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Charles Johnson's Fiction

A fearless experimenter and one of the most important contemporary American writers, Charles Johnson challenges separatist politics and tries to get beyond race as a literary category. In Charles Johnson's Fiction, William R. Nash emphasizes and explores the tensions in Johnson's work between his ideal of race as illusion and his methods of articulating racial grievance.

Nash examines Johnson's short stories, novels–-Faith and the Good Thing, Oxherding Tale, Middle Passage, and Dreamer–-and the nonfiction work Being and Race. Tracing the themes of Johnson's political and artistic concerns as they evolved in his work, Nash locates his fascination with the aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement and his dismissal of separatist black politics and racialist thought. He also considers Johnson's adoption of Western and Eastern philosophies and belief that race is a blinding, limiting category that impedes the exploration of individual and collective identity. In formulating a mode of expression that balances the conflicting demands of race and aesthetics, Johnson crafts a new vision of history and African American identity that signifies on a range of black and white literary predecessors, including Zora Neale Hurston, Theodore Dreiser, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Herman Melville.

Nash argues that Johnson's hybrid philosophy of Buddhism and phenomenology defies the basic premises of identity formation and leads to the perception of a different self. Juxtaposed with jarring storylines of racial injustice, Johnson's notion that race is an illusion informs his aesthetic, promotes his strategies for battling oppression, and reminds readers what African Americans have already overcome in the quest to cultivate new visions of identity. Charles Johnson's Fiction also includes eight of Johnson's cartoons published in Black Humor and Half-Past Nation Time in the early 1970s.

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