Charles Richard Johnson was born on April 23, 1948, in Evanston, Illinois, to Benjamin Lee and Ruby Elizabeth Johnson. While quite young, Johnson demonstrated a talent for drawing and wished to pursue an artistic career, but his father strongly disapproved of the notion. It was only after the younger Johnson sought and won the support of Lawrence Lariar, an established writer and cartoonist, that his father relented. At the age of seventeen, Johnson began working as a cartoonist, and throughout the years he has contributed his work to publications such as Ebony, Jet, Black World, and Players International. His cartoons and drawings were also published in book form in Black Humor (1970) and Illustrated Anatomy of Campus Humor (1971).
As a student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Johnson was an editorial and comic-strip artist for several college publications. In 1969 and 1970, he worked as a cartoonist and reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and he was a member of the art staff of the St. Louis Proud from 1971 through 1972.
While working successfully as a cartoonist and journalist, Johnson also attended to his academic studies. By 1971, he had completed work for his bachelor’s degree in journalism at Southern Illinois.
In 1970, Johnson had branched into a new endeavor by creating, coproducing, and hosting a television show on cartooning called Charlie’s Pad. Fifty-two shows were completed and distributed nationally by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). He later wrote scripts for other public television series such as Up and Coming and Y.E.S. Inc.
Johnson’s varied interests led him to the study of philosophy, and in 1973, he received a master’s degree in that discipline from Southern Illinois. Throughout his writing career, philosophical concerns have remained a dominant theme in his work, and Johnson often combines these with oral narrative formulas and techniques drawn from black culture, including traditional slave narratives and folktales. In such experimental fusions, Johnson shows the influence of the novelist, poet, short-story writer, and essayist John Gardner, who had a considerable effect on Johnson’s formative years as a writer.
When Gardner was teaching creative writing at Southern Illinois, Johnson sought him out for advice and instruction. It was a wise move; Gardner, who was one of the most talented of American writers, was also one of the most generous with his time and encouragement. He read and critiqued the six manuscript novels that Johnson had written and helped him to fashion his first published novel, Faith and the Good Thing (1974). As might be expected, the novel combines philosophical concerns with subject matter drawn from the black experience in America.
Johnson has credited Gardner with helping him to forge this literary link between the African American experience and philosophical interests. The clear influence of the older writer is evident throughout Johnson’s writings, especially in his outstanding novel Middle Passage (1990), which is close to Gardner’s work in theme, style, and imagery.
Johnson undertook postgraduate work in philosophy at the State University of New York, Stony Brook from 1973 through 1976. His particular areas of interest, appropriately enough, were in literary aesthetics and phenomenology, the study of how external appearances influence internal images of reality. Clearly, this issue is crucial to any writer, but few have studied it as vigorously or as thoroughly as Johnson.
Johnson’s academic career continued in 1976, when he became an assistant professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1979, he was promoted to associate professor and in 1982 became a full professor in English at the institution. From 1979 to 1981, he was director of the Associated Writing Programs Awards Series in short fiction. In June, 1970, Johnson married Joan New, an elementary-school teacher. The couple has two children, Malik and Elizabeth.
Although Johnson clearly draws upon the...
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