Charles Johnson: on the meaning of Obama

The Seattle novelist and expert on Martin Luther King Jr. believes that Obama's election is a sea-change moment for America and the world. "So we have evolved in terms of our understanding that excellence is colorblind."
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Author and UW professor Charles Johnson

The Seattle novelist and expert on Martin Luther King Jr. believes that Obama's election is a sea-change moment for America and the world. "So we have evolved in terms of our understanding that excellence is colorblind."

All parts of the universe are interwoven with one another, and the bond is sacred. — Marcus Aurelius

In a recent e-mail, my Swedish cousin Dr. Anders Hemborg enthused about the election of President Barack Obama: 'ꀜFrom the Swedish horizon we are very pleased with that choice. That is a great difference from [George Bush], who grew up in a state with one star on the flag in Texas to Obama, who knows that there are many stars all over he world." My cousin's words reflect an international sense of relief as President Obama departs from the preceding administration by recognizing that the U.S. is a part of an interdependent world. In his inaugural address, Obama stressed this sense of interconnection as our world shrinks:

[W]e know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

This sense of interconnectedness and transcultural values also informs the vision of Prof. Charles Johnson of the Department of English at the University of Washington. In a recent American Scholar essay, 'ꀜThe End of the Black American Narrative'ꀝ (Summer 2008), Johnson called for a new black voice in fiction beyond slavery, victimization, and tribalism to a more inclusive story of the gains of blacks and away from the limiting 'ꀜillusion'ꀝ of race. He seeks to broaden views of African American identity and selfhood and move from a literature of complaint to one of celebration recognizing the 'ꀜinescapable network of mutuality'ꀝ of humanity described by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1963 'ꀜLetter from the Birmingham Jail.'ꀝ

Johnson'ꀙs renowned fiction offers a striking blend of philosophy, myth, history, and his own Buddhist spiritual beliefs. His novels include the National Book Award-winning epic of the slave trade Middle Passage, a moving homage to Dr. King'ꀙs life in Dreamer, a picaresque adventure in Oxherding Tale, and the allegorical Faith and the Good Thing. He also wrote the story collections The Sorcerer'ꀙs Apprentice, Dr. King'ꀙs Refrigerator, and Soulcatcher, and the acclaimed critical work Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970. Johnson is a MacArthur fellow and Pollock Endowed Professor for Excellence in English at UW. He is a national commentator on issues of race and culture, and also a screenwriter, a martial arts master, and an accomplished visual artist with two books of political cartoons.

Johnson recently spoke at his UW office about the election of President Obama and this sea-change moment in history.

Robin Lindley: How did you feel when the networks projected on November 4th that Obama would be the 44th president?

Dr. Charles Johnson: That day I wasn'ꀙt watching television that much. I thought we might not know until the next day who the winner was, but I was delightfully surprised that Obama wrapped it up early on Election Day. The electoral vote was overwhelming. It was something we'ꀙve never seen in the history of this country.

RL: The New York Times called the election of Obama a 'ꀝnational catharsis.'ꀝ

CJ: There was a lot of celebration on election night. I got a video of celebrating at the Faire [Gallery Café, Seattle] and it was like a catharsis. People were very, very emotional [and] realized they had just participated in history, so there was a kind of catharsis in that. Now we can take this question off the table — whether a black person can become president of the most powerful country in the world.

RL: You'ꀙve described Obama'ꀙs rise as evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

CJ: It speaks more to evolution in terms of the public attitude of the American people than Obama himself. He did not run as a challenging black candidate [but] on the promise of somebody who would bridge the divisions in American society. He doesn'ꀙt belong to the generation of Jesse Jackson and others.

So we have evolved in terms of our understanding that excellence is colorblind. We'ꀙve watched Obama for two years, and he'ꀙs handled himself with grace and incredible civility toward his opponents. There are two examples. He met with all of the former presidents and a reporter asked if he met with them to learn from their mistakes. He said, 'ꀜNo. I met with them to learn from their successes.'ꀝ Now, that'ꀙs a true gentleman. Earlier in the campaign, someone said, 'ꀜDid you know, Governor Palin'ꀙs daughter, 17 years old, is pregnant? What do you think?'ꀝ He said, 'ꀜMy mother had me when she was 18.'ꀝ In other words, all the things people use divisively against an opponent, he didn'ꀙt do. I think people appreciate that he really does listen to the other side. He does try to heal. He isn'ꀙt trying to polarize [or] taking cheap shots.

He'ꀙs a person of extreme confidence, and he'ꀙs comfortable in his own skin, but he'ꀙs humble. He recognizes the brevity of his own resume. He'ꀙs perfectly aware that one of the best things you can do is bring together the best minds and listen to ideas, and come to a decision on the most credible information. It'ꀙs remarkable the people he'ꀙs pulled in.

And it'ꀙs not about ideology. That may disappoint some people who supported him, but I don'ꀙt think at heart Obama is an ideological man, primarily because his own biography is so global. He'ꀙs been all over the planet with so many different kinds of people. He'ꀙs a true culture hero from Kenya to Indonesia to Kansas.

RL: What do you mean by a culture hero?

CJ: A culture hero bears the dreams of a culture, the ideals of a culture. He is quite literally there. He cuts across so many areas. In Kenya, they referred to him as 'ꀜOur Superpower Son.'ꀝ It also involves the intelligentsia.

RL: I don'ꀙt know if we'ꀙre truly in a post-racial age, but the archaic term mulatto was never used in the campaign.

CJ: I think the current term is biracial. Obama calls himself a mutt. But so many Americans are. We all have a mixture of something. The external [features] of a person are really cosmetic. We go back about 50 generations and we all share a common ancestor. He'ꀙs related to [Vice President Dick] Cheney through his mother. That'ꀙs reality. But we have dumb attitudes that date back to a more racist and stupid period in American history. Another reason he'ꀙs a culture hero is because he'ꀙs an avatar for a new vision of understanding race relations in American.

RL: How is Obama an avatar?

CJ: Avatar is a Hindu word for a god, but I'ꀙm using it as someone who represents something. He and Michelle represent the entire professional class of black Americans for the last two generations in the post-civil rights period. Both of them are extremely well educated and highly successful professionals. Those are their values. He'ꀙs a young urban professional [and his identity] resides in his work. And probably something true of his generation and the young people after him, was beginning to be true of mine. I'ꀙm primarily defined by what I do [not] by where I was born and raised in Evanston, Illinois. I went to school in New York and live here [Seattle]. That old sense of geography being destiny is not true, and certainly not in an age like ours in a global village connected by the Internet. We live in a very different world, and Obama represents that world.

RL: You'ꀙre a renowned student of Dr. King'ꀙs life. What do you think he'ꀙd say at this time?

CJ: I think he would be joyous — extraordinarily happy. He would feel this is a fulfillment — not necessarily the complete fulfillment of the dream of black Americans in the civil rights movement — but enormously important. You get past some of the delusions or illusions, and it'ꀙs hard for those to continue across generations when younger generations are better educated.

RL: In a 2003 interview you said, 'ꀜWe won'ꀙt, I believe, ever have King'ꀙs 'ꀘcolor blind'ꀙ society (or world), and I'ꀙm doubtful that humankind can ever shake off the easy tendency to project generalizations onto racial 'ꀘdifference.'ꀙ'ꀝ Has your view changed?

CJ: What'ꀙs changed is the ability of a majority of Americans to feel that race is irrelevant in their election of the president. What'ꀙs most important, as demonstrated, is their trust in the person and that person'ꀙs intelligence and professionalism. That doesn'ꀙt mean that American society still isn'ꀙt saddled with racial misunderstanding. I came across an Obama doll somebody had done during the primaries [that] was basically a monkey with a tail and big ears, and they took it off the market quickly. Maybe 50 years ago they wouldn'ꀙt have had the pressure to take it off the market. There'ꀙs still someone who'ꀙs going to do something ignorant like that.

We can'ꀙt say we have a color-blind society at this moment because we do not. If you look at our English department where I'ꀙve taught for 33 years, I'ꀙm the only black faculty here out of about 50 people. I think they recently hired a young woman who I haven'ꀙt met yet, so there may be two of us.

RL: Just walking on campus, I didn'ꀙt see many African-American students.

CJ: Hardly any. So they do have a problem. And we have far more black females graduating from college and getting master'ꀙs degrees and PhD'ꀙs than we do black males. And there are terrible figures. One out of nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are either in prison or on parole — somehow controlled by the criminal justice system.

There are lingering problems, and I'ꀙm sure Obama is acutely aware of all of them. And he can'ꀙt solve them. What he has to do is solve the economic problem, first and foremost, which affects everybody. If people don'ꀙt have jobs, you have a serious problem. If you lose your job, then you'ꀙre going to lose your home because you can'ꀙt make payments. There have to be jobs so people can pay their bills.

But there are deeper problems that affect the black community right now. I talked about women who are black who are doing better professionally than males. Seventy percent of professional black women are single. A black woman professional who reaches the age of 40 has five times the likelihood of remaining single than her white counterpart. A female professional doesn'ꀙt want a man who doesn'ꀙt have an education or a job. They look at the Obamas with tremendous admiration. They'ꀙd like to have a Barack in their lives just like Michelle does as a professional black woman.

But you do not solve that problem until you solve the problem of 70 percent of black children being born out of wedlock and 50 percent of them being raised in fatherless homes. You do not solve these problems until you solve the problem of the black family and its dissolution, and because the families dissolve the communities dissolve. It'ꀙs a problem of young black male culture. I know what it is. August Wilson knew what it was, and we had to figure out how we were going to deal with it, so we didn'ꀙt wind up dead at 20 years old or in prison or with a criminal record. It'ꀙs a matter of the choices you make. As you have people in your life that you admire, like my dad, my mom, then you have a different direction you might take.

Obama gave that talk on Fathers'ꀙ Day last year at a church in Chicago about better parenting and black responsibility. He was basically taking a page from the playbook of Bill Cosby, and Jesse Jackson was furious with him and got caught on the air saying he wanted to cut [Obama'ꀙs] nuts off for talking down to Ns, and he used the N word. So we [need] more honesty and not illusions.

One of the things that has to be addressed seriously is the dysteleological behavior in black male culture. At a community college in the South three young black women asked me 'ꀜMr. Johnson, what'ꀙs wrong with these young black men?'ꀝ I said, 'ꀜI know what you'ꀙre talking about, but I don'ꀙt know what the solution is.'ꀝ They were so frustrated.

RL: What were these young women seeing in young black men?

CJ: They were seeing guys who just want to get over and get laid. They were seeing guys who do drugs or sell drugs. They were seeing guys who didn'ꀙt have their values, like valuing an education. They wanted guys they could feel good about, but they didn'ꀙt have that, which is sad.

I have talked about that in many essays, and people don'ꀙt want you to talk about it. King would talk about it, and people would say, 'ꀜYou'ꀙre airing dirty laundry. Don'ꀙt talk about that. Talk about what the white man is doing to us. Talk about the external problem, not this internal problem.'ꀝ King said, 'ꀜYou have to have a battle waged on two fronts. One is the external battle to get rid of the things that keep black people down, segregation and [those issues], and one is the internal battle to raise our own standards.'ꀝ He said, 'ꀜYou don'ꀙt win this war unless you have the battle on these two fronts because one supports the other.'ꀝ

You look at Obama and have to ask, if you don'ꀙt want this guy as the first black president, who do you want? The guy'ꀙs a Harvard graduate, the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. And he'ꀙs excellent. And that'ꀙs King'ꀙs point. We have to be excellent. We cannot afford to be mediocre. And if that'ꀙs the case, you beat down any argument a racist can come at you with [because] it'ꀙs obviously a lie in the case of Obama or Michelle or any of the people he'ꀙs drawn to his orbit.

RL: Both King and Obama stressed the interrelatedness of all people. King spoke of an 'ꀜinescapable network of mutuality," a view that lifts everyone.

CJ: Yes, and I think [Obama] is very conscious of that because it'ꀙs so deeply written into his own biography. With a white mother, a black father, an Indonesian stepfather and Indonesian half-sister and relatives in Kenya, this is a guy who is biologically sensitive to our diversity. He'ꀙs a perfect person to lead us into the twenty-first century if those are our ideals, and I think they are.

We'ꀙre living in a world in which all people are intertwined and the sensitivity breaks down the old concepts of nationalism and isolationism. The idea of the nation state is probably obsolete in the twenty-first century. The European Union also breaks down this idea of a sacrosanct nation state. The Germans got the world into two wars in the twentieth century because of the [nation state] idea, but it'ꀙs no longer economically feasible to think that way.

And you look at Obama, and it'ꀙs no longer feasible to think that way in terms of our individual lives. In his talk to 200,000 Germans, Obama introduced himself as a proud American and a citizen of the world. In terms of our damaged relations with other nations because of the war in Iraq and other issues, I think the whole world is celebrating because there'ꀙs a president now who believes in nations working together and listening to each other.

RL: You have consistently been thinking outside the literary box with your novels and other writing, with your holistic view of humanity and recognition of interrelatedness.

CJ: That'ꀙs what artists should do. That'ꀙs what scientists should do. That'ꀙs what educators should do. I think we can continue to experience a sea change with an understanding of the wholeness of life and the totality of life and the network of mutuality that we and everything else — not just humans but animals and plants — share. We'ꀙre all in a network of mutuality that constitutes our life on this planet.


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