Charles Johnson: Lessons Learned and Not Learned

Charles R. JohnsonBorn in Evanston, Illinois, in 1948, Charles Johnson’s first books were collections of cartoons—Black Humor in 1970, and Half-Past Nation Time in 1972.  He also writes screenplays.  Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1986) is a collection of stories, and his highly regarded novels include Faith and the Good Thing (1974), Oxherding Tale (1982), and Middle Passage (1990), a brilliant portrayal of the sea voyages which brought slaves to the Americas.  It won the National Book Award, and in 1998 Johnson received a MacArthur Fellowship.  After graduating from Southern Illinois University, Johnson did Ph.D. work in philosophy at SUNY-Stony Brook.  His style—which combines folk elements, a sure ear for the vernacular,  and an exploration of Black history—is closely related to the neo-realism of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, though Johnson has stirred controversy by strongly urging Black writers to move beyond these writers.  For Johnson a large part of what he advocates has to do with a more free-wheeling mixing of genres, time frames, and histories, and especially with his philosophical bent.  “I am committed,” Johnson has said, “to the development of what one might call a genuinely systematic philosophical black American literature, a body of work that explores classical problems and metaphysical questions against the background of black American life.”  Besides phenomenology a la Husserl, Johnson is also a devotee of Asian philosophy and the martial arts, and in some of his work—the story “China,” for example, from Sorcerer’s Apprentice—Johnson can be seen, as he says, “attempting to interface Eastern and Western philosophical traditions, always with the hope that some new perception of experience—especially ‘black experience’—will emerge….”

In my book Black Writing from Chicago, I included a story from Sorcerer’s Apprentice titled “The Education of Mingo,” a story with a perception of the black experience from another angle, both funny and horrifying.  The story asks, What has the black man learned from observing white behavior?  The white man in this case is named Moses Green, who Middle Passage by Charles R. Johnsonundertakes to “civilize” Mingo, a bondsman he has bought at auction.  ”Now Moses Green was not a man for doing things halfway,” writes Johnson. “Education, as he dimly understood it, was as serious as a heart attack.  You had to have a model, a good Christian gentleman like Moses himself, to wash a Moor white in a single generation.  As he taught Mingo farming and table etiquette, ciphering with knotted string, and how to cook ashcakes, Moses constantly revised himself.  He tried not to cuss, although any mention of Martin Van Buren or Free-Soilers made his stomach chew itself; or sop cornbread in his coffee; or pick his nose at public market.  Moses, policing all his gestures, standing the boy behind his eyes, even took to drinking gin from a paper sack so Mingo couldn’t see it.  He felt, late at night when he looked down at Mingo snoring loudly on his corn-shuck mattress, now like a father; now like an artist fingering something fine and noble from a rude chump of foreign clay.  It was like aiming a shotgun at the whole world through the African, blasting away all that Moses, according to his lights, tagged evil, and cultivating the good.”  What Mingo learns, however, is not what Moses had hoped.  He learns something deeper than Christian platitudes and table manners: he learns the relationship of whiteness and violence.

Many black writers—James Baldwin, James Alan McPherson, Haki Madhubuti—have marveled at how blacks have remained so human under the thumb and tutelage of white violence—Baldwin speculating particularly on how whites must have wondered at the depths of black superiority that allowed them to endure without striking back.  And this is so even in the face of the largely black-on-black violence we now see gripping some Chicago neighborhoods, for example, a violence targeted in Spike Lee’s film Chi-raq, a name that speaks volumes and has engendered much controversy.  There certainly is a “Chi-raq,” to go along with a Ferguson, a Baltimore, a Charleston—to name just a few recent examples from a history of white violence against blacks that reaches far, far back, nearly to the first white footsteps on the continent.  Contemplating this, one does wonder how blacks managed not to “learn” so much violence, at least not to practice it against whites.  Some have connected black-on-black, Chi-raqi violence to suppressed rage, a “rage of the disesteemed” Baldwin called it.   ”All too often,” Leon Litwack writes in Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, ”thoughts of revenge against whites found an outlet only in violence against blacks.”

The end of “The Education of Mingo” has Moses Green and Mingo fleeing an act of violence, the last lines of the story being: “‘Missouri,’ said the old man, not to Mingo but to the dusty floor of the buckboard, ‘if I don’t misremember, is off thataway somewheres in the west’”—a west where one day a town named Ferguson would be founded, just outside St. Louis.

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Drake and Cayton’s Black Metropolis

St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton

St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton

St. Clair Drake (1911-1990) and Horace R. Cayton, Jr. (1903-1970) will forever be bound together for their collaboration on the groundbreaking Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (1945).  Drake was born in Suffolk, Virginia, graduated from Hampton Institute and enrolled at the University of Chicago focusing on the sociology and cultural anthropology of black Chicago.  He became one of the first black faculty at Roosevelt University, moving to Stanford in 1973 to chair its African American studies program.  A prolific lecturer and writer, his other main book was Black Diaspora (1972).  Horace R. Cayton was born in Seattle, the son of that city’s pre-eminent black couple, Horace Cayton, Sr. and Susie Revels Cayton.  His father, an ex-slave, settled in Seattle in the late 1880’s and published the Seattle Republican.  Aimed at both black and white readers, it became the city’s second largest paper.  Yet even in the seemingly enlightened northwest, racism proved a decisive factor in housing and labor, and at one point the senior Cayton’s were served an eviction notice for lowering property values in their neighborhood.  Horace Cayton, Jr., soon became an activist and staged, among many things, a 1924 one-man sit-in at the segregated Strand Movie Theatre.  His association with St. Clair Drake began when he worked under Drake as a researcher for the WPA in Chicago’s Black Belt in the 1930’s.  He became deeply involved in Chicago’s writing and art community, numbering Chester Himes and Richard Wright as close friends.  Cayton’s other major work was the 1939 Black Workers and the New Unions, and his 1970 autobiography Long Old Road.

Chicago was the site at which so much about the “modern, urban Negro” came to be constructed.  Inevitably one thinks of Richard Wright, whose Bigger Thomas, the center of Native Son, a national sensation in 1940, created a mythic kind of Black consciousness defining decades of thinking about Blackness that continues today.  In his important essay “Critical Memory and the Black Public Sphere” (in The Black Public Sphere: A Public Culture Book), Houston A. Baker, Jr. writes:

“The scene of modernism for Blacks was to be a Chicago of the intellect and imagination, an urban space in which an archetypal “Bigger” Black consciousness was to find itself caught in a nightmare of acquisitive real estate owners, callous labor leaders, corrupt political officials and morally blind social welfare workers.  Bigger in the electric chair might well have been emblematically and realistically enacted by the Black Panthers’ leader, Fred Hampton, who was murdered by the [Chicago] State’s Attorney’s office in 1969.”

But much of this construction—though perhaps less dramatic—was also done by Drake and Cayton’s Black Metropolis, the first in-depth study of Black urban life.  It focused as much on how the community made things work, despite what Baker sketches above. In my book Black Writing from Chicago, I included a small excerpt from Black Metropolis focusing on Bronzeville, Chicago’s “City within a city.”  Stretching seven miles from 22nd to 63rd Streets between Wentworth and Cottage Grove, the powerful community of Bronzeville: Black Chicago in PicturesBronzeville itself could be said to have led the so-called Chicago Renaissance, a period stretching from 1932 to 1950.  Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks and many other writers called it home, of course, but so did Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, as well as such luminaries as Joe Louis and Mahalia Jackson.  Others, like Louis Armstrong, stayed there so often it might as well have been home.  Add to this the great publishing enterprises of Johnson Publishing and the Chicago Defender, and it is easy to see Bronzeville supplanting Harlem as the center of Black culture in America—perhaps the world—during the 30’s and 40’s.

“Black Metropolis has a saying,” Drake and Cayton write: “If you’re trying to find a certain Negro in Chicago, stand on the corner of 47th and South Park long enough and you’re bound to see him.”  A monumental study—what anthropologist Clifford Geertz would certainly have dubbed “thick description”—of nearly every conceivable social institution, both “legitimate” and not so above board, and the dynamics that bound them and Bronzeville’s people together, the book was also remarkable in its cultural and psychological insight.  “The dominating individual drive in American life is not ‘staying alive,’ nor ‘enjoying life,’ nor ‘praising the Lord,’” they write, “it is ‘getting ahead.’”  In large part, this formed the basis of “race pride,” which Drake and Cayton follow as it is “transformed into a positive and aggressive defensive racialism,” where “beating the white man at his own game becomes a powerful motivation for achievement.”  As I revisit, expand and post what I wrote and excerpted for Black Writing from Chicago nearly ten years ago, I often wonder how many of the writers I included, but especially Drake and Cayton, would look at Bronzeville today.  Now in the mid-teens of the 21st Century, would they still see this community as a power house of Black life?  How has it fared under the pressure of the fates of Fred Hampton and others like him; under conditions of the greatest growth of income inequality in American history?

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Lerone Bennett, Jr.: Before the Mayflower

Bennett-2Born in iconic Clarksdale, Mississippi, October 17, 1928, Lerone Bennett, Jr., came to Chicago in 1953 to become associate editor of Jet magazine, then associate and senior editor at Ebony starting in 1954.  He has also been a visiting professor of history at Northwestern, senior fellow of the Institute of the Black World, and member of the board of directors of the Chicago Public Library.  Author of many articles, short stories, and poems, he became a mainstay of Chicago’s Johnson Publishing Co., writing ten books for them, including Pioneers in Protest (1968), and The Challenge of Blackness (1972).  Hailed as one of the country’s best popular historians, he has played an enormous role in conveying the power of the Black presence in American history, as well as showing the way to better communications not only between Blacks and whites, but between Blacks and their own constituencies, as he did in Confrontation: Black and White (1965).

Before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett Jr.His most influential book has been Before the Mayflower, first published in 1962. In Chapter 3, “‘The Founding of Black America,” Bennett tells the story of the crucial role black patriots played in the American Revolution, including the legendary Crispus Attucks, who, as the first person to die in the Revolution, has been a source of immense pride for black Americans.  He distinguishes four “recognizable types” in the founding of black America: Jupiter Hammon, who “went over to the enemy…producing intellectual products that…buttressed their world view;” Phillis Wheatley, a founder of American poetry, who “subtly challenged” the premises of American society “by the authority of her work;” the anonymous Othello, the outright militant; and Richard Allen who “spoke in muted tones but created big sticks of organization,” including the AME Church and, with Absalom Jones, the Free African Society.

In my book Black Writing from Chicago I included an excerpt from the end of Chapter 3 of Before the Mayflower, which begins by focusing on Allen and moves on to John Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, the founder of Chicago.  Black protesters withdrawing from the white Methodist Church debated what to do next: whom to be affiliated with, whether to go it alone, etc.  “Behind this debate,” writes Bennett, “was another question: What relation, if any, should blacks have with white institutions?”  Questions like this formed the basis for my decision to subtitle Black Writing from Chicago with a question: In the World, Not of It?  After sometimes acrimonious debate the Free Africa Society split in two, the larger group following Absalom Jones into the Episcopal Church.  But Richard Allen knew those blacks were still denied full status in that church—being, for example, barred from governing boards and annual conferences.  “In 1816,” Bennett tells us, “he became the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first national organization created by blacks,” and, he continues, “Men and women made in Allen’s image dominated the second phase of the Black Pioneer period, creating a tier of independent black churches that spanned the North…By 1830 there were black churches of almost every conceivable description, including an Ethiopian Church of Jesus Christ in Savannah, Georgia, and a black Dutch Reformed Church in New York City.”

On the business side of things Bennett extols Du Sable, who in the 1770’s laid, “the foundations of Chicago, building the first home there and opening the first business.”  Yet, says Bennet, “The contributions of Du Sable and other black founding fathers had no appreciable effect on the level of racism in America.  There are even indications that Du Sable the founder was isolated and pushed to the sidelines of Chicago life in the 1790s when large numbers of white Americans settled in the area, bringing with them traditional American perceptions.  If, as seems probable, Du Sable was indeed the victim of his own creation, he shares that mournful distinction with thousands of other black pioneers….”

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