Charles Johnson, defying labels, creates tales that explore humanity


February 15, 1991|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW YORK — In a hotel suite high above Fifth Avenue, someone has just put prize-winning author Charles Johnson on the hot seat.

And he wants to get off.

"I'd like to get off this radiator," says Mr. Johnson to a photographer who's unknowingly posed him on the heat vent. He laughs good-naturedly. "It's getting hot."

Of course, the same might be said these days about Charles Johnson himself. He is, at the moment, hot, hot, hot.

Winner of the prestigious National Book Award last November for his novel, "Middle Passage," Mr. Johnson will learn tomorrow whether the book has been chosen for another important fiction prize, the National Book Critics Circle award. Currently, "Middle Passage" is No. 11 on the New York Times hard-cover best seller list with 90,000 copies in print.

It is the third novel by the 42-year-old author and University of Washington professor of English -- who will speak today in Baltimore at an already sold-out luncheon hosted by the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Hailed by critics as "a spellbinding adventure story," the novel recounts the tale of a newly freed slave who stows away on a 19th-century ship and finds, to his horror, that it is bound for Africa to bring back a human cargo of "black gold." Mr. Johnson, who spent six years researching material used in the book -- reading nautical dictionaries and sea stories going back to Homer -- describes "Middle Passage" as a "philosophical sea adventure."

Philosophy -- along with teaching, writing, Buddhism, martial arts, cartooning, filmmaking and his wife and two children -- exerts a strong pull on Charles Johnson's attention.

"My background is philosophy," says Mr. Johnson, who grew up in Evanston, Ill., and earned a master's degree from Southern Illinois University. "And I am really interested in stories that take up the perennial questions of philosophy -- you know, the issues of 'Who am I?' and "What am I?' -- and in exploring such universal questions within a black American context."

But he is quick to point out that his writing is not exclusively about the "experience of being black" but about the "experience of being human."

In fact, Mr. Johnson -- who is only the fourth black author to ever win the National Book Award, the others being Ralph Ellison, Gloria Naylor and Alice Walker -- resists the notion that such an honor confers upon him the role of spokesman for black America.

For one thing, he doesn't believe that one personcan ever speak for the experience of an entire race. "Everybody's an individual," he says, "and I really do believe -- as a poorly practicing Buddhist -- that everybody has a unique destiny in life. Unique. That every one of us is like no man who came before him. Or will ever come again. So I'm a little nervous about somebody being a role model for somebody else."

He finds the categorizing of writers as "black writers" or "women writers" to be cumbersome and confining. And he laughs out loud when told that Georgetown University is offering a course called "White Male Writers." The course will feature the likes of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne -- two writers, incidentally, whom Mr. Johnson admires. Indeed, "Middle Passage" has been compared to Melville's "Moby Dick."

"If we say 'black writer' or 'female writer,' the assumption is that the work is predominantly about the experience of being black or being female. And that it's the reason why we read the book. So, inevitably, the consequence of such thinking is: What then is the experience of being a white male? Right? But that's never the reason we read Melville," says Mr. Johnson, his voice rising in excitement as he warms to a subject about which he feels passionate.

"I mean, I didn't read 'Moby Dick'or 'Billy Budd' to find out what it was like to be a white male in the 19th century. I read 'Moby Dick' because I was curious to see a treatment of evil involving this remarkably strange sea captain who was obsessed with a whale he feels represents some malevolence in the universe."

He says he doesn't object to being called a "black writer" as long as the definition is this: "For me, a 'black writer' is a writer who happens to be black. That's it."

There's no way anyone could put Charles Johnson into a literary pigeonhole. In his books and in person, he displays a kind of pyrotechnical intelligence that crosses all boundaries. Brilliant, articulate, funny, good-natured, open-minded, attractive, thoughtful and a man who seems born to teach, his conversation ranges through ideas put forth by pre-Socratic thinkers, Eastern philosophers, Hegel, Marx, Kant and that contemporary philosopher, Spike Lee.

It's this kind of wide-ranging view of the world, says Stanley Crouch, a widely respected African-American critic and writer, that makes Charles Johnson "a first-class talent." Mr. Crouch, who is well-known for railing against other black artists he feels have sold out to "blaxploitation," says Mr. Johnson strives for the highest artistic standards.

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