He is a professor, a critic, a father, an optimist. He is a Buddhist, a husband, a phenomenologist, a martial arts instructor. He has been a cartoonist, a filmmaker, a doctoral candidate in philosophy. Last week he became the first African American male to win the National Book Award in fiction in almost 40 years, since Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" was honored in 1953.
What Charles Johnson declines to be is a spokesman for black America.
"Traditionally, since the time of Richard Wright, black writers have been expected to be spokesmen for the race," he says. "And Wright didn't mind adopting that role. And when the mantle passed to James Baldwin, he didn't mind adopting that role. And when the mantle was passed to black women in the '80s, because they'd been looked over so long -- ?" His conversation is full of interrogatory, mid-sentence pauses like this one, the teacher's habit of stopping to gather in his flock. " -- Toni Morrison didn't really mind adopting that role either, speaking for the concerns of the race.
"But I find it very difficult to swallow the idea that one individual, black or white, can speak for the experience of 30 million people. Some of whom, you know, their great-granddaddy was a slave, but some of whom, their families have been free since the Revolutionary War. Some are from the South. Some are from the North. We have black millionaires, and we have black people whose families have been on welfare for three generations. We have Africans, we have West Indians. ... So the idea of being a spokesman is something I find repulsive.
"Would anyone ask John Updike to be a spokesman for white America?"
The author of "Middle Passage" wears his new laurel, and his pride in it, as easily as his herringbone jacket, his professorial V-neck sweater and round, black-rimmed glasses. There's neither swagger nor false humility here -- only the frank self-possession of a man who has labored for 42 years at an examined life, and for 20 years at the craft of novel-writing.
Yet he is pleasurably aware of the simple truth, which is that a prize like this one can break an author out of four-digit sales figures, into the broader reception accorded Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and -- why not? -- John Updike. He describes the feeling succinctly: "It's kind of overnight success after 20 years."
The novel for which he won is a compact 209 pages that required six years of research and writing, a conscious effort to produce a philosophic novel accessible to a wide audience. Johnson says, "It's not as complex by one-third as 'Oxherding Tale,' " his second novel, published in 1982. But it borrows liberally from its author's academic background in literature and philosophy, as well as from voluminous research in American history -- not to mention Johnson's "on-again, off-again" Buddhism and his expertise in martial arts.
Its hero and narrator ("the first black mariner in American literature," his creator believes) is Rutherford Calhoun, a ne'er-do-well, 22-year-old freedman who in 1830 stows away on a slave ship bound from New Orleans to coastal Africa. He is a mariner only reluctantly -- he has fled a choice between marriage and debtor's prison; but his presence on the metaphorically named Republic occasions both a rousing sea narrative and a densely allegorical voyage into the American past and present.
Beyond the tragic meeting of American and African cultures, it deals with a clash of -- and, ultimately, the task of synthesizing -- philosophies, Western and Eastern. Western empiricism is embodied in the Republic's captain, Ebenezer Falcon. He is paranoid, a pederast, a dwarf; he is monstrous and brilliant.
On the other hand are the Allmuseri tribesmen and women who are brought aboard the Republic in shackles. They are a magician-people without fingerprints or abstract thought. "A people so incapable of abstraction no two instances of 'hot' or 'cold' were the same for them, this hot porridge today being so specific, unique and bound to the present that it had only a nominal resemblance to the hot porridge of yesterday. Physically, they seemed a synthesis of several tribes, as if longevity in this land had made them a biological repository of Egyptian and sub-Saharan eccentricities or -- in the Hegelian equation -- a clan distilled from the essence of everything that came earlier. ... Indeed, what I felt was the presence of countless others in them, a crowd spun from everything this vast continent had created."
Part picaresque adventure, "Middle Passage" is both unexpectedly funny and highly intellectual. As a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times observed, "All the characters in 'Middle Passage' ... sound as if they're double majors in classics and philosophy."
Which could also be said of the author, who talks with an easy erudition of Husserl and Heidegger. "I went back and looked at every sea story from Apollonius 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," he says. "I read nautical dictionaries to get the language; I read one book on cockney slang."
All this research was fit in around his teaching schedule at the University of Washington, where he has taught for 15 years, and where, next year, he assumes an endowed chair in humanities -- the university's counteroffer when Northwestern University recently tried to lure Johnson away.
Though Johnson has lived in Seattle for 15 years, he felt an older pull from Northwestern: He grew up there, in Evanston, Ill., and his grandmother and mother once worked for the university -- as cook and cleaning woman, respectively. "It would have been a family triumph," he says. But he decided to stay in Seattle in deference to the roots he has sunk there with his own family, wife Joan, son Malik, 15, and daughter Elizabeth, 8.
Johnson went to Southern Illinois University, and stayed there for his master's degree in philosophy. Through college he worked as a cartoonist, mostly producing political satire, and eventually he published two books of drawings. But he found himself with a larger verbal bent than he had guessed.
So exactly 20 years ago he wrote his first novel. Or rather novels. "I wrote six novels in about two years, because I didn't know any better," he says. It wasn't until he got the benefit of studying with novelist John Gardner, as a graduate student, that he buckled down to the discipline of his seventh, which was published in 1974 as "Faith and the Good Thing."
He is also the author of a short-story collection, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," and of a critical work, "Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970."
He talks about contemporary African American writing with a knowledgeable boosterism and a certain wariness toward definitions, whether offered by whites who insist on defining all black fiction as "protest novels" or by blacks who insist on finding ideology in art. Speaking to the black-tie crowd that honored him at the Plaza Hotel last week, he cautioned against a monolithic, ideological fiction, saying, "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."
He was speaking in part from experience. "For a while I was very much immersed in cultural nationalism," he says, and relates the revelatory experience of hearing poet Amiri Baraka speak in the late '60s. He helped organize groups to delve into the infant discipline of black studies.
"We were very passionate about what we were doing and learning," he remembers. "But about four or five years later, I began to see that the intellectual questions I wanted to pursue, some of them were foreclosed on by some of the principal spokesmen of the black arts movement. You know, that you didn't need to worry about studying European literature. You didn't need to read Wittgenstein. I just didn't feel comfortable with that. ... I began to see it as an ideology -- not something that a serious student of philosophy, or a serious artist, could really hold and create freely at the same time."
Today, he has similar reservations about "Afro-centric" education. "Afro-centrism is the new name for black cultural nationalism," he says. "I personally believe everyone ought to know as much as they can about as many cultures as they can ... I personally think that everyone who knows about Lincoln ought to know about Frederick Douglass. Or that everyone who knows about Sherwood Anderson ought to know about Jean Toomer. But I don't believe in segregated education... .
"We're going to the same questions over and over again, when I think the answer is quite simple. No elementary school, high school, college or university can be made fully responsible for the intellectual lives of the people who go to it. I think that what schools need to do is teach the attitude of curiosity about the cultures of the world, so that finally you are a student for your whole life."
Looking around at black writers, however, he sees a new acceptance of pluralism in African American fiction. "People are starting to admit and acknowledge the diversity of black writing," he says. "I think it's easier in the last hour of the 20th century, in the last decade," for black artists to write as individuals.
"All my life, that's what I've fought for -- the absolute freedom for the black artist that we extend to the white artist."