifference—a choice must be made. The impossibility of making a choice turns Calhoun to thoughts of his own demise, anything better than decision: “My face was swollen and, searching myself, I discovered I no longer cared if I lived or died. The passion for life in me, that flame, was dead” (127). Oddly enough, Calhoun's panicked premonition comes true; something unforeseen occurs. As if Calhoun's internal dread were socially projected, the Republic erupts into a wholly different civil war than Calhoun imagined. But the impact of Calhoun's in-between-ness remains. His spatial position between Falcon and the mutineers is never resolved, and the difficulty of this space continues even after the Allmuseri assume control of the ship.

Calhoun exists in a spatial in-between: in-between the crew and the Allmuseri, and in-between factions of the crew. But Calhoun's confinement is temporal as well as spatial. He inhabits an intermediate time between generations of African Americans—between his father Riley and his brother Jackson, each of whom represents a different mode of living. Riley is pure possibility, whereas Jackson is wasted opportunity. Calhoun negotiates between these versions of dealing with the external world, striving to be like his father and unlike his brother. The middle-ness comes as a result of Calhoun's over-idealized, unattainable image of his father. Calhoun can never attain the greatness he attributes to his father, and so he ends up confined temporally, between the “all-potential” runaway of the slave era and the post-slavery subservient “proper Negro” (114).

When Calhoun was three, his father ran away. Calhoun's feelings toward him are mixed: He despises his father for abandoning him and Jackson, but also yearns for his father's notion of seized freedom. Calhoun considers his father “the possible-me that lived my life's alternate options, the me I fled. Me. Yet not me. Me if I let go. Me if I gave in” (112). These cryptic remarks symbolize the complexity of Calhoun's feelings. He longs for his father's ability to fight, to snatch some little victory from the hopeless despair of slave life. Face-to-face with the Allmuseri deity, Calhoun sees the moment of his father's death. Then, aware suddenly of the bravery of his father's vision, Calhoun clearly acknowledges his father's position on the spectrum of possibility: “… even in death he seemed to be doing something, or perhaps should I say he squeezed out one final cry where through I heard a cross wind of sounds just below his breathing” (170-71). Calhoun's father exists as unrealized potential, and Calhoun wishes to identify with this aspect of his ancestry and inheritance. But the Allmuseri deity has further over-idealized Riley, sustaining the impossibility of Calhoun's ever attaining this supposed all-powerfulness. Thus Riley Calhoun, as he exists in Rutherford's mind, is the unattainable goal; so long as Rutherford tries to fill his shoes, he will keep falling short—remaining in the mid-time of partially fulfilled potential.

On the other side of the scale of possibility is Jackson. That Rutherford despises him is clear. Rutherford cannot stand Jackson's unswerving egalitarianism: “‘He treated everyone the same, and that was the trouble. Kin meant nothing to him’” (108). Jackson, in Rutherford's eyes, is “a proper Negro” (114), subservient to the whites, always making Rutherford look bad in comparison. When Jackson forfeits the inheritance of the Chandler estate, claiming that “the property and profits of this farm should be divided equally among all … servants and hired hands, presently and formerly employed” (117), Rutherford erupts in rage. Any chance of Jackson's serving as a role model for Rutherford, once he matures, is lost. Rutherford is stunned into silence and quiet rage:

I could have strangled them both. I felt like smashing things. Instead, I shrank from the room, feeling sacked and empty, wondering if I would ever get on in this world. It took me five days to stop shaking. For the rest of my short stay on Chandler's farm before I struck south for New Orleans, I felt angry at anything that moved.


Jackson serves as the counter-example for Rutherford, a symbol of wasted hope. But Jackson also symbolizes a necessity in the 1830 life of a former slave: subservience. As much as Calhoun would like to deny it, social realities of the time created the need for Jackson-like behavior. On board the Republic, Calhoun's spatial middleness is a sign of his unfortunate partial submission to Jackson's mode of behavior: He is often merely the tool of others. The final result of Calhoun's joint “inheritance”—a life of possibility from Riley, and a life of acceptance from Jackson—is that he must straddle the options. He dwells in the temporal middle space, part-father, part-Jackson, but all anger and frustration.

To know where you were going, you had to know where you'd come from. …

(Pinckney 5)

To merely exist at the middle space is to be colonized. Rutherford Calhoun's particular colonial moment consists of a spatial and temporal confinement in an area in-between. But concluding the analysis with a simple acceptance of such coloniality would be fatalistic: It would imply no possibility of transcendence. And this is where postcoloniality enters, post- signifying not a periodizing relation to coloniality, but rather a “beyond” that is “neither a new horizon, nor a leaving behind of the past” (Bhabha 1). In the midst of the colonial moment of Middle Passage (a dual colonial moment: Calhoun's middle-ness and the Allmuseri's passage) lies the opportunity for transformation and power. Calhoun seizes this opportunity. In Middle Passage the very pages before us evidence the moment: By taking up the pen and writing the Republic's log, by enunciating from a site of colonial confinement, Rutherford Calhoun enacts postcoloniality. He speaks from the point of what Homi Bhabha calls the “time-lag” (250), the empty time in the past of colonized peoples. African-American history contains an immeasurable amount of such unrecorded moments, and Calhoun's role is to verbalize from one of these gaps.

As soon as Falcon gives Calhoun the responsibility of writing the log, a new historical script arises. Falcon simply wants the story of the Republic told from all sides: “‘Not just Mr. Cringle's side …, or the story the mutineers will spin, but things I told you when we met alone in secret’” (146). But Calhoun sees the opportunity to discover his voice, and a new history is born. From the point of confinement, agency surfaces. As Calhoun responds,

To this I reluctantly agreed. I took his logbook from the ruins. But I promised myself that even though I'd tell the story (I knew he wanted to be remembered), it would be, first and foremost, as I saw it since my escape from New Orleans.


Now, in Middle Passage, Calhoun, from the middle, speaks.

It is impossible to ignore, however, the artificiality of this postcolonial moment. Precisely because it occurs within the confines of a contemporary American novel, Calhoun's achievement remains the achievement of a fictional character. Has any historical gap really been filled in?

The answer is a definitive yes. Calhoun's individual accomplishment of representing a previously unrepresented viewpoint is merely an archetype of Charles Johnson's accomplishment in Middle Passage. Johnson, through the artifice of Rutherford Calhoun's adventures aboard the Republic, imagines, for the first time, an interrupted space in African-American history.10 Artifice, in the sense that fiction is a crucial means of conveying history from the time-lag, is inevitable in the 1990s moment of post-coloniality. In this era, our era, the real work to be done consists of filling in historical gaps with countless variations of the narrative of the subaltern.11 Johnson's postcolonial enactment arises out of our present modernity, interrupting time and space to speak in an overdetermined multi-vocal manner:

The power of the postcolonial translation of modernity rests in its performative, deformative structure that does not simply revalue the contents of a cultural tradition, or transpose values “cross-culturally.” The cultural inheritance of slavery or colonialism is brought before modernity not to resolve its historic differences into a new totality, nor to forego its traditions. It is to introduce another locus of inscription and intervention, another hybrid, “inappropriate” enunciative site, through that temporal split—or time-lag—that I have opened up for the signification of postcolonial agency.

(Bhabha 242)

Middle Passage is the voice coming from this locus, an enunciation through the time-lag and into modernity. Johnson's feat, in part, consists of the fictional activation of collective cultural memory; but, mainly, it is a new imagining of what occurred in the gaps of a hegemonic historiography. Rutherford Calhoun experiences a particular coloniality and postcoloniality—and, by imagining this moment in time, by “damming the stream of real life … [and] bringing the flow to a standstill in a reflux of astonishment” (Bhabha 253), Charles Johnson creates the postcolonial Middle Passage.


  1. Negotiating “between the borders” echoes in meaning: Calhoun acts as the intermediary of opposing factions (for example, the mutinous crew and Captain Falcon), and Calhoun is passively positioned in the middle (existing between the borders).

  2. Bhabha uses the image of the Middle Passage as an example of the multiple construction of subjects: “The ‘middle passage’ of contemporary culture, as with slavery itself, is a process of displacement and disjunction that does not totalize experience” (5).

  3. For a later instance of Calhoun's self-imposed separation from the Allmuseri, see page 109 (quoted above).

  4. Significantly, neither Ngonyama, nor any other of the Allmuseri, ever goes so far as to accept Calhoun as one of them.

  5. At an earlier point in the novel, Calhoun has a similar thought: “The more I thought on it, the Allmuseri seemed less a biological tribe than a clan held together by values. A certain vision” (109).

  6. Calhoun first acknowledges his fondness for seamen when he stumbles into a pub full of them: “The place was packed with seamen. All armed to the eyeballs with pistols and cutlasses, scowling and jabbering like pirates, squirting jets of brown tobacco juice everywhere except in the spittoons—a den of Chinese assassins, scowling Moors, English scoundrels, Yankee adventurers, and evil-looking Arabs. Naturally, I felt pretty much right at home” (18).

  7. The essentialism of the Allmuseri only reaches a certain point; it necessitates Calhoun's isolation from the crew, but it never merges Calhoun's race with the Allmuseri's. This not-quite togetherness, combined with Calhoun's own rejection of unity with the Allmuseri, creates his social middleness.

  8. How Calhoun actually achieves enunciation from the point of coloniality—in other words, the postcolonial moment—will be considered below. For now, the discussion concerns Calhoun's strange invocation of “home” as a psychic means of escaping middle-ness.

  9. Paul Gilroy argues that “Middle Passage seeks to wrench [Falcon's theory of dualism] apart. First, by showing it to be ‘adrift from the laws and logic of the heart’ and second, by demonstrating the power of process, movement, and cultural ‘creolisation’” (36). Calhoun's confusion of allegiances can be seen as a form of this creolisation. He consists of mere parts of each segment of society.

  10. Note that the particularity of Johnson's imagined history creates unique moments of coloniality and postcoloniality. The fact that the novel avoids generalizations about the Middle Passage by being about a particular freed slave in a particular situation makes it just the sort of non-universally representative (in the sense that critics often peg African-American writers as always necessarily representative) work of which Johnson often speaks. In numerous interviews about winning the National Book Award, Johnson reiterates his refusal to be a spokesperson for African Americans. In his words, “If you promote a book as being representative of young black males today, or of the black situation … you've already packaged it in such a way as to say, ‘This is capturing the experience of millions of people.’ I think that's an insult, really, to black people—to assume that one book can do that” (qtd. in Monaghan A3). See also Wadler and Pierce 73.

  11. For a description of the gap-filling work of the subaltern scholar, see the introduction to Vol. 1 of Ranajit Guha, ed., Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History & Society (New York: Oxford UP, 1982).

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “The Conservation of ‘Race.’” Black American Literature Forum 23 (1989): 37-59.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.

Gilroy, Paul. “Bloody Structures.” Rev. of Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson. New Statesman and Society 14 Jun. 1991: 35-36.

Golding, William. Rites of Passage. London: Faber, 1980.

Johnson, Charles. Middle Passage. New York: Atheneum, 1990.

Monaghan, Peter. “Winner of National Book Award Won't Be a ‘Voice of Black America.’” Chronicle of Higher Education 16 Jan. 1991: A3.

Pedersen, Carl. “Middle Passages: Representation of the Slave Trade in Caribbean and African-American Literature.” Massachusetts Review 34.2 (1993): 225-39.

Pinckney, Darryl. High Cotton. New York: Farrar, 1992.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” diacritics 17 (Summer 1987): 65-81.

Wadler, Joyce, and J. Kingston Pierce. “Charles Johnson's Ship Comes in with a Book Award for Middle Passage, His Seafaring Saga of a Freed Slave.” People 14 Jan. 1991: 73.

Wills, Garry. “The Long Voyage Home.” Rev. of Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson. New York Review of Books 17 Jan. 1991: 3.

Bill Brown (essay date spring 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11713

SOURCE: Brown, Bill. “Global Bodies/Postcolonialities: Charles Johnson's Consumer Culture.” Representations, no. 58 (spring 1997): 24-48.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses Johnson's short story “China” from The Sorcerer's Apprentice in terms of theories about masculinity, spectatorship, and commodity culture.]

Fed up with her husband's absorption in the kung fu culture of Seattle, Evelyn Johnson finally explodes: “You can't be Chinese.” She can't imagine Rudolph's longing for a new body, for a new self, as anything but his longing for a new ethnonationality. “‘I think it's strange! Rudolph, you didn't grow up in China,’ she said. ‘They can't breathe in China! … They all ride bicycles, for Christ's sake! They want what we have.’”1 Her xenophobia grants the transnationality of wants but not the multidirectionality of transcultural desire. Exasperated by his wife's failure to understand his new preoccupation, Rudolph patiently explains that he doesn't “want to be Chinese”: “‘I only want to be what I can be’” (The Sorcerer's Apprentice, 91). What Evelyn experiences as his violation of the cultural codes by which a black couple endures the oppression of middle-class middle age, as his debasement of familiar modes of identity formation, Rudolph scripts as a purely personal project of self-salvaging. And he does so echoing the U.S. Army's famous slogan of the early 1980s—“Be All You Can Be”—a slogan meant to recode the post-Vietnam military as the site of postpatriotic self-realization.2

Indeed, as the title of Charles Johnson's story intimates, “China” (1983) troubles itself to locate the dynamics of re-embodiment elsewhere, beyond the Washington that is already the nation's other, peripheral Washington. To the degree that Rudolph's new body is predicated on a globalizing media-distribution network, the story anticipates the moment of globalization when, as Ien Ang has put it, “every identity must define and position itself in relation to the cultural frames affirmed by the world system.”3 At the same time, the story describes a process of self-realization released from the physical/metaphysical binary; it posits an ontological alternative to what Eldridge Cleaver long ago called the Western “gulf between Mind and Body” that structures “the gulf between the two races.”4 It is as though the story longs to teach us the obsolescence of both “the nation” and “the body.” The lesson begins not with philosophy but with a question about everyday life: How does the transnational flow of goods and services extend the consuming subject's affiliative horizon, and how does it thus revise (or leave unrevised) existing accounts of ethnic, national, and mass subjectivity?

Rudolph Jackson is a fifty-four-year-old national employee, a post office worker with high blood pressure, emphysema, flat feet, skinny legs, a big belly, and a “pecker” that shrinks “to no bigger than a pencil eraser each time” he sees his wife undress (SA [The Sorcerer's Apprentice,] 63, 69). Out with his wife one Saturday night to see a “peaceful movie,” his “eyelids droop” during the feature, but he is enthralled by a trailer for a kung fu film, which Evelyn thinks of as “a poor excuse for Chinese actors or Japanese (she couldn't tell those people apart) to flail the air with their hands and feet, take on fifty costumed extras at once, and leap twenty feet through the air in perfect defiance of gravity” (SA, 64-65). Rudolph, rather than joining her the next day at the revival meeting at their Baptist church, returns alone to watch the movie at the Commodore Theater. Even more enthralled by the “beauty” of the martial art, he joins a kwoon, sends for eight hundred dollars' worth of equipment, starts to meditate, begins an extraordinary physical regime that prompts his complete physical and psychic rejuvenation, and finally performs his success, after eight months, by competing in a kung fu tournament held in Seattle's Kingdome.

The contour of this plot is not unfamiliar; it corresponds to what Susan Jeffords has taught us to call “the remasculinization of America.” The process of remasculinization ought to be understood, of course, as the permanent state of American manhood, the projected crisis of which (from James Fenimore Cooper to Robert Bly) helps to sustain the power of American men, who—appearing perpetually oppressed by the family, the economy, the state—appropriate the rhetoric of oppression to justify their self-assertion. Jeffords tells only a recent version of the story. She describes how “Vietnam representations” from the seventies and eighties (such as the First Blood movies, The Armies of the Night, and Full Metal Jacket) worked to compensate for (what Richard Nixon termed) the “Vietnam syndrome” of guilt and impotence by autonomizing the soldier from the government, fashioning an interracial and homosocial bond, and, in the effort to clarify the emotional and ideological confusions provoked by this war, relentlessly stabilizing a gender code.5

“China” tells a curiously related story. While Rudolph's brothers played football and enlisted in the navy, he himself, classified 4-F, had to settle on the post office, the national institution that facilitates the permeability of boundaries rather than defending their stability, an institution that evokes the image of debilitating routinization rather than that of rehabilitating regimen. His access point to masculinity is not the U.S. military system, but Hong Kong's film industry. Thus, Johnson's story appears to refigure the original U.S. reception of martial arts films in the early 1970s—to transpose the inner-city obsession with kung fu in some relation to the State's representation of Vietnam as the crucible for remasculinizing the black American male. To make that refiguration more concrete, I want to locate “China” at the intersection of three theoretical axes—commodity culture, mass masculinity, and spectatorship—and alongside three different, and differently narrated histories—of “world literature,” of the global reception of kung fu films, and of the war in Vietnam. One question toward which I'm writing asks how the political resistance of the 1960s transforms into the consumer pleasure of the seventies and eighties and, further, how collective radicality becomes transcoded into a privatizing politics of consumption. Such a question is just the corollary of an attempt to imagine a global poetics that produces literature as a site where the conditions of postnational possibility—the structural costs of what we might call outward mobility—are inscribed within the everyday.


(1) In a prescient account of globalization, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels describe how the need for a “constantly expanding market … chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe,” disrupting the fate of the nation. The “exploitation of the world-market” gives “a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country”; it draws “from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood,” rendering obsolescent “national seclusion and self-sufficiency,” producing a “universal inter-dependence of nations” that makes “national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness … more and more impossible.”6 Premature as such words may retrospectively seem, written on the eve of the nineteenth century's virulent nationalisms, they help to describe today's global economy, when the very idea and image of a national economy makes little sense.7

But in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, an untheorized contradiction follows quickly: the same bourgeoisie works to centralize provinces into single nations, to establish “one national class-interest, one frontier and one customs-tariff” (CM [Manifesto of the Communist Party,] 477). This is to say—though Marx and Engels do not say—that within the bourgeois revolution the transnational compulsion is complemented (compensated, or completed) by a decidedly nationalist one. In more recent terms, the deterritorialization effected by capital perpetually finds itself contested by reterritorialization (which might be more concretely described as the contest between the agency of capital as such and the individual capitalist agents who stand to benefit from it).

Within this contradiction, in the very hinge between these assertions, Marx and Engels describe the emergence, “from the numerous national and local literatures,” of “a world literature.” By “world literature” they really mean Goethe. But they also seem to locate how “world literature” as we can now understand it might establish a circuit between the global and the local that effectively elides the nation while becoming both a record and a source of cultural transformation.

(2) World literature in this sense registers the personal, material, affective, and narrative conditions of inhabiting a globalized society. It explains the “worlding of the world” as a capitalist effect—the effect, that is, of production and distribution networks that facilitate what Arjun Appadurai describes as the “transnational flow of culture.”8 Transnational flow offers world literature its primal scene, wherein the commodity-from-elsewhere is repulsed, absorbed, or refunctioned. In Modikwe Dikobe's novel of 1930s Johannesburg, Marabi Dance, the free bioscope at the Bantu social club, showing Tarzan the Mighty, provokes the fraught transformation from tribal to gang affiliation. In the first novel of Abdelrahman Munif's epic trilogy of the 1930s entry of American oil interest into the Persian Gulf, Cities of Salt, an American radio becomes the object that provokes, figures, and mediates new spatial and property relations.9 While obviously exacerbating the confrontation between “foreign” and “native” cultures, these commodities provoke confrontations (new antipathies and new allegiances) within the domestic culture. The uneven physical and psychic responses to the images and objects constitute the confusion named modernity.

(3) The global commodity nexus inescapably underwrites other texts where such circulation, though not an explicit focus of diegetic attention, exists as a condition of narratability. That is, there would be no plot without the disjuncture provoked by the transnational circulation of goods. In some future moment of American literary history and American cultural history, these plots will count as the mnemic residues of the globality we have already lived, as the unconscious ethnography of transnational reception.


When Marx was in the midst of his work on Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, he visited with Charles Dana at the New York Daily Tribune and traveled to South Carolina “simply to unwind.” This nonevent, while “pass[ing] unnoticed … in world history,” ended up in one of Charles Johnson's novels. Oxherding Tale (1982) describes the Great Man disappointing the scholar Ezekiel because of his infatuation with daily life (good novels and good cooking) and his eagerness to divert “conversation from social evil and deep-ploughing philosophy to the few pockets of well-being made possible by capital.”10 Meanwhile, Johnson's slave narrative magnifies a standard topos, where the slave's acquisition of reading and writing provides access both to forbidden knowledge and to the possibility of circulating new knowledges (in the form of the narrative itself). Banished though he is from the master's house (which is his white mother's house), Andrew Hawkins, the mulatto protagonist, receives more than a master's education from Ezekiel: a composite of European philosophy, Eastern mysticism, and American Transcendentalism. His ambivalent attachment to American white culture, on the one hand, and his black heritage, on the other, is mediated by an Eastern inquiry, allegorized by Kuo-an Shih-yuan's Ten Oxherding Pictures, a twelfth-century Zen portrait of self-searching. The search for self underwrites and at times overwhelms the search for racial and national belonging. “China” translates such a philosophical curiosity of the nineteenth century (and the influence of Eastern thought on American thinkers as diverse, say, as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jean Toomer, and Ezra Pound) into a mass-cultural banality of the late twentieth century, but a banality that democratizes its potency. Daily life (in those “few pockets of well-being made possible by capital”) reappears as the very scene of attraction to abstract thought. The commercialization of martial arts provides Rudolph, turned down in his youth by the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, with access to “parables about legendary Zen masters,” to mental discipline, to “Newton's three laws of physics” (SA, 74, 82).11

The story thus reframes the modern, specular inversion of the slave narrative topos—an inversion where familiar yet alienating visual media have replaced the foreign yet promising medium of print. Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas, “his senses hunger[ing] for” a movie, finds only Trader Horn's “naked black men and women whirling in wild dances”; Toni Morrison's Claudia, confronting the bright white national iconicity of Shirley Temple in The Bluest Eye, suffers the “racial self-loathing” that mass culture intensifies.12 Such experiences are explained by the eponymous narrator of Johnson's “Popper's Disease” (1982) as the “primordial feeling of thrownness that every Negro experiences when hurled into a society that simultaneously supports and, I am saying, annihilates him, because he can find reflections of himself nowhere in it” (SA, 134).

In Heideggerian tones, Popper identifies an ontological crisis provoked by the absence of any specular, mass-cultural completion of the subject.13 He doesn't pause to imagine a system where mass-circulated icons proliferate beyond the images of white and black Americans, where interethnic and international affiliations have the potential to disrupt the rigidity of the national black/white divide. Yet the reception of the kung fu film in “China,” like the reception history the story seems both to recall and to repress, expands recent work in the subcultural politics of style. If “ethnic signifiers within the symbolic economy” are a means of “re-negotiating identity,”14 then kung fu can be said to participate in an internationalizing exchange system of cultural signifiers, where additional modes of negotiation might be catalyzed.

My point, of course, is that “China,” within the canon of contemporary African American literature and the canon of world literature, reconceives American mass culture as world culture, registering the shift from a Fordist culture industry to a post-Fordist, transnational commodity culture. This is how the marital dispute between Evelyn and Rudolph Johnson is legible as (and in) the tension between local and global cultures, expressing the tension of the “world system.” When Rudolph returns, at dawn, from his night of watching kung fu movies and talking with the members of a local kwoon, he hands his angry wife a copy of the magazine Inside Kung Fu, saying “Evelyn … look at this.” She responds to his excitement bitterly: “‘Rudolph!’ She batted the magazine aside, then swung her eyes toward the cluttered nightstand, focusing on the electric clock beside her water glass from McDonald's, Preparation H suppositories, and Harlequin romances” (SA, 71). The descriptive hyperspecificity here marks the first stage of the story's absolute division of consumption between Evelyn's passive and palliative accumulation of American products and Rudolph's active, critical, transnational, and transformative consumption—what we might call an interactive identification with the filmic image that inspires the reproduction of both his physical and psychological selves. While she exhibits the unthinking conformity of the caricatured female consumer, he illustrates the (more recently touted) tactical productivity of consumption—consumption as a “means of thinking.”15

It is this self-production, mass-mediated though it is, that eliminates Rudolph's pleasure in those products that once structured their middle-aged, lower-middle-class life. Now, while she watches The Jeffersons—one of television's paean's to black domesticity, the “reflection” of African American daily life—he practices his kung fu timing, “throwing punches each time the scene or shot changes” (SA, 86). She nibbles on Safeway pastries. He makes his own meals—raw vegetables, seaweed, nuts, fruit. She imagines middle age as a “right-thinking” surrender to “the brutal fact of decay, which could be blunted, it seemed to her, by decaying with someone, the comfort every Negro couple felt when, aging, they knew enough to let things wind down” (SA, 75). Rudolph's refusal to decay is not made in an effort to rebuild their domestic life; with “no interest in sex,” he withdraws from their shared life as mysteriously as, to Evelyn's complete bewilderment, he pursues the act of meditation. The transformation from male abjection to masculine subjectivity, mediated by the kung fu film, takes place as the emergence of a mass masculinity set in opposition to consumer culture's domesticity.16

In the figure of Evelyn, “China” expresses the anxiety of experiencing mass culture as global culture. Increasingly anxious about her husband's “dark vision,” his “dangerous vision,” Evelyn is made to assume the burden of homophobia (“They're all fairies, right?”), religiosity (“It could be evil spirits, you know!”), and ethnocentrism and regionalism (“You can't be Chinese”) (SA, 85, 89). In the global turn, feminism has imagined intercultural affiliation while fully acknowledging “local, regional and national as well as historical and cultural specificities.”17 In Johnson's story, Evelyn, who stands as the constitutive outsider who makes globality visible, assumes the shrill voice of mere specificity. Occupying the traditional role of Woman as the static embodiment of tradition,18 she serves no less to make consumer culture visible as a culture. Her resistance to globalization is an updated version of the resistance to Americanization portrayed in the classic tale of American immigration, where a woman's attachment to the old world, her failure to assimilate, becomes unbearable to her husband.19 In other words, Woman serves as the immobile index by which to gauge the transformative achievements not just of modernity but also of postmodernity.20 Despite its emancipatory possibilities, de-Americanization seems to reinscribe some all-too-familiar aspects of its inverse, to destabilize the field of culture while reasserting asymmetries of gender.

When Johnson's Popper describes the alienation of the Negro in America he has already theorized that “the most intimate features of man's personality” have “their origin, like Oxydol and doorknobs, in the public sphere, probably in popular culture” (SA, 130, my emphasis). Intimacy and publicity are inextricable. But if he therefore violates the axiomatic negativity on which classical notions of the “public sphere” depend, he nonetheless agrees with public-sphere theorists like Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, who show how (what was for Jürgen Habermas) the mutually constitutive binary of the intimate and the public is no longer operative. The binary has become obsolete because subjectivity itself is no longer thinkable or livable unmediated by a public sphere of consumption.21 The classical public sphere, as theorized by Immanuel Kant (among others) and anathematized by Søren Kierkegaard (among others), is a medium of collective communication that depends on effacing particularity and personality in the name of universality and abstract reason.22 It grants the participant the powers of a homogenizing disembodiment, against which the body as such becomes mere residue. The mass-cultural public sphere, though, exemplified not least by professional sports, circulates a series of corporeal icons, and the power of mass publicity thus lies in its promise to resolve the dialectic of embodiment and self-abstraction.23 Fulfilled, the promise can do little more than structure the subject in the mirror of the consumption, at once, like the commodity form, material and dematerialized (as abstract value). But Popper's point is that the promise remains unfulfilled; necessarily, then, he must be imagining some irreducible component of the subject on which the sense of annihilation or self-alienation depends. That is, the most intimate features of man's personality may originate in popular culture, but popular culture seems to leave those features unreflected. The (il)logic of the account suggests how, on the one hand, consumer culture offers its products as the source for overcoming alienation and social fragmentation,24 and how, on the other, it thrives by perpetuating an unmirroring phase wherein the consuming subject is fated only to (mis)recognize his or her insufficiency, his or her noncorrespondence with the idealized image.

The rival fantasy of coherence in “China” describes a mass subjectivity at one with intimacy, utterly at one with (because completely realigning) personal affiliation (and exorcising the theoretical ghost of national citizenship). The achievement is predictably marked (against the specificity of consumer products such as Preparation H suppositories) by the dematerialization of physical particularity. After his first outing, Rudolph experiences his body in pain as nothing but surplus embodiment, mass-culturally coded. “Veins on the back of his hand burgeoned abnormally like dough. … [They] belonged on Lon Chaney” (SA, 77). But he eventually becomes something like a fully materialized abstract body: “This new flesh had the contours of the silhouetted figures on medical charts: the body as it must be in the mind of God” (SA, 84). A body conforming to the silhouette is a body without hair, eyes, skin—a body uncodified by nation or race, with insides that barely show a visible exteriority; this is a global body, a de-nationalized, de-racialized, de-ethnified corporeality. Rudolph's identification with the international icon of the martial artist ultimately entails no self-alienation; the trajectories of self-abstraction and self-materialization are so entwined that he experiences no part of his body as mere residue. And yet, of course, the degree to which the medical imagination and God's imagination are what make this invisibility visible is the degree to which Rudolph seems to remain squarely within culture-as-usual.


In yesterday's economy, war often functioned as the most potent mode for the transnational distribution of culture. Although the Boxer Rebellion seems to mark the moment when the West became fully aware of kung fu (and the moment after which the Chinese court abandoned kung fu as a military weapon), it had been a mode of actual and symbolic defense in U.S. Chinatowns since the 1850s, guarded as an ethnonationalist resource through the 1950s.25 Veterans of World War II brought Okinawan and Japanese karate back to the United States, and, in 1963, a serviceman stationed in Okinawa, George Maltson, published a “best-selling” karate manual. By then, karate and tae kwon do studios had already begun to appear in Los Angeles, Honolulu, and New York, or had begun to open their doors to Anglo-Americans in the wake of World War II and the Korean War.26 But it was not until Warner Brothers produced the Kung Fu television pilot in 1972, and then began to distribute kung fu films in the spring of 1973, that kung fu became an inextricable part of American culture and of global culture. Overnight, it seemed, kung fu was “INSTANT BOXOFFICE,” a “FIXTURE ON [the] GLOBAL SCREEN.”27

The Shaw Brothers had been making action films (originally sword films) since they emigrated from China to Hong Kong in the late forties; they exported a few kung fu films to London's Chinatown in 1970; three years later Variety could speak of a “veritable inundation of Chinese actioners” in the global market.28 The audience attraction to kung fu films was so “torrid” from “Lebanon to South America, and from Malaysia to Italy,” that within the year European distribution rights for (any) Chinese film rose from five thousand to two hundred fifty thousand dollars.29 In Iran, the success of the Shaw productions threatened the national film industry; elsewhere, there were soon plans for Sino-Anglo, Sino-Italian, Sino-German, and Sino-American coproductions.30 Charles Johnson sets “China” in the decade after this “inundation,” but when Rudolph sees The Five Fingers of Death, he sees the Shaw-produced film that established the U.S. market for kung fu, the first kung fu film to open (dubbed) outside U.S. Chinatowns, distributed by Warner Brothers, which soon negotiated with Raymond Chow's Golden Harvest Productions to coproduce Enter the Dragon.

The star of the latter film, Bruce Lee, became synonymous with kung fu, and the internationality of Lee's career corresponds with the internationality of his success. A Chinese-American child star in Hong Kong, Lee went to college in the United States, received a B.A. in philosophy at the University of Washington (Seattle), played Kato on The Green Hornet, lost the lead to David Carradine for television's Kung Fu, and returned to Hong Kong, where the producers at Golden Harvest recognized in Lee's kung fu exhibitions a marketable novelty of ferocity and fighting style (jeet kune do). When National General bought the distribution rights from Golden Harvest for Lee's first two movies, his international success was assured; when Warner Brothers subsidized Enter the Dragon, the Sino-American production of martial art films began. His celebrity was intensified by his death in 1973, at the age of 32, after which he became (and remains) a cult star within the martial arts magazine culture of the United States. Even Evelyn understands his mythic status: “You're no Bruce Lee. Do you want to be Bruce Lee? Do you know where he is now, Rudolph? He's dead—dead here in a Seattle cemetery and buried on Capital Hill” (SA, 73).

The intense jingoism of Lee's films assured their success in the Republic of China (where Mao had integrated wu su [martial technique] into the sport program of the 1960s) and transformed his personal achievement into an ethnic triumph. As Hsiung-Ping Chiao argues, once Fists of Fury entered the world market, Lee finally emerged as the “Oriental on the world's screens [who] had finally graduated from the stereotypes of the insidious, vicious Fu Manchu, the obese, inscrutable Charlie Chan, and the mob of unidentifiable farmers and railroad workers.”31 Lee's status as an international superstar was and remains legendary, and that stardom has been especially pronounced in the Middle East, Africa, and South America—and in the “third world” of the United States, the black ghetto, where it has attained a “mythic relationship to the ghetto viewer.”32 Lee's use of nunchaku (two blocks of wood connected by a chain) was imitated in 1973 by the street gangs of Los Angeles. Lee's success has been attributed to the realism of the fighting, in scenes that he himself directed; to his hypermuscular, bare-torso masculinity combined with his diminutive size; to the simplicity of the revenge motive; and to the subordination of the narrative to the spectacle of violence.33 The television show of 1972 presented kung fu as a passive and pacifist cult of self-discipline; Lee presented it as a self-empowering mode of exacting brutal vengeance. While his films theatricalize racial and national conflict—exhibiting Lee in combat with Russian, black American, and, most often, Japanese opponents—Lee's success, including the extraordinary success in Japan, has been attributed to the simplicity with which his films villainize the capitalist; heroize the worker (particularized as the Hong Kong laborer); locate the power to defeat oppression in the body; and insist on a lawless, violent resolution to class conflict.

In his effort to account for the U.S. kung fu “craze,” Ying-Jen Chang points both to the countercultural investment in Taoism and Buddhism and to the Chinese-American economic interest in developing kung fu's popularity. Some industry figures suggested that the well-designed trailers for the films were largely responsible;34 Raymond Chow himself pointed to Nixon's visit to China in 1972, and the subsequent U.S. interest in Chinese culture.35 Still, it is less the ethnic specificity of Bruce Lee than what we might call his generic ethnicity that seems to have inspired the enthusiasm of the U.S. black inner-city audience—this generic ethnicity, along with an implicit invitation to translate the ethnonationalist conflicts staged within the kung fu film into the conflict of class. Indeed, if we're to believe the accounts of this international mass spectatorship, we might imagine a (failed) moment of international class longing. While commentators groped for a rationale to explain the particular attraction of kung fu for black audiences, the industry's report on the primary audience for the twenty-one kung fu films that appeared in the United States in 1973 made it clear to producers that a new market had emerged. Not unpredictably, Black Belt Jones (1974), in which black martial arts students battle white gangsters, became the “first U.S.-lensed martial arts actioner.”36 Even though the overall market diminished by the end of the year, kung fu films continued their success in urban centers.37 “The audience for the flicks around Times Square is mostly black boys and girls—‘Sheet, kill that suckah. … Jew-jit-su the muthafucka.’”38 While “invisibility” had come to be understood, by some, as the provocation of the city riots of the 1960s,39 in the early 1970s the black population had become visible to the film industry as a potent consumer constituency.


Because I was a veteran with medals and an honorable discharge, Washington city had a job offer for me. The police force or the post office. The police force had too much military connected to it. My whole thing was to get the military out of my system. I chose the post office. Basically I was sitting on a stool sorting mail. Stuffing mail, sorting mail, do it faster. The supervisors were like first sergeants. Six months later I resigned. I just got tired of it.

—Specialist 4 Haywood T. “The Kid” Kirland (Ari Sesu Merretazon)40

Theorists of the “nation”—defined as the affective bond between state and subject—have spent too little time imagining the dynamics of a national subjectivity in which that bond is economic, the civil servant experiencing the state foremost as boss. This is not least because, however comparable working for the post office and working for the military may have seemed to Ari Sesu Merretazon (see epigraph), the State works to appear as anything but mere boss to its most endangered employees. It offers noneconomic promises, above all the promise of masculinity. As one recruiting slogan put it during the war in Vietnam, “In the U.S. Army you get to know what it means to feel like a man.” Rather than the promise of feeling national by fighting for the nation, the State promises the feel of gender. The interpellative function depends not on a subject feeling sufficiently patriotic, but on a subject feeling insufficiently manly: in the army you finally get to feel what gender feels like.

Given the stereotype of the black male as hypermasculine,41 the sense of such insufficiency required the production of a counterstereotype. In 1963, in his role as assistant secretary of labor, Daniel P. Moynihan began his crusade against the “de facto job discrimination” suffered by “the least mobile, least educated men” who failed the Armed Forces Qualification Test. The subsequent task force study fantasized the military as a mode of economic and social mobility translated into a mode of remasculinization secured by the patriarchal structure that black youth lacked.42 “Given the strains of the disorganized and matrifocal family life in which so many Negro youth come of age, the Armed Forces are a dramatic and desperately needed change: a world away from women, a world run by strong men and unquestioned authority.”43 Moynihan pathologized the young black American male not so much as a means of recruitment per se, but as a means of convincing the government that the mode of recruitment had gone wrong.

Despite the experimental admission of draft “rejects” in 1964 and the more widespread lowering of standards in 1965, Moynihan continued to advocate still lower standards until Robert MacNamara, as part of the Johnson administration's War on Poverty, instituted Project 100,000, designed to rehabilitate the impoverished and to “reverse the downward spiral of decay” by annually granting draftable status to one hundred thousand otherwise unqualified men.44 Although the project has now become infamous, the history of black aspiration in Vietnam (in the first U.S. war waged with integrated forces from its outset) shares something of the masculinizing aspiration of the Moynihan report, suggesting how the expansion of the state's coercive apparatus—the draft—was inseparable from the hegemonic efficacy of increased enlistment. In Ebony's special issue on “The Black Soldier” (August 1968), for instance, Thomas Johnson identified “status, a proof of manhood and a youthful pursuit of excitement” as the overwhelming rationale for enlistment.45 Among the veterans interviewed by Wallace Terry, economic need seems to have been no more compelling than “the John Wayne thing”: “Just before I went in, they had all these John Wayne movies on every night.”46 The institution that had worked so hard to relegate black soldiers to segregated service units had become a site—a televisually nationalized site—for witnessing African American male potential within the United States.47

The image of interracial intimacy in combat became an image of integration's potential. As Jeffords puts it, addressing the novelistic and filmic representation of the war, a certain kind of amnesia—the forgetting of racial, ethnic, and class differences—underwrote the homosocial bond.48 But such amnesia was no American novelty of the 1970s. Despite the persistence of segregation in the military until 1948 (and, effectively, through the war in Korea), World War II had necessitated a revision in the rhetoric of race, supported by the film industry. The Office of War Information, the NAACP, and Hollywood liberals joined forces to circulate an image of American liberal multiethnicity that stood in contrast to Nazi racism. As a result, “the image of the multiethnic crew” in war films became, in Thomas Cripp's formulation, “the nation's most overused metaphor for liberalism.”49 In the early years of Vietnam, when racial tension had begun to debilitate major U.S. cities, the metaphor quickly resurfaced and recirculated, but it did not allay the anxieties expressed by even the most hopeful of commentators. They recognized that the military refashioning of black men would backfire if black soldiers were later deployed by the government to suppress a black revolution at home, and that, conversely, returning soldiers who found U.S. conditions unchanged could form the basis for a violent threat to the nation.50

By the close of the war, Moynihan and MacNamara's avowedly progressive achievement looked, at best, like a duplicitous means to sustain draft quotas or, at worst, “deliberate genocide,” the hasty use of black men as “cannon fodder.”51 After the first generation of troops learned that their service made no difference to their civilian lives, the racial tension within the military simply replicated (if it did not magnify) civilian tensions, with “fraggings,” the “racial war” at Danang, and a series of incidents that left 10 percent of black soldiers in jail.52 Though the radical responses to the war (from Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver) now read like common sense, their internationalist inflection merits ongoing scrutiny from the perspective of what one anthropologist called, in 1994, the “vogue for globalization” that has produced our “new academic industry.”53 The exchange of letters in 1970 between Huey P. Newton (the Black Panther Party's minister of defense) and Nguyen Thi Dinh (deputy commander of the South Vietnamese People's Liberty Armed Forces) testifies to both the sensationalism and the seriousness with which the war provoked unforeseen affiliations. Written “in the spirit of international revolutionary solidarity,” Newton's letter offers “an undetermined number of troops” in the “fight against American imperialism,” the struggle against “the leader of international bourgeois domination.” He rejects “the overdeveloped nature of capitalism,” just as, with vehemence, he rejects nationalism: “The vanguard party of revolutionary internationalists who give up all claim to nationalism … cannot be nationalists when our country is not a nation but an empire.”54 Newton imagines a deterritorializing collective struggle based less on identity politics per se than on the identification of a shared economic oppressor. While, in the history of global self-consciousness, the sixties now appear as the institutional moment when “globalization” emerged as a concept,55 that same decade marks perhaps the last American moment when the almost unimaginable, postnational community imagined by Marx had conceptual and political purchase, however fantasmatic. If in the 1990s the conceptual space of the United States serves as a privileged site for imagining what postpatriotic and postnational desires might look like,56 we could do worse than begin with Angela Davis's warning against the reifying histories of black nationalism as the bad (merely essentialist, merely masculinist) politics that black intellectuals have overcome, now that other analytics—gender, race, the body, the nation—have displaced “class” from the ontological center of oppositional thought.57

The slippage between race, nationality, and class—not in oppositional thought but in urban culture—is precisely what seems to underlie the attraction to kung fu in 1973. Returning black soldiers faced the particular indignity of being antagonized by their local communities for being “part of the establishment.”58 Indeed, the nightmares glimpsed even by early enthusiasts of black participation in the war became grotesque realities, as the government assigned veterans active in the black nationalist movement to “civil disobedience” control.59 The kung fu vigilantism portrayed in Bruce Lee's movies might thus be said to have offered a systematization of violence that elides the nation and its institutions. If Sylvester Stallone went on to facilitate the remasculinization of America while appropriating the figure of the martial artist (transformed into a fighting machine), then Bruce Lee might be said, in contrast, to have facilitated a remasculinizing counternation, a postnationalizing moment when physical rehabilitation was dislodged from the national frame.


The connection between a post-Vietnam moment and the moment of the kung fu “craze”—a connection that necessarily blurs the geographic history and the heterogeneity of the martial arts—surfaced rarely in 1973, but tellingly. David Freeman explained the craze bluntly: “They beat us over there … [and] we demand to know why. Our POWS are home and now America needs to know” the “enemy's secret weapon.”60 While kung fu per se was certainly no secret weapon during the war, Lee's guerrilla tactics replicate what was taken to be the strategy by which U.S. forces were defeated—which might be best understood not as knowledge about why “we” lost, but as knowledge about how “they” won. The conservative commentary on the martial arts, long after 1973, still considered their popularity an expression of global conflict. One satirical reporter claimed of the All-American Open Karate Competition that “half the contestants and more than half the audience are black of Hispanic: karate is Third World anger release. Anyone can guess the unspoken implication: that those little, wiry yellow folk are superior.”61 It would be wrong to perceive in this anything less than anxieties about a new yellow peril, exacerbated by the image of an interethnic bond.

But I also want to understand the attraction to kung fu films as taking the place of, as displacing, any sustained attraction to the radical postnationalizing imagination. As one French commentator dismissively put it, the films offer a “dream where politics are resolved by a boxing match.”62 Indeed, the postnational political affiliation imagined by Newton reappears instead as the affiliation between Hong Kong and Hollywood, affectively subsidized by the longing of the urban masses. The kung fu craze thus seems explicable within the cultural logic of urban history as explained by David Harvey, intensifying his sense of 1973 as the pivotal year in the transition to what he calls postmodernity. The urban spectacle of mass opposition that violently disorganized the space of American cities in the 1960s was finally transformed into the organized spectacle of consumption in reactive urban renovations that produced such new spaces, images, and icons as Baltimore's Harbor Place.63 The countercultural scene resurfaces as the commodification of subculture, a celebration and commodification of the multicultural fact of the city. Alongside the local display of local ethnicity and multiethnic harmony, Golden Harvest, the Shaw Brothers, and Cathay Studios displayed interethnic and interclass violence that marked and managed the otherwise suppressed conflicts of the inner city.

Of course, if the reception of Lee's films seems to displace an overtly political and explicitly postnational affiliation with interethnic identification, then Johnson's story, while metonymically recording that reception, exhibits a double displacement. Violence has been evacuated from the martial arts aesthetic, and, characteristic of the growing appreciation of kung fu in the 1980s, a class-coded mode of revenge (harking back to the Boxer Rebellion) has been transcoded into a search for self. By 1980, one could learn in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly that the “real value lies in what the martial arts tell us about ourselves: that we can be much more than we are now.”64 Existentialist struggle replaces both class and ethnic conflict in a classic case of the embourgeoisement of mass-cultural and cross-cultural novelty.

One of Stuart Hall's reiterated points—that “this year's radical symbol or slogan will be neutralized into next year's fashion,” that “today's cultural breaks can be recuperated as a support to tomorrow's dominant system of values and meanings”—is a point easily illustrated by the history of kung fu's success.65 Chuck Norris, who had demonstrated martial arts at several U.S. military bases in the early 1960s and costarred (as the loser) with Lee in 1973, soon managed to whiten martial-art masculinity on film.66 The further commercialization and institutionalization of kung fu—marked by the proliferation of kwoons and regional kung fu federations—depended on attracting a more heterogeneous consumer group. To take a well-known case in point: on the one hand, Jamaican-born Carl Douglas, culturally cross-dressing as the martial artist to promote his hit “Kung Fu Fighting” (1974), sustained the sign of interethnic, countercultural challenge; on the other, the song mainstreamed and streamlined the aggression by reducing it to the rhythm of disco.67 The “discotized tribute to the legacy of Bruce Lee,”68 as the music industry called it, might be understood as working to discipline the notoriously raucous audience reaction to the films by syncopating the physical response to Lee's violence, just as it worked to homogenize martial art choreography into the mainstream codes of dance.69

I have been suggesting, then, that Charles Johnson's short story of the early 1980s helps to make legible the way U.S. kung fu culture itself effectively expropriated and existentialized mass-cultural, inner-city history from the early 1970s, a history in which the radical politics of the 1960s seemed to resurface as “radical consumption.” I want to suggest, further, that by the early 1980s one trajectory of cultural studies had enacted something comparable, wherein the radicality of the 1960s recedes to the point of invisibility. It moved from documenting subcultural sociality and group identity, which took the place of political action, to an individualizing account of longings satisfied or foreclosed, of disciplinary or transgressive possibility, whether critics spent time exposing the politico-textual density of the mass-cultural artifact or ethnographers reported on the idiosyncrasies of reception. By 1984, Laura Kipnis expressed both frustration and exhaustion with the enterprise of “tracking the traces of radicalism” in the mode of consumption by “fostering critical strategies that provide readings of the antagonisms” in cultural products. By 1988, Meaghan Morris lamented the “banality of cultural studies” resulting from the proliferation of empirical affirmations of the same point about “the politics of consumption”: that, “taking the side of the audience,” we can show how the private reception of “complex and contradictory” mass-cultural texts is “complex and contradictory.”70

Although critical theory has since moved beyond that privatization—which always threatens merely to mirror the privatizing work of the cultural industry itself—by both theorizing and documenting the constitution of spheres of counterpublicity mediated by mass culture, I want to linger over Kipnis's point. For if we can imagine that the ethnography of reception provided by “China” narrativizes the sort of mass-mediated self-transformation imagined in the discourse of cultural studies, then we can sense how “the traces of radicalism” might indeed be not just textual but also historical—the traces of a particular radicalism that consumer culture's dream work has rendered benign. Of course we're now faced with a promotional culture—as exemplified by the multicultural “United Colors of Benetton”—that goes out of its way to commercialize emancipation in the spectacle of advertising.71 Our postmodernity is the age of reverse camp, in which gay culture may continue to cite, recode, and rehabilitate the detritus of dominant culture, but promotional culture achieves its requisite novelty by citing and mainstreaming the marginalized—such as, in the hands of Calvin Klein, the aesthetics of gay male porn. As George Yúdice puts it, “In the 1980s and 1990s, every issue has been politicized in the medium of consumable style.”72 This is the sort of dynamic that Negt and Kluge explained (in 1972) as a constitutive feature of the new “public sphere of production,” by which they name a manufactured publicity that, without delegitimating the power relations within the sphere of production as such, incorporates, legitimates, and even intensifies particular interests and desires. The only politics not for sale are the politics of production itself, which is to say (broadly speaking) the politics of class. By now, the dynamic has accelerated to the point where—as subcultural appropriations are mirrored by consumer culture's expropriations of subculture—“emancipatory politics,” in the confusion of our postmodernity, seem most visible as an image to be consumed in international advertising campaigns.73


In another of Johnson's stories, “Moving Pictures,” the narrator remarks (as though rewriting the scene from Native Son or a scene from The Bluest Eye) that “American movie houses are, as everyone knows, the new cathedrals, … you come, as everyone does, as a seeker groping in the darkness for light [leaving your life] outside the door” (SA, 115). In “China,” the scene of groping, the scene of spectatorship, shifts between this new cathedral, “a darkened, half-empty theater” and the Baptist church, the tension between the two finally sublated by Seattle's Kingdome.

During the Mount Zion Church revival, Evelyn thinks back to Rudolph's original courtship of her in South Carolina. And then she “glances up from under her spring hat past the pulpit, past the choir of black and brown faces to the agonized beauty of a bearded white carpenter impaled on a rood, and in this timeless image she feels comforted that suffering is inescapable, the loss of vitality inevitable, even a good thing maybe” (SA, 70). The sight of the international white icon—above and beyond the brown and black faces—has the opposite effect on her that the sight of the Chinese men, in the Coronet Theater, has on her husband. It is the sight of yet another man in the Kingdome, her husband, that provokes Evelyn out of her complaisant sense of loss and decay.

During the amateur contest, “cheers, booing, an Asian voice with an accent over the microphone” converge with “spirit shouts from the great floor of the stadium” as three contests progress simultaneously: a contest between two children, two female black belts, and two middle-aged male white belts. The attraction of the tournament lies beyond sport's capacity to offer what Theodor Adorno understood as the final locus of competition in a world from which genuine competition has disappeared.74 It lies in the possibility of participating in a carnivalesque, subcultural mode of being-in-public—a medium of sensuous solidarity that does not depend on the politics of identity. While the church revival has traditionally counted as a mode of effecting a black public sphere,75 the Kingdome tournament becomes the site for enacting an interethnic and internationalized alternative. These people in the Kingdome—children, women, and men—are people who have appropriated the local scene of spectacle, the forum for the local team, and globalized it—who have appropriated a Chinese tradition and localized it. And just as they have conflated the local and the global, they disrupt—in the scene's visual and aural excess—the difference between audience and image, spectator and spectacle.

As the Kingdome acoustics whirl the noise of the crowd, the “rivering of voices” affects Evelyn “like the pitch and roll of voices during service,” and she asks herself, “Who are these people?” (SA, 94). Who are these people? When Rudolph returns from his first night out, he explains that the Northwest is “crawling with fighters. It has something to do with all the Asians out here” (SA, 72). The friends he brings home include a Vietnamese man who had lived only two years in America; a Puerto Rican who “had been fighting since he could make a fist”; and “a delicate young man named Andrea, an actor in the drama department at the university”—all separated “by money, background, and religion.” And yet, “something” Evelyn cannot identify “ma[kes] them seem … like a single body” (SA, 81-82). It is this international, interclass, group embodiment that most seriously threatens Evelyn's investment in the local black religious community, just as Rudolph's Eastern asceticism threatens her self-indulgence as an American consumer. Though the search for postnational identity may prompt the question not only of how to “embody … particular differences” but also of how “to communicate, hence to universalize, one's identity without marginalizing that of others,”76 the global body imaged in “China” intimates instead a postnational possibility in which differences are absorbed into a single entity. Such an image, emblematic as it may be of the multinational firm itself (for whom China serves not as a cultural resource but as the source of labor), nonetheless serves as a figure for imagining how the circulation of the commodity-from-elsewhere can animate a new kind of sensuous collectivity.

Evelyn experiences this “single body” as an alien body. And it is Evelyn, the mere spectator in the final scene, whose story this is. It is told from her point of view, and from the outset of the story we know that in her spectatorial role she suffers from bouts of blindness. As the story reports, when she is watching the film, “occasionally her eyes frosted over, flashed white. She went blind like this now and then. The fibers of her eyes were failing; her retinas were tearing like soft tissue” (SA, 64). At this early stage of the story, her particular comfort is nonetheless that, despite her infirmity, her Rudolph “is in even worse health” (SA, 64). At the very close of the story, in the absence of such comfort, learning to be the good sports spectator, she seems to go blind again in the midst of her husband's triumph, but she then rises with others to clap, pounding

her gloved hands together instinctively until her vision cleared, the momentary flash of retinal blindness giving way to a frame of her husband, the postman, twenty feet off the ground in a perfect flying kick that floored his opponent and made a Japanese judge who looked like Oddjob shout “ippon”—one point—and the fighting in the farthest ring, in herself, perhaps in all the world, was over.

(SA, 95)

This exhilarating, quasi-filmic apotheosis—the final integration of body and spirit, like the integration of realism and magic realism—might well depend on the disintegration of Evelyn's body: on the possibility that her vision clears by evaporating into full fantasy. In turn, one might say that this decay of her sight results from Rudolph's having attained a Being that no longer depends on being seen. The Kingdome carnival hardly requires spectators, and the story, at its moment of closure, no longer needs Evelyn's point of view.

Making mention of Oddjob, Johnson references the James Bond films that helped both to popularize karate in the United States and to cement the image of the insidious Asian that the matinee-idolatry of Bruce Lee challenged. Moreover, understood either as conscious citation or as unconscious appropriation, the final sentence rewrites and condenses final scenes from two of Bruce Lee's films—a duel between Lee and Chuck Norris in the empty Roman Colosseum (the Kingdome's ancient antecedent) in Return of the Dragon and the final frame of The Chinese Connection, which became a well-known still, where Bruce Lee remains suspended in a leap of protest, about to be gunned down by his oppressors (fig. 1). That film's image of triumphant defiance in the midst of defeat becomes the story's image of sheer triumph. If the transition from urban violence to world peace nonetheless remains ambivalent, it is because peace appears here as an image therapeutically consumed by the nonparticipating observer. Evelyn does not transform herself but finds relief, finally, in the “frame” of her husband's performance. This is not Hollywood's familiar story where marriage resolves a host of social conflicts. It is a story where the resolution of conflicts, world peace understood as the outcome of a globalized remasculinization, resolves the marriage. Recaptioned, the picture of Evelyn's sight of this new “timeless image” would insist on pointing out how her release from an irritable complacency depends on remaining lodged in the passive pole of spectatorship. While her husband himself reappears as the potentially rejuvenating image-from-elsewhere (all but necessarily cinematically coded), the actualization of transcendence must take place in some unwritten second half of the tale. In the story I'm trying to tell about the story “China” tells and does not tell, postnationality finally exists neither as the work of “internationalists,” nor as the local instantiation of an interethnic and international bond, but as a physical feat consumed as an image in the register of mass culture.


  1. Charles Johnson, “China” (1983), in The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Tales and Conjurations (New York, 1987), 90-91. Subsequent references to Sorcerer's Apprentice are cited parenthetically in the text with the abbreviation SA followed by the page number.

  2. Facing a disastrous recruitment record for the previous decade, the army instituted its stunningly successful new advertising campaign, accompanied by $15,000 college fellowships for two years of service, in 1980. See Janet Meyers, “Learning to Deploy a Strategic Weapon,” Advertising Age, 9 Nov. 1988, 94-96, 148.

  3. Ien Ang, “Culture and Communication: Towards an Ethnographic Critique of Media Consumption in the Transnational Media System,” European Journal of Communications 5 (1990): 253.

  4. Eldridge Cleaver, “The Primeval Mitosis” (1968), quoted and discussed by Charles Johnson in Being and Race (Bloomington, Ind., 1990), 26-29. To appreciate Johnson's own long-standing interest in Eastern thought and the martial arts, see his analogy between “the severe discipline of the Asian martial arts” and writing; Johnson, Being and Race, 47-48.

  5. Susan Jeffords, The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War (Bloomington, Ind., 1989). For the continuation of the story she tells, see Susan Jeffords, Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era (New Brunswick, N.J., 1994). See also John Hellman, American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York, 1986).

  6. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, 1978), 476-77. Subsequent references to the Manifesto of the Communist Party are cited parenthetically in the text with the abbreviation CM followed by the page number.

  7. See, for instance, Susan Buck-Morss, “Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display,” Critical Inquiry 21 (Winter 1995): 434-67; Charles Bright and Michael Geyer, “For a Unified History of the World in the Twentieth Century.” Radical History Review 39 (Sept. 1987): 69-91; Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N.C., 1991), 54.

  8. Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Public Culture 2 (Spring 1990): 1-24.

  9. Modikwe Dikobe, Marabi Dance (Portsmouth, N.H., 1973); Abdelrahman Munif, Cities of Salt (1984), trans. Peter Theroux (New York, 1989).

  10. Charles Johnson, Oxherding Tale (New York, 1982), 85.

  11. “Exchange Value” (SA, 25-40), Johnson's chilling account of psycho-economic block-age and paralysis, records how the utterly disenfranchised, even when finding themselves in sudden possession of riches, cannot transform those riches into objects of desire and thus cannot transform themselves. But for the middle-class characters in “China,” the culture of the commodity is at once the site of stasis and metamorphosis.

  12. Richard Wright, Native Son (1940; reprint, New York, 1993), 13, 36; Toni Morrison, “Afterword,” The Bluest Eye (1970; reprint, New York, 1993), 210.

  13. In other terms, Susan Willis addresses this crisis in “I Want the Black One: Is There a Place for Afro-American Culture in Commodity Culture?” in A Primer for Daily Life (New York, 1991), 108-32. For an incisive account of how black women's writing becomes the work “that promises resistance and integrity, the utopian supplement to Willis's own ‘deconstruction of commodities,’” see Elizabeth Abel, “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation,” Critical Inquiry 19 (Spring 1993): 488-95.

  14. Kobena Mercer, “Black Hair/Style Politics,” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, ed. Russell Ferguson et al. (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), 260.

  15. On the gendering of mass culture, see, for instance, Andreas Huyssen, “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other,” in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, and Postmodernism (Bloomington, Ind., 1986); Tania Modleski, “Femininity as Mas(s)querade: A Feminist Approach to Mass Culture,” in Colin MacCabe, ed., High Theory—Low Culture: Analysing Popular Television and Film (New York, 1986), 37-52; and Patrice Petro, “Mass Culture and the Feminine: The ‘Place’ of Television in Film Studies,” Cinema Journal 25 (Spring 1986): 5-21. On the productivity of consumption, see Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley, 1984), 31. Consumption is defined as a “means of thinking” by Garcia Canclini (unpublished manuscript), quoted by George Yúdice, “Civil Society, Consumption, and Governmentality in an Age of Global Restructuring,” Social Text 45 (Winter 1995): 18. The gender asymmetry that structures Johnson's story, however specified by the mediation of commodity culture, accords with the structure described by Joyce Hope Scott in “From Foreground to Margin: Female Configuration and Masculine Self-Representation in Black Nationalist Fiction,” in Nationalism and Sexualities, ed. Andrew Parker et al. (New York, 1992), 296-312.

  16. As Andrew Wernick has shown in “[Re]imaging Gender: The Case of Men,” chap. 3 of Promotional Culture: Advertising, Ideology and Symbolic Expression (London, 1991), the success of the post-World War II American male consumer thrives on a critique of classical consumer culture. The consuming male subject compensates for the ongoing feminization of consumption by consuming products as the source of gender—from male soap and male makeup to the latest magazine for men. This is how consumer culture perpetuates the masculinity that Nancy Hartsock, in Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism (Boston, 1983), 241, defines as an “abstract ideal” attained only by opposing “the concrete world of daily life,” most manifest in “the female world of the household.” The history of this ideal, however, is inseparable from a history of its supplementation, where externalized figures of ethnicity, race, and class return to underwrite mainstream masculinity. From the Native Americans in the Leatherstocking tales to the blackface minstrels of the nineteenth-century stage, to Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and to the cigarette-smoking construction worker—ethnicity, race, and class all fund American masculinity precisely because they offer a particularity and materiality that masculinity, abstract as such, precludes. See, for instance, Michael Rogin, “Making America Home: Racial Masquerade and Ethnic Assimilation in the Transition to Talking Pictures,” Journal of American History 79, no. 3 (1992): 1050-77; Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (New York, 1986), chap. 2; Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York, 1993); Simon During, “The Global Popular,” Critical Inquiry (forthcoming). Theories of national subjectivity (see note 23) have shown how the generic, noncorporeal “citizen” is an ideal no less abstract than masculinity, and how gendered embodiment thus becomes the condition of shame, experienced as a humiliating surplus. But the history of corporealizing supplements suggests how the abstraction of the national or masculine subject seems to entail, moreover, the humiliation of the disappearing body. In today's global cultural economy, when American blackness circulates elsewhere, it serves a familiar function. Japanese youth have gone beyond the display of ethnic signifiers (such as dreads) to the fad for disco dancing in blackface; Nina Cornyetz, “Fetishized Blackness: Hip Hop and Racial Desire in Contemporary Japan,” Social Text 41 (Winter 1994): 113-40. A fantasy of subcultural defiance, the fad clarifies how the ethnic body itself becomes a prophylactic body with which to achieve difference within the claustrophobic psychodrama of the everyday, and to endure the homogenizing effects of late capitalism. This is why, as Michelle Wallace has warned, “multiculturalism” may do little more than occupy “the same place as ‘primitivism’ in relationship to Postmodernism,” as dominant culture's reinvigorating (if ultimately destabilizing) supplement; “Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture,” in Ferguson et al., Out There, 47.

  17. Rosemary Pringle and Sophie Watson, “‘Women's Interests’ and the Post-Structuralist State,” Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates, ed. Michèle Barrett and Anne Phillips (Stanford, 1992), 64.

  18. See, for instance, Barbara Babcock, “Bearers of Value, Vessels of Desire: The Reproduction of the Reproduction of Pueblo,” Museum Anthropology 17 (Oct. 1993): 43-57; Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York, 1993), 176-92.

  19. See, for instance, Abraham Cahan's Yekl (1896), in Yekl and The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto (New York, 1970), 1-92.

  20. On the stasis of the feminine as the measure of the male achievement of modernity, see Jean Franco, “Beyond Ethnocentrism: Gender, Power, and the Third-World Intelligentsia,” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana, Ill., 1988); Partha Chaterjee, “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question,” in Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, ed. Kum Kum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (New Delhi, 1989), 233-53; Olakunle George, “Postcoloniality and the Africanist Agon” (unpublished manuscript).

  21. Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere (1972), trans. Peter Labanyi, Jamie Owen Daniel, and Assenka Oksilloff (Minneapolis, 1993). In a postnormative response to Jürgen Habermas and the Enlightenment tradition, Negt and Kluge take pains to point out that they “only understand the public sphere as an aggregate of phenomena that have completely diverse characteristics and origins. The public sphere has no homogenous substance whatsoever” (13).

  22. On Immanuel Kant, see Negt and Kluge, Public Sphere, 10-11; on Søren Kierkegaard, and Habermas's recent interest in Kierkegaard, see Martin J. Matustik, Postnational Identity: Critical Theory and Existential Philosophy in Habermas, Kierkegaard, and Havel (London, 1993), 107-9. On Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, see Barbara Vinken, “Republic, Rhetoric, and Sexual Difference,” in Deconstruction Islin America: A New Sense of the Political, ed. Anselm Haverkamp (New York, 1995), 181-99.

  23. This point is fully elaborated by Lauren Berlant, “National Brands/National Body: Imitation of Life,” in Bruce Robbins, ed., The Phantom Public Sphere (Minneapolis, 1993), 173-208; and Michael Warner, “The Mass Public and the Mass Subject,” in Robbins, Phantom Public Sphere, 234-56.

  24. See Theodor Adorno, “The Schema of Mass Culture,” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein (London, 1991). And on this point of Adorno's, see Miriam Hansen, “Mass Culture as Hieroglyphic Writing: Adorno, Derrida, Kracauer,” New German Critique 56 (Spring-Summer 1992): 43-75.

  25. Ying-jen Chang, The Rise of Martial Arts in China and America (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1978), chaps. 1, 5. See also David Chow and Richard Spangler, Kung Fu: History, Philosophy, and Technique (New York, 1977), chaps. 7, 8.

  26. Robin L. Reilly, The History of American Karate (Hackensack, N.J., 1970), 53.

  27. Headlines in Variety, 7 March 1973 and 19 December 1973.

  28. Mark Werba, “Chinese Films Click in Europe,” Variety, 7 March 1973, 7. On the history of kung fu film and its generic predecessors, see Verina Glaessner, Kung Fu: Cinema of Vengeance (New York, 1974); and Marilyn D. Mintz, The Martial Arts Film (New York, 1978).

  29. Jack Pitman, “Chinese Pix Tide in Global Flood,” Variety, 2 May 1973, 5, 22.

  30. Gene Moskowitz, “Demand Still Brisk, Sez Shaw,” Variety, 19 December 1973.

  31. Hsiung-ping Chiao, “Bruce Lee: His Influence on the Evolution of the Kung Fu Genre,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 9 (Spring 1981): 31.

  32. Stuart M. Kaminsky, “Kung Fu Film as Ghetto Myth,” in Movies as Artifacts: Cultural Criticism of Popular Film, ed. Michael T. Marsden et al. (Chicago, 1982), 137-45.

  33. Kaminsky, “Kung Fu Film”; Chang, Rise of Martial Arts, chap. 7.

  34. Tom Costner, “Hong Kong's Answer to 007,” Village Voice, 17 May 1973, 92.

  35. See “Swish! Thwack! Kung Fu Films Make It,” New York Times, 16 June 1973, sec. L, 14.

  36. “U.S. Rage of Chop-Socky Films; Karate Breaks out of Chinatown,” Variety, 9 January 1974, 72.

  37. Addison Verrill, “Chop-Socky Fad Shrinks, but Expect Its Survival,” Variety, 8 January 1975, 8. On the waning popularity see also “Kung Fu, ‘Sold’ By Bruce Lee, No Longer B.O., Even in Orient,” Variety, 20 October 1976, 72.

  38. David Freeman, “Karate Flicks: What It All Means,” Village Voice, 17 May 1973, 92.

  39. David O. Sears and T. M. Tomlinson, “Riot Ideology in Los Angeles: A Study of Negro Attitudes,” Social Science Quarterly 49 (1968): 485-503; Paula B. Johnson, David O. Sears, and John B. McConahay, “Black Invisibility, the Press, and the Los Angeles Riot,” American Journal of Sociology 76 (1971): 698-721. For an important overview of the literature, see Kenneth L. Kersmer, “African Americans in the City Since World War II: From the Industrial to the Post-Industrial Era,” Journal of Urban History 21 (May 1995): 458-504.

  40. Wallace Terry, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Americans (New York, 1992), 122.

  41. See, among the many accounts of this stereotype, Houston A. Baker Jr., “To Move Without Moving: Creativity and Commerce in Ralph Ellison's Trueblood Episode,” in Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York, 1984), 230; Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York, 1967), 170.

  42. Myra MacPherson, Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation (New York, 1984), 559.

  43. Department of Labor, Office of Policy and Planning and Research, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (March 1965), 42. For the report's account of how “four times as many Negroes as whites fail the armed forces mental test,” see 40-41.

  44. Combined with student deferments, the diminished Armed Forces Qualification Test standards transformed the armed forces in Vietnam into the most class-differentiated workforce since the Civil War. Quickly installed in combat units, the Project 100,000 draftees suffered a death rate twice as high as that suffered by the rest of the forces. Forty percent of the draftees were black; Christian G. Appy, Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1993), chap. 1. See also Robert W. Mullem, A Look Back: Vietnam and the Black American (Needham Heights, Mass., 1989).

  45. Thomas A. Johnson, “Negroes in ‘The Nam,’” Ebony, August 1968, 32. Similarly, Whitney M. Young Jr., describing how racism has been transcended on the battlefield, argued that “the Negro has clearly developed sophistication, confidence in his own ability, and a sense of well-being in an integrated climate. He is a man accustomed to discharging duty and exercising responsibility”; Whitney M. Young Jr., “When the Negroes in Vietnam Come Home,” Harper's, June 1967, 64.

  46. Terry, Bloods, 28, 7.

  47. In the words of Thomas Johnson, “The Negro has found in his nation's most totalitarian society—the military—the greatest degree of functional democracy that this nation has granted to black people”; “Negroes in ‘The Nam,’” 40.

  48. In William Eastlake's The Bamboo Bed (New York, 1969), a leader of the Detroit race riots, “black sergeant Pike,” begins with the sense that “there is no greater honor on this earth to a black man than to hand white men to yellow men for killing” (61). He dies defending “his whiteys,” having learned, through combat, to forget politics and history in the name of collective survival. The novel is discussed by Jeffords, Remasculinization, 54-59.

  49. Thomas Cripps, “Movies, Race, and World War II: Tennessee Johnson as an Anticipation of the Strategies of the Civil Rights Movement,” Prologue: Journal of the National Archives 14, no. 2 (Summer 1982): 60. Cripps provides extensive primary and secondary resources through which to understand World War II as a rhetorical and mass-mediated “watershed in American race relations” (52). See, for instance, Richard Dalfiume, “The ‘Forgotten Years’ of the Negro Revolution,” Journal of American History 55 (June 1968): 90-126; and John B. Kirby, Black Americans in the Roosevelt Era: Liberalism and Race (Knoxville, Tenn., 1980). Michael Rogin provides an extensive account of Hollywood's Civil Rights, the limits of those rights, and their relation to the pathology of the Moynihan report in “‘We Could Cross These Racial Lines’: Hollywood Discovers Civil Rights,” in Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley, 1996), 209-50.

  50. Johnson, “Negroes in ‘The Nam,’” 31-40; Young, “When the Negroes Come Home,” 65.

  51. David F. Addlestone and Susan Sherer, “Battleground: Race in Viet Nam,” Civil Liberties (Feb. 1973): 1-2.

  52. By the close of the war, the Congressional Black Caucus concluded that “despite the existence of progressive policies, day-to-day practices of arbitrariness, unfairness, and latent discriminatory practices render the stated policy almost meaningless”; ibid., 1.

  53. Katherine Verdery, “Beyond the Nation in Eastern Europe,” Social Text 38 (Spring 1994): 1.

  54. Huey P. Newton, “Letter to the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (With Reply),” in Vietnam and Black America: An Anthology of Protest and Resistance, ed. Clyde Taylor (Garden City, N.Y., 1973), 290-93.

  55. Roland Robertson, Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture (London, 1992), chap. 1.

  56. Arjun Appadurai, “Patriotism and Its Futures,” Public Culture 5 (Spring 1993): 411-29.

  57. Angela Y. Davis, “Black Nationalism: The Sixties and the Nineties,” in Black Popular Culture, ed. Michele Wallace and Gina Dent (Seattle, 1992), 317-24.

  58. First Lieutenant Archie “Joe” Biggers, in Terry, Bloods, 142.

  59. MacPherson, Long Time Passing, 553.

  60. Freeman, “Karate Flicks,” 92.

  61. D. Keith Mano, “Kung Phooey,” National Review 32 (2 May 1980): 547.

  62. Denis Lévy, “Le kung-fu, le sang et la mort,” Telecine no. 194 (Dec. 1974): 13.

  63. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford, 1989); and David Harvey, The Urban Experience (Baltimore, Md., 1989).

  64. Don Ethan Miller, “A State of Grace: Understanding the Martial Arts,” Atlantic, Sept. 1980, 88.

  65. Stuart Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular,” in People's History and Socialist Theory, ed. Raphael Samuel (London, 1981), 235.

  66. Reilly, History of American Karate, 134.

  67. “Kung Fu Fighting,” supposedly recorded in only ten minutes to complete the “B” side of a single, was released as the “A” side in the explicit effort to draft off of the popularity of kung fu that Bruce Lee had established. The song became the number one hit in both the United States and the United Kingdom. See Free Bronson, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits (New York, 1985), 385.

  68. The Guinness Book of 500 Number One Hits (Middlesex, N.J., 1982), 162.

  69. Although the technomasculinity and gym culture of the 1980s would seem to have established an altogether different paradigm for rebuilding bodies, the martial arts continue to fascinate, mediated by high technology, in the best-selling computer game Mortal Kombat and its filmic manifestation in the 1995 summer movie season. Though a trip to your local video store in Chicago's South Side, for instance, will show you that the martial arts film industry continues to thrive, a very different image from Bruce Lee and his progeny has become central to the youth culture of the American ghettos—the ghetto-centric rapper—whose global popularity might be said to invert the underclass reception of kung fu. Rap articulates an ethnic, sociocultural, and historical specificity that the global body necessarily silenced; a certain utopian abstraction finds itself succeeded by a dystopian materialism, which now enjoys the status of being one of America's best-known cultural exports. By now, of course, the literature on rap, important not least for its effort to redescribe a black public sphere, is extensive. See, for instance, the following articles in Public Culture 7 (Fall 1994), a special issue on the black public sphere: Reebee Garofalo, “Culture Versus Commerce: The Marketing of Black Popular Music” (275-88); Todd Boyd, “Check Yo Self, Before You Wreck Yo Self: Variations on a Political Theme in Rap Music and Popular Culture” (289-312); and Paul Gilroy, “‘After the Love Has Gone’: Biopolitics and Etho-Poetics in the Black Public Sphere” (49-76).

  70. Laura Kipnis, “‘Refunctioning’ Reconsidered: Towards a Left Popular Culture,” in MacCabe, High Theory—Low Culture, 34. These essays emerged from a 1984 conference. Meaghan Morris, “Banality in Cultural Studies,” Block 14 (1988): 15-25.

  71. See Jeff Rosen, “Merchandising Multiculturalism: Benetton and the New Cultural Relativism,” New Art Examiner (Nov. 1993): 18-26; Henry A. Giroux, “Consuming Social Change: The United Colors of Benetton,” in Disturbing Pleasures: Learning Popular Culture (New York, 1994).

  72. Yúdice, “Civil Society,” 5.

  73. This logic is literalized when we're told that a percentage of the purchase price will be donated to a particular cause. These politics by other means—consumption—arrogate social responsibility from the government and work to install the corporation, not the state, as the arbiter of justice.

  74. Adorno, “Schema of Mass Culture,” 74-78.

  75. See Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, Mass., 1993).

  76. Matustik, Postnational Identity, viii.

I owe a considerable debt to Jon Sachs for assistance with the research. For their patient reading and perceptive contributions, I would like to thank W. J. T. Mitchell, Lauren Berlant, Kenneth Warren, Miriam Hansen, and James Chandler.

Timothy L. Parrish (essay date spring 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8076

SOURCE: Parrish, Timothy L. “Imagining Slavery: Toni Morrison and Charles Johnson.” Studies in American Fiction 25, no. 1 (spring 1997): 81-100.

[In the following essay, Parrish compares Johnson's Oxherding Tale with Toni Morrison's Beloved in terms of the slave narrative genre and issues of African-American identity.]

The odyssey of the African-American throughout the twentieth century has been one of loss and reclamation. It's about reclaiming those things which were lost during slavery.

—August Wilson

The slave narrative, as Hazel V. Carby points out, differs from the historical novel of slavery in that the prior form is concerned exclusively with how “the ex-slaves ‘wrote [their selves] into being’ through an account of the condition of being a slave.”1 The contemporary writer, in contrast, can only re-imagine the conditions of slavery, and therefore writes in order to connect the receding past to the living present. This distinction underscores the difference between recalling slavery as an ex-slave versus reconstructing slavery as one who would understand how its history continues to shape one's present. Yet to say that the slave narrative focuses on how the ex-slaves wrote their selves into being is also to imply that the ex-slaves had no identity prior to writing it. While not disagreeing with Carby's distinction, I suggest that both forms confront the question: how do I reinvent myself in light of my altered circumstance? Seen this way, the question of how one connects oneself to (or disconnects oneself from) the experience of slavery has been a preeminent concern for all African-American writers from the time of slave narratives on. Arnold Rampersad remarks that “exploring the reality of slavery is necessarily painful for a black American, but only by doing so can he or she begin to understand himself or herself and American and Afro-American culture in general.”2 The barrier that one crosses over in moving from slavery to freedom is also the point at which the continuity of African-American identity is imagined and created.

Indeed, one could almost say that whereas the writers of the slave narratives were intent on inventing their free selves, contemporary African-American writers have been intent on inventing their slave selves. Deborah McDowell noted recently that “the subject of slavery has become a kind of literary ‘free for all,’” and one need only think of recent works by Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, Gloria Naylor, David Bradley, Sherley Anne Williams, Ernest Gaines, Octavia Butler and Ishmael Reed to confirm this impression.3 Of the many novelists who have taken up slavery, I single out Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison and Oxherding Tale (1982) by Charles Johnson in part because these two writers seem to be offering diametrically opposing views on the meaning of slavery, in part because I would like to suggest that Morrison and Johnson may be closer than a first reading would suggest. Both writers explore how African-American identity was forged in the crucible of slavery, and how that identity continues to be created today. Their basic difference resides in how they interpret the meaning of that ongoing cultural invention, specifically as it relates to American identity. As Jonathan Little notes, Oxherding Tale concludes with a happy mulatto marriage that is “without precedent in American fiction.”4 No such ending is imaginable in Beloved or in Morrison's fiction generally. Morrison invokes the ghost of slavery in order to illuminate the continuity of African-American identity—a community originating in the shared experience of slavery. Insofar as she brings slavery to the present day, Morrison's African-American community is at once a part of and separate from so-called white American experience. Johnson, on the other hand, imagines African-American identity to be irretrievably mixed with other American identities, a happy mongrel. For Johnson, slavery is less a historical presence than a philosophical problem. Although Johnson and Morrison offer differing views of how to view the present, each writer understands that the meaning of slavery cannot be recaptured, but only re-seen.

Molly Abel Travis, who has offered the only sustained comparison of Johnson and Morrison thus far, defines them in oppositional terms. She maintains that Morrison “seeks gaps in personal memory and cultural history,” quoting Barbara Edmondson's assertion that Morrison affirms a “black feminist aesthetic”; Johnson, however, “leaves behind the notion of a memory to be recovered” in order to “transcend race” and accommodate “the white male reader.”5 Travis's views correspond with how most readers have seen Morrison, though her view of Johnson might be contested for being too extreme. Charles Scruggs, for instance, calls Beloved “a story of origins of Afro-American community which substantiates that community by recovering its lost history.” Ashraf Rushdy says Beloved seeks to establish “a communal narrative,” while Linda Krumholz notes that “history-making becomes a healing process for the characters, the reader, and the author.” Yet, as Iyunolu Osagie points out, since “the text of slavery resists conclusive interpretations,” Beloved's whole story cannot be collected, or remembered. This perspective brings us within the orbit of Johnson's view, who, according to S. X. Goudie, tries to escape “the dialogics of racism.” James Coleman adds that his work is “multitraditional, multicultural, multiracial; it changes our perception of what a black novel is.” Little concludes that Johnson advocates “an aesthetic ideal based on artistic diversity and venturesome experimentation instead of being driven by polemical and ideological concerns or demands of political utility.”6

For his part, Johnson has been eager to distinguish his work from Morrison's, declaring that Beloved is “not an intellectual achievement.”7 This remark means to suggest that Morrison is philosophically less sophisticated than Johnson in her approach because, unlike him, she is trying to recover an essentialized, racialized African-American identity. Below I examine the ways in which Morrison invites this critique but ultimately, in my view, offers a reading of slavery and African-American identity more complex than Johnson would allow. The work of both Johnson and Morrison takes part in an ongoing revision—historical and literary—that emphasizes the agency of African-Americans in creating a culture not defined solely in opposition to white definitions of black selfhood. Norman Harris has described how contemporary African-American writers, including both Johnson and Morrison, have recovered a fluid, regenerative heritage that defines itself in terms of a specifically African-American culture. More broadly, historians like Eugene Genovese and Lawrence Levine have shown how the slaves drew on their various African cultural heritages to create identities that resisted the institution of slavery and prepared the ground for a vital African-American culture at once a part of and distinct from American culture. Genovese argues “that a significant thrust in black culture emanated from the African tradition. Black America's tie with an African tradition nonetheless remained and helped shape a culture entirely its own.” Levine attributes the slaves' astonishing resiliency to the slaves' songs and spirituals: “the preliterate, premodern Africans, with their sacred world view, were so imperfectly acculturated into the secular society into which they were thrust, were so completely denied access to the ideology and dreams that formed the core of the consciousness of other Americans, that they were forced to fall back upon the only cultural frames of reference that made any sense to them and gave them any feeling of security.”8

Genovese and Levine present a positive, even inspiring picture of African-American self-creation, a necessary antidote to the regressive idea that black culture is merely a defensive response to white racism. Morrison's remark that her work represents an attempt to put the “authority back into the slave” shows that she participates in this historical reclamation of a positive slave identity.9Beloved, though, examines how difficult—and necessary—recovering this authority is. “Freeing yourself was one thing,” observes Morrison's narrator, “claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”10 Because Beloved depicts events that were, according to Travis, “so horrible that they were not only omitted from the narrative of American history but repressed in personal memory as well,” the story of Sethe's coming to own herself contrasts with the joyous sense of self-recovery that concludes Johnson's Oxherding Tale.11

The crucial difference between Johnson and Morrison inheres in how each writer explores the barrier between slavery and freedom. Neither finally thinks that the experience of slavery, however we define it, can be known exactly for what it was. Morrison, though, is reluctant to surrender the idea that an intimate knowledge of slavery can be recovered and shared. Unlike Johnson, she positions Sethe on the painful border between slavery and freedom and leaves her there for most of the novel. As a result, Morrison's depiction of the past seems to some more beholden, less flexible than Johnson's. On the contrary, I think that what makes Morrison's Beloved as profound an encounter with the past as, say, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! is her willingness to risk losing her characters and even her narrative voice in a past that can be neither seen nor controlled, but which nevertheless surrounds the novel's every action.

To return to the distinction raised earlier, Beloved is a historical novel about slavery that tries to understand the story that the slave narrative could not tell. Consider Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of an Ex-Slave (1845). Douglass depicts slavery as a moral evil to be escaped. His story of origins portrays the triumph of his own humanity over the inhuman conditions into which he was born. Morrison's work contests in a rather shocking way the assumption of Douglass's Narrative that free/slave are mutually opposed terms. Sethe's story embodies the impossibility of maintaining this opposition. Thus, in the interim between escaping from Sweet Home and murdering her child, Beloved, Sethe believes that she has “claimed herself.” However, this sense of self-possession disappears when her “owners” arrive to reclaim her. That terrible moment is the focal point of Beloved because it is when Sethe first realizes all that she has had to repress in order to survive as a slave. Reaching out to kill her family and herself is her first act of freedom. Toni Morrison identified the meaning of Sethe's gesture and staked out the aim of her novel in her remark that “the best thing that is in us is also the thing that makes us sabotage ourselves.”12 Yet Sethe's act of murder is also an act of self-possession—an idea that Johnson explores in Oxherding Tale. The problem for Morrison becomes how a necessary act of murder can be transformed into an healing act of recovery. Sethe's story dramatizes how claiming ownership of one's freed self is impossible without recovering the self that she disowned in the name of freedom—what is her own best thing.13 Although Sethe's story certainly answers that of Harriet Jacobs, in that both were victims of sexual exploitation, I think it is closer to Douglass because it seeks the community he abandoned.14

Through Sethe, then, Morrison heals the conflict that Frederick Douglass first raised in his discussion of the slave songs. There Douglass described the almost unutterable terror he felt upon realizing what he had truly, though unconsciously, felt as a slave. Douglass writes that listening to them as a slave, the songs “told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish.” To the outsider, the songs seemed an “unmeaning jargon”; to the slaves, they were “full of meaning to themselves.”15 By inventing a language to express themselves, the slaves created an identity that was outside of the Master's knowledge. As any form of self-assertion by the slaves was of course an act of rebellion, the slaves' language had to be channelled inward. Their singing carried with it the knowledge that this is for our ears only; this is ours; this is us. At the same time, Douglass's description confirms Levine's thesis that the slaves were creating a kind of hidden identity, one that proved that the slaves were more than docile creatures subject to the will of others.

Douglass, however, conveys the secret message only to repress it. Ironically, Douglass does not believe he can understand the meaning of slavery until he has abandoned it. Learning to read will bring him freedom, but it will also alienate him from his past because he cannot help seeing it as incomplete. Not surprisingly, he finds himself “regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead”; that is, he experiences the same crisis of identity that Sethe experienced when she decided to kill her family and herself (p. 85). Houston Baker suggests that Douglass desires access to “an unwritten self,” and that “had there been a separate, written black language available, Douglass might have fared better.” But of course the only language available to Douglass was oral, the singing, the very identity he sought to escape. To be “within the circle” was to have access to that “black language” of the slaves. To be “without” this circle, this language was, paradoxically, to be “free.” As a free man reflecting upon the evil of slavery, he hears the songs as “soul killing” because he has lost their sustaining community. Sethe's experience in Beloved helps us to understand that the terrible irony of this moment is that Douglass may not realize that he also describes his own “soul-killing,” for he has lost access to the slaves' language and the community which could understand his loss (pp. 57-58).16

By addressing slavery's unrepresentability as well as the paradoxical soul-killing that freedom demands, Morrison shows us that Douglass's—or any slave's—journey into freedom did not belong to one person. Understanding the slaves' journey into freedom as an essentially individual one distorts the experience of those slaves—the majority—whose journey could not have mirrored Douglass's. This “individual” story also distorts the future since it fairly obliterates the fact that the slaves' journey was a collective experience, making for a collective history and future (and present, Morrison would add). The sense of community lost and found is movingly captured in the story of Paul D's escape from the chain gang in Georgia. Technically, Paul D is no longer a slave, but the chains of slavery have become the shackles of the chain gang. For all practical purposes, his status has not changed at all. Paul D reflects that even as a prisoner (or a slave) the pleasure of listening to the doves was denied him since he had “neither the right nor the permission to enjoy it because in that place mist, doves, sunlight, copper, dirt, moon—everything belonged to the men who had the guns” (p. 162). Yet one thing does belong to Paul D and that is the experience he shares with the other prisoners, the feeling they share from being chained to one another, hand by hand, link by link. Together they

sang it out and beat it up, garbling the words so they could not be understood; tricking the words so their syllables yielded up other meanings. They sang … of pork in the woods, meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain, and rocking chairs.

(p. 108)

Like Douglass's singing slaves, Morrison's singing prisoners create an identity separate from their imprisonment. This separate identity enables them to survive their imprisonment.

Though the prisoners remain chained to one another, a group, the imprisoners make sure that each prisoner is caparisoned within his own box. This creates a tension between a life-affirming communal identity and a death-dealing individual one. One night the rains pour down, filling each cubicle up with water, and there is the possibility that each man will drown—alone. Suddenly, “somebody yanked the chain,” the group of prisoners moves as one, burrowing under the mud, arriving safe on the other side of their imprisoning box. “For one lost, all lost. The chain that held them would save all or none” (p. 110).

The source of African-American identity, Morrison tell us, derives from this shared experience of oppression. Their freedom does not issue from a white man's piece of paper; it is the result of the strength and the resolve they discovered together from within their days of bondage. Locked in his makeshift cell, Paul D can feel only the terrible burden of his own ego. Within that cell there is no relief, except what he can draw from those to whom he is attached. Yet the terrible irony is that Paul D and the other prisoners free themselves by breaking the bond that has sustained them: they cut their chains in order to escape. Ironically, freedom only returns each one to the prison of his cell. Isolate, Paul D's post-slavery self is symbolized by the rusty tobacco tin he carries with him, memento of the prison he now carries within.

Of all the freed slaves in the book, Baby Suggs seems most able to recreate—or rememory—what was lost in the crossing from slavery into freedom. “We scattered,” she tells Janey, “but maybe not for long” (p. 143). The Clearing marks the space where Baby Suggs tries to reconcile past and present selves. The mixture of joy and sorrow that Douglass heard in the slave songs receive pure expression in the dancing, crying, laughing women, children and men who gather to hear Baby Suggs offer “up to them her great big heart.” In the Clearing Baby Suggs gives the sermon of what we might call the Church of the Freed Slave:

we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in the grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. … And O my people they do not love your hands. They only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them.

(p. 88)

The designation for this meeting, the Clearing, suggests that old torments are being swept away, that a fresh start is at hand. What Baby Suggs is clearing away, however, is not the past, but the forces that have blocked the way to that part of the past which the community needs to sustain it in its uncertain present and future. In reality, she is reconstituting the circle that they knew together in slavery—only now it will include different shapes—“freed” ones. While Baby Suggs identifies those who would tear their circle asunder, her message affirms that the strength that carried us through slavery will carry us in freedom as well.

Baby Suggs easily could have been the focus of this novel, and her work in the Clearing paves the way for the expulsion of Beloved's ghost. Instead, Morrison suggests that her community was not ready for her message, a subtle reminder, I think, that this novel addresses a contemporary audience trying to reclaim what it either has forgotten or cannot understand. History cannot be healed or forgotten in such a short time—even by someone as powerful as Baby Suggs. Thus, the future must do the work of absorbing the past, and this occurs principally through Denver, though Ella and Stamp Paid are crucial figures. Denver, conceived in slavery but born into freedom, comes to understand her mother's need for Beloved, but nevertheless summons the courage to continue. She will be a teacher and, we can hope, overturn the vicious lessons of Sweet Home's schoolteacher. She absorbs what Sethe cannot and will carry the memory of what Sethe discovered about herself, that she loved the self she killed as much as the self for whom she did the killing. Her courage would be impossible without Baby Suggs, who appears to Denver to remind Denver of her heritage, telling her to “know it, and go out in the yard. Go on” (p. 244). Denver thus initiates the community action that results in Beloved's expulsion. Most readers agree that when Beloved is driven out of 124 Blue-stone the community has collectively faced the horror and beauty of their past, and reclaimed the identification they feel with one another as a result of their shared past.

While broadly speaking Beloved tries to reconnect the present with the past, the novel does so only by showing how disconnected Sethe is from everything that had sustained her—Sweet Home, Halle, her children, finally, herself. Her journey contrasts with Douglass's (and that of Johnson's Andrew Hawkins) because she is allowed neither to shed her past as she goes nor to go alone. In this way Denver does for Sethe what Sethe cannot do for herself. She literally carries her past and her future (in her womb) with her. Here Sethe explains to Paul D her goal:

I did it. I got us all out. Without Halle too. Up till then it was the only thing I ever did on my own. Decided. And it came off right, like it was supposed to. We was here. Each and every one of my babies and me too. I birthed them and I got them out and it wasn't no accident. I did that.

(p. 162)

For Douglass, self-reliance comes by virtue of his escape; for Sethe, escape comes by virtue of her self-reliance. More than running away to some hoped for sanctuary, Sethe must herself be a place of sanctuary. “I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between” (p. 162). For the first time, she claims her children as hers. Her momentary, twenty-eight day triumph is not that she has abandoned the circle of secret, sustaining identity she knew as a slave, but that she has brought it with her, broadening it to include her freed self.”17

If the slaves who make the crossing into freedom must bring with them the resilience they forged from within the circle of slavery, then Sethe is at the center of that circle. In the scene quoted above, Sethe tries to explain this idea to Paul D in justifying why she killed her child. Signifying upon Douglass's famous image, Morrison describes Sethe as “circling, circling” her subject. “Sethe knew that the circle she was making around the room, him, the subject, would remain one. That she never could close it in, pin it down for anyone who had to ask” (pp. 162-63). Without the resiliency she found as a slave, Sethe could not have experienced the joy of bringing her children over into freedom. Yet without experiencing the twenty-eight day joy of being her own sanctuary, Sethe would have had neither the strength nor the vision to murder her children when the slavecatchers came. These overlapping circles of identity, slave and free, prompt her to the terrible moment where, borrowing Morrison's words again, “the best thing that is in us is also the thing that makes us sabotage ourselves.”

I am not convinced that Morrison grants to Sethe the wisdom that she would pass on to her readers. Like Oedipus, Sethe is burdened with knowledge that the community cannot—must not—fathom. This wisdom is rooted in “the mark” she inherits from her mother, the buried aspect of her identity that, along with the murder of Beloved, Sethe has had to repress. Sethe's wisdom is in the recovery of her mother's mark, for this comes to represent the identity that she shares with Beloved, the story that cannot be passed on. Here Sethe tells Denver and Beloved the buried story of her inheritance:

One thing she did do. She picked me up and carried me behind the smokehouse Back there she opened up her dress front and lifted her breast and pointed under it. Right on her rib was a circle and a cross burnt right in the skin. She said, “This is your ma'am. This, and she pointed. “I am the only one who got this mark now. The rest dead. If something happens to me and you can't tell me by my face, you can know me by my mark.”

(p. 61)

This mark has several different meanings, all of them interrelated. First, it is the sign by which Sethe's mother's captor tried to fix her identity as slave. As such, it represents the suppression, or at least the distortion, of her African identity. Yet this putatively fixed meaning is unfixed by the marked person herself, because she takes possession of the meaning of the mark. She has earned the right to be known by this mark since she is the only one of her group to have survived its imprint on her person. Where the mark is meant to suggest that she is owned by another, Sethe's mother challenges her ownership by laying claim to her mark. Her lesson to her daughter, Sethe, is that you are more than a piece of property, you are a self, capable of owning your own desires.18 While Morrison never lets the reader forget that as slaves her characters had no “legal” right to anything—including their thoughts—she also points to the resistance within slavery that would make freedom more than an abstract possibility, more than a piece of paper signed by a white man for other white men to read.

When Sethe asks her mother to mark her too, she receives a slap. It is not, again, a mark to pass on. But her mother knows that this circle beneath her breast will one day be absorbed within Sethe's circle, and will be passed on.19 Ironically, Sethe does for Beloved what her mother would not do to her: she marks her forehead with an old saw. Later, when reunited with Beloved, Sethe has one question she must ask her resurrected daughter: how bad is the scar? (p. 184) By the end of the book Sethe has pursued this question to its deepest meaning, but she has not forgotten what prompted it in the first place.

Sethe learned from Nan that her mother had thrown away children who were not born of freely chosen love. This, too, is the mark that Sethe inherits from her mother. Sethe, on the other hand, earned her mark by destroying what she loved best. Yet, her mother's example teaches her that one can choose to keep that which one loves most. One might say that Beloved digs for a “pure” African-American identity devoid of any form of white oppression (or paternalism). Thus, Sethe refuses to accept from her loins a future that is born of her white enslavers. She passes along to the daughter whom she does accept the knowledge that she will be marked different—black—in a world that is mostly white—along with the strength to accept this difference. Sethe's mark will be an ineradicable part of her. One also might read Sethe's experience as, in Rushdy's words, “the need to remember” that is also “a need to forget.”20 Yet to say that Beloved is remembered so that she may be forgotten is to deny, I think, the experience that laid the way for the communal gathering that takes place in the name of rescuing Sethe. Without the reappropriation of this shared mark, there would be no African-American community.

“In the beginning,” writes Morrison, “there were no words. In the beginning was the sound, and they all knew what that sound sounded like” (p. 259). The sound preceded the words because words did not belong to the slaves. Sethe lives during that interim when the sound was becoming words. Douglass knew that in finding words the meaning of the sound risked being lost. Sethe's legacy is that she recovers and unleashes for her progeny the sound around which African-Americans gather even unto this day. As Morrison writes, what a roaring.

If Morrison's Beloved claims ownership of slavery, then Johnson's Oxherding Tale seems to surrender it as one would an old pair of pants that no longer fits right. For protagonist Andrew, slavery is merely of the body, but mainly of the mind. Instead of wrestling with cotton crops and vicious slaveowners, Andrew struggles to master the Chinese language, Eastern philosophy, and American transcendentalism. From Ezekiel Sykes-Withers, his tutor, Andrew learns that the universe is Being and we are but particles of it. Throughout, Andrew struggles against the notion that we have “epidermalized” Being, and the “deadening feeling that our particularities limited us, closed us in—created a ceiling low enough to break your neck.”21 Andrew's struggle is not to recover the identity he forged in slavery but to transcend slavery's limiting particularity.

Sethe and Andrew each seek self-knowledge, but no tragedy attaches to Andrew's fate; his origin is distinctly comic. One night his father, George, and his father's master, Jonathan Polkinghorne, swap beds and conjugal mates. On top of Ole Miss Anna Polkinghorne, George is still acting under master's orders. Yet, after satisfying the master's wife as she had never been satisfied before, George cannot resist claiming authorship to her contentment. Making this boast, not sleeping with her, gets George into trouble. Anna, unable to confront the consequences of her embrace, considers her life ruined. Not surprisingly, so is George's: he loses his master's patronage, his harmonious marriage, and, in a way, his contentment as a slave. As with Sethe's Halle, George's assertion of identity only enslaves him further. His legacy to his son is bitterness and rage; George joins, in Andrew's words, the “avante-garde for the African revolution” (p. 22).

Andrew's task is to find a different ending to his father's story. This will not be easy. Indeed, as was the case with his father, the reality of Andrew's bondage is driven home to him when he is forced into the arms of a white woman. He discovers that as his white mistress Flo Hatfield's love slave he is nothing but a body; he responds in kind. He smashes her face. Here his experience fully echoes his father's. Not only is this gesture equivalent to his father's attempt to claim authorship of his love act with Miss Polkinghorne, but it lands Andrew into the same kind of trouble. Miss Hatfield sends him to the coal mines where he is meant to work until his death. Father and son were both allowed an intimacy with their white master/mistress that suggested the barriers between master and slave are not so great; both were made to pay for their presumption when the line between slave and master was redrawn. Rather than resigning himself either to death or futile rebellion (his father's choice), Andrew adopts a strategy similar to Ellison's protagonist in Invisible Man by taking refuge in a kind of invisibility. He goes undercover and escapes.

Although he has been tutored by Ezekiel on the fluidity of identity, Andrew does not truly understand the philosophy he has read until he learns it though experience. His refusal to echo his father's fate requires him to transform himself into something new. In this way a philosophical lesson becomes a physical necessity: he has to survive. Initially, the transformation of identity does not paralyze Andrew as it does Sethe—in part because Andrew has no dependents. Yet to escape his father's legacy Andrew will have to overcome the slavecatcher, Bannon, who accompanies Andrew during his flight to freedom. His father had warned Andrew: “Hawk, someday you'll see him, too. No matter how edjoocated you get, he'll be there” (p. 28). Symbolically, this scene has the same resonance that Sethe's memory of her encounter with her mother does. George is bequeathing to his son his “mark.” But Andrew refuses to imagine himself as marked by history; rather, he chooses to invent his history, which means that his future is only coincidentally connected to his past.

In a brilliant move, Johnson reinforces this point by imagining Bannon as the specter of Andrew's past and as the agent of his transformation. Where Beloved's slavecatchers incite the inner crisis that projects itself as Beloved, Oxherding Tale's “Beloved” (as opposed to Andrew's) is, in a manner of speaking, the slavecatcher. Like Ellison's Rinehart, he preys on others' invisibility; in a sense, he represents the completion of their personalities. The slavecatcher's power derives from his uncanny ability to capture from within, employing metaphysical empathy rather than brute force. His power derives from internalizing the runaway slave's self-conception. When “you huntin' a Negro,” he explains, your “mind has to soak hup his mind.” Simply “look for the man policin' hisself, trying his level best to be average. That's yo Negro” (pp. 114-15). Bannon's theory is that the escaped Negro is so scared of genuine self-expression, of calling attention to himself in any way, that he secretly wishes to be rescued from his existence of quiet desperation. As long as Andrew refuses to be known by his slave identity, he cannot be caught (unlike his father who has, in effect, already surrendered). Like Douglass, Johnson's hero must will his freedom.

Along with Bannon, Andrew's past follows him in the form of Minty, another slave from the Polkinghorne plantation. Although it makes a certain sense to dub Bannon Andrew's “Beloved,” Minty more properly deserves this epithet. She is not only the first woman with whom Andrew falls in love, but the inspiration for seeking his freedom in the first place. Like Sethe, he will not be truly free until he confronts the legacy she represents to him. Thus, after his escape and marriage into the white world, he reencounters Minty at a slave auction. His first response is of a piece with his desire to make himself over. Instead of being paralyzed by this vision of his past, Andrew tries to transform it into something else. As he tells his wife, “there are duties I must discharge, if I am ever to be free” (p. 161). The word “discharge” is significant because it indicates his intention to settle Minty's price, but not be beholden to it. Andrew is poised between two realities—in a sense Minty's return does to Andrew what schoolteacher's return did to Sethe. Moreover, Johnson's relentless optimism is portrayed through Peggy, Andrew's wife, who is not troubled by what Minty reveals about her husband's past and present identity. Although he frees Minty by purchasing her, he cannot really fit her into his life. He concocts vague schemes of sending her off to New England where she will marry and have children, but Johnson renders these speculations moot by killing Minty off.

Minty's death should make it easier for Andrew to resolve his past with his present. However, he finds that he cannot “release her hand,” and that in his chest were “commingled feelings of guilt [he] could not coax into cognition,” a phrase that wonderfully describes the emotions that stir Beloved. Where Morrison would use Minty's return as an opportunity to confront the past, Johnson employs Minty as a warning to look away before the past destroys you. Minty's re-appearance, to use Douglass's terms again, threatens to return Andrew to within the circle of slavery. Once returned, there is only death, which is why Minty's death brings on Bannon's return to Andrew. When Minty dies, Bannon is there to comfort him because Andrew cannot reconcile his past with his present. While being ushered away by Bannon Andrew welcomes the chance to die in fact, since Minty's return has caused him to die in spirit. Like Sethe, he will have to be rescued.

Minty's return raises difficult questions for Johnson's aesthetic project. If Andrew were to die here, then Johnson's vision of slavery would be even more circular and limiting than Johnson views Morrison's as being. Yet to have Andrew go on without Minty, happy with his white wife, will suggest to some that Andrew is merely a cunning opportunist. His freedom from history therefore would also mean freedom from responsibility, and this attitude is what allows him to sacrifice a black woman for a bright future.22 Consider, though, that at the end of Beloved the ghost Beloved disappears with “the wind in the eaves, or the spring ice thawing too quickly.” Beloved is “just weather” and “certainly no clamor for a kiss” (p. 275). After bringing together the community, Beloved scatters like ashes in the air. Likewise, Minty too disappears from Andrew's life with no clamor for a kiss. Minty, though, offers to Andrew transformation rather than restoration. This point can be seen when we recall Andrew's initial definition of Minty as his beloved. While innocently herding sheep, Andrew sees Minty before him and equates her with “Being”; she seems to him “to be purified features in a Whole, where no particular facet was striking because all fused together to offer a flawed, haunting beauty the likes of which you have never seen” (p. 15). Dedicating his life to winning Minty, Andrew seeks to realize a version of that Whole in all of its multiplicity. Ideally, Minty would initiate the same understanding that, according to Johnson, the “complexity of Being” should bring about in the artist. In his philosophical treatise Being and Race (1988), Johnson praises the artist who would confront “the complexity of Being occasioned by the conflict of interpretations,” and argues that “even black history (or all history) must be seen as an ensemble of experiences and documents difficult to read, an experience capable of inexhaustible reading.”23 On this understanding, the meaning of Minty does not die, but shifts to something else.

Understanding Minty's “death” from this perspective comes not from Minty herself, but, in a backhanded way, from the slavecatcher who, along with Minty, simultaneously represents Andrew's debt to the past and his opportunity for metamorphosis. If we take seriously the suggestion that Bannon is an ex-slave who has learned to catch other slaves, then he is, ironically, as tied to a slave identity as Andrew (or Minty). Bannon and Andrew will remain tied to one another until one of them figures out a way to escape slavery's vicious circle, which means accepting the notion that identity is transformed by experience—an idea that Andrew's intellectual training should have prepared him for. Otherwise, Bannon will just go on killing slaves until he has killed every last one—and the last one would be a suicide, Bannon himself.

As it turns out, Bannon can enlighten Andrew only because another, the African coffinmaker Reb, has enlightened Bannon. Without Reb, neither Andrew nor Bannon could escape the vicious metaphysical circle that contains them. Their fate would be the same as Andrew's father and tutor, who both succumbed to ways of seeing that did not allow them to get outside of their solitary identities. If Andrew's quest for freedom was an assertion of ego, then Reb finds freedom by surrendering his ego. Knowing that Bannon's mastery depended upon desiring what the runaway slave himself desired, Reb foils Bannon by refusing desire. As Bannon explains to Andrew, “Ah couldn't entirely become the nigguh because you got to have something dead or static already inside of you—an image of yoself—fo' a real slave catcher to latch onto” (p. 174). Reb cannot be caught because he refuses to hold on to an identity by which he can be known. Paradoxically, he escapes a too narrow definition of self by hardly having a defined self at all.

Descended from Johnson's mythical African tribe, the Allmuseri, Reb derives his philosophy of being from his African heritage. His philosophy is suggested in the story of the conflict between Reb's great-grandfather Rakhal, a powerful osuo, and his king, Akbar. When Rakhal discovers that Akbar has cheated him out of his land, he decides to take revenge on Akbar by punishing him for converting to the Moslem faith, thereby betraying the old religion. Rakhal brings a flood to the land that causes madness. Akbar, warned beforehand by Rakhal, stores water so that he will not drink the waters of madness. The problem Akbar faces is that since everyone else is “mad,” his “sanity” is meaningless. Thus, the king too drinks the water of madness and the old relationships are restored, but in a different context.

This is the novel's crucial story. The king abandoned the tribe; hence the seer made the king feel the cost of his abandonment. To rejoin the tribe, the king has to surrender the bitter relationship his past enforces upon his present. Akbar feels as estranged from his past as Andrew or Sethe. But was the way he abandoned the way to which he returned? Paradoxically, to preserve the continuity of the old ways, Rakhal must subject himself and his group to a collective metamorphosis. Group continuity remains, but the past has been transformed. If, as we are told, Akbar could no longer have told one at gunpoint what a Moslem was, then could Rakhal have said what an Allmuseri was? Reb understands the implication of this question, for he derives his power from his great-grandfather's capacity for metamorphosis. Reb cannot be captured by Bannon because he carries his past with him as a kind of ongoing transformation.

Reb teaches this lesson to Bannon, himself a shapeshifter, who teaches it to Andrew. At first, Bannon's lesson cannot sink in because Andrew is too busy trying to absorb the news that Bannon had “snuffed” his father. Andrew sees his impending death as the confirmation of his father's conviction that the slave cannot escape his past. Andrew asks to hear his father's last words, expecting that they will, rightly, serve as his epitaph. Instead of granting Andrew's request, Bannon points to the many tattoos covering his body, which collectively reveal a “flesh tapestry” of all the creatures Bannon had killed since childhood—in other words, a version of the “Whole” that Andrew first saw in Minty. From this “body mosaic” Andrew's father is absorbed into “the profound mystery of the One and the Many.” Andrew understands that his past has been neither forgotten nor denied, but become something else—something, or someone, he must be. Not feeling enslaved to his past means that he can take responsibility for it. He becomes, joyfully, “my father's father, and he my child” (p. 176). Johnson therefore invents a mythical African past to explain the context of his present American identity; likewise Andrew transforms his father's legacy into his own invention. He returns to his wife, Peggy, happy, in full possession of himself, thereby fulfilling the promise that his father's liaison with Miss Polkinghorne could only mock.

In comparing Morrison and Johnson, Travis suggests that Morrison wants “to return to the past” to discover the gaps of cultural memory while Johnson “leaves behind the notion of a memory to be recovered.”24 Travis is writing of Johnson's later novel, Middle Passage (1990), but her remarks are applicable to Oxherding Tale as well. In that novel Johnson's hero realizes that even the slave ship's cargo, the Allmuseri, “were not wholly Allmuseri anymore” by virtue of their journey away from Africa, and that “nothing I or anyone else did might stop the terrible forces and transformations our voyage had set free”—the same lesson that Andrew applies to his identity as a slave.25 Unquestionably, Morrison looks to the past with a more longing eye than Johnson does, but the formulation that Morrison seeks the past while Johnson looks to the future risks refusing each writer her or his complexity. The real lesson is that the meaning of the slaves' heritage remains fluid—a kind of ongoing collective work. Hence, Morrison's characters come to terms with the realization that their community exists not in Africa, but in the collective experience of the crossing, symbolized by the mark.26 Likewise, Oxherding Tale's Andrew Hawkins does not so much will his freedom, as Douglass did, but is free only insofar as he understands himself to be an ongoing revision of his past. More than one hundred and twenty-five years after slavery ended, African Americans continue to write their selves into being. In this respect, Andrew makes a remark that I think Morrison would find compelling: “memory, as the metaphysicians say, is imagination.” In Beloved and Oxherding Tale, Morrison and Johnson reimagine the journey that African Americans continue to make in order to arrive in the present.


  1. Hazel V. Carby, “Ideologies of Black Folk: The Historical Novel of Slavery,” in Slavery and the Literary Imagination, ed. Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1989), p. 128.

  2. Arnold Rampersad, “Slavery and the Literary Imagination: Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk,” in Slavery and the Literary Imagination, p. 123.

  3. Deborah E. McDowell, “Witnessing Slavery After Freedom—Dessa Rose,” in Slavery and the Literary Imagination, p. 144.

  4. Jonathan Little, “Charles Johnson's Revolutionary Oxherding Tale,SAF 19 (1991), 143.

  5. Molly Able Travis, “Beloved and Middle Passage: Race, Narrative, and the Critic's Essentialism,” Narrative 2, no. 3 (1994), 193-94.

  6. Charles Scruggs, Sweet Home: Invisible Cities in the Afro-American Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1993), p. 177. Ashraf H. A. Rushdy, “Daughters Signifyin(g) History; The Example of Toni Morrison's Beloved,AL 64 (1992), 591. Linda Krumholz, “The Ghosts of Slavery; Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison's Beloved,AAR 26 (1992), 395. Iyunolu Osagie, “Is Morrison Among the Prophets?: Psychoanalytical Strategies in Beloved,AAR 28, no. 2 (1994), 43. S. X. Goudie, ‘Leavin' a Mark on the Wor(l)d: Marksmen and Marked Men in Middle Passage,AAR 29 (1995), 117. Little, p. 147. James Coleman, “Charles Johnson's Quest for Black Freedom in Oxherding Tale,AAR 29 (1995), 632. For an excellent discussion of Johnson and all of his works, see Ashraf A. Rushdy, “The Phenomenology of the Allmuseri: Charles Johnson and the Subject of the Narrative of Slavery,” AAR 26 (1992), 373-94.

  7. Jonathan Little, “An Interview with Charles Johnson,” ConL 34, no. 2 (1993), 167.

  8. Norman Harris, “The Black University in Contemporary American Fiction,” CLAJ 30, no. 1 (1986), 1-13. Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan. Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 210. Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), p. 53.

  9. Toni Morrison, quoted in McDowell, p. 160.

  10. Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987), p. 95. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

  11. Travis, p. 186.

  12. Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison, “A Conversation,” Southern Review 21 (1985), 585.

  13. While I agree with Kristin Boudreau that Morrison “takes to task any nostalgia about slavery days,” I also insist that Morrison wants to recover the identity that the slaves created. Kristin Boudreau, “Pain and the Unmaking of Self in Toni Morrison's Beloved.ConL 36 (Fall 1995), 453 and Barbara Schapiro, “The Bonds of Love and the Boundaries of Self in Toni Morrison's Beloved.ConL 32 (1991), 194.

  14. For a discussion of Douglass versus Jacobs, see Valerie Smith, Self Discovery and Authority in African-American Narrative (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1987).

  15. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, ed. Houston Baker (New York: Penguin, 1982), pp. 57-58. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

  16. Houston A. Baker, Jr., “Autobiographical Acts and the Voice of the Southern Slave,” in Critical Essays on Frederick Douglass, ed. William L. Andrews (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991), p. 102.

  17. It is significant that Halle, who might be seen as another version of Douglass, does not escape. Through Halle, I would argue, Morrison tells the story that Douglass could not tell, the story that literally could not be passed on.

  18. Carolyn Jones likewise notes that “the mark becomes a sign of community, identity, and wholeness.” “Sula and Beloved: Images of Cain in the Novels of Toni Morrison,” AAR 27 (1993), 625.

  19. The recovery of history is tied together through the meaning of Beloved, memories of the Middle Passage, and the novel's various mother-daughter relationships. For readings that, in varying ways, trace these interconnections, see Deborah Horvitz, “Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved,SAF 17 (1989), 157-67; Elizabeth B. House, “Toni Morrison's Ghost: The Beloved Who is Not Beloved,” SAF 18 (1990), 17-26; Barbara Hill Rigney, “‘A Story to Pass On’: Ghosts and the Significance of History in Toni Morrison's Beloved,” in Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women, ed. Lynette Carpenter and Wendy Kolmar (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1991), pp. 229-35; Caroline Rody, “Toni Morrison's Beloved: History, ‘Rememory,’ and a ‘Clamor for a Kiss,’” ALH 7 (1995), 92-112; Shirley A. Stave, “Toni Morrison's Beloved and the Vindication of Lilith,” South Atlantic Review, 58 (1993), 49-56; Jean Wyatt, “Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison's Beloved,PMLA, 108 (1993), 474-88.

  20. Rushdy, p. 578.

  21. Charles Johnson, Oxherding Tale (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1984), p. 52. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

  22. Travis, p. 18.

  23. Quoted in Little, “An Interview with Charles Johnson,” p. 20.

  24. Travis, pp. 193, 194.

  25. Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (New York: MacMillan, 1990), p. 125.

  26. Handley offers a dissenting view, finding in Beloved the West African concept of nommo, or the essential unity of life. On this view, the past is never really lost. James Phelan, in an engaging reader-response reading, maintains that “the erasure of Beloved from history is the erasure of the small African girl who lost her mother in the grass.” See William R. Handley, “The House a Ghost Built: Nommo, Allegory, and the Ethics of Reading in Toni Morrison's Beloved,ConL 36 (Winter 1995), 676-701 and James Phelan, “Toward a Theoretical Reader Response Criticism: The Difficult, the Stubborn, and the Ending of Beloved,MFS 39 (1993), 720.

Barbara Z. Thaden (essay date November 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7016

SOURCE: Thaden, Barbara Z. “Charles Johnson's Middle Passage as Historiographic Metafiction.” College English 59, no. 7 (November 1997): 753-66.

[In the following essay, Thaden examines The Middle Passage as a postmodern novel that both draws from and questions American literary traditions.]

Critics have found in Charles Johnson's Middle Passage a variety of themes and allusions. For Madelyn Jablon, Johnson's text is about writing an African and American self; for S. X. Goudie, it is a deconstruction of the racist and colonialist world view which marks us as either the enslaver or the enslaved; for Ashraf Rushdy (“Properties of Desire”) it is a philosophical exploration, indebted to the early Karl Marx, of the slave's struggle to create an identity and subvert, through theft, love, and writing, the capitalism which commodified him. For Celestin Walby, it is a rewriting of ancient African and Egyptian myths and rituals expressing “a condition of fragmentation and a desire for unity” that can only be achieved through self-sacrifice, a solution as old as the original myths and rituals, “transcending race and time” (668). For Molly Abel Travis, this very transcendence of race and time marks the novel as one whose time has not yet come, an argument I strongly contest. To my mind, what makes the novel most significant, and eminently teachable, is the fact that it is an accessible and important example of what Linda Hutcheon calls “historiographic metafiction.” Despite its peppering of philosophical and religious allusions, words that don't exist in any dictionary, and complex metaphysical arguments, students find Middle Passage “easy” and enjoyable; teaching this novel with some of its intertexts, such as Melville's Moby-Dick and “Benito Cereno” and Douglass's Narrative, can be a richly rewarding experience.

Historiographic metafiction is a term Hutcheon uses to define the postmodern novel, especially those novels set in the past which are “at once popular bestsellers and objects of intense academic study” (Poetics 20). Novels such as The French Lieutenant's Woman and Ragtime are best-sellers because they use the plot structures and characterization techniques of popular fiction, yet interesting to analyze and teach because they use parody and irony to challenge those very techniques from within the text. This type of postmodern fiction is marked by a concern with “whose truth gets told” in historical and fictional narratives (Hutcheon, Poetics 4, 123) since, in the words of Hayden White, “every representation of the past has specifiable ideological implications” (Tropics of Discourse, qtd. Hutcheon, Poetics 120). Johnson asks readers to re-vision the narrative histories of American slavery and of the Middle Passage, not only to question their point of view but also to question what these narratives mean for us today, and what they should mean. Hutcheon stresses how important black American literature has been to “this postmodern refocusing on historicity,” citing authors such as Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed; we need to add Charles Johnson to this group of postmodern novelists who are effectively challenging and changing the canon of American literature by asking us to reread and re-vision our American classics.

Postmodernist works usually challenge “received versions of history” (Alexander 16) and remind us that history itself is an unreliable narrative construction. But many of us prefer not to teach young undergraduates postmodern texts which offer only “alienation, personal despair and disintegration [as] recurring themes” (Alexander 10), although we want to offer a politically engaged questioning of received truths. Charles Johnson's fiction offers a mixture of positive themes in historiographic metafiction. Johnson shows how the stripping away of the illusion of an autonomous self—that “self” itself a textual construct, a recurring theme in postmodernist writing—need not result in alienation, personal despair, and disintegration. A practicing Buddhist, he sees the rejection of the autonomous self as a positive step, providing a refreshing change from those postmodern texts in which characters must simply endure the unendurable. Johnson takes historiographic metafiction a step beyond merely questioning the veracity of the narrativized past. He reinscribes that past so that it speaks to our current social and moral problems with a voice that not only asks pertinent questions, but also offers some answers to our most pressing late-twentieth-century social and personal ills. He offers us what many would consider a rarity—a postmodern work which is also a celebration of life. Many postmodern novels tend to undermine “the twin goals of the classical realist novel—an object of love and work as a sphere of achievement” (Alexander 34), but these are exactly the values Johnson celebrates—his main character finds an object of love and a sphere of life-affirming work to fill the emptiness left after he has disgorged himself of his ego. These Buddhist, moral, life-affirming themes make Johnson's fiction inspirational as well as pleasurable.

In Middle Passage Johnson incorporates the plot structure and themes of genres such as the epic, the romance, the sea story, and the slave narrative, in conscious imitation of the style of his mentor, John Gardner. Johnson believes that Gardner's most effective fictions are those that appropriate age-old forms such as the epic and the pastoral because “by virtue of their having been in circulation for centuries, new fictions in these forms have the authority lacking in so much ‘interior’ modern literature. Meaning accumulates in the form, infuses these fictions with dignity, affirmation, and a timeless sense of value” (Johnson, “Phenomenology” 149). However, Johnson uses these forms with the conscious distancing of irony, parody, and even farce. In fact, the accessibility of Johnson's third published novel is due to its having many of the characteristics of farce, which, according to Albert Bermal, “is by its nature popular: it makes a gut appeal to the entire spectrum of the public, from illiterates to intellectuals” (14). The trickster, the servant or slave who outwits his master, is a stock character in farce who “appeals to us because he lives by no rules and takes wicked delight in breaking the rules of others” (Bermal 47).

As in many farces, Rutherford Calhoun, the picaresque hero of Middle Passage, soon finds himself “on unfamiliar terrain where he appears odd and outnumbered,” where “he is different from everybody else” (Bermal 24)—in this case, as the only black American on a merchant ship setting out to pick up an illegal cargo of African slaves, a ship commandeered by a ruthless and comically bigoted captain. All the characters in the novel, including Rutherford, are essentially caricatures—grotesque but humorous, and much less realistic than the characters who appeared in Johnson's stage farce Olly Olly Oxen Free. As a philosopher, Johnson doesn't believe that fictional characters can represent real people. In Being and Race, he agrees with the philosopher William Gass, who holds that “there are no descriptions in fiction, there are only constructions” (17, qtd. Johnson 34). Like Gass, Johnson insists that a character is “not a person. He is not even an object of perception, and nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of [a character]” (Gass 44, qtd. Johnson, Being and Race 34). Thus Johnson seems to agree with the “contemporary critical truism that realism is really a set of conventions, that the representation of the real is not the same as the real itself” (Hutcheon, “Historiographic” 6).

Most historiographic metafiction constantly reminds readers that they are not in a realistic novel by temporal leaps, abrupt shifts in narrative voice, jarring juxtapositions of genre, unmistakable parodic self-reflexivity, and other techniques, which Johnson himself employed in his 1982 novel Oxherding Tale. However, Middle Passage, while employing many of these techniques in subdued ways, also invites the uninitiated to participate in an uninterrupted narrative line, guiding readers over the abyss of postmodernism on the bridge of an adventure/romance plot which on one level is as riveting, unlikely, and unironic as George Lucas's Raiders of the Lost Ark. Most students are taken in by the narrative line and don't perceive the characters as stereotypes because they are so used to this type of characterization that they take it at face value. Recognizing parody involves “not only the recognition of textualized traces of the literary and historical past but also the awareness of what has been done—through irony—to those traces” (Hutcheon, “Historiographic” 8). Many of our students have grown up on metafictional, self-reflexive, and inherently parodic TV cartoons and sitcoms. What they often seem unaware of are the “conventions of realism” that postmodernism parodies! Students admire Isadora Bailey, the ex-schoolmistress with a nose like a doorknob, as an ideal woman, and feel outrage at Captain Falcon's sexual exploitation of Tommy the cabin boy. They write that they often “don't know how to take” scenes which are both grotesque and humorous—that is, they can't believe that these scenes are supposed to be funny. In their minds they imagine real people, not quickly sketched grotesque caricatures. We should not wonder at this when movies such as Who Shot Roger Rabbit,Dick Tracy, and Space Jam, which juxtapose human actors with cartoon characters or place human actors in cartoon settings, prove through the juxtaposition that the cartoons are no more two-dimensional than the human actors.

Students will read and enjoy Middle Passage on the plot level, yet contextualizing the novel provides a key to open the tiny door of postmodernism, a door which, like the one Alice opens, reveals a vast and unusual space. Therefore, teaching Johnson's novel along with several of its intertexts allows for discussion of how Johnson has both used and challenged past texts, by casting, for example, a former slave, petty thief, and womanizer as Odysseus to a Penelope ex-schoolteacher who knits sweaters for her menagerie of stray animals.

Parodic intertextuality is the very basis of historiographic metafiction. Postmodernist works which incorporate characters, images, structures, or themes from earlier works change our understanding of those works. Therefore, appreciating historiographic metafiction requires awareness of the important intertexts, those “‘primary’ utterances which are being distorted and redefined by being relocated within another linguistic and cultural context” (Worton and Still 11). Parody of intertexts is not simple ridiculing of past fictional plots and techniques, but “repetition with critical distance that allows ironic signaling of difference at the very heart of similarity” (Hutcheon, Poetics 26). Received histories and time-honored narrative structures are placed in a new context, made to speak in our time and to a new audience, with startlingly different connotations. For Johnson this parody is never a devaluing of past beliefs, but more a change in point of view so that previously withheld perspectives are textualized. And, behind all subjectivities, Johnson believes that we share “not different worlds, but innumerable perspectives on one world; and we know that when it comes to the crunch we share, all of us, the same cultural Lifeworld” (“Phenomenology” 151). However, merely presenting a variety of points of view is not Johnson's goal, because this type of panorama would not be the highest type of moral fiction unless it privileged the “life affirming” perspectives over the others—or at least presented the triumphs of the human spirit, as well as the derailments, as not only valuable but possible (“Phenomenology” 151-52).

Beginning with overt references to Melville's Moby-Dick, but with a parodically anachronistic first-person narrator, and with a snappy, contemporary prose style which no one can mistake for the prose of the 1830s, Johnson, who began his career as a political cartoonist, hangs his philosophical tale on a familiar plot, drawn with the stark outlines of the caricaturist. It can be read quickly as the story of a black man (Rutherford Calhoun) we all recognize from today's television and movies as a good-natured ne'er-do-well, a thief, a liar, and a womanizer. However, this stock comic character is made to play the leading role in a slave narrative, a narrative about the Middle Passage as well as about a former slave. (Ashraf Rushdy, for instance, classifies this book as a text “which imitates the forms and conventions of the slave narrative” [“Phenomenology of the Allmuseri” 375].) This iconoclastic use of the most important subject and narrative structure of black American literature has outraged some critics as much as William Styron's appropriation of the voice of Nat Turner in The Confessions of Nat Turner. It has been seen as in poor taste, like writing a love story with a happy ending and lots of bathroom jokes set in a Nazi concentration camp. In his introduction to The Classic Slave Narratives, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writes that “the narratives of ex-slaves are, for the literary critic, the very foundation upon which most subsequent Afro-American fictional and nonfictional narrative forms are based” (xii); making irreverent use of this material “simply for effect” (John Haynes, qtd. Goudie 110) is seen as indefensible.

However, Johnson's use of the slave narrative tradition is neither straightforward nor strictly parodic: it seems not only to parody but actually to invert the structure of the classic slave narrative. While The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass adopts a highly serious, melodramatic, emotional rhetoric, Middle Passage undercuts and puts into question not only the style and tone of the slave narrative but its very foundation—that progression from the dark night of slavery to the glorious day of freedom. Rutherford Calhoun is an ex-slave who discovers that his freedom is only a different type of slavery. In the first few pages of the novel, Rutherford refers to “the hour of my manumission” as “a day of such gloom and depression” that he cannot bear to speak of it (3). Gaining his freedom has only trapped him further in the futile struggle to preserve and promote his individuality. Running from the disappointment his brother Jackson caused him and running from marriage with Isadora, Rutherford stows away on a ship full of white men who, like him, are running from their failures and humiliations on shore to a worse fate at sea. Peter Cringle, the first mate, informs him immediately that “Being on a ship is being in jail, with the chance of being drowned to boot” (25). Everything Rutherford has ever believed about slavery and freedom will be turned on its head during his Middle Passage, which progresses from America to Africa before returning a different Rutherford, with a totally different idea of freedom, into the bondage of marriage and responsibility with Isadora.

Some readers may find in poor taste Johnson's using the plot structure of a slave narrative to support the theme that slavery is a state of mind. Yet Johnson is only taking Douglass's themes to their ultimate logical conclusion for today's American reading audience, who are not and never have been slaves. While Douglass's main motive was the abolition of the legal enslavement of the body, Johnson expands on Douglass to show how his narrative can speak to our late-twentieth-century social problems. Douglass's narrative does in fact touch on the concept of slavery as a state of mind as well as a legal state of the body. For example, his “entrance to the hell of slavery” is achieved not at his birth but when he witnesses Captain Anthony whipping his half-naked Aunt Hester while she is tied to the rafters (258); later, under the despotism of Mr. Covey the slave breaker, “the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” (293). Yet Douglass would have objected strenuously to the contention that he was a slave in body only because he allowed himself to be a slave in spirit. Douglass also shows how whites as well as blacks are enslaved by an evil social system when he reports Sophia Auld's degeneration from angel to demoness as the result of suddenly becoming responsible for only one slave (277). Yet he would never have granted that he and Sophia Auld were equally enslaved, or equally capable of casting off their chains. Even though Douglass describes his mental freedom as preceding his physical freedom, when he resolves to be a slave no longer in spirit, when he “did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me” (299), he knew that his mental freedom would not automatically lead to his physical and spiritual freedom. His mental freedom gave him the courage to fight and to die if necessary rather than to be a slave, but only the actual and legal freedom of his body could insure the continuation of his mental freedom, and this liberation of the body, not of the mind, becomes his constant, never-forgotten goal.

Frederick Douglass's narrative progresses from the dusk of birth as a slave through the deep night of complete mental and spiritual bondage to the brilliant light of physical freedom. Rutherford Calhoun's spiritual journey takes us in the opposite direction. Rutherford, like Frederick Douglass, was born into slavery, but was granted his manumission by his dying owner, Peleg Chandler, before the opening of the narrative. We learn that Rutherford's manumission has not allowed him to be happy and self-directed, but has instead led him to a life of petty crime, drink, womanizing, and running from commitment of any kind. “Since my manumission I'd brought a world of grief on myself” (92), he writes. We learn that Rutherford has rejected his brother Jackson Calhoun as a hopeless Uncle Tom, a sort of spiritual idiot who so rejects the idea of ownership that when Chandler asks him to decide how he wants the inheritance divided, he replies “I could ask for land, but how can any man, even you, sir, own something like those trees outside?” (117). The implication is that Jackson never felt that Chandler owned him, because ownership is just a misguided figment of the imagination, and therefore he was voluntarily serving Chandler, as were Rutherford and all the rest of Chandler's dependents.

A slave's voluntary servitude to a good master is a favored theme of anti-abolitionist writers, not of ex-slaves in slave narratives. Yet Johnson valorizes Jackson Calhoun, the slave who freely chooses to serve his master after manumission. Jackson's initials remind us that he is a Christ figure, and he is described in magical-realist terms as a sort of Francis of Assisi who is so selfless and light that he can lie down on a flock of birds and be carried into the sky. When Jackson insists that their master split the inheritance equally among all of his slaves and ex-slaves, their off-spring and relatives (leaving Rutherford to inherit only $40.00, a bedpan, and a Bible), we are reminded of Christ's exhortation to the man who asked him to “speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me”: “Take heed, and beware covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:13-15). Driven to exasperation by Jackson's repudiation of their inheritance and “spineless behavior in the face of freedom” (Middle Passage 3), Rutherford becomes a thief, stealing on the principle that he himself has had his own identity stolen from him and therefore has the right to steal others' property, security, and sense of self. In the end, the Middle Passage and Isadora Bailey will teach him that he does not need material possessions or a stolen sense of self to be a free and happy man. As is often true in historiographic metafiction, this insight seems much more relevant to American readers in the 1990s than to any actual or fictional black person, slave or free, living in the United States of America in 1830.

Rutherford learns on his voyage that the more men try to escape the bonds of others, the more trapped they become in bondage to their own egos; moreover, according to Johnson, no man is truly free of bonds to the entire social universe of others. Even Captain Falcon, the arch-individualist, has had to kowtow to the rich investors who have financed this voyage: “I'm captain 'cause I knew how to bow and scrape and kiss rich arses to raise money for this run,” he informs Rutherford (147). Rutherford is forced to acknowledge that Ebenezer Falcon is slave to the investors, who, in turn, are slaves to fortune and other fortune-hunters. Papa Zeringue, the black New Orleans slumlord and racketeer who has financed a part of this slaver's voyage, looks “profoundly sad, beat down around the ankles like a man loaded with chains” (192; emphasis added) after seeing his investment sink to the bottom of the ocean. By the end of the novel, Rutherford has come to acknowledge that his brother Jackson Calhoun was, while still a slave, the freest man he had ever known, and Rutherford himself is rid of the need to “possess or dominate” his own life or the world (187).

In seeking to escape from his past, Rutherford discovers that he has not only misunderstood but also misused that past. When the Allmuseri God shows Rutherford that his father was killed just miles from the plantation on the day that he escaped, and did not in fact abandon Rutherford for worldly pleasures, Rutherford realizes that one of his own excuses for his antisocial, irresponsible lifestyle is a figment of his imagination, an imaginary enemy he has kept alive so that he can keep on hating it, just as Diamelo, one of the Allmuseri slave revolt leaders, must keep Captain Falcon alive in order to have an enemy he can both hate and control. Rutherford thought he had been abandoned by an uncaring father who sought only his own liberty, but he now learns that his uneducated father was incapable of escaping and not guilty of abandoning his family.

Writing a slave narrative in 1990, Johnson asks readers, black and white, to reexamine their relationship to American slavery. He shows that Frederick Douglass's narrative tells only half the story. The escape from slavery was the event which began Douglass's “life,” but Rutherford was given his freedom, as we readers have had it given to us. The institution of slavery can no longer function as an excuse for any type of antisocial behavior. Rutherford's father, a slave taken in Africa, parodies stereotypical late twentieth-century black lower-class excuses based on the past (distant or not); a womanizer, braggart, and ne'er-do-well, Riley Calhoun believes he can't help the way he is:

“Looka how we livin,” he'd say. … “Looka what they done to us. … We was kings once,” he would say, scrawling with one finger on the dusty porch a crude map of an African village he remembered vaguely (and neglecting to add that in his tribe his own family was not royalty but instead the equivalent of Russian serfs or Chinese coolies). “We lost a war—naw, a battle. So now we's prisoners. And the way I see it we supposed to keep on fightin'.”


Riley Calhoun takes out his anger on other blacks, including his family, and feels that any constraints on his freedom, including marriage and religion, are imposed by whites. Rutherford had thought of him as the epitome of the irresponsible absentee father, someone who ran away from slavery but forgot to come back for his children. The anachronistic style and the allusion to current problems, such as fatherless family units, allow the reader to understand that the issues addressed in the novel are problems which exist now. Historiographic metafiction always “reshapes [the past] in the light of present issues” (Hutcheon, Poetics 137). Johnson accepts the postmodern idea that we know the past only through its texts, and only through our own modern mind, but he takes postmodernism one step further. Rather than simply problematizing our understanding of the past, he insists that, if our interpretation of the past is causing us present anguish and social problems, we need to reinterpret that past in such a way that it will benefit us in the present. In other words, Johnson doesn't really care how a slave in 1830 would react to being abandoned by his father. His concern is how readers in the 1990s (black and white) react to such an event, and with what consequences to themselves and society.

Not only must Rutherford accept that his father did not purposely abandon him, he must also acknowledge that his father's excuses, like his own, were lame, and that his brother Jackson is closer to being an Allmuseri than either he, Rutherford, or his father. Ngonyama, the captive who best retains the Allmuseri world-view, roundly chastises him for his hangdog attitude: “None of us were brought up to accept failure, or laugh it off, as you do. … We were forced onto this ship. Why have you wandered so far from your home?” (Middle Passage 163). Illustrating the Buddhist idea of karma or what Johnson in this book calls the Allmuseri concept of “outpicturing,” Ngonyama believes that the ship is doomed because the rebel slaves have allowed themselves to kill so many of the whites—allowed themselves to become contaminated with the murderous dualism of the Western mind.

Johnson has inscribed into the Allmuseri mindset many classical Buddhist beliefs, such as the belief that even though we are inherently inclined to divide our entire experience into two parts, what we do and what happens to us, this belief is the greatest illusion. Buddhists hold that what happens to us is our “karma,” and “karma” is a Sanskrit word which means “doing.” Therefore, according to the doctrine of the Buddha, what happens to us, as well as what we do, is fundamentally our doing (Buddhism, Man and Nature).

Rutherford learns that he has himself created all of the mythical past which has circumscribed his life—the myth of an uncaring father, the myth of a servile and spineless brother, the myth of having no self and no history and no stake in America. “I was responsible for all of it, the beauty and the ugliness,” he comes to recognize (181). He learns that “the ‘I’ that I was, was a mosaic of many countries, a patchwork of others and objects stretching backward to perhaps the beginning of time. What I felt, seeing this, was indebtedness” (163). He also feels an intense desire to return to the America he has repudiated, because he has learned that he is no better and no worse than any other American of any color or rank or class—“If this weird, upside-down caricature of a country called America, if this land of refugees and former indentured servants, religious heretics and half-breeds, whore-sons and fugitives—this cauldron of mongrels from all points on the compass—was all I could rightly call home, then aye: I was of it” (179).

Frederick Douglass believed that the purpose of slavery was to force slaves to forget that they were individuals, or to prevent them from ever achieving an individual identity, a theme repeated in Toni Morrison's Beloved. Douglass writes, “To make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. … He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right, and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man” (315). Douglass's realization that Master Hugh Auld has no right to take his salary as a caulker is an important step toward his own freedom (314). We the readers must, like Douglass, see Hugh Auld as a pirate instead of a master, as a slave driver rather than a father figure or benefactor. All effective propaganda asks us to see the world in black and white, “us” vs. “them.” Johnson's thematic purpose is entirely the opposite—Rutherford learns that he has everything in common with those he felt had oppressed and betrayed him, and that the enemy he was fighting and running from was, in fact, a part of himself.

While Douglass comes to fiercely resent pouring “the reward of my toil into the purse of my master” (316), Rutherford, who has been industriously stealing the reward of other's toil from their purses, learns that it may be time for him to contribute to society instead of filching from it. Douglass's “prison-house of slavery” (305) has become, in Johnson, a prison house of language—our construction of the past has limited our opportunities in the present. Thus has Johnson inverted the form and the theme of the slave narrative to make it serve a late twentieth-century purpose. Rutherford rejects mindless sensation-seeking; he learns self-respect, self-sacrifice, and the value of accepting responsibility and stability.

Johnson persuades readers to accept this overturning of the structure and theme of the slave narrative by his anachronistic and farcical—not satirical—tone. But the slave narrative is only one of the many intertexts that inform and enrich Middle Passage. Rutherford is owned by a master named Peleg Chandler, an allusion to one of the owners of the Pequod in Melville's Moby-Dick, and many parallels can be drawn between Ishmael and Rutherford, Captain Ahab and Captain Falcon. We first meet Ishmael, wanderer and philosopher, at the wharf where he is observing “thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries,” men “tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks” that hear but cannot follow the call of the sea (Melville, Moby-Dick 12-13). Rutherford, like Ishmael, is drawn to the waterfront, where he observes “businessmen with half a hundred duties barnacled to their lives” staring longingly at the ocean (Johnson, Middle Passage 4-5). Both Rutherford and Ishmael “abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever” (Melville, Moby-Dick 14), and it is Ishmael's stoical “Who ain't a slave?” philosophy, his understanding that “everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way—either in a physical or metaphysical point of view” (Melville, Moby-Dick 15), that Rutherford comes to agree with by the end of his Middle Passage. These early allusions to Melville's classic sea story lead us to suspect that Johnson has consciously set out to rewrite not only a classic American slave narrative, but also a “great American novel,” from a slightly different point of view. According to Houston Baker, “the most forceful, expressive cultural spokespersons of Afro-America have traditionally been those who have first mastered a master discourse—at its most rarefied metalevels as well as at its quotidian performative levels—and then, autobiographically, written themselves and their own metalevels palimpsestically on the scroll of such mastery” (42), and this seems to be exactly the project Johnson has undertaken in Middle Passage. Like the Pequod, the Republic will go down, with only a few surviving to tell the tale. Rutherford goes down—but then floats to the top and, as in any good farce, survives the unsurvivable. Unlike Ishmael, who is only another orphan for the Rachel to pick up, Rutherford floats to the surface with his “family” (Baleka and Squibb) attached, and is rescued by a pleasure yacht carrying the one thing they need—Isadora, ready-made wife and mother, complete with wedding regalia.

Johnson's more subtle play on Melville's “Benito Cereno” is even more philosophically significant. This text is explicitly invoked through the names of virtually all the slaves: Babo, Atufal, Diamelo, Nacta, Ghofan, and Akim appear in both narratives. Melville's tale can be seen as a Rorschach blot for critics, since its narrator makes no attempt to judge his characters by some grand moral scheme. The slave leader Babo can be seen as the incarnation of evil itself, or as a freedom fighter who takes the opportunity to overthrow his oppressor. Melville's text offers us little background; he expunges the nastiness displayed by the real Captain Bonito Sereno in his source, Captain Amasa Delano's 1817 Narrative of Voyages and Travels, transforming the despicable and vengeful captain of the slave ship portrayed by Delano into simply a representative man, the best and the worst his culture has produced, neither above it nor, more importantly, below it. Does Benito Cereno receive what he had coming to him, or is he an unfortunate victim? The story has a controversial and various critical history (see, for example, Gross; Richardson; Grejda; Jehlen), but I agree with those critics who see it as a covert argument against slavery. Several critics have noted the symbolic significance of the San Dominick's sternpiece, “a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked” (39). The significance of this symbol is that the half-man, half-goat figure who is “on top” is masked, as is the prostrate human figure. Their identities are unknown—and interchangeable. When Delano first boards the ship, the true situation on board is that those “on top,” those who are symbolized by the satyr, are the black slaves. But only a few hours later it is Captain Delano who has his foot on the neck of the prostrate Babo, after he has jumped into the longboat in order to kill Benito Cereno. Now it is Amasa Delano who is “on top”—who is the satyr, half man, half beast. If we doubt that the whites are depicted as being as cruel as the blacks, we have only to turn to the last pages of the story, where Babo is “dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule,” his body “burned to ashes” and his head “fixed on a pole in the plaza” for many days (104).

As Aldon Nielsen has pointed out, none of the blacks speak about their true motives in Melville's “Benito Cereno,” or even in their true voices; they remain silent, inscrutable “others” whose minds, like Babo's “hive of subtlety” (104), are basically unknowable. In Middle Passage, the rebellious slaves openly articulate their motives. Johnson has also made explicit the brutal conditions which led slaves to revolt, making impossible the interpretation of “Benito Cereno” that takes the Spanish captain as the innocent victim of an evil and unprovoked uprising. But most importantly Johnson has challenged Melville's theme that malign evil is inherent in mankind, and therefore one group will always oppress another throughout history, even though the oppressors and the oppressed will change places periodically. Melville saw no group as intrinsically superior to another—after all, Amasa Delano's believing that the blacks were incapable of carrying out such a devious scheme is his major error. Nevertheless, for him, oppression is inevitable: revenge and retribution will progress in an endless revolving cycle in a godless world until the sun goes out in a puff of smoke.

The character who comes closest to Melville's worldview in Johnson's novel is Ebenezer Falcon, the ultimate American. Falcon believes that “as long as each sees a situation differently there will be slaughter and slavery and the subordination of one to another 'cause two notions of things never exist side by side as equals” and “'tis the winning belief what's true and the conqueror whose vision is veritable” (97). What's more, Falcon believes that there is no hope for peace in the world because

Dualism is a bloody structure of the mind. Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other—these ancient twins are built into mind like the stem-piece of a merchantman. We cannot think without them, sir. And what, pray, kin such a thing mean? Only this, Mr. Calhoun: They are signs of a transcendental Fault, a deep crack in consciousness itself. Mind was made for murder. Slavery, if you think this through, forcing yourself not to flinch, is the social correlate of a deeper, ontic wound.


Rutherford can think of no defense against Falcon's “dark counsel and arguments.” Falcon convinces him that fighting between groups is inevitable, and therefore Rutherford swings wildly among the three different groups on the ship—the Allmuseri, the mutineers, and Falcon's supporters—hoping to end up on the winning side. But by the end of the book he has realized that there is yet another way to make peace. He realizes that the self that he perceives as in mortal combat with everyone else is itself a figment of his imagination. Falcon, who is “immune to heaven,” cannot lose his self, his ego, and ends up shooting himself in the head as the only way to escape being a slave once the Allmuseri take over the ship. He cannot step out of the Hegelian master/slave relationship without killing his body as well as his ego. Rutherford, however, painfully purges his body of his self-identity, through a series of grotesque and symbolic actions which include not only a near-death experience but also vomiting an “afterbirth or a living thing aborted from the body—something foul and shaped like the African god, as if its homunculus had been growing inside me” (178). The African god's name, he has already realized, is Rutherford.

Thus Johnson inverts yet another American classic, showing that there is a way out of the revolving cycle of oppressor and oppressed. Johnson confronts the basic existential problem of our age—how to be neither the victim nor the executioner—and answers it with a call to reinvent our perceptions of ourselves and others, because the history we choose to tell ourselves will shape our future. While Melville's “Benito Cereno” proved that all men harbor a capacity for murder and mayhem, Johnson's Middle Passage insists that we continue striving to be neither victim nor executioner. On all three sides of the fracas, characters like Falcon and Diamelo who believe that might is right and murder is justifiable end up killing themselves and destroying that fragile ship, the Republic, upon which all must depend for survival. Johnson, like Melville, shows that no one is inherently victim or inherently executioner, but that all too often the victim becomes the executioner. Even though Rutherford is no saint after his voyage—he blackmails Papa Zeringue into providing for the support of the three Allmuseri children who have survived the sinking of the Republic—he himself does not desire revenge, power, status, or even sex with the now willing Isadora, because “desire was too much of a wound, a rip of insufficiency and incompleteness that kept us, despite our proximity, constantly apart, like metals with an identical charge” (208). Rutherford has become similar to Reb the coffin-maker in Johnson's Oxherding Tale—able to act in the world without in turn being acted upon, because, as the Soulcatcher puts it in that novel, the man who desires nothing for himself “can't be caught—he's already free” (173).

Every reader will find new and different paths leading out from Johnson's novel to historical, philosophical, and fictional intertexts, and different ways to relate the novel to the current American historical moment. That a novel this rich, this “writerly,” is also so readable and enjoyable is certainly a commendable achievement for the author, and a reason to make it one of our “canonized” American texts, one whose lens we look through to understand the literary and social history of America. Johnson writes that even if, at the final end of history, life proves to be only a sick and meaningless joke, this does not permit us to proclaim now, in the midst of our uncertainty, the certainty that all is meaningless:

God only knows that when we reach Hegel's end of history and all meanings are known, this nightmarish sense that we are locked inexorably into victimization may be, when we look back, the truth; but the social payoff of this grim perception, particularly when it smothers all others in a fiction (or life) is, as Gardner wrote, immoral. We are responsible for the way the world appears before us, for its depth and richness (if we are open to others) or its poverty (if we are not), and for the impact our vision has on others.

(“Phenomenology” 154)

As teachers of literature, these words should resonate for us as a cultural imperative.

Works Cited

Alexander, Marguerite. Flights from Realism: Themes and Strategies in Postmodernist British and American Fiction. London: Edward Arnold, 1990.

Baker, Houston A. Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Bermal, Albert. Farce: A History from Aristophanes to Woody Allen. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Buddhism, Man and Nature. With Alan Watts. Videotape. Harley Film Foundation, n.d.

Delano, Amasa. A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres: Comprising Three Voyages Round the World, Together with a Voyage of Survey and Discovery in the Pacific Ocean and Oriental Islands. Boston: E. G. House, 1817. Chapter XVIII rpt. Richardson 95-122.

Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Gates 243-331.

Gass, William H. Fiction and the Figures of Life. New York: Knopf, 1970.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Goudie, S. X. “‘Leavin' a Mark on the Wor(l)d’: Marksmen and Marked Men in Middle Passage.African American Review 29.1 (1995): 109-22.

Grejda, Edward S. The Common Continent of Men: Racial Equality in the Writings of Herman Melville. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat P, 1974.

Gross, Seymour L. A Benito Cereno Handbook. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1965.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Historiographic Metafiction: Parody and the Intertextuality of History.” Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction. Ed. Patrick O'Donnell and Robert Con Davis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 3-32.

———. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Jablon, Madelyn. Black Metafiction: Self Consciousness in African American Literature. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1997.

Jehlen, Myra, ed. Herman Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Johnson, Charles. Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

———. Oxherding Tale. New York: Grove, 1982.

———. Middle Passage. New York: Penguin, 1990.

———. “A Phenomenology of On Moral Fiction.Thor's Hammer: Essays on John Gardner. Ed. Jeff Henderson. Conway: U of Central Arkansas P, 1985. 147-56.

Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” Bartleby and Benito Cereno. New York: Dover, 1990.

———. Moby-Dick. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.

Nielsen, Aldon L. Writing Between the Lines: Race and Intertextuality. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1994.

Richardson, William D. Melville's “Benito Cereno”: An Interpretation with Annotated Text and Concordance. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic P, 1987.

Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. “The Phenomenology of the Allmuseri: Charles Johnson and the Subject of the Narrative of Slavery.” African American Review 26.3 (1992): 373-94.

———. “The Properties of Desire: Forms of Slave Identity in Charles Johnson's Middle Passage.Arizona Quarterly 50.2 (1994): 73-108.

Travis, Molly Abel. “Beloved and Middle Passage: Race, Narrative, and the Critic's Essentialism.” Narrative 2.3 (1994): 179-200.

Walby, Celestin. “The African Sacrificial Kingship Ritual and Johnson's Middle Passage.African American Review 29.4. (1995): 657-69.

Worton, Michael, and Judith Still. Introduction. Intertextuality: Theories and Practices. Ed. Michael Worton and Judith Still. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1990. 1-33.

Charles Johnson and William R. Nash (interview date spring 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7105

SOURCE: Johnson, Charles, and William R. Nash. “A Conversation with Charles Johnson.” New England Review 19, no. 2 (spring 1998): 49-61.

[In the following interview, Johnson discusses his early life, his literary and philosophical influences, and the role of the writer in African-American culture.]

[Nash]: I'd like to begin with your childhood—what can you tell us about your early life experience that is important to an understanding of your work? How did your home environment influence your development as an artist?

[Johnson]: There's nothing unusual to report about my childhood, except perhaps that it was free of the stress that most sociologists seem to enjoy attributing to black life. I was an only child, the son of a mother who dreamed of being a school teacher (and was a Sunday school teacher) but for health reasons couldn't pursue that goal—she had severe asthma—so I became her only pupil. My father, as I relate in my essay in the anthology Black Men Speaking, is a very hardworking Christian who supported my early desire at age fourteen to become a professional cartoonist and illustrator. Added to which, I grew up in Evanston, Illinois, which in the 1950s was a very attractive community—integrated, with the number-one high school in the nation in the 1960s, a community of black people—many of them tradesmen—who came from the south determined to make a better life for themselves and their children.

I'm also interested to know what each of your parents gave you that has shaped your life experience and your career.

My mother, who died in 1981, had a very artistic sensibility, an artist's eye for the beautiful, the exotic, the unique. When I was a child she conjured things to beautify our home from the humblest of materials, and had me help her. She was in numerous book clubs, so our home was full of books, and naturally I joined a book club on my own (for science fiction) when I was a teenager. Most likely, this presence of literature in our house led me to discipline myself to read one book a week when I was in high school, everything from the James Bond novels to westerns to Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians. My mother also introduced me to keeping a diary when I was twelve years old, which later became a journal when I went away to college, inexpensive books I filled up with poetry, reflections, and later ideas for novels, etc. She recognized my drawing talent even before my teachers in school, of course, and encouraged me in that direction. I suppose what I learned most from my father was how to work. He held down three jobs in the mid-1960s to support my mother and me, never complained about doing so, and he is simply the most moral man I've ever known. Doesn't swear. Goes to church. A generous, easy-to-laugh gentleman who always measured himself by the quality and quantity of his labor.

Do you see your father and mother reappearing in any ways in the fathers and mothers throughout your body of work?

Elements of my father appear sometimes, though I've not drawn yet anything from my mother. As I look at my fiction, I see a recurrent pattern—the exploration of father/son relations, and perhaps this is so because my dad is the only man on earth I've ever felt I had to please or answer to unconditionally.

You've noted that from early on your mother encouraged you to read and draw. Do you also remember being read to when you were young? What sorts of things did she read to you?

I just can't recall. Mom and I did go to movies together when I was little—she'd take me to see the great old sci-fi and horror flicks (one time I ran out in the lobby because I got so scared) and also musicals. Often when I was older we'd read the same books and discuss them.

Can you recall the first book you read that inspired you to consider being an author yourself?

In my teens my only interest really was in drawing, in becoming an illustrator and commercial artist. For example, I was planning on going to art school until the eleventh hour before my graduation when I withdrew from the art school in Illinois that accepted me and decided to major in journalism instead at a university. After reading my one book a week in high school, I'd stack them on my desk, and I do remember once looking at the spines of those books, at the titles, and thinking that, yes, someday I'd enjoy seeing my name on the spine of a book. But in the mid-1960s it was a thought peripheral to my real passion, which was art.

When you began writing in journals, again with your mother's encouragement, what sorts of things were you inspired to record?

Basically, I wrote down all the things I thought and felt that were impolite to say about my relatives and friends. Instead of carrying these things around in my head and heart, I found I could let them spill out on a blank page, where I could look at them—objectified, so to speak—and that was kind of miraculous to me, that the inner could become outer, the intangible and subjective could crystallize before me in the world and be shaped and re-shaped through language, or the drawn image.

Was your drawing an integral part of keeping a journal then? Does it figure into your present journal writing in any way?

I drew in some of the journals—which I have boxes of by now, weighing down one of my filing cabinets. But no, drawing wasn't integral. I will say, however, that sometimes when I'm working on a novel—[Faith and the Good Thing] or Oxherding Tale—I did sketch the main characters for myself, just to visualize them.

Did your journal writing change in any significant way when you shifted from the visual arts to fiction writing?

Yes, the journals became more literary and philosophical. Some entries are mini-essays on aesthetic problems, and often I give them titles. During the late 1970s some of these entries ran for pages and pages because I was working through for myself issues relating to literature, race, and the highly politicized climate of the arts at that time and where I did (or did not) fit within it.

What's the relationship between the material in the journal and your published work? Do your journals ever provide you with inspiration, ideas, etc. for your fiction?

The truth is that once I fill up a journal I usually put it away and start a new one, seldom looking back. On the other hand, I did revisit my entries written at the time of John Gardner's death, edited them, and published these as an article called “Journal Entries on the Death of John Gardner,” which appears in New Myths (1995), edited by Robert Mooney and Philip Brady, and published by the Binghamton University Foundation. Those entries proved invaluable for that project.

Your careers as writer and cartoonist have overlapped twice since you began publishing—first in the late sixties and early seventies and then more recently with your cartoons in the Quarterly Black Review of Books. What's the relationship between the comic art and the fiction you've produced in each of these periods? Has it changed?

One sense in which it hasn't changed is that I simply have to draw in order to feel self-fulfillment. It's a talent I've had since I could pick up a pencil, and I feel it would be dreadful not to develop it—I feel that in a very biblical way (the story of the talents). Back in the 1960s, I worked full-time as an illustrator, political cartoonist, and teacher of cartooning (in Charlie's Pad, and a free course I taught on SIU-Carbondale's campus in 1968)—it was my life. Today I draw because I feel the artwork complements and completes my fiction, just as the stories and drawings of James Thurber complement one another. I see one's body of work as being like a big house with many rooms. There is a foundation for the house I'm building (Oxherding Tale); inside the house are rooms you can wander through or stay awhile in. One has novels. Another has short fiction. In a third you'll find screenplays. A fourth has philosophical essays. A sub-room of that has essays on many other subjects—Indonesia, how to draw political cartoons, etc. Yet another room is devoted to book reviews that (I hope) are position papers on art, as were the reviews of my teacher and friend John Gardner. Yet another room has comic art. On and on through this house, from the basement to the attic, you find art in numerous forms. You find television dramas in one room. Fiction on the martial arts in a sub-room of the bigger room devoted to short stories. This is my conception of what a total body of work is about, one that is evolved over a lifetime, is generous, and offers others a variety of different experiences.

With regard to your earlier cartoons, those in Half-Past Nation-Time and Black Humor, I know that in some ways they respond to the ideas of the Black Arts Movement and the Black Power Movement. What's your sense of the intentions, or phenomenologically speaking, the intentionality of the Black Arts Movement?

That's an easy question. The intentionality is to replace white hegemony with black hegemony in all areas of human experience.

What, in your view, are the benefits and limitations of those intentions?

The benefits are that a people (black) long disenfranchised, denied power and marginalized culturally and politically finally have a voice, self-determination and a “place at the table,” so to speak. The drawback is just what Martin Luther King, Jr. described in his famous sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” i.e., the danger is the tendency for blacks (or previously whites) to dominate others.

Do you see the actual results of those intentions as successful or unsuccessful in the main?

The intention has proven to be successful when black Americans with integrity and talent have been given the opportunity to assume leadership positions in American politics, education, and the arts. It is unsuccessful, of course, when those blacks who simply wish to exploit America's racial problems for personal profit bully their way into leadership positions. Remember, King says in his sermon that we should not deny the “drum major instinct” to want to be first—rather, we should redirect it toward the goals of being first in service to others, first in love, first in giving and generosity.

How do you see the Black Arts Movement affecting your development as a writer?

I've always striven to be the kind of writer for whom nothing of significance is lost or ignored. The Blacks Arts Movement was in the air when I was a college student. It was, sad to say, unavoidable. It was something I had to deal with, whether I really wanted to or not. And I did deal with it, mainly when I was working as a cartoonist. It's important to remember that one of its primary proponents, Amiri Baraka, left it behind in the early seventies—repudiated it, in other words—and embraced what he called “scientific socialism.”

At the heart of these questions is the assumption that you as a black writer will necessarily have commentary about “black issues,” a position that you have resisted for years. There is, however, a great deal of pressure at present on black scholars and artists to become public figures who speak for the race, as it were. What do you see as the boundaries black critics and artists need to observe in the face of this pressure?

The best answer to that question is provided by Peter J. Harris in his essay, “Testimony of a Good Nigger,” which appears in Black Men Speaking (Indiana, 1997), an anthology of original works I co-edited with John McCluskey, Jr. In his essay, Peter says, “I am not trying to be an expert or spokesman for black men. I see black men as experts on their own lives. I humbly ask them what's on their minds. I listen. I risk trust …” In other words, no one can speak for 33 million black Americans. Our continuum of voices ranges from Thomas Sowell to Al Sharpton, Walter Williams and Ken Hamblin to Louis Farrakhan. Would anyone ask John Updike to speak for white Americans? The idea is absurd.

What are the consequences attached to not acknowledging such boundaries?

The worst consequence is that we insult black people by denying their individuality and the variety of their visions. To counteract this foolishness, I tell my children time and time again that each of them is unique, like no one who has ever lived before or will ever live again, and if someone cannot approach them in terms of their individuality, then they should not let that person approach them at all.

Building on that, let's set aside those assumptions for a moment and focus more specifically on your concerns as a writer. In what ways are racially related questions significant for you as an author? And in what ways is race not significant to your aesthetic project?

“Race” is significant to me simply—as I said earlier—because I wish to be a writer on whom nothing of importance is lost. But, as a Buddhist, I see “race” as an illusion, a product of the mind. I see it as maya. I certainly did not start writing in order to address only racial issues. That would, I'm afraid, bore me to death because this mysterious, wondrous universe we inhabit has so much more in it than the illusion of race. Sure, I'll write about it in order to clarify my feelings on, say, Affirmative Action (as I did in the story “Executive Decision”), but I'm just as happy exploring Mark Twain's novel What Is Man? or co-writing an article on the martial arts with a long-time friend I work out with, or doing a piece—as I soon have to—on the experience of “beauty” in Thailand. I write sometimes about race because I'm an American artist, first and foremost, and race is part of our discussion these days. But no, it's not central to my aesthetic position as a phenomenological Buddhist.

You suggest that it is both possible and necessary to see you and other black writers as more than experts on one issue. What's your opinion of racial critics like bell hooks and Trey Ellis, among others, who call for an expansion of the possibilities inherent in black artistry beyond current limitations? Do you see connections between your work and their call for a new conception of African American art—what hooks calls an “aesthetics of blackness”?

I've read Trey's essay on a new black aesthetic, and I'm somewhat familiar with hooks's criticism. Yes, there are similarities when—as artists and critics—we speak to the need for black artists to create more expansively, but it's very important to sort out the differing landscapes of our critical positions, where we agree and disagree.

Are there young writers publishing today you see benefiting from your resistance to racial essentialism?

That's a tough question. I don't want to take credit, you know, for any other artist's progress or evolution.

That leads me to another larger question again—you say in Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970 that “our most interesting writers … consciously formulate for themselves an esthetic, a project.” How do you see your body of work as a whole in terms of a larger project? Are the published works steps in a progression towards a definite end? If so, how would you define that end, and where do you see yourself at present in terms of your journey toward it?

Please look back to my metaphor of a body of work as being like a many-roomed house (or mansion). That's the goal: to create in great abundance, as a service, as an act of giving. Specifically, I began writing to fill what I perceived as a void in black philosophical fiction. To be perfectly honest, there is more engagement with philosophy—Western and Eastern—in my work than you will find anywhere in the history of black American literature. At forty-nine, after working steadily as a professional artist for thirty-two years, I see myself as just a little beyond the middle of my journey. I want another twenty good years of creative production, in the arena of philosophical fiction, but also on the endless number of other subjects that stimulate my imagination and intellect—“regional phenomenologies,” as I believe Husserl once put it.

In your first three novels, there are characters—Richard Barrett in Faith and the Good Thing, Ezekiel Sykes-Withers in Oxherding Tale, Ebenezer Falcon in Middle Passage—whom you mock in some way for their devotion to philosophy, which is, as you've made clear, one of your passions. What's the purpose of this mockery? How does it reflect your understanding of yourself as a philosopher and a writer?

Well, I can laugh at myself. There are three things in this world that mean more to me than anything else, things I feel the world would be unbearable without—philosophy, art, and religion. But the tradition of philosophers poking fun at themselves goes back to Plato's dialogues. Take a look at Maurice Merleau-Ponty's wonderful inaugural lecture, In Praise of Philosophy, which he delivered at the College de France on January 15, 1953 (The translation was published by Northwestern University Press in 1963). There he writes, “it is useless to deny that philosophy limps … (The philosopher) does not take sides like others, and in his assent something massive and carnal is lacking. He is not altogether a real being … One must be able to withdraw and gain distance in order to become truly engaged, which is, also, always an engagement in the truth … The limping of philosophy is its virtue … and the very detachment of the philosopher assigns to him a certain kind of action among men.”

I think that statement says it all. Philosophers have long been persecuted by society, starting with Socrates, because they are the men and women who step back from the marketplace, reflect on experience, and when everyone else has made up their minds, the philosopher says, “Wait, let's look at this another way,” or, “Excuse me, I believe you missed something here.” Remember, for the Greeks the symbol of philosophy (“the love of wisdom”) was the owl of Minerva. And it was said the owl of Minerva only flew at night, meaning that philosophy begins at the end of the day when men leave the self-interested realm of the marketplace, step back from the busy-ness of the world, and talk to each other in hopes of clarifying their experience and what it means.

One interesting issue that arises in your frequent discussions of what you value is the notion of process as being important, that sense that people need to recognize that they are “verbs, not nouns,” as you say. Can you say more about your own particular writing process and the way that you put your foundational ideas into practice as you write and as you teach?

More than anything else I value discovery. I'm certain what we know about this mysterious universe in which we find ourselves counts for less than one percent of what can be known. I distrust all explanatory models, whether they are sociological, political, or economic. That's why I settled into phenomenology, which is a method, not a metaphysics; and Buddhism, a religion that in its earliest forms some have described as being “rudimentally phenomenological.” When I create—write or draw—I count on the creation to lead my thoughts and feelings to places they've never been. I expect to be surprised (and if the artist is not surprised during the process of creation, a reader will be bored). See the work of art as being like a laboratory. You enter into it, not with an answer, but instead a hypothesis you want to test. Instead of having test tubes and Bunsen burners, you have other tools—characters, plot, language's possibilities, the forms we inherit from the past—and you use those tools to test your hypothesis. By the end of the process, your initial hypothesis may be confirmed, denied, or significantly modified. Whatever the case, you will have learned something about the phenomenon you were investigating and about yourself. I think art must be seen this way—as a truth-seeking process. One that requires an open mind, an open heart, and the courage to face wherever the process of discovery will take you.

As you've indicated, when you were a beginning writer, you had a close association with John Gardner. In what ways did that relationship influence you, both as a writing teacher and as a writer?

My best answer is to refer you to the essays I've written on precisely this matter—my introduction to Gardner's On Writers and Writing, and my essay “John Gardner as Mentor” in the winter 1996 special issue of African American Review that's devoted to my work. To summarize, I can only say that John Gardner was one of the most important writers and theoreticians about writing in American literature in the twentieth century. He set a standard for himself and his students that was inspirational, total, and I'm pleased to report that fifteen years after his death there is now a Gardner revival—his discovery by an entire new generation of young writers, many of whom tell me they only wish they could have met him.

You've said that “The heart of memorable, enduring fiction is imaginative storytelling reinforced by massive technique.” What elements do you particularly value in a well-written story? What counts in your eyes as “massive technique”?

I ask a lot from a story. I want it to be (like a work of philosophy) coherent, consistent, and complete. I want it to clarify some aspect of experience. I want suspense—yes, that. I want original, vivid characters. I want to feel that the author is someone I can intellectually trust, i.e., that he or she knows intellectual history. I want to feel myself plunged into a complete fictional world, one that is like a dream (as Gardner once put it). I want language that is rich and shows me the possibilities of the English tongue. I want plot. I want a theme or “conflict” that is explored in all its ambiguity and subtlety. I want wit, irony, and humor. A sense of voice. Imagery that is fresh and like a revelation. I want authorial “generosity,” the author giving as much as he (or she) can. In short, I want a masterpiece when I sit down to read—otherwise I could be meditating, doing kung-fu, drawing, or doing something with my wife and kids.

Are there other contemporary authors you can name who in your view achieved this level of skill? What elements of technique do you admire in their work?

Different authors do things I admire, all specific to them. No one can match Gardner for maddeningly microscopic detail in Mickelsson's Ghosts. We can always count on Nicholas Delbanco for superb elegance on the level of the sentence. James Alan McPherson has a brutal, emotional honesty I admire. Rebecca Goldstein risks intellectual fiction. David Guterson, my friend and former student, labors hard at verisimilitude. This list could go on and on, so I'll just mention those few.

One of the striking and distinctive features of your own fiction is your use of humor, which is often shocking or surprising. What's the place of humor in your aesthetic?

I wonder why it's shocking. I did start off as a comic artist, a cartoonist. And isn't humor part of the fabric of human experience?

It's my understanding that humor is an important part of Zen teachings, and I know that as a Buddhist you are profoundly influenced by Eastern philosophy and also by the practice of the martial arts, which you have referred to as “meditation in motion.” There are several places where this interest in the martial arts surfaces in your work—first of all, some of your most powerful short fiction, stories like “China” and “Kwoon,” deal with the transformative power of life in a martial arts school. Can you comment further on the significance of the martial arts for you?

Well, I started training thirty years ago last summer at a kung-fu kwoon in Chicago. For me it was a rite of passage. I teach martial arts at a club in Seattle. It's an integral part of my life (and that of my son, who at twenty-two wins first place trophies in kata and sparring) because I've always believed that we must develop ourselves along three lines—the mental, the spiritual, and the physical. I chose philosophy for the first, Buddhism for the second, and kung-fu for the third. What's wonderful about a traditional, Shaolin-based system such as the one I've practiced since 1981, Choy Li Fut, is that it doorways on Buddhist practice, Chinese culture, Tai Chi Chuan and Taoism, and the whole five-thousand-year-old wealth of the East.

Is there a metaphorical and or an actual link between the martial arts and your creative process?

Yes, all the fighting “sets” we do are (some are over three hundred moves long) art, creations handed down over a hundred years. Also, both writing and kung-fu require discipline, and ekagratha (one-pointedness of mind).

Another place where Eastern thought appears in your work is Oxherding Tale, which clearly draws on the “Ten Oxherding Pictures.” One of the main characters in the novel, Reb, is a coffin maker who has a rather unusual approach to his craft. Can you talk a little bit about what Reb represents in the context of Eastern philosophy?

In that novel, Reb is the resident Taoist. His approach to creation is based on first getting himself out of the way, forgetting himself. As a Buddhist, I do believe that the self is an illusion, a fiction, something we must set aside if we hope to perform an action—art, a kung-fu set, serving tea—well. By doing this, Reb transcends epistemological dualism, is able to act egolessly, and through his art serves others.

Reb is also a member of the Allmuseri tribe, the mythic wizards you created who are one of your most interesting innovations. The tribe appears in some ways in Oxherding Tale, in Middle Passage, and in the short stories “The Education of Mingo,” “The Sorcerer's Apprentice,” and “The Gift of the Osua.” You've suggested that the Swamp Woman, the werewitch in Faith and the Good Thing, might well be a proto-Allmuseri. Could you please explain the important features of the tribe and how it fits into the larger picture of your aesthetic project?

Put simply, I imagined the Allmuseri to be the most spiritually evolved people on earth. An entire tribe of Mother Teresas and Gandhis. The details of their culture, however, were not features I invented—I drew them from real cultures in Africa, India, and China. Imagine Shangri-la as a people. It's the tribe I want to belong to. They have transcended dualism, conquered that most ancient of objects—the self—and live lives of perfect peace, nonviolence, creativity, and ahimsa (“harmlessness to all sentient beings”).

Do you see yourself returning to the Allmuseri in future works? Do they have any role in your most recent work, Dreamer?

I just finished Dreamer, and I can report that, yes, I discovered the presence of the Allmuseri in that novel. I'm sure they'll appear in other works to come insofar as they give me a vehicle for exploring some of the ideas and experiences I find most intriguing.

I've also noted that in each of the novels and stories where the Allmuseri appear, there is a character who seems diametrically opposed to them—the clearest example I can think of is Flo Hatfield, the hedonistic plantation owner in Oxherding Tale who owns Reb and who makes Andrew Hawkins literally her “love slave.” What do Flo and characters like her represent, and what do you intend in setting these forces in conflict?

As you've noticed, the structure of my novels tends to be Hegelian; I feel most comfortable (in the novel form) setting antimonies—visions of the world, each with their own truths—at war against each other, then tracing the process of this conflict as it plays itself out. Gary Storhoff nails what I'm doing in his essay, “The Artist as Universal Mind: Berkeley's Influence on Charles Johnson” (which is included in that winter 1996 issue of African American Review). In that piece, he says that “In general terms, the negative characters of Johnson's stories are all materialists …” I despise crude materialism. As one of my Buddhist friends and I often joke, it's a vision of the world where you simply have, not people, but “meat moving around.” It's soulless. It's mechanical, reductionistic, and the reason Husserl and Albert Schweitzer wrote books in reaction to it early in this century. Flo Hatfield is a slave to Matter (which is only a concept, of course), and to me is a tragic creature lost—as a Buddhist would say—in samsara.

What do you think the protagonists of vour first three novels—Faith Cross (Faith and the Good Thing), Andrew Hawkins (Oxherding Tale), and Rutherford Calhoun (Middle Passage)—have in common?

All those characters are seekers, questers (and adventurers). Fredrick T. Griffiths, the critic, rightly calls them “phenomenological pilgrims.” He's so right—my characters are adventurers of ideas, truth-seekers (and thus have the philosophical impulse, even when they're not trained philosophers), and hunger for wisdom.

Is there a character in Dreamer who fits this profile?

Oh yes, the narrator. I can't conceive of ever writing about a character indifferent to truth or one dead to the wonder and mystery of Being.

Your first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, is structured as a literary representation of an African American folktale, and I'm struck by your usage of some folkloric conventions—you use evocative expressions such as “The devil was beating his wife,” which indicates that sun is shining during a rain shower, for instance. Can you say something about how you came to be interested in using this form to tell a particular story?

Well, I love tales. And I love the astonishing authority and flexibility in the voice of the traditional narrator of tales (folk or fairy tales). Before writing Faith I read Julius Lester's Black Folktales and enjoyed that immensely at the time. Faith gave me the opportunity to read eighty books on folklore and magic as I composed that novel. Furthermore, the tale has been a rather nice vehicle for philosophy and fun since at least Voltaire wrote Candide. It also gave me a chance to tell stories within a story, making Faith somewhat like a Chinese box. Believe me, I will return to the tale whenever I can as a break from naturalistic fiction as we inherit that approach from the late nineteenth century.

In your second novel, Oxherding Tale, there's a character named Horace Bannon, or the Soulcatcher, who seems to be his own canvas, though the art he has perfected is killing, not painting.

In a way, perhaps all my fictions are about art. The Soulcatcher is a creation spun right from The Bhagavad-Gita, a work so devoted to transcending dualism that “slayer” and “slain” are depicted as unified, one, in God. Bannon is good at what he does: murder. Just as a snake produces poison and (in an old Buddhist tale), has nothing to offer Gautama but that as a gift (which he accepts), so too the Soulcatcher—the destroyers—have their place in the fabric of Being. What, in then end, is a martial art except a way to kill? Yes, it's an art form, but it's also martial. As practitioners, we hope we never have to use it, that we can keep it on the level of just health and self-defense, but if it, doesn't work as a means to slay, it fails to fulfill its purpose. See all this in terms of Yin and Yang, or—even better—Bannon as a bit of an American Shiva.

That language on “slayer” and “slain” reminds me of Emerson's poem “Brahma,” and, in Oxherding Tale you poke fun, through the character of Ezekiel Sykes-Withers, at Transcendentalism. What's your sense of Transcendentalism as a Western attempt at understanding Eastern philosophy? In what ways are you linked to that effort, if at all? Do you see any connection between your own work and that of someone like Emerson?

I've always read Emerson as my spiritual brother, and I'm deeply thankful for the presence of Transcendentalism in nineteenth-century literature—as a first groping toward the vision of the Dharma. In fact, I see myself (and certainly Jean Toomer) as writing in a latter-day version of that literary tradition. And, of course, just as I can embrace it, I can find a little healthy humor in it too.

You've also said that on some level this novel is a response to Herman Hesse's Siddhartha. In what ways do you feel you've responded to Hesse? What in his work demanded a response from you?

I first read Siddhartha when I was nineteen or twenty. What deeply impressed me was how Hesse, this German author, could express with such accuracy the progress of Gautama, the twenty-fifth Buddha, and at the novel's end deliver (if only in part) something of the experience of Moksha. What he achieved should not have been possible through language, according to both Zen and Taoism. But he did it. He did it, where his friend Thomas Mann failed to do so in The Transposed Heads. I simply had to respond, to take up the challenge of confronting the religion that has meant so much to me since my teens, but in a black American context. Where Hesse confines himself to Buddhism, I chose to appropriate elements of that as well as Buddhism's source—Hinduism—and its Chinese complement, Taoism. Being an artist, I chose as my meditation the “Ten Oxherding Pictures,” the drawings (canonical in Buddhism) that fascinated me since my late teens.

In short, the only proper response to a work of art that deeply moves one is another work of art created as a reply.

On the issue of response to predecessors, you mention Herman Melville directly or indirectly in both Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage, and you quote The Confidence Man in the epigraph to The Sorcerer's Apprentice. When did your interest in him develop? Why is his work interesting or useful to you as a writer?

Melville should be of interest to anyone who cares about and loves literature. For an American writer, he—a genius—is essential reading in what I call the “epic conversation” of writers tackling perennial philosophical questions across centuries. I just published a story in Susan Shreve's anthology Outside the Law (Beacon, 1997) that explores Affirmative Action, but that story, “Executive Decision,” is informed by Melville's “Bartleby the Scrivener,” which is one of the great tales in American literature. I discovered Melville in my early twenties, by which I mean Moby-Dick, and I found there a mind worth spending time with and trying to understand.

You've described Captain Ebenezer Falcon, a character in Middle Passage, as a “Wolf Larsen” type, referring to Jack London's The Sea Wolf. What does London offer you as a writer and, more generally, how does your work respond to the larger aesthetic issues of naturalism that someone like London presents?

First, what London offers us all is spirited storytelling—everything from The Sea Wolf to Martin Eden, from “To Build a Fire” to Call of the Wild and The Iron Heel. That alone is worth the price of admission: the gift for telling a great story. In addition to that, London's peculiar blend of Nietzsche and Marx gives his fiction—what shall I say?—a philosophical personality, which is more than can be said for 99 percent of the fiction published today. As for naturalism, it's a theory and a literary approach I can respect in our late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century authors, one I use myself when a story demands it, but you know, I think, that I prefer the tale to stories that naively take the scientific method as understood at the turn of the century as a model for fiction, i.e. “social realism” that detotalizes the realms of experience and reduces everything to “meat moving around.”

Your remarks suggest that you're generally inclined to situate your work within the tradition of American philosophical fiction—certainly Bellow and Melville are of this tradition, and there are a number of other authors one would think of whom you seem to refer to in your fiction, including Jean Toomer, Ralph Ellison, Walker Percy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe, What do you think you have in common with these authors, and how do you see your own work as differing from theirs?

My formal training is, as you know, in philosophy (to say nothing of it being my passion as well). The authors you've mentioned write what some have called “intellectual fiction,” yet each in a different way, and with a different emphasis on primarily ethical questions. The questions I tend to explore, while they impact on the area of ethics (the bastard child of philosophy), fall within the areas of ontology and epistemology. Given my commitment to Buddhism, I return quite often to the question of the “self,” and the nature of desire; as a phenomenologist, I take consciousness as the starting point of my fictional reflections. If I have anything in common with the authors you mention, it is simply (I believe) that all of the above and myself feel at home with ideas and regard fiction as traditionally a proper medium for exploring them.

Your most recent novel, Dreamer, treats Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1966 Chicago campaign. What in particular do you think King has to offer us in this stage of the nation's history?

A social vision for an America that has fallen away from the ideals of integration and brotherhood. I've written about this in “The King We Left Behind” in Common Quest (fall 1996), and also in the article “Searching for the Hidden Martin Luther King” which anyone can read on the internet by clicking on˜johnson.

Dreamer will be the third in a series of novels for you dealing with historical subject matter—slavery, the Middle Passage, and now the civil rights movement. What draws you as a novelist to these historical subjects? Are there other historical subjects you'd like to address?

I hope no one ever mistakes me for an “historical writer.” That's never been my intention. I would have set Oxherding Tale in the present, if I could have gotten away with doing so, but it had to be in the period of slavery. I suppose the truth is that I enjoy doing research when I write a novel—I come away from the experience knowing far, far more than when I started any of these projects. By working outside of the present I also find that I'm given a kind of epoché or bracketing of the concerns of the moment in 1997. If I'm writing a story set in 1830 I have the chance to reconstruct the entire world from scratch, right down to the clothing, the props, the language used by the characters (Johanna Russ once told me that is one of the delights enjoyed by science-fiction writers, and I understand that pleasure fully). The problems of today—in 1997—can often be explored without the pressures of 1997, and with the required distance when we set them in either a different time-frame or (if you like) an unusual setting, as in my short story, “Menagerie.”

For you as a novelist, what's the connection between the writing of history and the writing of fiction?

The similarities are striking. In a novel, one is in effect creating a slice of history for the protagonist. A good novelist must always relish the study of history (an interpretative art, like fiction) because the challenges are so close to novel writing—we're given a wealth of details all of which must be made to cohere through the connective tissue of the act of interpretation. In envisioning our fictive characters, we must do as the biographer does—inquiring into their birth, parents' lives, education, environmental circumstances, their psychology, etc., if we expect them to have a three-dimensional feel. The study of history provides excellent guidelines for precisely this kind of novelistic creation of characters.

In addressing historical subject matter in the creation of fiction, what do you think are the author's responsibilities to the historical record?

I believe the historical record should be respected as much as possible, for delivering, say, aspects of the history of a marginalized people is in itself a form of service. But it's true, a creator must be given a degree of “poetic license” to omit or bend things a little in the service of the truth of the fiction. The “facts” are clearly important, but what concerns a novelist most, I believe, is the truth the “facts” can potentially deliver.

This seems to me to connect with the larger issue of postmodernism, a category to which many critics want to assign Oxherding Tale because of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century interplay, the self-referential character of the text, and the challenge to the “actual” historical record that you include. Do you see yourself as a postmodern writer or this as a postmodern work?

Sorry, but I don't describe myself as postmodern. If some critics see Oxherding Tale that way, that's fair—some of the elements I've seen attributed to postmodernism do occur some of my fictions (the ones that demanded self-referentiality and intertextuality, etc.) but certainly not in all my stories.

Where do you see serious American fiction heading in the near future? And what's your sense of your own place in that progression?

Where I'd like to see serious American fiction heading is toward a greater appreciation of the life of the spirit. If my work contributes even a little to that development, then I'll feel I've done my job.

Patricia Holt (review date 19 April 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1032

SOURCE: Holt, Patricia. “King and I.” San Francisco Chronicle (19 April 1998): C1.

[In the following review, Holt argues that Dreamer is a “monumentally important” novel, praising the work for its treatment of the doppelganger theme and its philosophical insights on Martin Luther King Jr.]

Seattle novelist Charles Johnson could not have taken a greater or more audacious risk following his National Book Award-winning novel, Middle Passage (1990), than to create a fictional Martin Luther King Jr. as protagonist of the simply named but monumentally important Dreamer.

Johnson, Pollock professor of English at the University of Washington, takes us so deeply inside the mind of King that we don't doubt for a moment we're in the presence of the real Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) crusade in riot-torn Chicago circa 1966.

By this time, King's methods are seen “as outmoded, his insistence on loving one's enemies as lunacy, his opposition to (the violence of) Black Power as outright betrayal.” Yet, living in a cockroach-ridden Chicago tenement with few supplies, surrounded by gunshots and fires, concerned over expenses, King tries mightily to galvanize the races against the hatred and poverty he knows so well.

Thanks to Johnson's meticulous research, we see how the smallest of irritants sometimes strike the hardest blow. Leaving the tenement, King finds that a cockroach has crawled out of his suit coat, “dropping obscenely onto the papers spread before him at the conference table. Filthy things! he thought. A constant companion of the poor.”

Johnson's understanding of King is so profound that he could have limited this novel to a smart and accessible exploration of King's most private thoughts about faith and philosophy. But with his novelist's instinct, he grips us immediately with a stunning doppelganger theme.

He asks us to imagine King suddenly facing his exact double. Chaym Smith not only looks exactly like King but wants to stand in for him during those public occasions when would-be assassins—perhaps inspired by the many posters reading “The Only Way to End Negroes Is Extermination”—might find a clear shot.

Smith explains that his background of poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, prison, mental breakdown and loss of family compel him to offer himself as decoy: “I figure God f— up and missed with me, but He had you for backup,” he laughs.

King at first says no. The twinning is too emblematic: King, the man of privilege, power, vision and comparative wealth cannot see him self making life-and-death decisions for the powerless, directionless, futureless Smith. But when he realizes that Smith, a Korean War vet, insatiable autodidact and Zen follower, is practiced at moving danger away rather than toward himself, King comes up with a plan.

Two aides, Matthew and Amy, drive Smith to a place in the country where they teach him about the SCLC movement and King's physical appearance—how he dresses, walks, talks, gestures. But Smith surprises them by seeming to oppose everything King stands for: Equality, the ideal King risks his life for daily, will never exist and shouldn't, says Smith. “(Negroes are) despised worldwide,” he tells Matthew. “You ever thought we might be second-class citizens because generally we are second-rate?”

Hatred, which King preaches must be replaced with love, is a good thing, says Smith. “I've been on the outside long enough to know that hatred is healthy—even holy—and that until you step away, or they cast you out, you can't see nothin' clearly.” Smith may be descended from Cain, but it's even worse to think that King is Abel's child. “The problem with all the f— anointed and somebody like Abel,” says Smith, “is that they're sheep. That's right, part of the obedient, tamed, psalm-singing herd. They make me sick, every one of 'em.”

Dreamer shifts from building suspense and edge-of-your-seat confrontations to an everyday application of philosophical thought that will delight scholars and lay readers alike. “Get the Nietzsche out of your system,” King says to Matthew, a philosophy student. “He's seductive for children—all that lust for power—but he's really the one we're fighting against.”

Of course, Nietzsche would love the true nihilist in this book, namely Smith. He remarks cavalierly about taking on King's appearance: “Sure, I can mark him. That's easy. Everybody's playing a role anyway, trying to act like what they're supposed to be, wearing at least one mask, probably more, and there's nothing underneath, Bishop. Just emptiness.”

Matthew sees King as alternately Apollonian and Dionysian, but as Smith's wide-ranging reading (from texts on Sufism and Tantrism to translations from the Coptic Gnostic Library and the Dhammapada) works its way into the book's core, Johnson repeatedly refers to Hegel, whose notion of thesis and antithesis is suggested by King and Smith, with the idea of synthesis always within (yet just beyond) reach.

Johnson's ruminative style proves most eloquent during scenes of violence in which we see, as if for the first time, the staggering power of King's courage and compassion. At a march in Chicago, walking “into a shower of spit, rocks, beer bottles, and firecrackers,” King, who has refused the stand-in, is cracked on the head by a brick and must be carried the rest of the way. Only at the end does Smith get into King's car to divert “a gang of whites chasing after him.”

Johnson sometimes uses the book to set the record straight as he sees it. He clearly believes that the rumors about women having affairs with King, the sex parties he supposedly attended, his loud voice captured on an incriminating tape were all fabricated by the FBI, which takes a strong role in the story.

Throughout, the question of who's mirroring whom blinks out at us. At first, King and Smith seem to represent timeless reflections of self and other, saint and sinner, idealism and cynicism, hope and hopelessness, hatred and love, even Jesus and Satan.

But ultimately the role of Smith bears as much on the legacy of the servant as on the dream and its dreamer. “No man can make me hate,” King preaches. “I have no choice but to love others because I am the others.” Matthew, pondering King's teachings, leaves us to wonder, “Wasn't every murder a suicide as well?”

Andrew Zawacki (review date 26 September 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1073

SOURCE: Zawacki, Andrew. “The Philosopher King.” Financial Times (26 September 1998): 8.

[In the following review of Dreamer, Zawacki notes the importance that Johnson places on Martin Luther King Jr.'s role as a moral philosopher.]

Novelist Charles Johnson is best known as the only African American since Ralph Ellison to win the National Book Award. Thirty-eight years after the publication of Ellison's Invisible Man in 1952, Johnson's Middle Passage (1990) earned its author high praise from critics considering him an heir to Melville, Conrad and Swift as well as to Wright and Cleaver.

The civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King Jr is the focus of Dreamer, Johnson's new novel, which is published next week in the UK. Set in Chicago during the last two years of King's life, Dreamer is a fictional account of King's encounter with his almost identical “double,” Chaym Smith.

Johnson's preparation for the novel was intense: he spent two years after Middle Passage researching King's sermons and collected papers and he studied documentary footage of the civil rights movement in Chicago from 1966 through to King's assassination on April 4, 1968. “I needed to understand this man better, I felt, than I did,” said Johnson in a recent interview, “so I read every scrap he managed to write from childhood forward.”

He emphasises that it is not just about King “. … it's also about doubles and the people who made possible the civil rights movement—black people prior to 1970 and going back to the period of reconstruction.” But Johnson has not ignored Yeats's admonition, “In dreams begin responsibility.” “I felt my primary responsibility,” Johnson explains, “was to deliver, particularly for those born after 1970, a portrait of this man that was not the airbrushed, canonised figure that we have come to celebrate every January 15.”

Particularly distressing to Johnson are the ways King's philosophy has been distorted. “After King's death, many people in America moved farther and farther away from his dream.” In Washington state, (where Johnson holds the Pollock chair in creative writing at the University of Washington) “we have a pro-gun group quoting King, who they say would see possession of firearms as a civil right. On the other end of the continuum we have Louis Farrakhan, who also feels free to quote King. My question is: what did this man actually say about various issues? A lot of that has been lost, as well as the scars and bruises of this remarkable man, who I think is one of the most important moral philosophers of the 20th century. I wanted to put those pores and scars and that sweat back on his brow, particularly during the last two, very difficult years of his life.”

Johnson finds it “compelling and interesting how little people across America knew this man. People know him as a civil rights leader, but they don't know him as a moral philosopher, as a man of the spirit.”

Apart from Johnson's mission to remind the world of King and his legacy, there was another factor which prompted the theme of the novel. “We began to hear in the 1980s and early '90s the tragic statistics about the situation of young black men in America,” he says, noting that in California, one in three black men between 16 and 34 are “controlled by the criminal justice system.” As the father of a son who was “in that critical age group” in '80s, Johnson began wondering, “Didn't King address these matters?”

King, he concluded, is more relevant than ever. “He said we have to fight on two fronts. One is the external battle against discrimination, injustice and segregation. The other is internal, it's looking inward, in terms of a constant, life-long effort for self-improvement and personal evolution, growth towards particular spiritual ideals. For King, you could not have success with one without having success with both.”

Johnson considers himself a philosophical novelist rather than a writer of historical fiction. Asked if the relation between the metaphysical aspects of Dreamer and its specific political milieu had been a balancing act, he answers: “King is a philosopher, so he gives me access to a broad canvas, to important moral and ontological ideas that relate to politics. I think that it's all one whole. It is a balancing act, but politics is very much a part of our lives, and I find the political realm interesting when we respond to its complexity.”

Johnson finds several of King's tenets “philosophically interesting.” Firstly, “the idea that non-violence is not just a strategy on civil rights demonstrations, but intended originally to be a way of life. Secondly, why he spoke so often of agape, or unconditional love, and why that was so important in terms of mediating racial situations in America and preventing black-white conflicts from becoming a power struggle. Thirdly, his belief, right down to the very end of his life, in integration. The way he articulates that at times demonstrates how our lives, our language, the clothes we wear, the furniture of our world are already inherently integrated.”

But American racial politics of the 1960s were, of course, bitterly defined by bifurcations. “The civil rights movement ultimately,” argues Johnson, “is about self and other. It's about black selves and white others, white selves and black others, and how we construct our identity.” So it's no surprise that fictional doubles recur in Johnson's work. “Doubles occur a lot, because the twin is our mirror, because our identity is social, it's based on a ‘we’ relationship, so the other person understands something about me I can't.”

The novel's conclusion alludes to Andrew Young's accusation that when King was shot, Jesse Jackson covered his palms with blood and then appeared bloodstained before the press. “I was haunted by the feeling,” says the young narrator Matthew Bishop, “that this act of theatre and falsity, this photo-op, would define the spirit of black struggle for decades after the minister's demise.” Asked whether this fear has been realised, Johnson looks to his exemplar: “I don't think in 30 years we've had a leader like Dr. Martin Luther King, who was a leader for all Americans, black and white. His last campaign was for poor Americans, blacks, Appalachians, Hispanics, Native Americans, everybody. I don't think we've had a leader who's spoken that way across racial divides, who has spoken so eloquently about the beloved community. I think that he was very special and that we've felt his absence as a kind of ache for 30 years now.”

Richard Hardack (essay date 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14338

SOURCE: Hardack, Richard. “Black Skin, White Tissues: Local Color and Universal Solvents in the Novels of Charles Johnson.” Callaloo 22, no. 4 (1999): 1028-53.

[In the following essay, Hardack discusses Johnson's application of transcendental thought to issues of race, identity, and history in his novels such as Oxherding Tale, Middle Passage, and Faith and the Good Thing.]


In his postmodern novels Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage—and in passing, Faith and the Good Thing, Johnsonian pun intended—Charles Johnson implies that African Americans lacked access to a Jacksonian self during the American Renaissance. As such they were dispossessed of a transcendentalism rightly theirs—what Johnson at times characterizes as a pre-Western, unmediated relationship with Being or Nature.1 Having no property-based self-identity to transcend, African-American men and women were denied access to a putative pre-Western unity of being, access white male transcendentalists pursuing Jacksonian selves can only problematically feign. Johnson asserts that slavers brought over not just slaves, but a shape-shifting African god to the new world (paralleling Ishmael Reed's arguments about Osiris/Pan and American pantheism in Mumbo Jumbo). In Middle Passage, Johnson's white transcendental ship carries an entire transcendental African culture stowed away in its hold (which Johnson claims to set free): this transcendentalism of the African Allmuseri tribe is configured as unified, opposed to the dualistic transcendentalism of white Americans. In Johnson, an Allmuseri unity of being then lies behind one facet of Emersonian transcendentalism.2 While trying himself to transcend or dismantle the category of race, Johnson also here implies that white Americans brought Africans to this country not to get bodies, but culture, a move whites systematically deny and try to invert.

I particularly want to focus on how Johnson grapples with the way Being in America is racialized, but also asserts that Being completely transcends race. Like Emerson, Johnson believes that all matter and nature, from his body to slavery, are only reflections of mind, finally indicating a phenomenological rather than historical state: Johnson consistently echoes Emerson's claims about the metaphysical status of slavery. Despite his heartfelt anti-slavery writings, Emerson was rarely able to address the issue of race except as a metaphysical condition.3 When Emerson, throughout his works, purports that universal ideas, rather than specific actions, reform society, he displays transcendentalism's American tendency to bury history and politics beneath the facade of the eternal: even read against the context of the categorical imperative and enlightenment philosophy, it is still chilling to read Emerson claim, “He is immoral who is acting to any private end. He is moral whose aim or motive may become a universal rule.”4 One primary effect of Emerson's rhetoric is to condemn any political action, any partiality, which includes race, as unidealistic and immoral. Emerson therefore insists in “Self-Reliance” that he has “other slaves to free than those Negroes, to wit, imprisoned spirits, imprisoned thoughts, far back in the brain of man”: furthermore, just as “prayer that craves a particular commodity, anything less than all good, is vicious,” so too “he who aims at progress should aim at an infinite, not a special benefit.”5 This dramatically unqualified condemnation of the practical operation of American politics supports the claim that reform makes the universal particular, fragments the whole to parts, or parses the perfect infinite to the flawed individual. In his novels, Johnson resuscitates not just Emerson's transcendentalism, but his troubling political “idealism” regarding race and history. For Johnson, the transcendence of particularity or relativism is equivalent to the transcendence of race itself.

I need to make several provisos before I start: as a neo-phenomenologist, Johnson doesn't really believe in history (which, from his perspective, would make any dispute of his historical framework the rhetorical equivalent of rebuking Emerson for inconsistency). I also acknowledge that it's particularly difficult to critique Johnson's idiosyncratic and seemingly inconsistent notions of race, for he doesn't embrace standard definitions of individual identity either, and we can get caught in a chicken and egg game of which comes first, “individual” or “racial” identity. Johnson is suspicious of all “diversity,” or multiplicity, which for him produces relativism and cancels philosophical unity or oneness with the world. For all ‘intentionalist’ purposes, I should also note that Johnson—trained in Western and African philosophy, Asian religion, and creative as well as martial arts—draws almost as much from Zen Buddhism as he does from African-American folklore.6

Johnson at times wants to “develop a feeling for how race (Better to say raciality thereby clarifying race as a structure of all perception, like sexuality, spatiality, temporality) figures how we give form, in literature and life to our experience” (“Philosophy” 55). Here and throughout his work, Johnson prefigures some of Judith Butler's project in Gender Trouble: vis à vis Anthony Appiah, Johnson characterizes the once-essential category of race as purely performative in much the way Butler characterizes gender. For Johnson, race is a socially constructed, if also metaphysical state; but it apparently “structures all perceptions” nonetheless. Yet in Being and Race (1988), his phenomenological critique of black literature, Johnson hopes “we will see a fiction of Americans who happen to be black,” as if race could and should be a secondary trait: Johnson thus wants race to serve as a mere heuristic for discussing philosophical issues of a-priori identity (123). Not surprisingly, given Johnson's philosophical stance, race seems to come entirely after an ahistoric, essential Being, and does not construct that Being at all: Johnson wants to propose that we could already have a self without race that was then given some largely superficial racial identity. This race-free identity could represent an ideal state of Being, but it's a universal aspiration of Johnson's great society not all his constituents would share.

In his Last Speeches, Malcolm X had argued that “This is how you imprisoned us. Not just bringing us over here and making us slaves. But the image that you created of our motherland and the image you created of our people on that continent was a trap, was a prison, was a chain, was the worst form of slavery that has ever been invented. …” (167, emphasis mine). Johnson systematically develops this perspective, treating slavery only as a form of slavery: that is, as a metaphor with almost exclusively psychological and metaphysical, rather than historical or political, consequences. Where Malcolm X uses metaphor to get back to historical slavery, Johnson uses the metaphor of slavery to transcend history. As he writes in his new introduction to Oxherding Tale, Andrew, the central protagonist, makes “a desperate bid for liberation from numerous kinds of ‘bondage,’” but historical slavery is not among them (xvi, emphasis mine).

The form of slavery Andrew must escape is the West's image of his ancestry. In order to transform the received, debased view of Africa, Johnson uses the African tribe of the Allmuseri, who appear in some context in all his published fiction. The transcendental, shape-shifting Allmuseri god, who is brought to America aboard the slave ship in Middle Passage, “is everything, so the very knowing situation we mortals rely on—a separation between knower and known—never rises in its experience” (101). It is entirely merged with a transcendental nature in ways to which white transcendentalists can only aspire. No subject/object distinction exists for the Allmuseri or their god, a separation that for Johnson gives rise to all dichotomies, between man and woman, black and white, and all other created binaries and hierarchies. In part, then, the recreated Allmuseri paradoxically salvage our image of Africa by doing away with all distinction between black and white, as well as self and other.

White Americans—in this somewhat selective version of the history of slavery—dispossess and destroy a black/African unity with nature by bringing slaves to the new world: “The failure to experience the unity of Being everywhere was the Allmuseri vision of Hell. … that was where we were taking them [on the slave ship]—into the madness of multiplicity—” (MP [Middle Passage] 65). (One should note, though, the use of a Western idea as the transcendent standard of comparison: their “vision of Hell”).7 The mind-set of the original Allmuseri represents a pre-racial condition, though the tribe is also emphatically black. What is startling is that throughout his writing, Johnson believes that diversity itself is not multicultural, but multiplicitous: in the tradition of Emersonian liberalism, race is the greatest index of a multiplicity that severs us from the whole, the All, or Nature (which in complex ways is coded as black and female throughout both Emerson and Johnson's writings). For the transcendentalist and phenomenologist, race itself serves as the locus of all subject/object bifurcations, all Western double-consciousness, and madness itself. If Johnson believes, from a philosophical if not multicultural perspective, that multiplicity is hell, it comes as no surprise that raciality accounts for one of hell's circles, or represents a fallen state of man.

Most of Johnson's non-Allmuseri characters directly experience a similar loss of Being in America: for example, Faith, in Faith and the Good Thing, feels “the worst part of loneliness not [as] the lack of friends, but the lack of intimacy with the world, the lack of unity … Instead of bein' one with every object, every object became a thing apart from ya—ya even became a thing to y'self!” (192). Even rhetorically, the self is emphatically doubled, a “ya” mirrored back upon itself. (Faith is described—like her father, who is “never confident save when he was alone”—as “wholly herself only when alone” {64, 69}. Africans become subjected to the principles of American individualism that destroy their pre-Western, communal ontology). Once in America, most African-Americans become isolated from an African unity of being. However, Reb the coffinmaker, the egoless exemplar of Oxherding Tale, was from and still epitomizes “the ancient clan-state of the Allmuseri, concealed for centuries” (48). He and the Allmuseri stay so close to Being that they can't distinguish themselves from the world (a condition to which Emerson and Melville's Ishmael endlessly aspire but never attain).

As Ashraf Rushdy incisively notes, the Allmuseri seem to be the “Ur-tribe of humanity itself,” embodying all mankind in their ancient presence. But after assuming at least some partly factual basis for their existence, Rushdy concludes, “The Allmuseri unfortunately, do not exist in this world,” and that Johnson has entirely fabricated their history (373). This deliberate creation of a fictional Africa is a crucial point, and completely alters any “Afrocentrism” we would find in Johnson: rather than try to glorify an African history he doesn't believe exists, Johnson manufactures a new cultural “history” as a hybrid of African and Western transcendentalisms. Just as we have an Allmuseri version of hell, we have an Allmuseri version of transcendentalism; even if Johnson on occasion tries to assert that Western metaphysics are only approximations of African beliefs, he negates his own historical contexts. Yet Johnson also claims that the racial ideologies black writers create for the African experience are “in a strange way seamless. They are founded on what seems at first blush a non-European theory of man, Nature, and social life, although this soon shows itself to be deceptive, insofar as European philosophies are diverse” (BaR [Being and Race] 26). In other words, for Johnson distinctions between Western and non-Western philosophies—in fact, perhaps finally all distinctions—are as spurious as the false categories of race. No universal Western or non-Western philosophies exist in this view; yet Johnson creates the Allmuseri to represent a culture existing entirely before the transcendental divisiveness of the West (a schema that is easily emblematized by the principles, but not necessarily the history, of slavery). The Allmuseri represent the All of a pre-Western nature, man before his ontic fall.

Let us briefly consider, however, the arguments of Anthony Appiah, whom Johnson somewhat inappropriately considers a model for his theoretical position on race. In an article on the fictitiousness of racial identity, Appiah notes that W. E. B. Du Bois took a “now familiar move of substituting a sociohistorical conception of race for the biological one” (“Uncompleted” 34). Johnson follows suit, only his “sociohistorical” conception of race is based on the philosophy of a tribe/race that never existed: his Pan-Africanism is predicated on a transhistorical version of Pan, not a historical version of Africa. Appiah quotes Du Bois to the effect that “the history of the world is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, but of races” (29). But Johnson abrogates both history and race, for him conterminous, particular, mutually defining and problematic entities.

In some ways, the Allmuseri reify race as a natural condition, or at least an essentialized aspect of culture, while universalizing or transcending race in other respects. Johnson writes in his 1980 article “Philosophy and Black Fiction,” that “Universals are not static (as Robert Bone believes in The Negro Novel in America, nor empty as [others] argue) but changing, historical, evolving and enriched by particularization” (57).8 Universal but never static or fixed, the Allmuseri stand behind all Johnson's heroic characters: quintessentially “not fixed but evolving,” however, they also stop being “wholly Allmuseri” in their contact with the new world (MP 124, emphases mine). But in the same article, Johnson concludes that “universality is embodied in the particulars of the black world”: this endemically transcendental conflict between universal and particular takes a complex turn in Johnson's racialized version of Being (60).

Always starting with the universal, Johnson becomes impatient with any black fiction that pursues local color and remains stuck in particular history—the naturalistic literature that Johnson notoriously considers full of “the misery-filled protest stories about the sorry condition of being black in America” (BaR 5).9 In Being and Race, Johnson can only “sketch the history [of slavery], but it is, on the whole and in general, a nightmare” (8). To awaken from that nightmare, and to escape fictions of “brutal realism,” Johnson calls for more experimentation with “prerealistic forms” of narrative, and clearly values a writer's formal skills over his work's social content (BaR 12, 52). For Johnson, “pre-realistic” is incontrovertibly equivalent to “pre-racial,” but pre-Western only in the sense that race didn't exist before the West allegedly invented it. What is disturbing is not that Johnson writes purely ontological fictions—the prerogative of all artists and the ideal of many postmodern science fiction writers—but that he systematically denies a post-racial history in pursuing a pre-racial aesthetics.10

Johnson dismisses not just history but ‘local color’ because it represents the particularity we must always seek to transcend. In “Philosophy and Black Fiction,” Johnson actually asserts that “No one much cares these days about the particulars of Black life only (this always borders on the exotic, voyeuristic, the sociological). We read the fictions of the racial Other because they disclose the world—a common world, finally—as it might appear if we could be over there in that body” (60). This is a resounding claim, one ineluctably assuming an unproven incommensurability between all particulars and the universal. We can place ourselves in the position of, understand and finally universalize, the “racial other” simply by reading about him or her. In the wake of the debate about multiculturalism, can we have and do we want a common world? (Compare Johnson's views to those of Toni Morrison, who has repeatedly noted that she began writing because few existing books spoke to her particular subject position; that her language is consciously tailored to black experience; and that universality often represents a false god). By Johnson's definition, black literature must transcend the local, and reach the universal; but what does it lose by striving for universal acceptance? More importantly, is this a false dichotomy? Shouldn't black literature exist on its own terms, those that are precisely not universal, if universality, by most accounts, is a Western myth? Unless of course, we've already done away with a false distinction between Western and non-Western, in which case no black literature per se could be defined.

I'm being slightly facetious here because all interpretation depends on context and vantage-point—local assumptions—which are precisely what Johnson seems to deny us. (We can begin to glimpse here why Johnson uses the Allmuseri to develop an alternate African myth of universality, though he also claims, within that myth of universality, that the Allmuseri “seemed less a biological tribe than a clan held together by values. A certain vision” {MP 109}. Race is both troubling particular and laudable universal in Johnson, depending on the point he wants to make. Like Ishmael Reed, Johnson plays it both ways, giving his African universality a racial and a supra-racial basis.) Johnson inevitably provokes the related question of whether black literature should “assimilate” or remain nationalist (and whether a black writer should write explicitly for a black audience). Not even believing in the category of nations, Johnson is very much in what used to be called the integrationist camp, which repudiates the cultural nationalism of black literature developed after Martin Delaney.11 Johnson consistently claims he wants to transcend both nation and race: he writes in Being and Race that “the enduring truth is that if we go deeply enough into a relative perspective, black or white, male or female, we encounter the transcendence of relativism,” i.e. all locality, duality, nationality and race (BaR 44). Race for Johnson is only an exemplar of relativism, and he uses a language of transcendence to locate the truth of literature, to deracinate particularity. Toward the end of the same book, Johnson calls Toni Morrison's Sula “a beautiful, race-transcending exploration of evil and existential freedom” (101, emphasis mine). Sula is beautiful to Johnson because she transcends, rather than embodies, race. It is of course too reductive only to assert that Johnson sides with Ellison's camp against Wright's on the issue of social realism; but like Ellison, Johnson would argue that he wants to be read as a writer, not as a black writer. Yet he also wants, in these explicit and telling terms, to transcend and transcendentalize race.

For Johnson, slavery represents the acceptance of racial limitations, polarities, particularities, and history itself. For instance, in Oxherding Tale, Andrew asserts that he

had ever believed it was man's destiny to achieve freedom from the polarities … [but] this deadening feeling that our particularities limited us, closed us in … remained. … The wretchedness of being colonized was not that slavery created feelings of guilt and indebtedness, though I did feel guilt and debt; nor that it created a long, lurid dream of multiplicity and separateness, which it did indeed create, but that fact that men had epidermalized Being.

(52, emphasis mine)

In other words, in a strange warping of Du Bois, in America some pure universal Being has been given a local skin color and thus rendered dual. In Middle Passage, we are thrust into this very same dream, or rather nightmare, of multiplicity: “whether he liked it or not, he had fallen; he was now part of the world of multiplicity, of me versus thee” (140). Though Johnson insists that being has been historically racialized in the new world, he also suggests that race has become a mere corollary of man's general “fallen multiplicity.” Here, race serves as an ahistorical heuristic for a state of consciousness: not racism, but epidermalized Being. Diversity itself becomes a form of dualism, one again best represented by slavery.

Johnson hates slavery primarily for the reasons Emerson does: it disrupts our sense of homogeneous Being. For Emerson, “A perception is always a generalization: it lifts the object, whether in material or moral nature, into a type. … The philosopher knows only laws. … The game of Intellect is the perception that whatever befalls or can be stated is a universal proposition” (“Natural History of Intellect,” W XII 40). Emerson continually claims that “underneath the inharmonious and trivial particulars, is a musical perfection,” and in that light “the individual is always mistaken” (“Experience,” W, III 71, 70). The trivial surface particularity that defines individual and ultimately racial identity must be translated to a universal proposition. For Emerson and for Johnson the philosopher of universal laws, race represents the wrong kind of individuality—particularity, isolation from the whole or universal law, and a dangerous, disruptive disharmony in the nation. To paraphrase Ronald Takaki on Emerson's America, “the new nation [sought] a ‘homogeneous’ population. … diversity itself was dangerous in the republican society” (63, emphasis mine).

In a speech not decisively undercut by the narrative, Johnson's white transcendental captain Falcon, on board a ship not accidentally named The Republic, remarks that

Dualism is a bloody structure of the mind. Subject and object, perceiver and perceived, self and other. … We cannot think without them. … They are signs of a transcendental fault, a deep crack in consciousness itself. Mind was made for murder. Slavery, if you think about it, is only the social corollary of a deeper ontic wound.


Johnson here casts a black, Du Boisian double-consciousness—the dualism between black perceiver and perceived—back not just to an Emersonian American Renaissance, but to a transcendentalism perversely stolen from African, or finally African-American, culture. (This perception represents one of Johnson's most compelling and original analyses of the evils of slavery). This is what the Soulcatcher in Oxherding Tale and Falcon in Middle Passage inveterately seek, murderously to steal and corrupt the essence of African identity to regenerate themselves. (Perhaps on its own terms, transcendentalism is here largely reified, a notably canonical ontic phenomenon that transcends its specific manifestations.) With a mind made for murder, split from itself, Americans are always in the midst of a permanent auto machia or civil war, one that represents the truest enactment of our transcendental fault. The universal ontic wound always comes first, then produces a specific social corollary, say slavery. (It's important to note that only the Allmuseri had somehow never experienced this primordial fault of the rest of humanity, and that Johnson's entire sense of phenomenology, and cross-cultural soteriology, is predicated on this fabricated possibility.)

For Johnson, the Civil War isn't a political or even physical conflict, but a purely metaphysical one.13 In Oxherding Tale

There were rumors of a coming war between the states. Sir, we were already in the midst of Civil War. Blacks and whites. Blacks and blacks. Women and men—I was in the thick of diversity. … But things were becoming too dense [this “density” kills his father]. Everything seemed to create its own cancellation.

(50, last emphases mine)

Long after the Civil War, Faith similarly suffers from “headaches so violent they seemed to sunder her mind into two equal, warring halves” (FGT [Faith and the Good Thing] 70, emphasis mine). The violence of these wars only reflects a universal split in consciousness: this is an Emersonian, transcendental conceit, that the material world is a reflection of consciousness, that nature is only an apocalypse of the mind.14 Like his raciality, Johnson's war is purely phenomenological, a reflection of self-canceling, violent diversity. Intriguingly, double consciousness is not here an emblem of racial history, but racial history the embodiment of double consciousness.

Slavery for Johnson is then hardly an historicizable condition, only an ontological metaphor for an atemporal, inherently dualistic mind which must murder—must destroy the other by creating an other. Out of the realm of history entirely, this allegedly transcendental, universal fault is pitted against an allegedly transcendental unity in the Allmuseri. By contrast, for the Allmuseri, “murder violated (even mutilated) the murderer so badly that it might take them a billion billion rebirths to again climb the chain and achieve human form” (140). That is, with no gulf between me and thee—no transcendental fault, only transcendental unity—the Allmuseri find murder inconceivable. They aren't regenerated by the violence, as the Soulcatcher is, but symbiotically incapacitated along with the victim; they receive not the strength of his identity, but only his pain.15

In Being and Race, Johnson invokes—in this context the unfortunately named—Eldridge Cleaver, who “concluded ‘the gulf between the mind and the body will be seen to coincide with the gulf between the two races” (and ultimately genders). The great divide, gap, gulf, fissure, and split in Johnson, however, is always a metaphysical division that finds its incidental expression in race. Where Cleaver “claimed that blacks were stripped of a mental life, leaving them only a bodily existence in the West. … [Johnson] attempts to develop Cleaver's idea by tracing its origins to the Cartesian bifurcation of res cogitantes and res extensae, and of course to the more primordial Platonic dualism” (BaR 26-27). To trace all historical racial issues to a transcendental fault between observer and observed, ideal and real, is an interesting heuristic, but proceeds on a specious premise. Double-consciousness occurs in American society because African Americans had to separate mind and body, and could not own their own bodies, and not simply as the result of atemporal Cartesian dilemmas: it develops in a specific historical framework. For Johnson, however, despite his own exploration of how whites dispossess black transcendentalism, slavery remains metaphysical; Andrew laments that he never left slavery, because “it was a way of seeing, my inheritance … seeing distinctions.” Johnson's Allmuseri, however, represent the thing itself, pure Emersonian observation without observer, sensation without the senser. Ironically, Johnson here both echoes and inverts Ellison: as Molly Able Travis notes, Ellison, whom Johnson greatly admires, complains in “The World and the Jug” that “[Irving] Howe makes of ‘Negroness’ a metaphysical condition, one that is in a state of irremediable agony” (18).16 Instead, Johnson makes slavery the metaphysical condition, and ‘Negroness’ a performative one, even if it is a performance of irremediable hybridity. That is, slavery and raciality cause, even are, multiplicity; and slavery is the transcendental fault of consciousness. Johnson identifies American (but not African) transcendentalism as inevitably producing slavery, as in fact predicating it.

But the non-Allmuseri Johnsonian self is never unified: as we shall soon see, Rutherford Calhoun, the hero of Middle Passage, winds up much like the Soulcatcher in Oxherding Tale, who is a disturbingly “fluid, crazyquilt of other's features, … a cartoonist's composite face of fifty features,” and possesses a face regenerated by the violence he commits upon the slaves he kills: he is a being stolen from black identity (169, emphasis mine). As Andrew recognizes, “The voice that belonged to the fingers upon me was made from the offscum of other voices” (168). The Soulcatcher's hands “beat with the pulsethrob of countless bondsmen in his bloodstream, women and children murdered” (169). This stolen patchwork of physical features, this series of masks, again epidermalizes being: the Soulcatcher's body and identity are precisely racialized for Johnson, and are entirely made up of the detritus of his forebears: those caught by the Soulcatcher; those without the will and hence the ability to survive; those who believe in race. (Note, Johnson's character is not called the Slavecatcher, which would provide an historical reference, but the Soulcatcher: slavery is always an ontic, not a social, phenomenon). Yet again, however, Johnson undercuts his own ploys, claiming that no features are truly lost:

and yet all were conserved in this process of doubling, nothing was lost in the masquerade, the cosmic costume ball, where behind every different mask at the party—behind snout beak nose and blossom—the selfsame face was uncovered at midnight. … (all is conserved; all), the world.


Such an assertion, echoing Melville in The Confidence Man, consistently contradicts Johnson's earlier suppositions, as it indicates, along with Emerson, that all apparent surface difference—especially the surface difference of race—hides an interior, absolute sameness: as Emerson endlessly reiterates, truth and literature are simply about “detecting identity under variety of surface” (JMN XIII 60). Johnson's apparent doubling of the self is ultimately subsumed by the selfsame. If we extrapolate from this claim, as Emerson himself does, the particularity of racial “surface” only gets in the way of an underlying, universal, history-transcending sameness. And what white transcendentalists dream of is the self-dispossession black slaves forcibly encounter, but that only non-whites—like Reb the Allmuseri coffinmaker, or Ishmael only through Queequeg's coffin—can survive. As Ishmael Reed writes in his satirical revision of the American Renaissance, Flight to Canada, American transcendentalism is most disturbingly uncanny in its dispossession of blackness: where “Whitman desires to fuse with nature … here I am, involuntarily, the comrade of the inanimate, but not by choice. … I am property. I am a thing” (75). Startlingly, transcendentalism achieves what slavery cannot, the transformation of an individual into an involuntary force of nature, one not with Nature, but the inanimate; in complex ways, to try during the American Renaissance to transcend the white body in nature is also to reify the dispossessions of slavery and the market. In this sense, American transcendentalism and Johnson's version of phenomenology are another set of twins switched at birth.


In paradoxical but consistent ways, Johnson undermines the category of race, and ultimately racial surfaces, to construct both black and white identity. He ultimately promotes an evolution toward whiteness as a progression toward universality and the transcendence of history. In this section, I hope to show how, against his own designs, white and black tissue come to be intimately connected in Johnson's work.

Writing about contemporary African-American fiction, Fritz Gysin remarks that “In an exemplary way the human skin is, to quote from Roberta Rubenstein's definition of boundary, an area of ‘both separation and connection between contiguous entities’” (287). This encapsulation provides a useful reference point for Johnson's notions of a contiguous identity that is precisely skin-deep, because skin seems to cover everything. At this point, I want to focus briefly on the crucial image of epidermalized being I brought up previously. In Being and Race, Johnson remarks that “Doubters may object that it is racially impossible to strip themselves of their own historically acquired traits” (emphasis mine). The true writer or philosopher must not historicize but transcend history, in the most Emersonian terms, and strip himself of his historical subject position/skin, which can only be a reference to blackness. (This postmodern anti-historicism might explain why, as so many critics have almost paradoxically argued of late, Johnson received so little critical attention for so long.)17 Johnson almost naively wants you to transcend the relativism of particularity in order to write original fiction and achieve cultural understanding, though we must also suspect his cannier motives regarding history. He goes on to say that

many black writers claim they cannot imagine what it is like to be white, that all they know is ‘black’ experience. For my money, this objection is sheer laziness. I will also say such objections are based on a very circumscribed notion of race. We can I think, trash such objections quickly by noting that in a country as genetically mongrelized [a phrase he uses in various contexts] as America it wouldn't be unthinkable to scrap racial nature altogether.


This idea is fine as far as it goes, though one would suspect it's usually in white political interests to scrap racial nature altogether. And except that Johnson here contradicts his advice to black writers because he makes the white universal; i.e. black writers need to be able to think like white characters to transcend race, but whites wouldn't be interested in thinking like blacks—whatever these positions would entail—because, as Johnson claims, that would be voyeuristic, sociological, particular, and, worst of all, historically delimited. (As the Invisible Man would say, break out the steel helmets). Quite simply, Johnson insufficiently sees whiteness as a local racial construct, and instead treats it as an acceptable stand in for the universal.19 Johnson continues to hide his tracks though, claiming “‘race’ dissolves when we trace the gene back to A.D. 700. Our lives, as blacks and whites, we come to realize, are a tissue of cross-cultural influences” (43, emphasis mine). This “tissue” represents another crucial phrase, a way of juxtaposing two versions of “epidermalized being,” just as Johnson pits historical, white transcendental faults against fictional African transcendental unities.

In an interview conducted in 1993 with Jonathan Little, Johnson states again that the overriding Western notion of a stable identity is only a fiction: “if there is such a thing as identity, I don't think that it's fixed or static; it's a process. … a tissue of very often contradictory things, which is why I have a great deal of opposition to anything that looks like a fixed meaning for black America” (“Interview” 161). Like Michael Jackson, Johnson seems intrigued with the idea of an unfixed, hybrid, fluid, actually morphing tissue of multi-colored skin, while all the time denying that race even exists as a category. For someone who doesn't believe in consistency of identity, Johnson uses a consistent rhetoric throughout his published fiction and criticism. Emersonian fixity and racial tissue are the keys: with no fixity, we have no history; with tissue, a substitute for race, a changing patchwork, as Johnson likes to call it, of skin. Neither fixed nor static, phenomenological identity serves as an underlying universal tissue, or an OverSoul absorbing all particularity.

In keeping with this view, for instance, the Allmuseri are described as living in “process and Heraclitean change … not fixed but evolving” (MP 124). This depiction explicitly fulfills Johnson's aforementioned proviso, in “Philosophy and Black Fiction,” that universals are not static, but evolving. In Faith and the Good Thing, Faith must “factor the possible number of paths to the Good Thing, but not become[e] fixed, or held to those paths of her history, or the history of her race” (195). When Faith, perhaps an echo of Hawthorne's “Young Goodman Brown” and various other Hawthorne characters, lets “each event weigh [her] down, alter [her] … [she] was in bondage,” fixed, unable to be “brand new each instant” (59). That is, Faith is enslaved if she becomes metaphysically fixed or determined by history (a history only incidentally involving actual slavery. Hence we can contextualize both Ellison and Johnson's resistance to forms of historical determinism, socialism, etc., anything that might literally get in the way of that personified faith transcending history). Faith, in the same terms, explicitly “knew she was in bondage, knew herself to be encrusted with the filth of a past beyond her control” (109). This captivity is always a metaphysical bondage to a particular, filthy and black history, treatable only with the universal solvent of white out or the universal tissue of Kleenex. The real question is why a past beyond one's control should be the fault of, and contaminate, the present generation, and if “transcending” that history, rather than working through its implications, is the most viable response.

In Johnson, then, the faults of history come to be equated with race, and both treated as forms of despoiling particularity: “You are wondering, I imagine, about differences between the white and black world. Well, here is the first; … in the Black world the threat [is] there is no history worth mentioning, only family scenarios of deprivation … [and] dread in later generations …” (OT [Oxherding Tale] 132). Consequently, we are told in Faith and the Good Thing that “the pitiable side of Todd lay within the confines of history” (64). (Throughout his writings, Johnson uses one Ralph Waldo to displace another, here obviously invoking Ellison's Tod Clifton, who in related but opposite terms “had chosen to fall outside of history” {IM 141}. Which Ralph is the world and which the jug, however, which the joke and which the yoke, is not always clear.) Johnson continues to imagine himself wrestling with Ellison, proposing that, “You could chain that malleable rough side of [Todd] that lay in history, but the rest was wind” (182). To counter the confines of a history he abhors as filthy and fixed, Johnson takes two tacks: he doesn't come up with an historicized Afrocentrism, but a fictionalized one in the Allmuseri; and, like Emerson fleeing his fathers' sepulchers, he tries to transcend history altogether. Like Emerson, with whom he shares a certain “Orientalism,” Johnson doesn't believe in history, only “a rhythm, repeating itself, flashing the same forces into the world in different ages and different times and always returning you … to some touchstone” (FGT 140). Johnson again takes his cue from Emerson, who repeatedly intimates, for example, that he finds “not only this equality between new and old countries, as seen by the eye of Science, but also a certain equivalence of the ages of history” (“Progress of Culture,” W VIII 213). But American slavery is a specific bondage, and to distill it distorts its particularity to make it coincide with some imagined universal pattern.

I need to go back to the idea of racial tissue for a moment. Johnson has already claimed that raciality structures all perception, but also that race is literally only a surface phenomenon: a tissue of contradictory, positive hybrid associations, but also a negative epidermalization of being. Much later in his interview with Little, Johnson returns to this rhetoric: “That you see, is the issue, the fact that we are a tissue of cultures. We are a tissue of races already; the concept of race, as Anthony Appiah points out, is false.”20 Johnson adds that multiculturalist categories are thus repugnant to him because no real races exist, though on different grounds he adds that “I'm not going to read a book simply because it's by an Asian writer [or] a black American. … It has to be something that meets the standards I bring to all literature” (“Interview” 179). This stipulation is fair enough, but how do we get those standards to be universal when all literatures are contextual? Many philosophers have sought universal standards without contexts, and without success; in their wake, Johnson elevates some aspects of race to the universal while simultaneously erasing others, until race becomes only a thin, but universal, connective tissue. Johnson then himself both epidermalizes and erases Being. But whether race exists in any essential terms is secondary to the effects that have resulted from an historical belief in its essentiality.

The paradox of Johnson's fiction is that all his characters lament being deprived of an individual identity their author doesn't believe exists. For Johnson wrestles throughout his fiction with the problem of reinvesting African Americans with a problematic, almost Emersonian transcendental identity, one allegedly appropriated from African-American culture (and then entirely misused). In Oxherding Tale, slavery yet again does not entail a physical entrapment, but a metaphysical bondage:

the cause of death for these black men was, strictly speaking, not physical at all. … I am speaking of the belief in personal identity, the notion that what we are is somehow distinct from other things when this entity, this lie, this ancient stupidity has no foundation in scientific fact.


For Johnson, black people die because they believe in a particular Jacksonian self they cannot have, rather than a transcendental, universal self of which they have been dispossessed.21 In his new introduction to Oxherding Tale, Johnson writes that he wondered, “was race an illusion, a manifestation of Maya?” (1995 xi). (Once again, Johnson links his race-transcending delineation of blackness to Asia). But he finally proposes that “Andrew Hawkins was the first protagonist in black American fiction to achieve classically defined moksha (enlightenment)” (1995 xvi). Tautologically, Johnson here asserts that Andrew is the “first black” who realizes blackness doesn't exist, the first black character who transcends identity altogether.

As Rutherford, “a cultural mongrel,” learns in Middle Passage from the morphing god that impersonates a version of his father, it might be that “the (black) self was the greatest of all fictions,” and those parentheses encapsulate a world of complexities: is the self or only the black self a fiction (187, 171)?22 As Rushdy suggests, Johnson develops a “theory of subjectivity that dissolves what he suggests is the spurious concept not only of ‘race’ but also of personal identity” (386). Like Emerson, Johnson then winds up with contradictory claims about whether race or any particular or “local” aspect of identity could be essential to Being:

Wife, you're thinking essences again. Giving nouns the value of existence. People endure. Not names. There are no ‘Negroes.’ Or ‘women.’ There are no ‘nations.’ We tear down one shop sign, America; we put another, Atlantis. And we blunder along as usual.


In Being and Race, Johnson proposes in the same terms that “we must cast a suspicious eye at the very foundations of Western thought and science: the idea of personal identity. … There are no ‘blacks,’ or ‘nations,’ or even ‘men’ and ‘women,’ unless by this we mean say, specifically my son, but even that says little” (BaR 33-34). Johnson thus consistently follows a neopragmatist line, a Rortyan constructivism of American identity politics (one of course also developed from Emerson). The question is, can we, should we, and are we ready to transcend race (or gender) as a category just when we are trying to empower it? And if we transcend race in Johnson's terms, where we pursue less rather than more “locality,” don't we do so precisely by white transcendental standards?

In this area, Johnson consistently continues to echo both Melville and Judith Butler. For Melville, ideas have agency, and people are just the hollow vessels, the hosts, for them: for Butler, paraphrasing Nietzsche, “the ‘doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed—the deed is everything” (25). That is, no racial identity exists behind a racial performance, but no self of any kind exists behind any performance: the act, Melville's masquerade of confidence, is all we have. As the (admittedly unreliable) transcendentalist Ezekiel instructs Andrew, identity itself is a lie: “We do not have a sensation of solidity: we are the sensation” (58). The deed is everything, the doer nothing: all identity and race are performative.

The character who actually exemplifies this condition is not the white Ezekiel, however, but the black Reb. Here Johnson overcomes the Western mind-body split, in effect telling Ishmael Reed that African Americans can reinvent their roles as the true transcendentalists. The self does not exist prior to or to receive experience: it is experience. In this regard, the slave narrator embodies this lack of excess, this perfect mesh of internal and external being, which Johnson at times celebrates as purely transcendent, and at times rails against as wildly alienating. In Oxherding Tale, Andrew also becomes like the captured Allmuseri god, who is the world, who “is the heat in the fire. … the wetness in water”; i.e., not the thing in itself, but the in itself in the thing (MP 100). To move from perception back to identity, when perception is identity—when the deed/experience is everything—is a falsification. Where Johnson on the one hand denies race, he also posits a universality of being to a racialized/preracial African philosophy—a universality inconsistent with his own views—while attributing multiplicity to the West. For Andrew to overcome his new heritage of seeing distinctions, of multiplicity, he must, as Rushdy says, “cease to see distinctions of gender, of race, and ultimately, of self and other” (393). Such a project, however, brings us back to American transcendentalism, which empties, negates, or enslaves the self in order to merge it with the All.

Emerson views slavery as an internal condition, a metaphysical state reflecting mind: in this light, Johnson's Soulcatcher is simply a man who preys on those who don't believe in themselves, and who disturbingly delivers “a destiny that comes from inside [them], not outside” (115). The slave's plight is not a matter of social conditions, nor is he caught because of them; both are questions of his mental state. All this makes sense only if we remind ourselves that Johnson's novels, though obsessed with the American Renaissance, actually all take place in the present, as evidenced by their systematic anachronisms: they are about contemporary resuscitations of slave mentalities. But blackness still becomes a heuristic for the victim to blame himself for his fate, and embrace an absolute, Jacksonian self-determination, a belief in the wholly self-created individual. The Soulcatcher merely enacts the slave's own self-induced “fate,” as Melville's Pierre would put it, and delivers the internal logic of his self-victimization.

Johnson tries to solve such problems by arguing that the individual, that all identity, is entirely race-transcending. Race then represents a choice for Johnson, essentially a portable mask (again, much as gender is for Butler): Andrew rejects his father's

need to be an Untouchable. … the rituals of caste would, regardless of law, live centuries after the plantations died. My father … needed to rekindle racial horrors, revive old pains. … he chose misery … [he] simplified a world so overrich in sense it outstripped him, and all that was necessary to break this spell of hatred, this self-inflicted segregation from the Whole was to acknowledge … that his life depended on himself and no one else.

(142, last two emphases mine)

If we don't strip ourselves of race, the world will outstrip us, literally skin us alive. Flat out, Andrew's ideology sounds surprisingly like that of George Gilder, Reagan's prophet of supply-side individualism; for Gilder, blacks “choose” to remain poor by dwelling on the past, doubting the invisible hand of commerce and trusting instead to the welfare state.24 And, finally, they fail because they choose to stay black, to maintain a racial identity. As critics have noted, Andrew's rose-colored vision of the world partly stems from his light skin tone, and one subtext here is that unlike Andrew, who can and does pass for white, his father chooses to stay black. (Just as Ellison's Todd Clifton had positively “chosen” to fall outside history, Johnson's characters often fail by choosing to fall inside it, and by accepting their social condition; Marx chides Ezekiel, for example, that he “chose to be miserable. Why?” {OT 85} In Johnson's view, all men are able to choose how they react to their social circumstances, and thus to choose their race and their destinies.) Johnson reduces slavery to an issue of caste in this exaggeratedly anachronistic account of the 19th century, which is of course as much about contemporary black identity—and perhaps generational—politics as about slavery. While Johnson effectively critiques the ways contemporary African Americans allegedly perpetuate a slave mentality, he also projects this bizarre notion of a “self-inflicted segregation” back in historically inappropriate, largely unaccountable ways.

As in Emerson, Nature—or the Whole—replaces society in much of Johnson's work: the color line of society separates us not from each other per se, but from the All.25 Racial segregation has suddenly come to reflect a loss of transcendental unity—not even because whites dispossessed transcendental African cultures or views of nature, but because race itself has come to represent an essential double-consciousness. Andrew himself nearly succumbs to his father's faults by failing to acknowledge his self-contained responsibility, his black individualism: “I felt a shade disappointed [note again: Andrew is half white] that everyone in the White World wasn't out to get to me. … [But] with no self-induced racial paranoia as an excuse for being irresponsible,” Andrew is able to rewrite his life entirely, for Johnson's explicit project is to allow African Americans to awaken from their nightmare of history (i.e., racial identity). Among few other postmodern writers, Johnson actually imagines many forms of racism as self-induced paranoias. But on his own terms, Johnson never seems fully to consider that white freedom might have been predicated ontologically on black slavery, nor what the consequences of such a condition would be.

As suggested, one can trace much of Johnson's belief in self-reliance—as well as his admixture of phenomenology and Eastern philosophy—to the same period in which his two major novels are set, as well as one of that period's representative men: Ralph Waldo Emerson, a surprisingly key figure in much of 20th-century African-American literature. In an early lecture (whose text does not seem to have survived except in excerpt), Emerson orates that his fellow Concordians should feel they have done as much as they need, and “not [to] reproach the [slave-holding] planter, but own that his misfortune is at least as great as his sin.” In the reflexive chain of transcendentalism—traced by critics from Perry Miller to Richard Slotkin and Wai Chee Dimock—the victimizer is always equated with the victim, and the victim accountable for his own position: pursuer and pursued, and now slaver and slave, are One. Further, Emerson actually contends that the slaver “is to blame, of course, but in the same sense the slave is to blame for allowing himself to be held as a slave.” For Emerson, slavery is imaginable primarily as an ontological, rather than historical, bondage. The condition of blacks is “inevitable to the men they are, and nobody can redeem them but themselves.” (This is a prospect of self-reliant abolitionism Frederick Douglass, in striving to define his masculinity against a system that treats him as an object, seriously considers, but for entirely different reasons.) The up-side of such a stance is that “really at bottom [all men are] fraternal, alike, identical”: the more considerable down-side, that blacks are held responsible for their status in society during slavery as well as afterwards (Cabot II 425-29).

Perhaps more strikingly, much of what Emerson complains of in Webster's conception of slavery emblematically holds true of his own transcendental pantheism. His following passages from the 1854 version of “The Fugitive Slave Law,” while seeming to upbraid Webster, also set him up as an (admittedly inconsistent) icon and locus of transcendental virtues: “His power, like that of all great masters, was not in excellent parts, but was total” (XI 222). Emerson must even observe that “the plea on which freedom was resisted was Union” (230). Emerson protests the very conversions he otherwise must defend in his transcendental economy: “It was a question whether man shall be treated as leather? Whether the Negroes shall be … a piece of money? Whether this system, which is a kind of factory for converting men … shall be upheld and enlarged?” (227). But it is Emerson's own system that generates such effects in the realm of metaphysics; his American Scholar is the figure dismembered and treated as a piece of money, a condition displaced onto the bodies of African Americans in his as well as Johnson's writing (which is full of black characters who are literally dismembered or come apart; here, Minty may in part represent a revision of Bessie in Native Son). Emerson's rhetoric, however, already begins to dismantle itself:

thus to detach a man and make him feel that he is to owe all to himself, is the way to make him strong and rich; and here the optimist must find, if anywhere, the benefit of slavery. … [the] divine sentiments which are always soliciting us are breathed into us from on high, and are an offset to a Universe of suffering and crime; that self-reliance, the height and perfection of man, is reliance on god. …


To bear a transcendental identity is to fuse with the All and cast off the self—its race, gender, and particularity; it turns out, however, that this process is another name for dismemberment, for the severance of slave from family, self-identity, and social status. Emerson meanwhile has other slaves to free in his mind, and, with a typical transcendental inversion, or reification, once more passes off slavery as a crime against the perpetrator, insisting that “A man who steals another man's labor steals away his own faculties” (237). Despite most critics' claims to the contrary, this late Emerson is sometimes indistinguishable from the early skeptic, who had claimed “The secret, the esoteric of abolition—a secret too from the abolitionist—is that the negro and the negro-holders are really of one party” (Cabot 429). In this form of common bondage, Emerson has already encapsulated much of what Johnson will attempt to say in his novels. Emerson and Johnson's notion of commonality and universality—one that, like Ellison's Invisible Man, allegedly transcends dialectical history—may unite and speak for everyone on some frequencies, but precisely not on all of them.

In Johnson's fiction, African Americans fail in the hermeneutic, not social, arena: their actual suffering and even deaths come from lacking an ontology. (In Wai Chee Dimock's terms, this would be called blaming the victim: in Johnson's terms, it would be institutionalized whining.) Slave narrators, however, somehow possess the proper transcendental relationship with the world. (The slave narrator necessarily becomes a representative or universal, and hence transcendental, man who loses all particularity; in Johnson, this paradoxically occurs because he represents his race as a category that doesn't exist.) In one of several brief chapters on the slave narrative in Oxherding Tale, this one titled “the manumission of first-person viewpoint,” Johnson considers “the transcendental nature of the [slave] narrator”: as Johnson learns from Ellison, the slave narrator is the truly transparent eyeball, the invisible man. Along startlingly Emersonian lines, however, Johnson suggests that

to think the Slave Narrative properly is to see nowhere a narrator who falteringly interprets the world, but a narrator who is that world: who is less a reporter than an opening through which the world is delivered; first-person (if you wish) universal. … [pre-Western authors] knew, in their preanalytic fashion … [that] consciousness is … a restlessness that, refusing to be contained contains everything.


In other words, the slave who lacks access to a Jacksonian self tries to bypass the confines of self-reliant, white male individuality, and like white male transcendentalists merge with nature, be nowhere (a reporter) and yet serve as access to nature's universal All. He transcends the opposition between subject and object (and thus black and white), which transcendentalists can only dream of doing and whose failure to do so produces slavery: in this bizarre way, Johnson is providing a specific “historical” rationale for slavery. African Americans can inherit and fully inhabit the transcendental position that finally betrays white, transcendental want-to-be's like Emerson.

In Johnson's unsettling, phenomenological view, the slave narrator is precisely not a local self, and succeeds in becoming transcendent by merging with the world; he is the observer supplanted by the observation: “The Self, this perceiving Subject who puffs on and on, is, for all purposes, a palimpsest, interwoven with everything” (152). (We must remind ourselves that for Johnson, this interweaving is a good thing.) The slave narrator then displaces Emersonian representative man, translated to a universal; the particulars of his life are abstracted to purely representative terms. In this context, Johnson avidly demands much of what Frederick Douglass found most demeaning about slavery; he further wants us to “look at Black life—stripped in the first stage of all Black particulars, purified … as an instance of all experience” (“Philosophy” 57, emphasis mine). (Even as he desired to be a representative man for his peers, and needed to hide the specifics of his escape, Douglass resented having to relinquish the particulars of his life for the sake of an abstract and universal narrative aimed at a white audience.) What we are again most likely to strip away, in this disturbing call to purify particularity, is black skin. What would black life be if purged of particularity if not ghostly?

Andrew himself almost becomes Johnson's unified transcendental slave narrator when he “could hear—was—the sound of a raincrow's song.” In becoming “a narrator who is that world,” Andrew realizes how he grew “unworthy of [Being], having squandered to a thousand forms of bondage the only station, that of man, from which she might truly be served” (172, emphasis mine). In this pointedly masculine transcendence of the male self, Andrew ceases to exist, yet becomes a man; his real forms of bondage, far more exclusively than Malcolm X's, are not slavery and racism, but false conceptions of manhood. Faith, on the other hand, is asked, “how's a li'l fox like you gonna find what ain't been since the beginnin' of our bondage”; but Faith is determined to find the good thing, and claims “when I do, everybody's bondage will end” (30). Bondage in both cases is metaphysical. As always in Johnson's fiction, as in much of Emerson's work, women represent some unmediated, pure relationship with Being, one that sometimes relegates female characters to entirely abstract yet reified existences as the objects of inveterate philosophical, if not sexual, male desire. Quite simply, for Johnson, women escape “bondage” by being able to reproduce, and by existing a priori as transpersonal collective beings; all women are already Allmuseri.26 Johnson here obscures another fact of slavery, that women faced a particular bondage precisely because they could reproduce. At least Faith, however, imagines a “political” action that will free someone other than a roguish, self-contained male protagonist.

But the male Johnsonian self is finally not unified. Actually emblematized by the Soulcatcher, Johnson's non-Allmuseri protagonists, heroic or not, are doomed to possess largely imitative selves: “The Soulcatcher would have duplicated the Coffin-maker's spirit, reproduced—as his method demanded—the idiosyncrasies of his victim, which meant he would, in a way, be Reb” (OT 149). Reproducing these tics, these idiosyncrasies, then reproduces the person: the particularities of the self are overtaken by the universal ventriloquist and parasite. The Soulcatcher is the universal character who transcends individual identity: he is the white American version of Reb. As the Soulcatcher says, exposing “a barrel chest trellised with tattoos,” “In order to become a negro, to slip under his skin, Ah have to open mahself to some mighty peculiar things.” Without a fictional, essential nametag for a bordered self, however, Reb develops a transcendental sense of sympathy, a oneness with all things and animals: “Did you know if yo friend passed a butcher shop, and if somebody was sledgehammering a shorthorn, the back of Reb's neck bruised?” (171). Where the Soulcatcher regeneratively dispossesses African Americans of their culture and identities, Reb the coffinmaker only feels a universal empathy. Set against the Soulcatcher, Reb represents the true transcendental Being of (Allmuseri) Africa: “It took up ten thousand hosts, this I, slipped into men, women, giraffes, gibbering monkeys, perished, pilgrimaged in the animal and spirit worlds. … died their unrecorded deaths, and ever returned to himself richer, ready to assume a sorcerer's role” (49). Where the Soulcatcher returns with dispossessed identities, Reb returns with experience. In this way, he contains everything. (This is the central point of Melville's work, particularly Moby Dick: regeneration through violence produces transitivity between cultures and between “culture” and “nature.”) The Soulcatcher ornaments himself with these tattoos, and is inscribed and regenerated by the violence he perpetrates on others; but, as Toni Morrison would remind us, he is not really black. He is imagined as black by white culture, and has falsely assumed a black mask, the lives of the slaves he catches; but he himself is an empty cipher filled by a projected blackness. Here, double-consciousness and its violence are again relegated back to the white transcendental world that imagined them.

In Middle Passage, even Rutherford winds up less like Reb than the Soulcatcher, a hybrid composite who lacks a center. Rutherford also finds he could not call himself by his name, “only pieces and fragments of all the people who had touched me, all the places I had been. … The ‘I’ that I was, was a mosaic of many countries, a patchwork of others and objects stretching backward to perhaps the beginning of time” (162-63, emphasis mine). But the patchwork, crazyquilt self collapses into the epidermalized self; unlike the transcendental Allmuseri, neither Andrew nor Rutherford are always delighted by this predicament. In Faith and the Good Thing, “no personalities existed in such a pure world of feeling, just flashes of human outlines in the quilt of creation … all coexisting”: Johnson is perhaps a better knitter than writer, for we keep getting more quilts, patchworks, mosaics or tissue. Though he inveterately deprecates the herd mentality, Johnson invests his heroic characters and the Allmuseri with a profoundly communal or at least non-individuated sense of identity (Rushdy 390). “He hated personal pronouns. The Allmuseri had no words for I, you, mine, yours. They had, consequently, no experience of these things, either, only proper names that were variations on the Absolute. You might say, in Allmuseri, all is A” (OT 97). (S. X. Goudie notes that Allmuseri translates as “we shall be All” {119, n8}.) The black Allmuseri possess Emerson's imagined race-transcending unity of being, a pre-Western oneness white transcendentalists can only try to appropriate. (Though Johnson does warn us that “These are Western analogues. Don't make too much of them,” we should again note, as we saw with the concept of hell, the need to use a Western locus, Aristotle, to mark this pre-Western absolute: {OT 97}.) Despite his dismissal of racial identity, Johnson's transcendentalized American blacks can't recapture this unity if they lose their African, Allmuseri identity: Andrew admits, “I can't fake that kind of belonging, that blithe, numbed belief that the world is an extension of my sitting room. Or myself,” a belief the fictional Allmuseri could genuinely hold and upon which Emerson could try to act. That is, Johnson's primary male characters wind up failing more like Emerson and the Soulcatcher than succeeding like Allmuseri.

What I have described as an explicitly Emersonian attempt to make the world an extension of the self inevitably brings us back to white American transcendentalists, and their attempts to transcend the white male ego and body. As Dimock would argue, slaves are dispossessed of the defining trait of white male individuality, property, and most of all self-property: Andrew claims “we hated being propertyless—it was exactly a correlate to the emptiness of the ego. Again and again, and yet again, the New World said to blacks and womenn ‘You are nothing’” (75). This emptiness of the ego, though, is what American transcendentalists inadvertently receive in trying to emulate or appropriate Allmuseri ego-transcendence. (Dimock writes that “The Lockean model of selfhood is perhaps inevitably a territorial one. … A self owned by oneself might also end up being owned by someone else. To make ownership the constitutive essence of selfhood is already to commit the self to a theater of eternal warfare,” a prospect Falcon would endorse{148}.) Women and African Americans have no access to a white Jacksonian self, and so represent the transcendental universal white men seek, or an inversion of it. Slaves and women endemically lack a Lockean self, and thereby have paradoxically already attained the emptying of ego white transcendentalists, like Ezekiel, endlessly pursue.27

But in Johnson, it is not even people who metaphysically enslave characters like Faith, but “demons, not philosopher-kings [who tell her] ‘you are nothing!’” (179). In Johnson's eyes, slavery stages a contest not between slavers and slaves, but demons and philosopher-kings, a contest literally over nothing. That is, it is neither slavery nor racism that makes a black person socially invisible, but hermeneutics. In Faith and the Good Thing, Faith wants to gain control of her life, “to be no longer in bondage. … she had in fact heard it before: You are nothing. … She accepted her bondage and bolstered herself the day long with denial: ‘I am not what I am.’” (69). We have heard versions of this sequence before, in Emerson, Melville, Ellison and Dimock: with considerable irony, for example, Babo tells Benito Cereno, “Ah, Master, don't speak of me; Babo is nothing” (“BC” 154). But Johnson himself uses these terms of slavery to describe contemporary life, so do we locate this language as his or his characters'? Johnson here echoes not only his own literary criticism, but Bledsoe's speech to the Invisible Man: “You're nobody, son. You don't exist—can't you see that?” (IM 141). (In confronting his unity in opposites, The Invisible Man at least can swear, “I yam what I am” {260}.) This hollowness, this nothingness, is the very transparency white transcendentalists like Emerson seek, and that Johnson tries to reinvest in the slave narrator, in the black (non-)self.

Along with Reed and Toni Morrison, Johnson has in different ways then attempted to restore a troubling, and unavoidably contestable, transcendental heritage to African-American culture. In much of Johnson's fiction, blacks embody an inversion of white transcendental models: blacks “predictably fought this massive assault on the ego, even inverted the values of whites (or men)” (76). Andrew's father “stood Jonathan's world on its head, to speak plainly, inverting Big House values at every turn” (24). Being a coffinmaker or already dead, as Morrison proposes via Macon Dead in Song of Solomon, represents a kind of inversion, a second double-consciousness. Yet Andrew also realizes his white mistress Flo is already dead: “‘She's dead,’ he said, without warning. ‘That's what you came down heah to ask, ain't it” (48).

The endemic emptiness of ego-death is instead the repository for what Falcon calls white “transcendental faults.” “Even Cripplegate's bondsmen,” even slaves, precisely possess “a greater sense of purpose than” Falcon or Ezekiel the white transcendentalist. This is the purpose Falcon and the Soulcatcher attempt to steal, a literal regeneration through violence. This “hollow[ness]” of the transcendental mind is then reified in the projected and enforced hollowness of slavery, which metaphysically dispossesses blacks of their egos. Whites are damned not because they're white, but because they possess race as a category. For blacks throughout Johnson's fiction, a pure transcendentalism leads to the race-transcending phenomenology of the Allmuseri: for whites, an appropriated and finally debased transcendentalism leads to civil war, slavery, and irremediable cracks in consciousness.

In broader terms, I would argue that white transcendentalists, including Emerson and Melville, through a complex process of inversion, sacralize and deify these alienating effects of black slavery, including loss of ego, loss of control over bodies, and estrangement from family. These are the goals of transcendentalists, as Johnson details in various exchanges between Ezekiel and Karl Marx (Melville makes a kind of cameo, and Karl Marx is an actual character, in Oxherding Tale, which thus represents a perfect summation of Johnson's wildly anachronistic, phenomenological fiction, which seeks “the atemporal essence of things” {BaR ix}). An amusingly ahistorical Marx savages Ezekiel, the drug-addled white transcendentalist: “You vant to say that the Transcendental Ego is empty, correct? … technically, but you are, by your own argument, dead. … Ja, dead” (86).28 Perhaps such dead whites, like Flo and Ezekiel, become the “particular” zombies of Johnson's fictions, while blacks attain some race and history-transcending universality.29

Presaging Falcon in Middle Passage, Andrew claims “[there is a] hollow carved primordially in the midst of things … in the chest's deep cavity [here in the heart, not yet the brain] buried in Being, like a stake, in popular terms at precisely the point where matter and Mind, spirit and flesh, heaven and earth, subject and object, Self and Other, locked like fingers” (OT 28, first and last emphases mine). I want to make the connection back to Captain Falcon's transcendental fault in the universal (née white) mind: in Oxherding Tale, “the world seemed to fall into two halves,” but the self that wants, waiting for the reply, is, “[again] in popular terms, solipsistic … emotionally bankrupt; it was empty” (91, emphases mine). Ironically, Johnson castigates the white mind for not being universal, for casting the world in two halves; but not to do so, to treat it only as a universal, does away with blackness altogether. And the only cure for universal faults, as I hope I've suggested, is particular: the ahistorical doubling of self and other is solipsistic; historical doubling a problematic, but treatable, fact of life. The notion that we could transcend history remains dangerously allied with the idea that we could transcend race: a peculiar inversion of a “fulfillment” of history through the eradication of ethnicity. Despite Johnson's best intentions, to see race in exclusively metaphysical terms doesn't go beyond the pale.


  1. Here and throughout this article, I attempt to tease out the implications of Johnson's works: at no point does Johnson himself overtly schematize the historical contexts or social implications of his fictional constructs. Because I view Johnson's novels as significant works of both fiction and racial philosophy, I also treat his ontological claims seriously, and attempt to engage with them on the grounds of logical consistency.

  2. While Johnson invokes a variety of philosophical traditions, from Hegel to the dialectics of Taoism, to situate the master-slave relationship, he primarily situates the slave narrator in the context of American rather than European or Asian transcendentalism, as evidenced by his obsessive interest in the writers and motifs of the American Renaissance.

  3. Without simply imposing an accidental linguistic correlation, I would as a conceit assert a barely visible but persistent correlation between Emerson's conception of the fugitive Pan—cast as a black, animal-like force of instinct that, explicitly like Topsy, just grows—and his treatment of the fugitive slave law. While Emerson became, despite his inconsistencies and limitations on racial equality, an unqualified abolitionist, the role of blackness in his conception of nature, rather than just his temperament, often made him too abstract to be politically effective: to meet constraints of space, I am admittedly focusing on one aspect of Emerson's thought in this essay, but it represents the most salient features of transcendentalism for Johnson's work. While Emerson emerged as a vehement spokesman for abolition, the reformer still coincided not so much with the earlier cautionary skeptic, but the transcendentalist: the man who could still say, “He who does his own work frees a slave. He who does not his own work is a slave-holder.” In other words, early Emerson openly and consistently asserts the way to free slaves is by example, by following one's own path, and the later Emerson rarely loses that mindset entirely. (I would contend Emerson stops being transcendental, manages to “transcend” his own limitations, whenever he strikes out against particular slavery).

    First reflected in a theory of natural transformation, the figure of the fugitive Pan, the black faun, then recurs to the fugitive slave law, an admittedly unlikely but finally logical conversion from one sphere to the other. Emerson cannot reconcile his particular concerns about slavery with his conception of race; though Nature is itself black, blacks could never be universal—in much of Emerson's writing, race itself is a form of division from the All; whiteness is reified in his texts, and the black and female “not-me” of nature treated primarily in metaphysical terms. Johnson diverges from Emerson here in application, if not principle, for Emerson finally reaches the “scientific” conclusion that “nature respects race, and not hybrids.” Race remains a division akin to the fragmentation of gender in transcendental thought. Johnson's primary protagonists, however, tend to be mulattos who transcend particularity by emblematizing all races. For a specific chronology of Emerson's anti-slavery positions, see Len Gougeon. For a further discussion of transcendentalism and blackness, see my “Swing to the White, Back to the Black: Writing and ‘Sourcery’ in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo.

  4. Gohdes, “Character,” Uncollected, 44. Compare this claim to Johnson's in his review of Albert Murray's literary aesthetics: “Like most existential humanists who reached maturity before American art became ethnically balkanized … Mr. Murray unabashedly believes in universality.” That is, for Emerson and Johnson—and Murray by imputation—ethnic particularity can only lead to immoral particularity or the horror of balkanization. Somewhat paradoxically, given the impressive eclecticism of his own interests, for Johnson, multiculturalism represents the ontological balkanization of American society. See Johnson, “Keeping the Blues at Bay” (4).

  5. See “Self-Reliance” (W II 77): August 1, 1852 in The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ed. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912), 316: “The Method of Nature” (W I 214).

  6. In a longer piece, one would also want to assess the ways Emersonian transcendentalism and Johnsonian phenomenology are influenced by Asian philosophies of materiality and Zen Buddhism.

  7. As Molly Able Travis also notes, for Johnson, “the history of Western philosophy is the necessary analytic to productively theorize race and other issues related to African philosophy and culture” (191).

  8. Compare this sentiment to that of Ishmael Reed, in whose transcendental satire, Flight to Canada, Quickskill is foolishly told, “you're too … too ethnic. You should be more universal. More universal” (107).

  9. This is the category to which Johnson feels his own unsuccessful early writing belongs.

  10. If Johnson isn't himself treated as universal, and if he is read in conjunction with historical and even naturalistic narratives, he does offer a useful complement to African-American literature's bleak, more faithfully mimetic, portrayals of history.

  11. One can find a more consistent postmodern critique of black nationalism in Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Partly because he is working in a more straightforward format, Gilroy is able more effectively to argue for the transcendence of national boundaries without decontextualizing the history of race.

  12. Again presaging Falcon, The Soulcatcher in Oxherding Tale tells Andrew, “Master Harris, the thought of servin' Gawd through murder usta bother me, like it's botherin' you now, but ah knows mah nature. ‘… His sense of timing was faultless,” but “the transcendental fault” is still apparent in the violence aimed at the other (111, emphasis mine). As a result of such premises, Johnson's books are filled with the violence of “transcendental faults,” where characters dissolve, are absorbed or killed in all kinds of “non-literal,” though typically visceral, ways. As Richard Slotkin would suggest, whites here regenerate themselves—and I would add transcendentalize themselves—by imitating, killing and enslaving African Americans.

  13. Though Johnson resembles Ishmael Reed in his use of the individual male trickster narrator/character, he here emphatically parts company with his views on the materiality of slavery. As Reed writes in Flight to Canada, “She said that slavery was a state of mind, metaphysical. He told her to shut the fuck up” (106).

  14. Such a contention seems in accord with the stance of Phil Fisher in his “Introduction” to The New American Studies, “American Literary and Cultural Studies since the Civil War” and “Democratic Social Space”: as Carolyn Porter adeptly notes, Fisher imagines, in his own words, “a civil war within representation” that constructs a civil war “liberated … from the limitations of period,” and that transcends ideology. When Fisher claims that civil wars are only “a local version of what … should be seen as the fundamental permanent civil war in any society that is, like the United States, an economy rather than a culture,” he inadvertently lays bare the troubling political implications of his and some of Johnson's premises (Porter 478-81).

  15. Where Ahab, the dismembered, seeks to dismember, Ishmael and the Allmuseri seek only to merge; both sides, however, realize that all actions resolve back upon the self.

  16. Quite accurately, Travis argues that “Johnson's novel seeks to transcend race and to suppress the feminine” (181). This point brings us to the crucial debate over the black critic's and artist's responsibility to race and gender: for Joyce Joyce, for example, “it is insidious for the Black literary critic to adopt any kind of strategy that diminishes or … negates his blackness.” Her critique of Gates's poststructuralism could also apply to Johnson's position, at the other end of the critical and political spectrum, that the critic should aim to transcend race (341). In many cases, black men seek to transcend race while black women seek to redefine it. One context for this division lies in the way American Renaissance transcendentalism defines a male alienation from Nature as the very definition of male individuality; when contemporary African-American women writers return to the period of slavery and transcendentalism, their concern is less with recuperating a black male identity within the tenets of transcendentalism than contesting the entire framework.

  17. By contrast, for example, Travis suggests via Joe Weixlmann that Johnson receives insufficient attention because “African-American critics have shown little interest in reader-response approaches” (179). S. X. Goudie, at the time of his writing in 1995, slightly exaggerates that only a single substantive critical article had appeared on Middle Passage since its publication in 1990 (110).

  18. As Eric Sundquist notes, “Melville, in Benito Cereno, had judged that race slavery was an exercise of political power that masqueraded behind the supposed ‘laws of nature,’ and Chesnutt and Du Bois, among others, were soon to argue vigorously that ‘race’ was itself a metaphysical notion constructed of cultural, not biological inheritances” (228). In the often renewed debate about race and culture, recently struck up again between Walter Benn Michaels and Christopher Newfield, Johnson would primarily side with the Du Bois/Chesnutt camp.

  19. In this country, under current historical conditions, one cannot “transcend” race without becoming marked as white. To “achieve” a non-racial coding does not and cannot yet mean that one has transcended race, but only that one passes as “normative” or non-racial, i.e. white.

  20. Johnson's explicitly Platonic narrator in Oxherding Tale asserts that “No form, I should note, loses its ancestry; rather, these meanings accumulate in layers of tissue as the form evolves” (119).

  21. Such ideas in Johnson can usually be correlated to transcendental sources: compare this passage, for example, to one by Orestes Brownson; in his negative view of the same issue, a belief in transcendental pantheism represents the end of all diversity:

    Men are weak, are puny, differ from one another because they seek to live in their diversity, and to find their truth, their reality, in their individuality. Let them eschew their [false] individuality. … let them be themselves, sink back into their underlying reality, on the One Man, and suffer the universal Over-Soul to flow into them, and speak through them without impediment.


  22. In writing about Middle Passage, S. X. Goudie claims that his own use of parentheses as a critic “represents a predominant intersubjectivity in the African-American tradition that Johnson acknowledges” (120, n. 25).

  23. For Sharon Cameron, American literature endemically replays this conflict between embodied and disembodied identities, between “people” and their names and designations. As she notes in The Corporeal Self, Melville tears down (the same) identity signs: “‘I am called woman, and thou, man, Pierre,’ Isabel says, emphasizing for our regard this mystery of the subject, ‘but there is neither man nor woman about it’” (57).

  24. In this context, one would need to pursue the connection between black conservatism—especially the complex black conservatism found in Johnson's postmodern aesthetics—and Emersonian transcendentalism in mainstream American culture.

  25. The crucial distinction is that for Emerson, the All of nature, the not me, is black as well as female; Emerson seeks to transcend his subject position, whereas Johnson doesn't seem to want to believe he has a subject position to transcend. Johnson's Nature/other also tends to be gendered female rather than racialized.

  26. Johnson is as contradictory as Emerson, not just on the subject of race, but the underlying subject of gender, and particularly on the role of black women. A feminized Being becomes the unmoved mover of Johnson's phenomenology, but black women, even Faith, are largely left without role or identity in this system. Johnson writes in Oxherding Tale,

    these rolling hills, these timeless trees and vegetation we genderized—even as we racialized Being, giving them feminine attributes, without asking whether Being … had an ancient grudge against men. Of course … Emerson sang her; Thoreau fled to her; … but these were men. … What was said of Woman was no less true of world. She did not need us for satisfaction, or even reproduction—there were, after all, parthenogenesis, all of which cast men as the comical exception in Nature, the freak … who created history because he could not live Being's timeless cycles.


    Wholly stripped of race and particularity—in politically troubling ways—“women” are categorically dismantled, but simultaneously reaffirmed as representing a non-multiplicitous Allmuseri existence, and the transcendence of history itself. Johnson's male characters are alienated from nature, rendered dual, in ways that have little to do with any historically imagined conditions of slavery or anything else:

    Perhaps all philosophy boils down to the simple fear that the universe has no need for us—men, I mean, because women are, in a strange sense, more essential to Being than we are. … In the East, men believe themselves to be off-springs of the sun. … They worship Being as a female, the mother. But we in Europe and the Americas have settled for something else. Something less, I daresay. We build machines, Andrew, create tribal languages in philosophy like little boys with secret codes. … to get back at the universe because she has failed to give us a function. … the culture of women goes on, the rhythms of birth and destruction.


    In such a gender politics, male culture simply amounts to a pantheistic worship of a female Nature, which itself has no need for culture.

  27. That Ezekiel is a kind of hybridized version of Emerson—and his transparent eyeball as well as general belief in the actual permeability of objects—is clear from various passages, most notably when we are told “He is, let us say, born to Transcendentalism, by virtue of a peculiar quirk of cognition that … lets him perceive the interior of objects” (9).

  28. This form of reference to the dead takes us back to Johnson's Todd, Ishmael Reed's Thoth in Mumbo Jumbo, and Ellison's Tod Clifton in Invisible Man. For Hegel—a likely secondary reference in The Phenomenology of Mind for constructing the caricature of Marx above—the most salient characteristic of the transcendental All is that of a self-dissolution bordering on extinction: “This condition of universality, which the individual as such reaches, is mere being, death; it is the immediate issue of a natural process, and is not the action of a conscious mind. … death is the fulfillment and final task which the individual as such undertakes on its behalf” (445). Only the dead—those who have lost or transcended history, their individual egos, and their boundaries from the “not me”—achieve an actual universality.

  29. In Oxherding Tale, Mrs. Pomeroy, for example, is described as being “quite old—Daddy's already filled out a death certificate for her … a real zombie …” (125). Andrew even tells Peggy, “If I were a priest and saw you and your father at these moments of hysterical joy, I'd administer Last Rites and lower coins onto your eyelids” (143). Only Reb the Allmuseri, by not being such a zombie, escapes the Soulcatcher, because he “couldn't entirely become the nigguh because you got to have somethin' dead or static already inside you—an image of yoself—fo' a real slave catcher to latch onto” (174).

Earlier versions of this article were presented to the Committee on Languages and Literatures Session on “Multiple Subjectivities,” MLA, San Diego, December 1994, and to the Israel Association of American Studies Annual Conference, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, November 1996. My thanks to Shirley Geok Lin Lim and Emily Budick. I would also like to thank Jennifer Fleischner, Leila May, Kim Benston, Toni Wein and Don Palmer for their comments on earlier versions of this article.

Works Cited

Appiah, Anthony. “‘But Would That Still Be Me?’ Notes on Gender, ‘Race,’ Ethnicity as Sources of ‘Identity.’” The Journal of Philosophy 87 (Oct. 1990): 493-99.

———. “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race.” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (Autumn 1985): 21-37.

Awkward, Michael. Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Brownson, Orestes. “A Conversation with a Transcendentalist.” Critical Essays on American Transcendentalism. Ed. Philip F. Gura and Joel Myerson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Bynum, Carolyn Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Cabot, James Elliot. A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson I-II. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1888.

Cameron, Sharon. The Corporeal Self: Allegories of the Body in Melville and Hawthorne. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Feminist Studies 14 (Spring 1988): 67-79.

Colter, Cyrus. “Fought For It and Paid Taxes Too: Four Interviews with Giton Cross, Fred Shafer, Charles Johnson, Reginald Gibbons.” Callaloo 14.4 (1991): 855-97.

Dimock, Wai Chee. Empire for Liberty: Melville and the Poetics of Individualism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Works I-XII. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1904.

———. Uncollected Lectures by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Clarence Gohdes. New York: William E. Rudge, 1932.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso, 1993.

Gleason, William. “The Liberation of Perception: Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale.Black American Literature Forum 25.4 (Winter 1991): 705-28.

Goudie, S. X. “‘Leavin' a Mark on the World’: Marksmen and Marked Men in Middle Passage.African-American Review 29.1 (1995): 109-22.

Gougeon, Len. “Historical Background.” Emerson's Antislavery Writing. Ed. Len Gougeon and Joel Myerson. xi-lvi. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Gysin, Fritz. “Predicaments of Skin: Boundaries in Recent African-American Fiction.” The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African-American Literature and Culture. Ed. Werner Sollors and Maria Diedrich. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994. 286-97.

Hardack, Richard. “Swing to the White, Back to the Black: Writing and ‘Sourcery’ in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo.The Arizona Quarterly 49.4 (Winter 1993): 117-38. Revised version Literary Influence and African-American Writers. Ed. Tracy Mishkin. Garland Publishers, 1995. 271-300.

Hayward, Jennifer. “Something to Serve: Constructs of the Feminine in Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale.Black American Literature Forum 25.4 (Winter 1991): 689-703.

Hegel, G. W. F. The Phenomenology of Mind II. Trans. J. B. Baillie. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1910.

Johnson, Charles. “An Interview With Charles Johnson.” Conducted by Jonathan Little. Contemporary Literature 34.2 (1993): 159-81.

———. Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

———. Faith and the Good Thing. New York: Atheneum, 1974.

———. “Keeping the Blues at Bay.” New York Times Book Review (10 March 1996): 4.

———. Middle Passage. New York: Plume, 1990.

———. Oxherding Tale. New York: Grove Press, 1982. Rpt. New York: Plume, 1995.

———. “Philosophy and Black Fiction.” Obsidian: Black Literature in Review 1 and 2 (Spring/Summer 1980): 55-62.

Joyce, Joyce A. “The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism.” New Literary History 18 (Winter 1987): 335-84.

Little, Jonathan. “Charles Johnson's Revolutionary Oxherding Tale.Studies in American Fiction 19.2 (Autumn 1991): 141-52.

Malcolm X. “Not Just an American Problem, But a World Problem.” Malcolm X: The Last Speeches. Ed. Bruce Perry. New York: Pathfinder, 1989.

Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” Billy Budd and Other Tales. New York: Signet, 1961.

———. Pierre. New York: Signet, 1964.

Porter, Carolyn. “What We Know That We Don't Know: Remapping American Literary Studies.” American Literary History. 6.3 (Fall 1994): 467-526.

Reed, Ishmael. Flight to Canada. New York: Avon, 1976.

———, Shawn Wong, Bob Callahan, and Andrew Hope. “Is Ethnicity Obsolete?” The Invention of Ethnicity. Ed. Werner Sollors. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. 226-36.

Rushdy, Ashraf. “The Phenomenology of the Allmuseri: Charles Johnson and the Subject of the Narrative of Slavery.” African-American Review 26.3 (1992): 372-93.

Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration Through Violence. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

Sundquist, Eric. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1993.

Takaki, Ronald. Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Slavery in Massachusetts.” Reform Papers. Ed. Wendell Glick. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973. 91-109.

Travis, Molly Abel. “Beloved and Middle Passage: Race, Narrative, and the Critic's Essentialism.” Narrative 2.3 (Oct. 1994): 179-200.

Zamir, Shamoon. “‘The Sorrow Songs’/‘Song of Myself’: Du Bois, the Crisis of Leadership, and Prophetic Imagination.” The Black Columbiad. 145-66.

Charles Johnson and Rob Trucks (interview date winter-summer 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10436

SOURCE: Johnson, Charles, and Rob Trucks. “A Conversation with Charles Johnson.” TriQuarterly 107-108 (winter-summer 2000): 537-60.

[In the following interview, Johnson discusses how he researches and writes his works of historical fiction, including Middle Passage and Dreamer.]

Novelist, short story writer, essayist, screenwriter, and cartoonist Charles Johnson received both his bachelor's degree in journalism and his master's in philosophy from Southern Illinois University before studying with the legendary John Gardner at SUNY-Stony Brook. Johnson has published two books of cartoons, a book-length essay entitled Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970, and serves as coeditor for a collection of essays, Black Men Speaking. His published fiction includes Faith and the Good Thing,Oxherding Tale,The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and Middle Passage, a novel which garnered the National Book Award, making him the first African-American male to capture the prize since Ralph Ellison won for Invisible Man in 1953.

Johnson is currently the Pollack Professor in the Department of English at the University of Washington and is a recent recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.

I interviewed Charles Johnson three days before his fiftieth birthday in his Manhattan hotel room, as he toured in support of his new novel, Dreamer.

[Trucks]: I got tired just reading over your list of accomplishments. It almost doesn't seem fair that you're still alive.

[Johnson]: Well, you have to take one day at a time, man. I've been working since I was seventeen years old, as a publishing artist. I've worked steadily.

I'm amazed that you find time to breathe. My point in bringing this up is, Do you ever feel pressure in your work, whether fiction or non-fiction, to please more than Charles Johnson and his immediate family?

No, actually I think I just write to satisfy myself. My friend, August Wilson, you know, he's got these rules for writers. There are four of them. One of them is, There are no rules for writing. That's one. The second one is, The first statement is a lie so pay attention. The third one is, You can't write for an audience. The writer's first job is to survive. And the fourth one is, You can do no wrong but anything can be made better. As simple as those are, I think they make a lot of sense. You have to write to satisfy yourself, first and foremost. Who else could you possibly write for? The Audience? What is that exactly? You see people who come into bookstores and they're from all walks of life, all backgrounds and all ethnic groups. All religions and race. So are you going to target one group as opposed to another? No, you're going to write for yourself.

When I write, I think about people who I've worked with in the past, or known. I'll say to myself, Now if John Gardner were alive, he'd like that line. If my wife reads this, she's going to like it. Or if my buddy over there looks at this little passage on martial arts, since he's a martial artist, he's going to like it. That's about as big as the audience gets for me, because you can't know all these invisible people out there who you've never met. So you have to work for yourself to satisfy yourself.

I'm trying to figure a way to ask this next question without sounding like I'm fawning.

Well, it's not even about that. See? Here's why I'm a Buddhist, man. None of this is about ego. None of this is about career for me. It never has been. I have no interest in that. I've just loved to create, ever since I was a kid. First with drawings, and then later on I discovered I could write. And there's specific things that I do want to write, particularly philosophical fictions, for a number of different reasons. Because that's my training and background, in terms of formal education, and also because we didn't have a whole lot of that in African-American literature, except for Jean Toomer, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. So I figured there was a gap. There was a void. I could fill that void. And that's what it was about, enriching our literature through, I hope, books like Dreamer and the previous ones.

Now I also do other assignments and those were, primarily, to see if I could do them, in fact. Like public television and other kinds of things. To see if I could write a different kind of thing, just to challenge myself. You can also make some money that way, too.

You hit on a couple of points there. The assignments like Black Men Speaking and Being and Race. Maybe when I say institution, I'm asking if you feel any kind of responsibility other than to yourself.

Responsibility? Keep going. What do you mean by responsibility?

When you say that you've done assignments for the challenge, to see if you could do them, it seems like that might have been a concern early on, but not now. It seems like the motivation to create Black Men Speaking has to come from another place than just “to see if you could do it.” Does the non-fiction provide as much enjoyment as fiction?

Being and Race is actually one of the most enjoyable things that I think I've done, primarily because that was going to be my dissertation at Stony Brook. I did all but the dissertation. I got hired by a writing program and they said, You know, you're publishing. You don't need to finish the Ph.D. because the M.F.A. is a terminal degree. And I said, Okay, fine. That gives me free time to write, literary fiction and other things, but I still wanted that dissertation on phenomenology in respect to Black American literature. And also, not as a dissertation, but something a bit more readable than a dissertation is. So that's why I went back and did Being and Race. The third reason was because I thought some of the reviews of earlier books were just abysmal. I thought that the book reviewers were, aesthetically, just totally at sea with an original work of art. So it's a manifesto of sorts.

When you say “earlier books,” you're referring to your earlier books?

Faith and the Good Thing in particular. Oxherding Tale threw a lot of people because they didn't know to do with this book. They didn't understand it. People seem to think ideologically, very often, about Black art, and they have presuppositions in their mind, and all kinds of sociological clichés. Ellison addresses this very eloquently, and other writers as well. But that's what Being and Race is largely about, the first half of it. It's an aesthetic in the first half and then in the second half I talk about writers, and assess various texts, in a capsule kind of way in some cases, for people who may not know who those writers are. Or those times. Or those books. So that book was something I enjoyed doing and I still like it, very much, among all the books that I've done.

Black Men Speaking was another matter. That was requested by my friend, John Gallman, at Indiana, and came from his desire to do that kind of book, and my desire to deal with the plight of young black men in the eighties. Again, my son has just entered that critical age group, sixteen to thirty-four, at the time, that's been labelled an endangered species. I wanted to work through all that mess, all those statistics that were so bad, and then get other writers to address those same questions, but in a fresh way. And not the usual kind of writers.

I owe the way that book looks to John McCluskey, who was able to put more time into it than I was, because I was busy with other things, like Dreamer. John was very interested in not getting academics, and not getting published writers, because those are the voices you usually hear in an anthology on Black men. He wanted grass roots people. He wanted people who were not writers and that meant that we, he and I, all had to work very carefully with the writers to bring the prose up to speed, because they didn't have a literary background.

I think some of the pieces are really quite fine. My colleague Joe Scott's first piece in there, on growing up in Detroit in the thirties, called “Making a Way Out of No Way” is really fine. Everybody loves that piece. And David Nicholson's piece is really good. Of course, David is a Washington Post reporter so it's going to be good. John got some good people to participate in this particular project, and to tell the truth. Basically a lot of people don't want to deal with those statistics. They want to deny them, or skip around them, but they're real. And until somebody just looks at it, and accepts it as being the case, nobody can move forward so, to me, that's a different kind of a book, but I feel very strongly about it. I feel a certain passion about it.

You said, a few minutes ago, that one of the things being a Buddhist helped with was not having an ego.

Well, you work at it. It's an illusion anyway.

Do you ever feel competitive with your fiction?

Competitive in what sense?

I'm thinking of a particular section from the introduction to Oxherding Tale paperback: “The 1980s began as a decade when the work of Black male writers was systematically downplayed and ignored in commercial, New York publishing. For example, Oxherding Tale appeared the same year as Alice Walker's The Color Purple. I leave it to readers to decide which book pushes harder at the boundaries of invention, and inhabits most confidently the space where fiction and philosophy meet.”

The reason I've never felt competitive with other writers is because I know exactly what I showed up to do, and it's basically philosophical fiction. That's my background. And, once again, everything I've done in the way of my own, self-generated projects, novels and short stories, have always been, I hope, in that area where fiction and philosophy meet. I don't even write a story unless it's philosophically engaging to me, or addresses some perennial question in Eastern or Western philosophy. I'm not going to write my own stories unless they do that.

But if there's anybody that I'm competitive with, then that's me, and that's it. To say that writers are competitive, what does that really mean? Are they doing the same thing? Is that what they mean? And so they're competing with each other? If that's the case, then you have two writers doing the same thing and you don't need one of them.

But you seem to have a special pride for Oxherding Tale.

Definitely. If I had not done that book, I would not have gone on to do the other books. I know that. That's a very special book for me for a lot of reasons. That is the book I wanted to write when I became a writer. That is to say, I wrote six novels in two years prior to Faith and the Good Thing. They weren't the books I wanted to write because I hadn't figured out how to write out of a philosophical sensibility.

I met John Gardner while I was writing Faith and the Good Thing and I was beginning to understand what that could be. This place where fiction and philosophy merge. Because we divide things, I think. This is this and this is that and that thing's over there. And that's bullshit, because everything really is one whole, one unit. I hadn't figured out, exactly, how to carve at that until Faith and the Good Thing, but that still didn't satisfy me. John didn't really understand Eastern philosophy. He was actually kind of opposed to it. In fact, he was a lot opposed to it, at the time, though he changed later on, in his writing, and even wrote a piece called “Meditational Fiction” for a book he translated by a Japanese writer by the name of Kikuo Itaya, a book of short stories. John brought his work back here, had SIU Press publish him, did the introduction, mainly to say, He didn't understand these stories, which were very anchored in Buddhism, but he loved them. That's the kind of human being he was.

But at the time I was working with John, he didn't really understand and I didn't go that far, philosophically, in Faith and the Good Thing. For me, whenever I write a book, and this is probably a very difficult thing for some people to understand, I don't write a book just to be writing a book. I write a book as if it's the last thing in this world I'm ever going to do, the last statement I'm ever going to make. I take this final manuscript, when it's done, and I put it in the mail, and it's my Last Will and Testament in language. That's what this is. For me, it's got to be total when I do a book. I mean, total. Every emotion, thought. The best emotion. The best thought. The best technique. I'm going to have to learn something new from it and draw off of everything I ever knew. Pull up emotions I haven't felt before. I'm going to have to feel differently. I'm going to come out of this process different when I do a novel. It's a total thing. And one of the things dearest to me in my life, since my teens, ever since I got into martial arts, has been Eastern thought, Eastern philosophy. And I'm thinking about all kinds of things in respect to Eastern philosophy and its emphasis on personal liberation. And all the things that go into Buddhism, and then I'm thinking about the slave narrative, which had never been the form used for a novel. You know what I'm saying? And how you go about updating that and go philosophically deeper into it and focus on questions of freedom in a deeper way. Other kinds of slavery, such as psychological, sexual, metaphysical. All of that is something I just really had to deal with, in some book, somewhere, and that's Oxherding Tale.

I was looking at the “Ten Oxherding Pictures” from my late teens, when I was a cartoonist. I'd look at all kinds of art and that one is a seminal Buddhist text. That was important to me in grappling with this subject. So all of that went into Oxherding Tale, and why doing this book as opposed to something else.

My editor at the time, whose name I won't mention, I pitched the idea to him that maybe I could do a family drama, a black family drama, and he was like, Oh yeah, I can sell that idea. And then I told him, I never intended to do that. I just wanted to see what you would say. I'm doing this book. I said, It's this book or nothing. If you stick with something, fortunately somebody will understand it. That's why I have this long relationship now with John Gallman at Indiana University Press. I feel indebted to John for making that book a reality because I really would not have written anything else, in the way of a novel, unless I had gotten that book done. Everything I do refers to that in some way, if not to the novel then to the complex themes of Eastern philosophies, Taoism and Buddhism, that animate the book.

So that's sort of, basically, the story of that novel. I threw away two thousand four hundred pages as I wrote it. It had to be this book in our literature or I wasn't going to be happy.

Compared to most writers, your novels have long gestation periods.

It depends on the novel. I used to write novels one every ten weeks when I first started writing fiction. Faith and the Good Thing took me nine months.

Maybe I should follow that lead. What's the difference between the first six novels that you wrote and the seventh. Faith and the Good Thing, which was the first novel published?

The first six are easier. They're not philosophical novels. That's one thing. When I wrote Oxherding Tale, I sped read every book on slavery in the State University of New York at Stony Brook's library, just because I wanted to immerse myself in that, in all the slave narratives. I spent six years just reading stuff on the sea, reading literature on the sea for Middle Passage, everything from Appolonius to Voyage of Argo forward to Conrad. All of Melville I looked at again, nautical dictionaries. Everything about the sea, because I didn't know that stuff. That was '83 to '86, but, prior to that, going all the way back to 1971, I'd been collecting stuff on the slave trade, from the time I was discussion group leader in Black Studies at Southern Illinois University, when Black Studies first started there. There was a big lecture class and we divided the students up and some of us undergraduates were discussion group leaders when I first saw the image of a slave ship projected on an overhead projector, a cross-section of a ship with those silhouetted figures. So one of the first six novels I did was on the slave trade. It's like number two, so it would be like 1971 or something like that, and I wasn't ready to write it. It was just too early. But I had the research. Anything related to the slave trade I collected or took notes on, from '71 all the way to '83, and I began Middle Passage in '83. So, again, a lot of history.

Dreamer, I hope, embodies a great deal of history and biography. Every take on the life of the spirit is in this book. The Christian tradition as well as Moslem, as well as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and so forth. Because I like to learn, that's one thing, as I'm doing something. I mean, I come out with far more knowledge on a particular subject than I can get in that book. And that's just very enriching. I don't know if the next novel I do will have so much history as its foundation, as one of its conditions for coming into being. If that's the case, then give me maybe two years.

Usually I don't write autobiographically. I don't do that because it just doesn't interest me. I'm interested in other things. This novel, Dreamer, oddly enough, does have a couple autobiographical things in it. The sketch of my hometown in the fifties.

Your great-uncle makes an appearance.

My great-uncle's in there. And that trip that the character makes with his mother, down South, that was actually a trip that my parents made. I usually don't pull out stuff like that because I'm interested in other subjects. I don't think the gestation period for a non-history-based novel would be too long.

But I'm very demanding about other things, too. As Sartre once said, Every sentence is a risk. I think everything needs to be compressed. I tell my students all the time, the French have a term, remplissage. It means literary padding. I don't want any of that in my book. I want this compression that happens when you have a lot of material presented poetically, distilled. It's like philosophy. You don't have a line in philosophy that doesn't advance the argument or, in this case, the aesthetic feeling. It's got to justify itself in some way. Every paragraph has to do that, and not just in one way, in two or three ways. So I tend to throw out a lot of stuff. Probably about three thousand pages for Dreamer. I know it was about three thousand pages for Middle Passage. Scenes, approaches that just didn't really fit. Characters that didn't develop. Who knows? Out of one page you might have one sentence or one paragraph that's really useful, for this fiction or for something else. I mean, I got to the point in this novel where I'm following this character, this King-like character, Chaym Smith, and he starts shooting up. I didn't know he was going to do that. Where did I learn about shooting up? Well, that's in a novel, one of the first six I did in those first two years. I remembered that. I did the research before. I pulled out the drawer of my filing cabinet and there it was, everything I needed just for that one description. So I never throw stuff away, because it might be one little thing on a page. One image, one idea that'll make a lot of sense.

You know, there's a phrase in Dreamer, “isomers of the divine presence,” that King uses when he's thinking about spiritual immanence. That was actually the title of the last three books of the six novels I wrote between 1970 and '72. It was a trilogy that ran nine hundred and fifty-eight pages. That was the last three of the six I did in two years and it was called Isomers of God because I was thinking about isomerization and spiritual things all at the same time. But that trilogy is in my filing cabinet. All I got out of it is that one little phrase in that particular chapter of Dreamer.

But the second of the six unpublished novels became Middle Passage?

Yes. The first one was actually called The Last Liberation. It was about a young black man, studying at a martial arts school like the one I was in when I was nineteen, and this whole other universe that opens up to him. You start with practice and you train the body, then you train the mind, train the spirit. And it was a first novel that just didn't work although I've returned to that subject, really, in short stories.

Like “China”?

“China” and a couple of other things that've moved beyond the original premise. It didn't work but I do revisit some of the earlier subjects and themes with different characters. But I'm sure I'll never go back to the trilogy. It was about the childhood, adulthood and middle age of a black musician. That's what that was about. Again, I used to write ten pages a day so I could do a novel in ten weeks, and they would go through three drafts. I didn't know how to really revise until I met Gardner, though. I'd just go back over the whole book again, from the start to the end. But the second book in that series was accepted by a some little publisher here in New York and I asked Gardner, while I was working on Faith and the Good Thing, Should I publish this book? I'd found a publisher. And the book was very different from Faith and the Good Thing. And he said, You know, if you think you'll ever have to climb over it, then you shouldn't do it. So I asked for it back. The reason that they liked it was because it sounded like James Baldwin. It was very Baldwinesque. Those were just sort of my models in the back of my mind—Baldwin, Richard Wright, John A. Williams and so forth. And I took it back and I'm glad I did. It doesn't fit. It doesn't fit within the body of work that I want to develop. It was a good training novel, teaching me how to write. Do this and do that. But I didn't know enough about music to write something like that.

It seems extraordinarily patient for a young author to turn down an offer to publish.

Everybody's got this hunger to publish, as a writer, but I don't. I don't have a hunger to publish. I have a hunger to create certain things along the lines that I've been telling you about, but not just to publish for the sake of publishing.

Now, I was like that when I was a cartoonist. I was panting, as a teenager, to publish. Anything anywhere. And that's really why I started so early. I used to come here to New York and stay with my relatives in Brooklyn, and take my portfolio of drawings all around to the cartoon editors and comic book companies, but I couldn't really do much assignment work because I didn't live here and, again, I was fifteen, sixteen years old. So I had a hunger to publish as a cartoonist. Anywhere and everywhere. I did a lot of that. I published a thousand drawings, two books and had a TV series by the time I was 22, so basically the thrill was gone in terms of seeing my name in print. It's fine but you have to ask yourself, What am I publishing? What is it that my name is attached to? Is it something that I can hand to my kids and say, Well, this is about the best your dad has been able to make out of his journey through existence? That's the kind of book that means something to me. That's the only kind of book that I would want to put my name on and release to other people. So it's not about the hunger to publish. That doesn't mean much.

With Dreamer, I made a promise to Lee Goerner, my late editor, who passed away before the book was finished. I made a promise to Lee. I said, Lee, I'm going to do the best book I can for you, so my feeling now is, Okay, I think I did that.

All my duties are discharged. All my promises are kept. I don't owe anybody anything, for the first time in my life. Nobody, nothing, nowhere. Not to former teachers, not to parents, not to colleagues, not to students. Nobody, nowhere. It's a clean slate, so fifty, for me, basically means all my debts are discharged and I can do what I want. I've always done what I wanted to do but I can do it a little bit differently now. Something may get moved to the side. It may be teaching. It just might be one of the balls I've been keeping up in the air for twenty something years.

I noticed that writing wasn't one of those things that might get moved.

Oh no, never.

Do you know what the next novel will be?

No, I don't.

I read a piece on you that was around the time of Middle Passage, and you were already talking about King.

I was. I was. This is how it happened. Lee said, What do you want to do next? I told him I'd been thinking about this short story I did on King and the issues that affect black people in America today, and looking back thirty years to recapture what the last few years of this man's life were like. So he called up the head of the company, whoever he was, and got an advance, and then we were rolling. But then I had to do the research. I didn't know the man. I just needed to immerse myself in King, while I was doing a bunch of other stuff right after the National Book Award. I was ready to start writing around '93. So the composition really took from '93 until September of 1997.

Is there a stage during the research when you're tempted to try and put words down or do you tell yourself, No, this is the research stage?

Well, all of '92 I just was reading King. I was going off to do promotion for Middle Passage, lectures and stuff, and I would take the King books with me, so it was all going on continuously. I was accumulating. Going to the King birth house. I'd been to the Lorraine before, in the eighties, so I didn't need to go back, but I was just sort of gathering things. Documents, film stuff on the Civil Rights movement. Letting all of that stuff come together until I was ready to write, and the first thing I was ready to write was the Prologue. I just sat down and wrote it. Unlike with other books, I was basically working from the seat of my pants. I had a model for everything else. Faith and the Good Thing was a folk-tale, Oxherding Tale was a slave narrative, and Middle Passage was a classic sea story. I had no model for this book but the first thing that came to me was just that Prologue, just the feeling, and the feeling led me to where I needed to go.

I thought about this book, once, in terms of it being a classic gospel. You know, we have a whole tradition of literature written by monks writing to other monks about what you're doing with your life and how you should be a monk. I thought about that as a possible model but finally I decided on this structure, the alternating first and third persons. But maybe it still is a gospel. It has a structure that resembles one long prayer, you know, ending with Amen. And so that's the form it took, but I really didn't have a literal model for this particular novel. I kind of like to play with forms, literary forms, because you learn so much from doing that. You bring in another aesthetic dimension from the nineteenth or eighteenth century and that's just a lot of fun. But I didn't really have that for this particular book.

It's not nearly as cut and dried a process as two years of research followed by five years of writing, is it?

No. I just finished a piece for a magazine called Commonquest and there's stuff in there that's not in the novel because I was still thinking about King. I'm still thinking about the guy. I still read about him. I still try to improve my knowledge about who he was and what he represented. He really was a philosopher. In the past, you know, I might have a problem I'm writing about and I'd ask, What would Kant have to say about this or What would Hegel say?, but now it's pretty easy for me to say, What would King say about this? I have a sense now. Why did he say a particular thing? Well, I know why he said it. I think I understand a bit more about his intellectual foundation. That is now part of my literary repertoire. And I want to improve that understanding, to sharpen it. On this book tour, a guy gave me his Ph.D. dissertation and it's a philosophical analysis of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King is a philosopher and we should be talking about him in those terms. Not just as a Civil Rights leader.

When you first started writing Dreamer, you had King and you had the doppelganger, but didn't the story change? I read that with at least one of your books you submitted an outline, but then the book changed.

They all do. But the only book where I've submitted an outline is Oxherding Tale. It changed, over the years, from its original incarnations, because you live with something for five years, it evolves as you evolve. You start with one interest and three years later you may have a different interest so the book has got to be capacious enough to contain your own changing perceptions and emotions and desires.

I guess maybe I'm having a hard time understanding the patience that allows you to go through eight or nine drafts of a novel, and still feel something's missing, that something's not exactly right. With Oxherding Tale you went from a black protagonist to a mulatto protagonist and then from a more or less stereotypical slave owner to Flo Hatfield, however you would like to describe her. I'm interested in that moment of change. How far, whether it's measured by length of time or number of pages or emotional investment, how far are you into Oxherding Tale when you realize the protagonist isn't black, he's mulatto?

Oh, there was a point where I was ready to leave it alone and just move on to something else. It was around Christmas. I didn't want another year to begin with me looking at this book. I literally sat down, this is between Christmas and New Year's, to give myself reasons for why this book was impossible. I said, First of all, to me, the narrator is boring. He's a typical black in the typical situation that a slave is in. As soon as I thought of that (because this is the way imagination usually works, I try to tell my students this a lot), I thought of a variation. Suppose he's mulatto? Ah. All of sudden he belongs to both the white and the black world. He's walking down this tightrope. He could fall either way, or be attacked from either side. Okay, That's interesting. But no, no, no. I still don't like the slavemaster. His name was Colonel Woofter, or something like that, and he was just predictable. He did everything you ever thought a slavemaster should do from Simon Legree forward. But what if, I thought, he's a woman? It's just a little thing but all of a sudden a door opens up. So I talked myself out of abandoning the novel. It was really the first of the year, January, and I said, Okay, I'm going to go back over this novel and I'm going to look at these new possibilities and chase them.

And, I tell you, much the same thing happened with Dreamer, because you're right, at the very beginning I had the double and I had King. The last layer of this novel went on early last year. Sometimes things just happen serendipitously. They're just pure chance. You know, I did that Bill Moyers show called “Genesis,” where a bunch of writers came in to talk about Cain and Abel. A little before I did that there was a Black Writers Conference at Claremont McKenna College and Dr. Ricardo Quinones, who was the host, invited a bunch of people there. Shelby Steele was there and Walter Mosley, Ishmael Reed, and a few others, but as we were leaving he gave me a copy of his book, The Changes of Cain. It's the history of the character of Cain for 2000 years. And I said, I can't believe you gave me this. I've got a show to do and I don't know anything about the subject. This will help me.

I read a third of the book before the show and as we're sitting there, talking about Cain and Abel, I'm really getting interested in this story. I think I probably knew more than anybody else on that show because nobody else had time to do the research, or to prepare. So we're just kicking around ideas but I'm really getting interested and thinking, What the hell does it mean that the first two brothers are characterized by envy and murder? Cain brings murder into the world. Well, I still hadn't connected the dots. The show was over and I went back to work on this book and my agent saw the show and she had seen the drafts of Dreamer, along the way, and she said, What about Cain and Abel? And I thought, Oh my God.

So Cain and Abel wasn't there until a year ago?

Early last year. I said, Oh my God. And then I went back and finished Quinones' book. I looked at his sources. I went and read all these other stories about Cain and Abel, and it provided the gestalt, the glue between all the other elements. Chaym becomes Cain to King's Abel. It's all there. It's just all there. You know, sometimes writing is almost like the philosophical process. You're looking for that one last piece that will snap everything into focus so you've got a unified, organic whole. Otherwise, I was basically developing the double as a kind of uneducated guy, poor, from the South side of Chicago. I was having a really hard time with the double learning so much about King. Well, Chaym is way different. His problem is something else. It's a problem deep inside, one of faith. He's mythic character. That gave me what I like to have in the novel, which is a kind of myth dimension. Because the other novels do have that as well.

I want to know, before the answer comes, before the change of protagonist in Oxherding Tale or before you get the Cain and Abel connection in Dreamer, do you feel dissatisfied? Do you feel like something's missing? Are you physically writing or are you taking a break, waiting for some kind of intervention?

I think doing both. On the one hand, you're working with the idea you've got at the moment, to make it as good as you can, and the writing can actually be very elegant but it's still not what you want and you can feel that. Or, the other thing is, you just want to take a break for a while and work on some other assignment. One thing that's nice about having lots of assignments to work on is it's like being a poet. A poet works on a poem, hits the wall, puts it in the drawer, writes another poem, hits the wall, then puts that in the drawer and takes the first one out, working on it with fresh eyes.

So the non-fiction does give you a break, a release?

It's like painters who work on several canvases. Ray Carver used to do the same thing with short stories. He'd put one away for a little while and work on a second one, and then six months later he'd pull the first one out, because now he's got an idea for where it should go. So moving from one idea to the other can be very refreshing. A non-fiction piece can do that, or an essay or a screenplay. It allows you to back off, for a moment, from the intensity.

Now, when I got back on this book, I worked on it night and day from July 1 to September 16th. That was it. I just told my family, Look, I'm going to go into one of these phases. I'll be here but I won't really be here, because I was just living it everyday, because I wanted it done for my fiftieth birthday. People say, Well, why is the book coming out now? On the thirtieth anniversary of King's death? Well, that wasn't the reason. I wanted it done by my fiftieth birthday so I could say, Okay, the slate is clear. This is no longer on my “to do” board. That was the reason so I worked on nothing else. I told people I couldn't work on anything else. I couldn't talk to them. Even friends. Actually, sometimes when I have a deadline on a screenplay it has to be that way, too. I'll just sort of go into that mode. Night and day. Work on the book until I'm exhausted. Sleep. Work on the book. It's just all day long like that. But when it's a long project, like a novel of this sort, I think you have to have time where you back away and then come back to it. Where you have something else to refresh yourself. And there's a lot of things you do that people can't understand exactly why you're doing it.

I remember Lee called me one time as I was studying Social Darwinism and he said, Why the hell are you studying Social Darwinism? You're still working on the King book, right? And I said, Believe me. It's got something to do with it. I read five books on acting because I was thinking, The double. He's got to be trained. So I got to learn some stuff about that. That may amount to half a paragraph in what remains in the book.

I was talking to my friend and former student David Guterson about this when he dropped by over Christmas so I could give him his present. He showed me what was in the trunk of his car. And it was some monogram, some academic paper from the forties, on nursing that he needed for the book he was finishing up. We both started talking about how this is where the real fun is. You learn so much more than you're going to put in a project because you don't know what you're going to need to know. The finally it just gets winnowed out and scaled down. Yeah, there's stuff that gets left on the side that you find very enriching, but I personally believe that, even though a reader may be enriched by a book, nobody's enriched like the writer is, from having done it. All the things that you feel and have gone through and learn. That's the process. It's always intimidating with a novel, at least the way I like to do it, because I never know exactly what it's going to look like. I've often contradicted, at the end, everything I thought at the time I started it. It should be a process of discovery. If I don't learn, discover something that I didn't know before, I don't think the reader's going to have a sense of discovery. If there are no surprises for me, there won't be surprises for the reader. I'm convinced of that.

Let me ask you to do a comparison/contrast of the process of writing Oxherding Tale and the process of writing Dreamer. I assume that you possessed a certain amount of faith, given your experience, while writing Dreamer, that the answer's going to come. Did you have the same confidence while you were writing Oxherding Tale?

Well, there's a faith in the material. There's a belief in what you're doing.

What about faith in yourself?

Oh yeah, faith in yourself. Absolutely. The person I studied with, John Gardner, was the most incredible writing teacher anybody could have. The one thing that everybody I know who worked with John got from John was the sense that, if you're willing to sweat, then you can write greatly. You can write as greatly as the great literature of the past. And he could get you excited about the great literature of the past as well. If you were willing to work hard, and long enough, then you will achieve what you want to do. So it's not a matter of ever doubting yourself, because the wonderful thing about writing is you can rewrite. That's ninety percent of it. That's where the real joy is, as far as I'm concerned, going over something again and again. It's like sculpture. It gets more refined. It gets tighter. It's more precise. There's a greater fusion between sound and sense. The cadence of the line and the meaning of the line. That's where the real art comes in. Naturally you have to have faith in yourself, but that's not a hard stretch, because as long as you have faith in your capacity to work, it's going to come together.

Gardner is known as one of the great creative writing teachers but there is that question about whether or not writing can be taught. If creative writing can't be taught, then what did Gardner give? What can a teacher do for his or her students?

He can't teach somebody imagination. I mean, a student's got to bring that himself. You can teach technique and Gardner was actually quite good about that. You know, in The Art of Fiction, all of those exercises in the back? My students have done those since I first started teaching. Maybe not all of them every quarter but at least two-thirds of them.

The other thing John taught was a passion, and he communicated that almost without even consciously teaching it. You just looked at how this man was working. You looked at his love of literature. He had a self-sacrificial capacity to give everything to the work. And once you got that sense, you could apply it to your own. And it should work this way. Once you're willing to go over something, like Hemingway, twenty times. Twenty times, we're told, he went over that last page in The Sun Also Rises. If you're willing to do that, then you can achieve the perfection that you're after. At least to your own satisfaction. It's just a matter of sweat. That's all it is. It doesn't even have to be a matter of brilliance.

The amount of sweat that must go into an eight-year project. I know you've been working on a lot of other things but you've published a novel every eight years since '74.

Is that right?

Faith and the Good Thing in '74, Oxherding Tale in '82, Middle Passage in '90 and Dreamer in '98. Of course, I have to stick with the novels. I have to throw out Sorcerer's Apprentice in order to make it work.

The stories in Sorcerer were written between '77 and probably '83.

While we're here, have you done much short story writing lately?

I haven't really had a chance though I would like to put a collection together. I was talking to my agent about that. I've got twelve stories that I wrote in January that'll be in a textbook that evolved from a TV series called Africans in America. The show will premiere in October of 1998 on PBS. The producer is Orlando Bagwell, a very distinguished man, I think, and the series, in four parts, four one and a half hour shows, will cover history from the Slave Trade all the way up to the Civil War. There'll be a lot of attention for this, believe me, in the fall. It should be late October. And they have a textbook tie-in that has been adapted from the series by Patricia Smith, who is a Boston Globe columnist, and they simply asked me to select moments in those four programs to write stories about. And they're all based on history, naturally.

For myself, to make it an interesting assignment, I wanted each one of those to be in a different form, literary form. I don't recommend anyone writing twelve stories in one month but I couldn't do them until I got all of this work out of the way for Dreamer. Then there are occasional stories, here and there, that I've published in various places. There's enough for a new collection.

Backing up to the novel every eight years and the sweat that goes into it. The time that goes into it and the “totalness” that you mentioned before. What are you like on the day you finish?

Exhausted. Totally exhausted.

It's more of a drained feeling than a celebratory one?

Well, there's a deep satisfaction, a feeling of, Okay, that is done, but it's like feeling empty. Somebody once told me that after Ralph Ellison finished Invisible Man, which he spent seven years on, he just took to his bed for a couple of weeks, like he'd just given a very difficult birth. And I always think about that at the end of a long piece because, for me, a novel has to be everything. If it isn't everything then I don't want to read it, let alone write it. There's a real feeling of exhaustion, but it's a good exhaustion, almost like a Zen emptiness, if you will. It's like in that one work is everything I could feel. And it's all externalized.

When I was a kid, the thing that used to fascinate me about drawing, more than anything else, was the way I felt, or thought, which nobody else could see was something. I could draw, and it was externalized on the page. And once it was externalized I was free of it in a certain kind of way. I could move on to something else. I feel much the same way about a novel. When I write a novel I literally have to go dead to the last novel. And when I say, Dead, I mean dead. It's like I never did it. I forget about it. I don't want to repeat the characters. I don't want to repeat the themes, but nevertheless that stuff still creeps in and you still find overlaps. That'll happen, but I have to say to myself, I've never written a novel before. I'm starting from scratch and I don't know what a novel is, and that's the way I approach it. Each novel I write has to be aesthetically different. Different in style and form and in its philosophical explanations.

For me, it really isn't a careerist or commercial kind of a thing. I wouldn't write fiction if that's why I had to do it. There's things I want to see in existence, and there are things in me that I want to see externalized, too, but other than that I wouldn't do it.

I don't know of anyone who would accuse you of writing fiction for purely commercial reasons. I would think that the simple fact of only coming out with a novel every eight years is enough to dispel that argument. If you were in it for commercial reasons then you would've had a book out in '91 or '92 and probably your publisher would've been thrilled to be able to follow up so quickly on Middle Passage and the National Book Award.

The question is, What kind of book would it have been? I make money other ways. I teach, and have for twenty something years. I don't have to rely on art for money. I think you compromise art when you do that. It happens very, very often. I won't mention any particular names but I've seen it happen, and that's a sad thing. It's sad for the art and it's sad for the culture, in the long run. It isn't a contribution to literature.

I was thinking before when you were talking about reusing characters. You know I just finished interviewing Russell Banks and he's a real threat to get those tie-ins there, like the twins who miss the bus in The Sweet Hereafter end up living in that same bus in Rule of the Bone.

Is that right?

And I noticed that Chaym Smith's lineage can be traced back to Baleka from Middle Passage.

It's better than that. You know the apartment where Smith lives? That he sets fire to?

On Indiana Avenue?

Yeah, that's exactly where Bigger Thomas lived in Native Son. And Smith's landlady, Vera Thomas? That's Bigger's big sister. She's been living there all these years. She gives him the room. And the optic white? The paint that he uses? You know that, right?

Invisible Man.

Right. Certainly those little things that pop up like that are fun but only for literate people.

The Allmuseri tribe has appeared in all your fiction since Oxherding Tale. How did they come about?

Just by chance. I started a story called “The Education of Mingo,” published in 1977, and I needed a tribe. I just needed a tribe for this boy from Africa. I read something like eighty books on magic for Faith and the Good Thing, when I was writing it, and in one of the books it said there was this little place in this African village called an Allmuseri. It was a hut, and magic went on in there. So I just copied that down in my notebook, you know, and I came back to it, and I said, Okay, this guy's got to be from a tribe. I think they're described as being a mystical tribe. And I needed another tribe in another story so I just said, Allmuseri.

The title story in Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Yeah, the first story and the last one. Right. And then, with Oxherding Tale. I didn't want to designate a particular tribe, so I used the Allmuseri again. I developed Reb along these very spiritual lines, really Taoist. With him, the Allmuseri became more spiritual in its characteristics. So with Middle Passage, one of things I wanted to do was just to develop a tribe, top to bottom. Who's their god? What are their rituals? Where do they live? The whole thing. That was actually one of the fun things to do. It's interesting. People still think they're a real tribe. A guy I met in Memphis asked me if they were still living in Africa.

You could have sold me on it.

I'm glad because I didn't make that stuff up. It's all culled from real, so-called Third World peoples—India, China, Africa, too—so none of it's made up, but there was just never a tribe like that. So that's how it evolved over time, and I like to play with them that way, in the story, if it fits. I thought about making King an Allmuseri but I thought that would be pushing it a little too far.

Let's talk about the Book, the Book with a capital B in “Moving Pictures.”

That's actually a story about Buddhist epistemology. No one ever gets that.

That story is probably the least appreciated story of the collection.

I guess so. I guess so. I don't think people get it. They think it's just about a writer looking at the movie he's written but it's about Buddhist epistemology. Some Buddhist commentators and writers use that screen, the movie screen, to talk about consciousness, and the way thoughts and ideas and emotions are projected on it.

Is it ever frustrating to be reviewed by people, who by definition, know less about what you're doing than you do? Do you read your reviews?

I do, just to see if you come across somebody who's really smart, and there are some smart people out there. I like to see the elegance of a really good reviewer. The reason I started reviewing is because I thought the state of it was really kind of bad in respect to Black American writers.

Did you go into it hesitantly? Did you feel you might be crossing a line?

Not really, because there is a kind of literary review that isn't just a book review. The kind that John Gardner used to do. It's almost like a critique. It's the occasion for a critique, and you get an aesthetic. A theory sort of emerges from the review itself, and that's exciting, to me, as literary journalism. Not just a book review, because that's not interesting. But, for example, when I can do a piece on Albert Murray, who I've admired for years, and they give me his novel and his essay collection, then I get to deal with a contemporary writer who I greatly respect. You know what I'm saying? To try and let other people see what is a very nice work. To show them.

Do you only write about novels or writers that you're fond of?

No, sometimes they'll send me somebody that's a turkey and at some point you've got to say it's a turkey. You have to look at it in terms of not imposing my own aesthetic on it, but to see what the logic of the book is from the inside, what its goals and ambitions are, and then see if it succeeds or fails on those terms. That's the better way to do it, and to quote liberally from the book so readers can see the real prose and the ideas and come to their own judgment, which might be different from the reviewer's. I think that's very important. You had another question, though, prior to that one.

I want to ask about the Book, with the capital B. Probably it's most specific reference is in “Moving Pictures.” As in, “You'd shelved the novel, the Big Book, for bucks monitored by the Writers Guild.”

That's just some writer working on a book who decides to go do screenplays and not write fiction anymore.

What about Evelyn Pomeroy, the writer in Oxherding Tale? She's struggling with her work. The guy in “Moving Pictures” has already lost his battle.

Yeah, he's not going to make it. Evelyn Pomeroy is working on a novel, fairly imitative, if I'm not mistaken, of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The Stowe part is interesting but I think, in a way, Evelyn Pomeroy can be taken a bit more universally than possibly you intended. “Every year past the publication date of her first book cemented her silence, confirmed the suspicions of critics—and Evelyn Pomeroy herself—that the magic had been a mistake that first time. A fluke.” I think that applies to a lot of writers, though you also write, “none of this candies over the fact that Evelyn Pomeroy was crazy.”

Eighty percent of first novelists never publish their second. That's a Gardner quote. Eighty percent of first novelists do not publish a second novel. Everybody thinks their first novel is the really important one to do, but it's really the second novel.

Is it telling that Charles Johnson is writing about a woman's difficulties writing her second novel within his second novel?

Yeah, those are thoughts that you have. As a matter of fact, that's probably why I decided this second novel had to be something I truly believed in. It's not just a second novel. This says, This is who you are. You have an aesthetic. There's something you do that nobody else does. And that's very important, I think, for a writer to realize but still, the point of the matter is, the second novel is more important than the first in an artist's career. The first one could be a fluke. There are a lot of first novelists who do not publish second novels.

Even though Evelyn is a comic character, even though she's crazy, I take her and her problem imitating Harriet Beecher Stowe seriously. I understand what she's going through. She has to have a love-hate relationship with Stowe. Something along the lines of, Look what you've done to my work.

Well, if you'd like, it's a Cain-Abel relationship. I hadn't thought about that in terms of Harriet because I haven't thought about Oxherding Tale in a long time, but there is that with Chaym and King. He can't do what King does, and I kind of tell you why that is in that novel. A lot of it has to do with faith and so forth, but this is different. This is art. But that's a Cain-Abel relationship, clearly, even though it's between two women.

Writers need good models. Everybody needs good models. They should have the best models. But more important than that is individual vision. More important than that is how you find individual vision within a tradition.

Isn't that tough for a young writer to find?

I think it's enormously tough, because vision comes with experience. It sounds like a cliché. The point of the matter is that is what's hard to teach. You tell your students, You must find your own individual voice and vision. That's what you have to do. And finding that, sustaining that, breaking away from the models, which by virtue, actually, of finding your own voice, you might honor in terms of their influence on you. As a matter of fact, I'm thinking of King and there's a connection. I'm thinking of the sources for King, and where they were pulled from. Other ministers and stuff. Everything comes from the world in one way or another. It can be argued even that no one's work arises ex nihilo, from the egg, original, but it's how you bring all these things together and interpret them. And then you find the instrument for the expression of that vision. And that's why I think it's interesting to go from genre to genre in literary forms. Because each one can be a different vehicle for a vision, for modulating your vision in different ways. Read my book, Being and Race, the part on phenomenological aesthetics. You go from screenplays to essays to fiction, and each one, again, is a different vehicle that bodies forth the vision in an entirely different form. And that's discovery and the efflorescence of meaning. But you cannot think in commercial terms to do that, because commercial terms are always, What was successful yesterday? That's what we want today.

Your admiration for Toomer, Wright, and Ellison has been duly noted. Did your admiration, when you were a younger writer, cost you anything?

Well, like I said, I wrote six books before Faith and the Good Thing. I had models in my mind. It wasn't so much Toomer then as the naturalistic writers, because my early novels were very naturalistic books. I felt there were dimensions of human experience I couldn't get to through naturalism. When I got to Faith, that's when I began to feel at least comfortable with the experiential possibilities of the characters in the novel, because, you know, it's magic, it's spiritual stuff, it's philosophy, it's folklore. All the kinds of things that I really delight in. The tale. I like the tale as a literary form because I heard them as a kid. There, for me, is when I began to get a handle on, at least for myself, of what my individual aesthetic/philosophical vision was, a blend of East and West, phenomenology and Buddhism. But that still had to be improved and refined over time. When I wrote that book, it wasn't refined.

My kids have had a big impact on the way I think about, and look at, the world. I think, probably, how I feel about my kids and so forth is what I invested King with, when he's talking about Dexter and little Marty. It's just the way a father feels. So, as you go along, what you see and what you feel deepens. It's a funny thing. We talk about individual vision but the truth belongs to everybody finally. It's not like this is your truth. It belongs to all of us.

Judy Lightfoot (review date 25 March 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646

SOURCE: Lightfoot, Judy. “Fiction about Slavery Finds Humanity amid the Injustice.” Seattle Times (25 March 2001): E12.

[In the following review, Lightfoot praises the short stories in The Soulcatcher and Other Stories, noting that although the collection accurately portrays historical events, Johnson's prose “transcends indignation and blame.”]

How can a writer of realistic fiction, intent on dramatizing the ordinary experiences of plausible persons, succeed when his characters are living a bizarre nightmare? In Soulcatcher, as in his novel The Middle Passage, Seattle author Charles Johnson takes up the challenge of writing realistic stories about persons caught up in the most surreal institution in American history.

Soulcatcher is a newly published collection of the historical short fictions that Johnson (who won the National Book Award for his novel Middle Passage) originally wrote for inclusion in Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery, a companion book to the PBS series co-authored by Patricia Smith, Johnson, and the WGBH Research Team.

After long immersion in primary and secondary sources behind the PBS project, Johnson started drafting these stories. He says in his preface to Soulcatcher that a dozen narratives “flowed from me in a dreamlike rush.”

His almost spiritual merging with his subject takes him into lives very distant in time and culture—into the earliest years of slaves on this continent, when public attitudes, laws and practices had not yet developed into the institution of slavery most of us learned about in school.

The first Africans chained and carried across the Atlantic were treated as inferior less because they were black than because they had been sold into slavery and weren't Anglo-European Christians.

Racism, or the division of human beings into alien, superior and inferior species based on physical features, only later hardened into a guiding ideology for whites.

In Johnson's story, “The Transmission,” a blond sailor on a slave-vessel feels instant, easy kinship with the boy Malawi, whose brother has died. “I've lost family, too,” says the sailor to the black boy who understands no English. “I know how you feel.”


In these tales, as in history, the route to emancipation neither began nor ended with the efforts of well-meaning whites who decided to free the slaves.

From the first, slaves made active, strategic, organized efforts to free themselves and each other. Nat Turner's Rebellion is often considered the story of slaves plotting a communal flight to liberty, but many others exist. Johnson's “Confession” draws on the historical account of slaves owned by English settlers, who planned a secret mass odyssey to a Florida fort where, under the rule of the Spanish king, they would be free.

During the American Revolution, blacks fought for their freedom on the side of the British. After George Washington's victory, groups of them emigrated, like the siblings in “A Soldier for the Crown.”

The legions of African Americans involved in the Underground Railroad continually laid shrewd plans (as in the title story) that saved many of their own from bounty-hunters spurred on by the Fugitive Slave Law.


The stories dramatize, too, how slavery changed everyone involved. Slave owners, as George Washington's widow says in “Martha's Dilemma,” were chained to their slaves, “shackled to their industry, the knowledge they'd acquired” in doing so much of the work.

Johnson's tales vary widely in technique. Characters are black and white, male and female, old and young, mute and eloquent, enslaved and elite; and the genres include dramatic monologues, personal letters, diary entries, and traditional omniscient storytelling. Yet something gently draws this diversity into harmony.

It might be called a spirit of good will—a curious phrase, perhaps, for a book about slavery. But although Johnson faces history's horrors squarely, and his characters have righteously indignant moments, his book transcends indignation and blame. There's a peacefulness about Soulcatcher. Whatever spirit the stories flowed from, the world needs more of it.


Charles Johnson Long Fiction Analysis


Johnson, Charles (Vol. 7)