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My Father’s Pillow Talk

Guest Post by Charles Johnson

Award-Winning Author and Cartoonist


EDITOR'S NOTE: The following essay, Copyright © 2014 and written by Charles Johnson, is reprinted on the Daddying blog by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc., on behalf of the author, and was originally published by Epoch magazine and reprinted in Northwestern University Press' Growing Up Chicago (May 2022):



In my father’s house, there were gentle rules that had to be honored. One was about bedtime. All the lights had to be out by 11 PM. Everything had to be finished by that time: my homework, any drawings I was working on, and my chores, which included washing and putting away the dishes, and making sure the kitchen was clean and orderly for our family’s use the next morning when my parents and I were up promptly by 7 AM.


I always felt at ages 14 and 15 that doing the dishes every night ought to be annoying to me – or to any teenager. But even though I would have preferred to be drawing, it was a chore I discovered that I enjoyed because, unknown to my quietly pious parents, I’d secretly begun the practice of meditation, which I’d read about in one of the books on yoga that came to our house from the three book clubs my mother belonged to. Fifty years ago, I’d stand there at the sink for thirty minutes, my hands immersed in warm, sudsy water, my thoughts absorbed by this one simple activity, and for a brief time, I forgot everything, including myself as I carefully cleaned, then dried each plate, spoon, fork, pot, cup, and glass we’d used, as a family, during the day.


I was aware of the water’s temperature as it slowly cooled, the fragility and ephemeral quality of the iridescent bubbles as they burst on the water’s surface, how the water itself wrinkled the skin on my hands, and the way porcelain, glass, tin, and stainless steel felt against my fingers. I made sure that not a speck of food or grime remained on anything – the same way I’d clean away eraser crumbs and the residue of pencil lines from a drawing I’d finished inking. For 30 minutes every night, I knew the kind of tranquility that only comes from being mindful of every minute detail in what one is doing.


Once I was finished, something my father often said when he concluded a chore echoed through my mind. Whenever he lifted that last heavy box or hammered home that last nail, he would remove the cigar from his mouth, smile, happily cast his gaze at the last remaining item that brought a period of work successfully to an end, and he would say, That’s the one I was looking for.


After straightening up the kitchen, I made my way to my tiny bedroom. All the space was taken up by my desk, dresser, bed, the stacks of novels that I read (I made myself finish one book a week starting my freshman year in high school, then it became two and sometimes three), and my $25 drawing table before which I sat dreaming of one day becoming a professional artist. Sometimes its broad, rectangular surface seemed to me to be like a movie screen onto which I could project images that hitherto existed only in my head where no one could see them, and at other times it felt like a magic carpet I could ride into unexplored realms of the imagination. Although my father bought me that drawing table as a Christmas present, it would symbolize that fourteenth year of my life the first real crisis I experienced as a young man, the one time my father’s world and mine collided.


The trek to my bedroom took me past my parents’ bedroom. If their door was open, I would see my father in his pajamas and on his knees beside the bed where my mother was already sleeping. His head was bowed, both his callused hands were pressed together in prayer, and whatever he was saying was spoken so low, so softly that I couldn’t make out the words. It looked to me as if he was talking to his pillow. I knew at that time in our lives, as a family, he probably had a lot of difficult words to bounce off that pillow. Some, no doubt, were about me.


For a few seconds, I quietly studied him as he prayed. He was a proud, frugal man. He had only simple, inexpensive pleasures. For example, playing billiards on a table he set up in our garage, where I spent many summer nights doing my best to beat him at Eightball. If you have seen the character called Hoke, played by Morgan Freeman in the film Driving Miss Daisy, then you have seen my father. In my hometown, he and my mother were respected by everyone who knew them. He was a South Carolina boy born into a big family in 1922. Six boys. Six girls. A family of farmers where even toddlers were taught to work early, carrying tools and water to their older siblings laboring in the fields. Not once in my life did I hear him utter an oath stronger than the word “Shoot!” He was content to own but one carefully preserved suit, which he wore to Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, where he loved to hear the minister preach and the choir (which included a couple of my cousins) sing. Despite his workaholic habits, he told his employers that he would do overtime and time-and-a-half on holidays, but he would never, never work on a Sunday because, as he put it, “Sunday was for church.”


Around our house, my Dad was never idle, nor did he let me do much woolgathering. If he wasn’t painting, he was repairing something; if he wasn’t repairing something, he was planning some improvement he intended to make (and thirty years later whenever he came to visit my home in Seattle, he was forever tinkering with things I’d been too busy to attend to.) He was the one man I saw day and night, the closest example I had for measuring my strengths and weaknesses. He was my first meditation on manhood. My challenge. My Rosetta stone.


So I studied him the way I would a book, working to decipher his words, his life, which seemed to unfold so far away from the liberal arts and humanities I was exposed to in school. Every day I wondered what the meaning of his life might possibly mean for my own.


My generation, the notoriously rebellious Baby Boomers, was the first in American history to be taught that we should be creative – that creative expression was essential to being fully human. His generation, however, was just taught that it had to work. And, I swear, I think he enjoyed finding the most humbling labor he could for his only child – like a Zen master testing one of his disciples, putting him to work in the monastery kitchen precisely because he didn’t enjoy doing the dishes, helping him see that even in the most repetitive, dirty, and boring task you might discover insight and inspiration.


Looking back, I remember coming home after my freshman year in college with no job lined up for the summer of 1967. On my first night back, my father announced to me that I’d better set my clock early – around 5 AM – because he had already secured a job for me: as one of the student garbage men employed by the City of Evanston. I, being a good Confucian son, did that job for two summers, tramping down hot alleyways with older black men, hauling the filth of the affluent on my back in a big, plastic tub, sweeping away dead rats and maggots. After work, after sharing a beer with men who did this all year round for a living, I’d come home filthy, smelling from head to toe of sewage-tainted water from garbage cans. It was the kind of honest, blue-collar work – and the men who did such work – that my father felt I needed to know, because – well, because he was one of them. And, briefly, so was I.


Because of the differences between us, I waited patiently when I was 14 to see if he would slip or make a mistake, which I thought would give me permission to slip or make a mistake, too. But except for one time (which I’ll talk about in a minute), he never did, not even when a black criminal stole every penny he saved to buy this very house we were in, where every night I washed the dishes and watched him as he talked to his pillow. I know that theft must have hurt him, because he was the kind of man who on paydays when his co-workers went off to drink up their wages, dutifully brought his paychecks home for my mother to take to the bank.


There’s no need to elaborate on this anecdote, except to say that when the police came to the apartment we lived in to get a description of the perpetrator, I watched him lean against the doorway, smoking his ubiquitous cigar, silent as a tree, and staring – just staring – off into space, reviewing his options after this disaster, figuring out how to make his next move and how to make a way out of no way. He managed to do just that, getting us into our first home on the schedule he had planned, and this was not strange because whenever he set his mind to doing something it was like a dog chewing single-mindedly on a bone until whatever he desired or thought right was done.


All in all, we were happy as a family. And that included me until the day when I finally told my father what I planned to do with my future.


I’m sure I chose the wrong moment to spring my decision on him. In the early 1960s, he was working three jobs to support my mother and me, without complaint – a day job doing construction, an evening job as a night watchman for the City of Evanston, Illinois, and on the weekends he helped an elderly white couple do repairs on their home. Late one afternoon, I approached him in our living room as he let his weight sink into the soft cushions of a chair, tired after working construction all day and with just an hour or so before he had to head out the door for his evening job.


“Dad,” I said, “I’ve figured out what I want to do with my life.”


Without looking up, he mumbled, “That’s good.”


I took a step closer to him. “Really, I’m serious. You know I always get good grades in my art classes. That’s what I really care about. And that’s what I want to be. An artist.”


When I said that, he looked at me with the gravest concern. He’d never known any successful black American artists, because in 1962 there were very few one could point to. He said, “Chuck, they don’t let black people do that. You should think about something else.”


I told him I didn’t want to think about anything else.


But having said what he believed, he said no more. And, true to his nature, he did not budge. But those eight words felt as if he’d delivered a death blow to me. Art was the only passion I had. Yet his was the irrefutable voice of 244 years of slavery, then the decades of segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement that had shaped his childhood and consciousness. How could I argue with that?


For days after this brief conversation, I was gloomy, crushed, and directed many an evil thought his way. I started talking to my pillow night after night because a future without creating was inconceivable to me.

A self-portrait of Charles Johnson

Finally, I dashed off a letter to a perfect stranger in New York. A liberal, Jewish man I’d read about in Writers Digest. I never expected him to answer me, but in 1962, he was what I was burning to be: an illustrator, editor, prolific writer, and he offered a two-year correspondence course in cartooning. His name was Lawrence Lariar. He was cartoon editor of Parade magazine, a former Disney studio “story man,” as they were called, and for 20 years he served as editor for The Best Cartoons of the Year.


In the 1960s, Lariar boasted that he’d published 100 books. Among those books were several works of mystery fiction. These were bad imitations of Mickey Spillane (who was pretty bad himself), which he wrote under pseudonyms like Adam Knight, Michael Lawrence, and Michael Stark. These pulpy crime novels have long been forgotten and rightly so. They had titles such as Stone Cold Blonde, published in 1951, with this blurb on the back, “When private detective Steve Conacher sets out to investigate the murder of one of his best friends (who also happens to run a plush house of ill-repute) he tangles with some of the loosest women and rottenest men in New York.”


And here’s an example of the kind of prose one found in Stone Cold Blonde: “Mary Ray was the queen of New York’s call girls. But Mary had an enemy who dealt in murder and Steve Conacher vowed to track down the killer before others died. But he had to slug his way through plenty of slime-and illicit temptation – before he nailed the murderer.”


Lariar was a true hack writer, and there is much to be said in support of pulp fiction, at least for its short-lived entertainment value. At the time, I had not read any of these novels – I was more interested in drawing stories than writing them.


But I wrote him a desperate teenager’s letter. I told him what my father had told me. To my surprise, I received a bristling letter back from Lariar within a week. “Your father is wrong,” he said. “You can do whatever you want with your life. All you need is a good drawing teacher.” I wrote him back, asking if he’d be my teacher. His reply was: all right, but I’d have to pay for his two-year course.


There were no free lunches with Lawrence Lariar.


It was only later when I became his student and traveled to New York to visit Lariar during my sophomore and junior years in high school that he told me how much pleasure he found in the anger of his neighbors when he invited groups of Black artists to his Long Island home for lessons.


Single-panel cartoon from Johnson's book "Black Humor" (1970)

I showed his first letter to my father. I read it aloud to him, emphasizing the words, Your father is wrong. My Dad listened deeply. A kind of quietness came into his eyes. I was talking again about something – the arts – alien to him. Nevertheless, he gave me a shake of his head that said, “Okay, you win.” He admitted that he was wrong. That he had slipped. And he agreed to make the monthly payments for my two years of study with Lariar.


Long before anyone knew me as a writer, when I was 17, I began publishing illustrations for the brochure of a Chicago entertainment company (and also stories in my high school newspaper). I still have that first professional dollar I made in 1965 framed in my study, which I happily waved in my father’s face when I earned it. For seven, really wonderful years, before I became a creative writer, I published hundreds of drawings in Black magazines like Negro Digest, Ebony, then The Chicago Tribune, a Black imitation of Playboy called Players, my college newspaper, regular editorial drawings for a newspaper in Southern Illinois, two collections of political satire and, toward the end of this period, I created, hosted, and co-produced in 1970 an early how-to-draw PBS series called “Charlie’s Pad” that was entirely based on my lessons with Lariar, who remained a dear and supportive friend until his death in 1981. Furthermore, my Dad even acquiesced to my attending an art school that accepted me in Illinois (though I decided at the last minute not to go).

Lariar taught me how to draw professionally, but my Dad taught me how to work, how to regard everything I did, seen by others or never seen, as being a portrait of myself, and even a kind of sacrifice. The oneness of the work and the worker. He taught me that loyalty, reliability, resilience, truth, and the willingness to accept the fact that we can be wrong, unselfishness, resourcefulness, faith, morality, and humility were ideals to strive for every day. He taught me how to talk to my pillow during good times and bad...

My dad was not a man who expressed any interest in “culture,” or the suite of disciplines we loosely identify as the humanities. But when he died nine years ago, he had five – I counted them – five preachers at his funeral in rural South Carolina. That was culture. His culture. I realized one of these ministers knew my father extremely well when he said from the pulpit, “Mr. Johnson was never in the choir. He didn’t serve on any committees or as a deacon. He didn’t say much, but he was there every Sunday, and he apologized to me if he had to be out of town.”


Lariar taught me how to draw professionally, but my Dad taught me how to work, how to regard everything I did, seen by others or never seen, as being a portrait of myself, and even a kind of sacrifice. The oneness of the work and the worker. He taught me that loyalty, reliability, resilience, truth, and the willingness to accept the fact that we can be wrong, unselfishness, resourcefulness, faith, morality, and humility were ideals to strive for every day. He taught me how to talk to my pillow during good times and bad, which prepared me, as a Buddhist, to chant Sanskrit verses on my zafu, another kind of pillow. These things for him were always unstated dimensions of what it means to be cultured and human and civilized – things I learned from watching him, not in a 14-week college course. And he taught me something even more important. When he financially backed me up on something he barely understood, I realized that he had shown me the true definition of love: helping others because you believe in them, regardless of whether their dreams outstrip your own understanding.


And so, as I wrote this 15th piece for Bedtime Stories, I heard his voice urging me to complete this true, autobiographical story. When I reached the end, this page, my father’s words were there again, saying:


That’s the one I was looking for.



 

When Charles Johnson won the 1990 National Book Award in fiction for his third novel, Middle Passage, he became the first black man to win the award since Ralph Ellison won in 1953 for Invisible Man. Before he found fame as a novelist, he was a cartoonist and a very good one.


Beginning in the late 1960s, Johnson reimagined the gag comic as a powerful and incendiary tool, and tackled America’s mid-century afflictions – segregation, inner-city poverty, police brutality, and white supremacy – by subverting stale gag topes. He populated them with bullet-dodging Black Panthers, doubt-filled Klansmen, militant babies, self-serving politicians, and complacent suburban liberals.


In 1970 he produced and co-hosted a how-to-draw television series on the Public Broadcasting Service called Charlie’s Pad. As a cartoonist and journalist in the early 1970s, he published over 1000 drawings in national publications. He has written more than 20 screenplays, among them Booker (1985), which received the International Prix Jeunesse Award and a 1985 Writers Guild Award for "outstanding script in the television category of children's shows."


Formerly emeritus professor of English at the University of Washington, Johnson's 27th book, All Your Racial Problems Will Soon End: The Cartoons of Charles Johnson, releases this October. It is a collection of comic art published from when he was in high school in 1965 to the present and is his first cartoon collection in nearly 50 years. The work includes selections from his books Black Humor and Half-Past Nation Time, unpublished manuscript Lumps in the Melting Pot, as well as uncollected pieces ranging from his freelance and student days to his years as a writer and professor.


Johnson recently released his latest book The Eightfold Path, a graphic novel with coauthor Steven Barnes and illustrator Bryan Christopher Moss. The Eightfold Path is an anthology of interconnected Afrofuturistic parables inspired by the teachings of the Buddha.


He received his B.S. in journalism and M.A. in philosophy from Southern Illinois University in 1971 and 1973 and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Stony Brook University in 1988.