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Charles Johnson’s Essay “The End of the Black American Narrative” First Given as Address in W&L’s Lee Chapel

When the full house of student and faculty in W&L’s Lee Chapel listened to Charles Johnson give the Martin Luther King Jr. day address in January 2008, titled “The End of the Black American Narrative,” they had no idea of the explosion of interest his arguments would eventually generate. Associate Dean of Students Tamara Futrell brought Johnson to campus.

Following his visit to W&L, Johnson revised his address into essay form and The American Scholar published it in the summer 2008 issue. The publication’s Web site editor reports that in the first week of its publication the essay drew some 3,800 visitors. Bookstore managers have written to Johnson to report that issues of The American Scholar have been “flying off the shelves,” fueled by his provocative arguments. Johnson was also interviewed on the Joe Hicks radio show to discuss the essay and its applicability to today’s political climate. Also, in recent weeks numerous blogs have engaged the essay and discussed its timely perspective on American culture.

“That such a major essay in American cultural thought originated in an address at W&L is quite significant,” says Marc Conner, professor of English and director of African-American Studies. Conner is a founding member of the Charles Johnson Society, hosted at W&L, which focuses on Johnson’s work and its literary and cultural importance. His most recent book is “Charles Johnson: The Novelist as Philosopher,” co-edited with William Nash of Middlebury (University Press of Mississippi, 2007).

“Johnson’s main argument,” says Conner, “is that a single narrative has long dominated African-American culture and history: the narrative of African-Americans’ enslavement, oppression, victimization and struggle for civil rights and full political status in a racist society. That narrative, Johnson argues, held true up to the Civil Rights movement, but in that movement’s aftermath it has lost its purchase. Today’s African-American population, Johnson claims, is far too numerous (over 30 million people), too diverse (witness Barack Obama’s mixed parentage and cultural background), and too spread across America’s entire class spectrum to admit of a single spokesperson or of a single story that defines their enormous diversity.”

Conner adds that the essay has found both enthusiastic admiration and also insightful criticism from all American perspectives and ethnicities. “The long narrative of African-American struggle and the history of that culture’s victimization is one that demands respect and honor. Though Johnson is hardly dismissing that narrative–quite the contrary–he is saying that it does not apply in the same way in the 21st century.”

President Ruscio notes that “the Johnson piece is an example of a thoughtful and provocative essay being well-timed, given the Obama candidacy, among other things, and the interest in trying to determine whether we have moved to a new narrative in understanding race in our culture. It has shaped the public conversation on a complex issue and enriched our understanding, whether one agrees with Professor Johnson or not. Washington and Lee is proud to have played its part in hosting this important event.”

W&L rising junior Alecia Flynn, a student in the African-American Studies Program, who met Johnson and heard his talk, thinks Johnson makes legitimate and interesting points that encourage us to ask timely questions of ourselves, our communities and our nation. “Reading the article for myself, as opposed to listening to it read aloud in Lee Chapel, made for a much more reflective and meaningful rendition of a most thought-provoking analysis,” she says. “We certainly are privileged to have had such a great mind present this at W&L.”

Johnson’s essay can be read at http://www.theamericanscholar.org/su08/narrative-johnson.html.

The Charles Johnson Society Web site, which is hosted at W&L can be seen at http://charlesjohnson.wlu.edu/.