Charles Johnson, a National Book Award-winning novelist for his highly acclaimed book, Middle Passage, will deliver Lehigh’s Baccalaureate address to graduates and their families on Sunday, May 22nd, in Packer Memorial Church. His talk will precede the 2016 commencement ceremony on May 23rd in Goodman Stadium.
Lloyd Steffen, University Chaplain and professor of religion studies, lauded the selection of Johnson as speaker for this significant ceremony, stating that Johnson is “one of America’s literary treasures, a person of high stature and extraordinary accomplishment.”
Steffen said that Johnson is an acclaimed novelist, essayist, cartoonist, teacher and philosopher, and that he “believes the arts are about discovery and problem-solving, and his novels include some wonderfully engaging philosophical turns.
“He is also a Buddhist who has written about Buddhist philosophy and spiritual life,” Steffen said. “He’s made it clear in his writing and in interviews that Buddhism has been integral to his vision of life and art. Buddhism for Dr. Johnson is connected to creativity—it opens for him a pathway of freedom and reflection that allows him to confront problems and clarify difficult ideas.”
One of America’s most prominent writers, Johnson gained national attention and critical acclaim following the 1974 publication of his first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, which was followed by Oxherding Tale in 1982, and Middle Passage in 1990.
Middle Passage is a historical novel, chronicling the final voyage of an American slave ship in the early 19th century. Narrated through the voice of a freed slave who finds himself aboard a slave ship bound for Africa with the intent of escaping a forced marriage, the book balances history, philosophy, folk lore and politics in a work that embodies the author’s version of black literature. Defined in his 1988 book, Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970, Johnson viewed black literature as a “fiction of increasing artistic and intellectual growth….that enables us as a people – as a culture – to move from narrow complaint to broad celebration.”
Johnson was the first African American male to receive the National Book Award since Ralph Ellison in 1953.
Johnson has also received NEA and uggenheim fellowships, a Writers Guild Award for his PBS drama Booker, and numerous other prizes, honorary degrees, and awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship.
Born in Evanston, Ill, Johnson began his career as a cartoonist who had his first work published at the age of 17. His collections of satirical cartoons focused on race relations led to “Charlie’s Pad,” a 1971 how-to-draw public television series that Johnson created, co-produced and hosted.
Johnson studied at Southern Illinois University, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism. He studied phenomenology and literary aesthetics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy.
Over the course of his prolific career, Johnson has written 17 books, more than 20 screenplays, and numerous essays, articles, short stories, and literary reviews. He has also continued to work as an editor, cartoonist, and journalist and has published more than 1,000 drawings in national publications.
A former director of the creative writing program at the University of Washington, he held the first endowed chair in writing at UW, the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Professorship for Excellence in English. He is now professor emeritus.