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Charles R. Johnson to Address Washington and Lee’s Opening Convocation

Charles R. Johnson, award-winning philosopher, novelist, essayist, short story writer, and scholar of black American literature and Buddhism, will address Washington and Lee University’s 2016 Fall Convocation at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, September 7.

Johnson is the author of four novels, including “Middle Passage” (1990) and “Dreamer” (1998) (the first fictional account of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life), three collections of short stories, and over 20 screenplays. He has also published books on philosophy, spiritual inquiry, and cultural criticism, as well as two books of drawings and two books of children’s literature.

A MacArthur fellow, Johnson has received a 2002 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, a 1990 National Book Award for “Middle Passage,” a 1985 Writers Guild award for his PBS teleplay “Booker,” the 2016 W.E.B. Du Bois Award at the National Black Writers Conference, and many other awards. The Charles Johnson Society at the American Literature Association was founded in 2003. In November 2016, Pegasus Theater in Chicago will debut its play adaptation of “Middle Passage,” titled “Rutherford’s Travels.” Dr. Johnson recently published “Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice.” His forthcoming book is “The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling.”

In 2008, Johnson delivered the Martin Luther King Day keynote address at Washington and Lee, which was subsequently published in The American Scholar as “The End of the Black American Narrative,” and in 2009 he received an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Washington and Lee.

In his Convocation talk, titled “Four Years of Adventure,” Dr. Johnson will address the college experience from first year to graduation. He will draw on his own experience as a first-generation college student in the late 1960s, from his studies of journalism and philosophy to his experiences of the Civil Rights era. He’ll address the ability of dedicated teachers to help change and shape the lives of their students, and he’ll talk about the meaning of education and the importance of teachers in today’s society.

As part of Washington and Lee’s Community Discussion program, every first-year student will read one of Johnson’s most important essays, “The King We Need: Teachings for a Nation in Search of Itself.” Written in 2005, this essay asks what the essence of Martin Luther King Jr.’s teaching was, and how that teaching is sorely needed in America today. Faculty will then lead small discussion groups of first-year students who have all read Johnson’s essay.

“Most years we get 30 or so faculty to volunteer to lead such a discussion,” said Marc Conner, Washington and Lee’s interim provost and Jo and James Ballengee Professor of English. “This year we have over 50 faculty who have eagerly offered to lead sessions. To me, this speaks to the relevance of Johnson’s theme in our current moment.”

“The essay is more than just a reflection on America today,” continued Conner. “It asks what it is that all Americans have in common, and how King’s philosophy of the beloved community can point us towards that common ground, rather than towards what divides us.”

Fall Convocation is the traditional opening of Washington and Lee’s academic year. This year will mark the university’s 268th academic year and the 168th year of the School of Law. The convocation, which is free and open to the public, will be held on the university’s Front Lawn.