Charles Johnson, whose balance of philosophy and folklore has been praised since the publication of his first novel in 1974, gained prominence when his novel Middle Passage won the National Book Award in 1990--the first time such an award was given to an African American male since Ralph Ellison in 1953. Like his other works of fiction, Middle Passage embodies Johnson's provocative version of black literature, defined in his Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970 (1998) as “a fiction of increasing artistic and intellectual growth, one that enables us as people-as a culture-to move from narrow complaint to broad celebration.”
Born in Evanston, Illinois, Johnson began his career as a cartoonist. Under the tutelage of cartoonist Lawrence Lariar, he saw his work published by the time he was seventeen years old. His two collections of cartoons were acclaimed for their subtle but pointed satire of race relations, and their success led to Charlie's Pad, a 1971 series on public television that Johnson created, co-produced, and hosted. As an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University, Johnson studied with novelist and literary theorist John Gardner, whose conception of “moral fiction”--demanding from the author a near-fanatical commitment to technique, imagination, and ethics--deeply impressed Johnson.
Johnson's first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, was published in 1974 when the author was studying for his PhD in phenomenology and literary aesthetics at the State University of New York Stony Brook. Johnson's other works include the novels Oxherding Tale (1982) and Dreamer (1998); three collections of short stories, The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1986), Soulcatcher and Other Stories (2001), and Dr. King's Refrigerator: And Other Bedtime Stories (2005); two collections of comic art, Black Humor (1970) and Half-Past Nation Time (1972); Black Men Speaking (1997), co-edited with John McCluskey Jr.; Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery, the companion book for PBS' series (Oct., 1998), co-authored with Patricia Smith (the audio book for this was selected as one of the best audio books in the history category of the Listen Up Awards in Publishers Weekly); King: The Photobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. (2000), co-authored with Bob Adelman; and “Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing” (2003). These works have been translated in seven foreign languages.
As a cartoonist and journalist in the early 1970s, he published over 1000 drawings in national publications, a selection of which appears in Humor Me: An Anthology of Humor by Writers of Color by John McNally (2002). In 1999, Indiana University Press published a collection of his essays on aesthetics, cultural criticism, articles, interviews, speeches, cartoons, out-takes from his novels and book reviews dating back to 1965, entitled, I Call Myself an Artist: Writings By and About Charles Johnson (1999) a "Charles Johnson reader," edited by Dr. Rudolph Byrd, with a final section of eight critical articles on his work. He has written over 20 screenplays, among them Booker (1985), which received the International Prix Jeunesse Award, a 1985 Writers Guild Award for "outstanding script in the television category of children's shows," and was released for home-video in 1996 by Bonneville Worldwide Entertainment. That show, along with Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree, has been broadcast on the Disney channel. He was one of two writer-producers for Up and Coming (KCET, 1981), and he hosted the 1992 KCTS (Seattle) series "Words with Writers." In January, 2000 the BBC broadcast a two week, 10-part radio adaptation of his novel Dreamer. His book Middle Passage was recently contracted by Marvel to become a graphic novel in the near future.
Soulcatcher and Other Stories (2001)
Black Men Speaking (1997) (co-edited with John McCluskey Jr.)
Middle Passage (1990)
Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988)
The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1986)
Oxherding Tale (1982)
Faith and the Good Thing (1974)
Half-Past Nation Time (1972)
Black Humor (1970)