Exploring the Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson with E. Ethelbert Miller (Interview)

tags: interview, Charles Johnson, E. Ethelbert Miller, The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles also have appeared in Crosscut, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, and others. His email: robinlindley@gmail.com.


Dr. Charles Johnson - Wikipedia

   Renowned literary activist and poet E. Ethelbert Miller is recognized for his creative approaches to bringing art and literature to new audiences, for preserving intellectual and literary history that might otherwise be lost, and for mentoring and encouraging committed artists and writers, especially promising black creators.

            In a unique effort that employs new technology to enlarge the literary landscape, Mr. Miller has assembled a groundbreaking new work of cultural and intellectual history with The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson (Dzanc Books). This magisterial book collects a year-long exchange of emails between Mr. Miller and literary icon Dr. Charles Johnson on topics as varied as philosophy, African American literature, history, Seattle, education, Buddhism, the craft of writing, politics, Dr. Martin Luther King, fatherhood, martial arts, cartooning, dogs, and much more.

            Mr. Miller called his electronic media project the E-Channel, a platform for thoughtful and inventive exchange of ideas and exploration. He launched the project with the multifaceted and celebrated Dr. Johnson, a fellow “black, male, boomer writer,” to bring his “cavernous and selfless intellect” to the world.

            Dr. Charles Johnson is perhaps best known as the author of four novels including Dreamer and the National Book Award-winning Middle Passage, as well as numerous essays, short stories, and screenplays. He is also recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and is recognized as a public intellectual, philosopher, and even an accomplished cartoonist. Dr. Johnson earned a doctorate in philosophy (emphasizing phenomenology and literary aesthetics). He then worked for more than 30 years as a professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle where he taught literature and creative writing, directed the creative writing program, and held an endowed chair, the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollack Professorship for Excellence in English. He is now a professor emeritus and has just published a second volume of his children’s book series Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder with co-author, his daughter Elisheba, and a book of essays on Buddhism, race, and culture, Taming the Ox.

            Over the course of a year, Mr. Miller emailed Dr. Johnson more than 400 questions and Dr. Johnson answered 218 on a wide range of topics.

            In a recent interview with Peter Kelley, Dr. Johnson stressed the immediacy of his writing in for E-Channel and recognized Mr. Miller’s work: “For me, it was a real brain dump. There's no book like this anywhere in world literature — a very candid, detailed look into a writer's mind and heart and journey through this life. It was a fascinating challenge for both of us. Ethelbert had to read all my novels, stories, essays, book prefaces and introductions, and because he is an arts advocate and chairs a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., the Institute for Policy Studies, many of his questions have a political flavor. Really, the 672-page Words and Wisdom is as much his book as it is mine.”

            Writers, teachers, and professors have praised the Miller-Johnson project, and many of Dr. Johnson’s responses have been shared widely. Mr. Miller’s project serves as a model for future explorations of renowned thinkers and creative minds.

            A poet, writer and literary advocate, Mr. Miller has served as director of the African American Studies Resource Center at Howard University since 1974. He also chairs the board of the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive multi-issue think tank, and is a board member of The Writer's Center and editor of Poet Lore magazine. Mr. Miller has taught at UNLV, American University, George Mason University, and Emory and Henry College. He is the former chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., a former core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College, Further, he often contributes to National Public Radio. 

            Mr. Miller is also an acclaimed poet whose collections of poetry include Andromeda (1974), The Land of Smiles and the Land of No Smiles (1974), Season of Hunger / Cry of Rain (1982), Where Are the Love Poems for Dictators? (1986), Whispers, Secrets and Promises (1998), and How We Sleep on the Nights We Don’t Make Love (2004). He is the editor of the anthologies Women Surviving Massacres and Men (1977); In Search of Color Everywhere (1994), which won the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and was a Book of the Month Club selection; and Beyond the Frontier (2002). He also wrote two memoirs Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer and The 5th Inning. The Gelman Library of George Washington University houses the E. Ethelbert Miller archives.

            Mr. Miller recently talked about his work and his unique web-based exchanges with Dr. Johnson that led to the impressive new volume The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson.         


       Robin Lindley: Congratulations on your wide-ranging and innovative new book The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson.

            E. Ethelbert Miller: It was a major project, and he deserves a lot of credit for taking the time to do it.

    Robin Lindley: And you too. It’s a book that’s impossible to skim—each entry is so compelling.

            E. Ethelbert Miller: I think you could take, for example, just the entries on the craft of writing and use them to teach a number of creative writing workshops.

            Robin Lindley: What inspired the E-Channel and then your year of interviews with Dr. Johnson?

            E. Ethelbert Miller: It may not have happened if I didn’t live in Washington and Charles (didn’t live) in Seattle. We both stay up late and, over the years, we sent a lot of emails back and forth late in the evening. So we were in contact that way.

            And he had to be retired to undertake this project so he’d have time to do it.

            The E-Channel is really an outgrowth of social media.

            The idea came when I was reading the newspaper and saw that Oprah [Winfrey] decided to develop her new Oprah Channel, the O-Channel. And I thought if Oprah can do it, I can create my own channel, the E-Channel.  Then I thought who could I focus on that would be interesting—and then Charles was the obvious choice because I was in touch him all of the time. It was just a question of creating an outlet for his voice.

            I should note that the beginning entries are short, but after a couple months went by, Charles really got into it. There are a lot of questions he didn’t want to answer, which I thought was funny. I had to sometimes send him clusters of questions like five or six questions before he would take one. We developed a relationship so that some questions he didn’t answer in January or February he might answer later.

     Robin Lindley: You’re a masterful interviewer and the questions brought out many different aspects of Dr. Johnson.

            E. Ethelbert Miller: Near the end of the year, I stumbled on something that I thought might make the collection really important. Near the end of the book, I pulled out quotes from African American history and literature and had Charles respond to those quotes. I think that anyone teaching African American studies would have come by these quotes from Du Bois, from Fanon, and here is somebody who has taken the time to explain what this means.

            It was also a way to get Charles to comment on poetry. I’d ask what he thought about a famous poem by Dunbar.

            Robin Lindley: The book is organized chronologically rather than by topic.

            E. Ethelbert Miller: Right. As a casual reader, you can go through it at your leisure. If it was more structured, it could be used differently.

            Robin Lindley: How did you get to know Dr. Johnson?

            E. Ethelbert Miller: I got to know him through his work. His first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, became one of my favorite books. I read it and shared it with people.

            Then Charles came to DC for the 1987 PEN/Faulkner Award. I remember going to the Folger Shakespeare Library and meeting Charles and Richard Wiley who won the award. That’s when our relationship started.

    Robin Lindley: This project is such an innovative use of the Internet. As the book makes clear, you and Dr. Johnson are both open to new technology.

            E. Ethelbert Miller: Yes. My project now, which is not as big as the Johnson project, is called “The Aldon Nielsen Project 2015.” He’s one of the important critics in African American literature. I’m going to explore and get in the mind of a critic and chart how a critic develops.  We really don’t know how a critic develops, and I think it will be interesting to see this project alongside the E-Channel. 

            Robin Lindley: You have a great interest in history, and your book on Charles Johnson is an impressive book of cultural history.      

            E. Ethelbert Miller: Yes, I think so. If someone asked about my dream for the book, my dream would be that this book would put Charles on a shortlist for a Nobel Prize by showing the length and breadth of his work. As others talk about Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth, we can talk about Charles Johnson.

            Robin Lindley: And readers can go to this comprehensive work and pick out sections that relate to so many fascinating and timeless topics.

            E. Ethelbert Miller: Yes, especially at this particular time. It’s so key in looking at Martin Luther King with the fiftieth anniversary of Selma. Some of the best stuff on King is in the book.

    Robin Lindley: Dr. King’s last year is largely forgotten but it’s a critical time when he had turned his attention to militarism, poverty and economic injustice.

            E. Ethelbert Miller: That goes back to Vincent Harding who died last year. He had a significant influence on King in the last years. He helped King write the Riverside Church speech [April 4, 1967] where King came out against the Vietnam War.        

Robin Lindley: Dr. Johnson spoke of a Buddhist trend in Dr. King’s actions. Do you remember how he expressed that?        

            E. Ethelbert Miller: There was considerable eastern thought that came to King through people like Howard Thurman who made trips to India and influenced practically every black minister in the United States.

            Looking at eastern religious connections to Christianity is no different than what Thomas Merton did later by going from being a Trappist monk to embracing the east. Charles looks at those paths.

            We need to consider what people are reading and doing, and look at the possible influence of Langston Hughes on Martin Luther King and the dream motif in his speeches. King, like many people, looked to the poetry of Langston Hughes. People need to go back and look at Hughes’ influence on King. The same way, you can go back to the March on Washington and look at Mahalia Jackson who some say got Martin Luther King to speak [about the Dream] when she said in the middle of the speech: “Tell us about the dream Martin. Tell us about the dream.” And all of a sudden the cadence of King’s speech changed and it was like two different speeches. That was an interesting connection that needs to be pursued like a moment of microhistory to fill in the gaps.

         Robin Lindley: Were there a couple of moments in the course of your interviews with Dr. Johnson when you were surprised by what he said?

            E. Ethelbert Miller: When you look at the E-Channel as a blog and at blogs in general, and blogs are sloppy and are not journalism. But the key thing that came out is that Charles is a perfectionist. Nothing is posted with misspellings, with punctuation mistakes. Many bloggers get by with that because they want to post quickly. Nothing upset Charles more than a spelling error or whatever. After a while, that affected me in my own work. If I put anything out there and work with someone like Charles Johnson, I proofread tighter.  I’m not going to let something go out with a typo.

            That gives you a sense of Charles and the craft of doing revision and getting it right.

            And when he got the book, it knocked him out. He was overwhelmed by the size of it. It gives you a sense of why the book is so powerful. We can have things on line, but when you can hold something in your hand and see how big it is, I think that makes a difference. This was a lot of work.

      Robin Lindley: You both did a great job. Dr. Johnson has an expansive view of his role as a writer and he’s seen as a transitional writer. He sees that African American writers may deal with the history of slavery and injustice, but he wants to get beyond the boundaries of race and class and culture.

            E. Ethelbert Miller: I don’t know if it’s getting beyond. I think what it comes back to is that Charles is a philosopher. If we’re undergraduates, we’re going to take some philosophy classes. And if those classes are taught well and do their job well, they are going take you and me and make sure we confront the big questions. Who we are. Why we’re here. Those big questions.

            Robin Lindley: When Dr. Johnson talks about creative writing he encourages all writers to get beyond their own experiences and to imagine the lives of other people.

            E. Ethelbert Miller: Yes. No selfies. With social media we don’t take the time. Look what happens now. Everybody has a story to tell but nobody listens.

        Robin Lindley: Marc Conner, a professor of English, wrote an introduction for the book on Dr. Johnson’s influence.

            E. Ethelbert Miller: Marc Conner deserves a lot of credit. He began to see as a critic how important this project was. This book could change even how we teach literature.

            Now we can teach Charles Johnson to a new generation of writers, and they’re going to write differently. They’re going to write philosophical novels. That’s a completely different breed.

            Robin Lindley: And Charles Johnson is open to new projects. He has a new book for kids that he illustrated and wrote with his daughter Elisheba, Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder. He’s still exploring so many areas.

            E. Ethelbert Miller: You could see that coming. In reading the E-Channel, you see his first love was cartooning. And other things come in. All of a sudden you learn about his daughter, about his cartoons, about becoming a grandfather. I think the personal questions opened the door for him to collaborate more. He was looking backward and looking forward.

   Robin Lindley:  Would you like to write a biography of Dr. Johnson?

            E. Ethelbert Miller: [Laughter] I’m a literary activist. I work behind the scenes. If you go to the George Washington University Gelman Library, you’ll see the scope of my personal archive.  

 Robin Lindley: You make a good point that students will benefit from learning more about Charles Johnson. He rejects a narrow or limited form of thinking.

            E. Ethelbert Miller: You can’t get into Charles unless you come at him from a particular angle. You have a number of people who will love him because they’ll be introduced to Buddhism because of a hunger they have. He has a growing audience for that. But in conferences or in graduate schools people to do more work on Charles Johnson. 

            I was looking at every single angle in viewing Charles. I looked back at texts. I looked at every single interview with Charles Johnson and what they didn’t touch on.            

            Robin Lindley: Charles Johnson has certainly influenced hundreds of students, writers, artists, and he’s touched people in so many ways with everything from fiction and philosophy to cartooning.

            E. Ethelbert Miller: More people are discovering his books. That has a lot to do with our society. Many individuals are being promoted who don’t even come close to Charles Johnson.

            Because he’s in Seattle and not in New York City and he’s not marketing himself like cornflakes, we won’t see him with his wife at the Academy Awards or some celebrity event. Unless he does an album with Lady Gaga, some people won’t know about him. And that’s our loss as a society. And it’s our loss if Charles is not acknowledged by a new generation.

            Robin Lindley: Thank you so much for sharing your insights. It’s been a pleasure.