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A Winner, a 'Dreamer'

In His New Book, Charles Johnson Looks at the Last Years of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.--and Offers a Take on the Racial Divide in America

April 19, 1998|DAVID STREITFELD | THE WASHINGTON POST

SEATTLE — It was a warm spring day, the first of the season, so Charles Johnson had opened the window in his college dorm room. Through it, he heard a voice shouting: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. Across the country the riots were beginning. Johnson was in black studies at Southern Illinois University, a Marxist, a respectful if distant admirer of King. But he didn't riot, didn't even leave his room.

Instead, he drew an editorial cartoon for the campus newspaper, a variation of a drawing that became popular after the assassination of JFK: the Statue of Liberty on one knee, weeping, covering her face with her hands.

Typical, he says. "Even as a kid, my way to respond to things was through drawings or writing. Through art. That's how I expressed myself. That's my whole life. That's all I've ever done. I get passionate and experimental in the work, but I live a quiet, simple, boring life."

Oh, sure. That's why the novelist is pummeling George, an amiable-looking dummy suspended from the ceiling of Johnson's workout room. Thwack! He hits George again. On the wall, there's a machete that looks like it's also gotten some use recently (for cutting the grass, Johnson insists). There's a bow for shooting arrows. Plus a poster of the "Basic Striking Points"--those sensitive areas where a blow can disable or--better--kill. Johnson plans to highlight them on George.

The writer is just fooling around tonight, but he's taken his martial arts seriously for 30 years. Johnson is probably the only winner of the National Book Award who could kill you with his hands, but martial arts also taught him how to avoid dangerous situations. One of the best things he says he learned in the school was what to do if someone wants to fight you: You run. If the guy chases you? You keep running. If you run into a wall? Tear the wall down.

After he explains this, it all makes sense. Johnson, a professor at the University of Washington, kung fu instructor and practicing Buddhist, has learned the tools of violence to keep violence at bay. It's a lifelong project that, for the last eight years, has been coupled with a more intellectual undertaking: understanding the life and legacy of King, America's greatest apostle of nonviolence.

Out of these two strands has arisen "Dreamer" (Scribner, 1998), a tightly furled account of King's last years, partly a respectful close-up of the civil-rights leader himself and partly the tale of a man who looks so much like King that many people assume he is.

"I can't walk down the street or go to the store without somebody stoppin' me. Some of 'em spit in my face. That's colored as well as white. That's why I come here. I figure if I'm catchin' hell 'cause of you, I might's well catch it for you instead," Chaym Smith tells King, offering to become his double.

Sardonic, brutal and an ex-mental patient, Smith is not only King's look-alike but his opposite. "There's two kinds of people in this world," Smith says.

"Predators and prey. Lions and lunch. You see it any other way, buddy, and people will chump you off." Not exactly the reverend's way of looking at things, which is the point.

A double--someone who matches another in appearance but not necessarily in essence--is a useful device for exploring the black and white conflict in America. "Blacks and whites are mirrors," Johnson believes. "They can only fully see themselves in relationship to the other."

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"Dreamer" had its roots in Johnson's realization that, for all of the public veneration of King, his message had been largely lost. "The tragedy of his absence is acutely felt in every fiber of our public and personal lives," Johnson recently wrote in CommonQuest: the Magazine of Black / Jewish Relations.

No one quotes the right things from King, he says now. "You have guys here in Washington state who are pro-gun who quote King to say he would be in their favor, that owning guns is a civil-rights issue. . . . It's like Malcolm X's daughter said, people take pieces, they don't take the whole thing. That's what they do with King too."

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Johnson writes heavily philosophic novels that are very popular--the announced first printing for "Dreamer," which has been getting generally enthusiastic and some rave reviews, was 75,000.

For that, he can thank "Middle Passage" (Macmillan), his third novel, which appeared in 1990. Like "Dreamer," it was the product of considerable research, in this case on the slave trade. Reviews were good but sales were modest; the novel might have disappeared if it hadn't been nominated for and then, in an upset, won the National Book Award. That made it a best-seller. As a bonus, sales of Johnson's two earlier novels picked up and he got screenwriting jobs.

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