Charles Richard Johnson is a scholar and the author of novels, short stories, screen-and-teleplays, and essays, most often with a philosophical orientation. Johnson has directly addressed the issues of black life in America in novels such as Dreamer and Middle Passage. Johnson was born in 1948 in Evanston, Illinois, and spent most of his career at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English says that Johnson’s works “combine historical accuracy, parable, and elements of the fantastic in rendering the experience of African Americans.”
He first came to prominence in the 1960s as a political cartoonist and illustrator. At the age of 15 he was a student of cartoonist/mystery writer Lawrence Lariar. After a two-year correspondence course with Lariar, Johnson began publishing his artwork professionally in 1965, drawing illustrations for the catalog of a magic company in Chicago, and publishing three stories in his high school’s newspaper as well as panel cartoons and a comic strip that in 1966 took two second place awards in the sports and humor divisions of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s cartoon contest. He continued drawing and publishing prolifically during his years as an undergraduate journalism major at Southern Illinois University, which in 1977 awarded him the Delta Award “for significant contribution to intellectual commerce of our time” (sponsored by Friends of Morris Library) and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1995.
In his first career as a cartoonist (1965–72), Johnson churned out hundreds of drawings, comic strips, panel cartoons and illustrations for the student paper The Daily Egyptian, regular editorial cartoons for The Southern Illinoisan, illustrations for The Chicago Tribune, national African-American publications including Black World (formerly Negro Digest), Ebony, and Players, one-page comic book scripts for the now defunct Charlton Comics, and taught cartooning in SIU’s “Free School.” One of his earliest published articles is “Creating the Political Cartoon,” published in Scholastic/Editor/Communications and Graphics (March 1973).
Inspired by a lecture he heard in 1969 by Amiri Baraka (né Leroi Jones), Johnson drew the collection of racial satire titled Black Humor (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 1970). A second collection of political satire appeared in 1972, Half-Past Nation-Time (Aware Press, California).
In 1970, he created, hosted, and co-produced at WSIU-TV Charlie’s Pad, an early PBS how-to-draw series broadcast nationally. It consisted of 52, 15-minute lessons in cartooning based on his earlier two years of lessons with Lawrence Lariar. Today only three episodes of this series have survived.
Higher education and early novels
Johnson received his B.S. in journalism and M.A. in philosophy from Southern Illinois University in 1971 and 1973 and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Stony Brook University in 1988. In 2013, Johnson was awarded by his old philosophy department the first “Don Ihde Distinguished Alumni Award”, 78-year-old Ihde being one of America’s preeminent phenomenologists, and the director for Johnson’s dissertation, Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988), a literary manifesto published by Indiana University Press that used the methods of Continental philosophy to examine African-American literature and create an aesthetic position. After writing six of what he calls “apprentice novels” between 1970 and 1972 (one of these was an early draft of Middle Passage), which were not published, Johnson wrote his seventh and first philosophical novel, Faith and the Good Thing, in nine months with his mentor, the late John Gardner, providing him with feedback. This novel was published in 1974 by Viking Press, and Johnson stated then, as he would over the years, that his goal was to contribute to and enrich the tradition of “African-American philosophical fiction”. He identified early practitioners of this genre as being Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.
Early in his writing career, Johnson’s mentor was the novelist John Gardner.