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Washington and Lee University

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Charles Richard Johnson Citation

presented June 4, 2009

Dr. Charles Richard Johnson is one of the most important intellectuals of our time—a prolific writer, a lifelong educator, a significant visual artist, and a philosopher who shines a light on American culture.

Johnson holds the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Professorship for Excellence in English at the University of Washington, where he has taught for 33 years. He earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Johnson has written 17 books, more than 20 screenplays, and numerous essays, articles, short stories, and literary reviews. He has also worked as an editor, cartoonist, and journalist and has published more than 1,000 drawings in national publications.
Johnson has received many awards and recognitions. When he won the 1990 National Book Award in fiction for his novel Middle Passage, he was the first African-American male to win this prize since Ralph Ellison in 1953. Johnson has received NEA and Guggenheim fellowships, a Writers Guild Award for his PBS drama Booker, and numerous other prizes, honorary degrees, and awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship.

Johnson is best known for combining philosophy and fiction. He writes complex, challenging novels that explore the most probing philosophical issues of our time. He challenges the assumptions and beliefs of his readers and refuses all simplifications of the complexity of American reality, whether in terms of race, gender, history, politics, or religion.

Johnson also has made a great contribution to American culture by putting forth powerful and sometimes controversial ideas about the African-American experience. He rejects the idea that there is a narrowly defined “Black Experience,” positing that there are as many ways to be black in America as there are African Americans. Johnson has gone so far as to say that race is an illusion, asserting that we all share a common humanity that unites apparent differences of race. The ultimate goal of Johnson’s artistic quest is articulating this broader view of the human experience that transcends racial designations.

For his innovative, hopeful, thought-provoking body of work, Washington and Lee is proud to confer upon Dr. Charles Johnson the Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.