Dr. Charles Johnson, University of Washington Professor Emeritus, is revered for his long career encompassing political cartoon illustration, journalism, screenwriting and English instruction. All this while penning numerous titles of his own, including Dreamer, Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African Americans, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Tales and Conjurations and Middle Passage. Johnson is known and loved for the richness of his stories, which explore entire worlds within the life of a character.
Last summer at the Mt. Baker Community Club, Johnson spoke to several Seattle-area writers, gathered to learn more about iconic philosophers: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Johnson’s lifelong subject of study; novelist John Gardner, his mentor; and Johnson himself. He struck me then not only as settled and wise but accomplished, owing to his many accolades over the years as well as, and perhaps most importantly, the measure of his own yardstick. So I had a particular interest in what he chose to share that day, and ever since. Recently, at Third Place Books, he and I discussed ideas about liberation in our most private, internal space: the mind. We talked about a lecture he will deliver next week at the University of Puget Sound, The New Middle Passage: Mindfulness and Black America, its message, audience, timing and objective.
City Arts: Your talk, The New Middle Passage: Mindfulness and Black America, is about a spiritual awakening of sorts (and it should be noted that this talk has no direct relationship to your book Middle Passage). Why are you bringing this message to us now?
Dr. Charles Johnson: One of the things that we don’t do in America—materialistic, capitalist country that it is—is we don’t devote much time to the life of the spirit and developing those practices that will lead to our naturally being compassionate toward others, naturally being unselfish.
But in America right now we have what I call the mindfulness movement. I believe America is ripe at this moment for a spiritual awakening and the wisdom of the Buddhadharma. Dharma just means teachings.
There’s an idea in Buddhism that one’s happiness and salvation, awakening and liberation from suffering, rests entirely in one’s own hands. Will you talk about that?
I’ll discuss the difference between samsara and nirvana. This is samsara that we’re living in. It’s the world where people are largely driven by various mental poisons: greed, ignorance, selfish desires. But it isn’t like samsara and nirvana are different. When we do this [placing his palms together, as in prayer] it’s called “in gassho.” [Separating his palms] This hand represents samsara, or the world of illusion. This other hand represents nirvana, or the world as it appears after you are awakened. [Palms together] Together, you see that they are one. You’re not going to want awakening unless you’ve been living through suffering. It’s the precondition that drives us to turn to spiritual practice.
We’re all grappling with the same issues. If someone shot an arrow into you, your immediate concern is getting that arrow out. You don’t look at the arrow and say, “What tree did this wood come from?” Right? You want the pain to stop, and you can go to the root of what is causing your suffering in this world. That is within your control. The Buddha doesn’t talk about God at all because that’s not relevant for the question. That arrow is in you. You can take it out. But that doesn’t mean there’s no God.
In your talk, you say “[from] the era of slavery right through the roughly 70 years of legal segregation, we created obstacles, traps and racial minefields for young Black men, and long demonized them as violent, criminal, stupid, lazy and irresponsible.” Who do you see as “we” in that statement? Who’s doing this?
I mean the white world. Whites. In a certain sense, it’s like, if you’re Black in America, you have to cross a racial minefield. It has been seeded with mines—IEDS, you know? But our ancestors and predecessors crossed before us, so they tell us what the dangers are, and what to avoid. We have the information to give to our young people about how to cross the minefield.
So, if you really want to know, when I say “we,” we’re all culpable, Blacks and whites. We have to make [Black youth] aware that they are living in a place that has historically been hostile to Black people, and not just to Black people, people of color, other people, Jews, because they really don’t know in many ways what came before. A young Black boy needs to know that he cannot screw up in the same way that a young white boy does because he will be punished far more severely. [Black youth] can’t just move through the world like someone who has white privilege. They have to be more mindful.
You seem invested in getting this message to young Blacks and people of color. What is the vehicle for this message?
I highly recommend that students in K-12 be introduced to mindfulness practice. Tell them to read my stories. Read my novels. I try to dramatize [mindfulness] with Black characters in Black situations—slavery, segregation. That’s part of the reason why I write fiction. I want to deliver that experience as best as I can, but it’s not complete. Buddhism has infused my writing in general, so I would like to think that my writing points in the direction of what would be a spiritual path, but we’re not going to become awake by [simply] reading something. Rather, we can show them how to step back and consider an action before they do it and look at how what’s in their mind is contributing to how they’re experiencing a situation. It’s simple.
Do you think what Dr. King talked about, his general approach, embodied principles associated with the Buddhadarma?
This is very old wisdom. You can find elements of it in other religious traditions, and Dr. King understood this from his perspective as a Christian Baptist minister. That’s why I wrote my novel Dreamer, because of the dimensions of King we never talk about. Yeah, we can integrate lunch counters, we can sit with white people, but that wasn’t the real goal. For [King], the real goal was The Beloved Community. That’s what it was about, not just integrating buses and all that. Those were immediate evils that needed to be eliminated during the era of segregation, but there is a greater goal.
He was very clear about the fact that we have to work on two fronts. On one front, eliminating the evils such as racism and segregation; on another front, the transformation of ourselves, and working to eliminate our own deficiencies and problems, and you have to work both fronts together. But see, back in the ‘60s, [Blacks didn’t want] King to talk about Black people’s [internalized] problems. He would try but they would shut him down. They would say “No! Talk about the white man!” So that’s the battle. That conversation got lost.
Is there a difference between simply being a good person and being a Buddhist?
You can be a good person without being enlightened, without being awakened. Wisdom is not localized any place, or monopolized by any group or culture, so you can find Dharma wisdom in Islam and you can find it in Christianity, but there’s a difference with Buddhism in the sense that it is very radical. Radical means to go to the root, and the root, of course, is consciousness. Your mind. That is where everything—your whole world! —is presented to you.