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Sunday, August 10, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large

A Man Of Letters Spells Out A Racial Dichotomy

Seattle Times Staff Columnist

Charles Johnson is a hard-working man. Dr. Johnson, winner of the 1990 National Book Award for his novel "Middle Passage" and a professor of fiction at the University of Washington, is spending his summer rushing to meet deadlines.

He's writing a novel based on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. And he is writing for a textbook that will accompany a public television project, "Africans in America."

Professor Johnson is a courteous, soft-spoken Buddhist. He's a husband and a father of two children who is involved in his children's education, making sure they get what they need from school.

He is not the person most people think of when the words "black man" are spoken.

That is one of the reasons he co-edited a new book, "Black Men Speaking," the strength of which is that it offers the reader a chance to travel the roads of several complex human beings as they deal with being black and male, each in his own way.

Ten writers, including Johnson and co-editor John McCluskey Jr., write about black men and society, and about themselves and their families.

There is pain and hurt and anger, and there is hope, strength and faith.

In the opening of his essay, Johnson writes, "A day does not pass when I do not brood on the negative social profile and bad PR that seem to envelop contemporary images of black males in America. As an artist and a father, I am filled with urgency and more than a little anger because I know my own son, now approaching his twenty-fifth birthday, and my fourteen-year-old daughter must negotiate their way through an uncivil public space soured by the steady bombardment of media images that portray black people in the worst imaginable ways - as welfare cheats, criminals, incompetent parents, ex-cons, poor students, crackheads, as an affirmative-action liability in the workplace, and, to put this bluntly, as the corrupting worm coiled inside the American apple."

A publisher asked Johnson to put together a book on young black men in 1989, but his life got too busy after "Middle Passage" won the National Book Award. He enlisted his friend, McCluskey, who is also a professor (Indiana) and novelist, to work with him. Over seven years they found a group of men, some well-known, others not, to contribute their thoughts.

Johnson had been clipping newspaper articles on race since the early '80s when black-on-black crime, drugs and other afflictions began reaching unprecedented heights. He recited some of them in the book's introduction. The statistics are all familiar by now, and all grim.

A focus of the book became how people cope, and, beyond that, how people move past this pitiful place.

Says Johnson, "There are two running cultural alternatives. I don't think it is to the same extent true for other groups. It is unique to black male experience."

Johnson says the prize fight between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield pitted those two archetypes against one another. Holyfield was the good Christian who had worked hard despite other people's lack of belief in him. Tyson was the unpredictable street fighter, a man with a criminal past and very little to suggest a better future.

They are both responses to the attitudes the people around me and you have about black men, and to the conditions in which many black men find themselves.

Many of the people in this book transcend those roles. They write about discipline and morality and self-knowledge and about the dangers of allowing anger to become self-destructive.

One of the contributors, David Nicholson, writes, "The issue is no longer as simple as focusing on the problems America poses for black men; we have to ask about the problems black men pose for each other and for themselves."

In 1994, Johnson's alma mater, Southern Illinois University, established the Charles Johnson Award for Fiction and Poetry. (See its Web site for writers: www.siu.edu/ centsjohnson.)

Three books are being written about him and his work. Still, he gets "the look" sometimes. That momentary meeting of eyes in which someone at the mall, on the street, at the office, signals, perhaps without their ever being aware of it, that to them you are a . . . well, we don't want to use that word.

He has enough armor to keep on stepping with his head held high.

Johnson is optimistic that things will change, someday.

When it does happen, says Johnson, "it will have to be internal. Black Americans will have to do it on our own."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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