The Way of the Writer
1. In the Beginning . . .
People sometimes wonder what a person was like before he or she became a writer. What was that person’s childhood like? In my case, I imagine that my being an only child growing up in the 1950s in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, in the shadow of Northwestern University, shaped my life in more ways than I can imagine.
I was born on April 23 (Shakespeare’s birthday), 1948, at a place I described in my novel Dreamer: Community Hospital, an all-black facility. In my novel I renamed this important institution “Neighborhood Hospital,” and called the woman who spearheaded its creation, Dr. Elizabeth Hill, by the fictionalized name Jennifer Hale. In the late 1940s, Dr. Hill—one of Evanston’s first black physicians—was barred by segregation from taking her patients to all-white Evanston Hospital. Instead, she was forced to take them to a hospital on the South Side of Chicago, and quite a few of her patients died in the ambulance on the way. Almost single-handedly (or so I was told as a child), Dr. Hill organized black Evanstonians (and some sympathetic whites) to create a black hospital. Our family patriarch, my great-uncle William Johnson, whose all-black construction crew (the Johnson Construction Co., which this book honors on its title page) built churches, apartment buildings, and residences all over the North Shore area, would go nowhere else for treatment, even after Evanston Hospital was integrated in the 1950s. And every black
baby born to my generation in Evanston came into the world there—my classmates and I all had in common the fact that we had been delivered by Elizabeth Hill. She considered us her “children.” Even when I was in my early twenties she knew me by sight and would ask what I’d been up to since I last saw her.
Predictably, then, I grew up in a black community in the 1950s that had the feel of one big, extended family. Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, where I was baptized (and later my son) and married, was a central part of our collective lives. In an atmosphere such as this, everybody knew their neighbors and saw them in church on Sunday; it was natural for grown-ups to keep an eye on the welfare of their neighbors’ children and to help each other in innumerable ways. In short, Evanston in the 1950s was a place where, beyond all doubt, I knew I was loved and belonged.
My father worked up to three jobs to ensure our family never missed a meal. We weren’t poor, but neither were we wealthy or middle-class. Every so often my mother took a job to help make ends meet, including one at Gamma Phi Beta sorority at Northwestern University, where she worked as a cleaning woman during the Christmas holidays. She brought me along to help because she couldn’t afford a babysitter. I remember her telling me that the sorority’s chapter said no blacks or Jews would ever be admitted into its ivied halls. My mother brought home boxes of books thrown out by the sorority girls when classes ended, and in those boxes I found my first copies of Mary Shelley and Shakespeare. I read them, determined that the privileged girls of that sorority would never be able to say they knew something about the Bard that the son of their holiday cleaning woman didn’t. Decades later in 1990 Northwestern’s English department actively and generously pursued me for employment by offering me a chair in the humanities, which I declined.
Along with those books from Northwestern, my mother filled our home with books that reflected her eclectic tastes in yoga, dieting, Christian mysticism, Victorian poetry, interior decorating, costume design, and flower arrangement. On boiling hot Midwestern afternoons in late July when I was tired of drawing (my dream was to become a cartoonist and illustrator), I would pause before one of her many bookcases and pull down a volume on religion, the Studs Lonigan trilogy, poetry by Rilke, The Swiss Family Robinson, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, an 1897 edition of classic Christian paintings (all her books are now in my library), or Daniel Blum’s Pictorial History of the American Theatre 1900–1956, which fascinated me for hours. She was always in book clubs, and I joined one, too, to receive monthly new works of science fiction when I was in my middle teens. (Believe it or not, I had a hardcover first edition of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I’ve always regretted letting slip away from me.)
As an only child, books became my replacement for siblings. Exposed to so many realms of the imagination, I vowed to read at least one book a week after I started at Evanston Township High School (from which, by the way, my mother had graduated in the late thirties). I started with adventure stories like those by Ian Fleming and ended my senior year with Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians. I spent hours each week at a newsstand selecting the next paperback I’d spend several days of my life with. And, as might be expected, it happened that one week I finished early—on a Tuesday, I recall—and I thought, “God, what do I do now with the rest of the week?” So I read a second book. Then it became easy to make it three books a week, and I did think—but only once—that someday it might be nice to have my name on the spine of a volume I’d written.
And so, again, ours was a house not just of provocative books but also inexpensive and intriguing (to me) art objects
that Mother found at flea markets and rummage sales. When she couldn’t find them, she built them—for example, wall shelves with interesting designs to hold small figurines. We’d read the same books together sometimes, Mother and me, and discuss them. I think she relied on me for this, even raised me to do it, since my hardworking father had little time for books. She had the soul of an actress, a biting wit, and loved art. She’d always wanted to be a teacher, but couldn’t because she suffered from severe bouts of asthma. So she made me her student. Like so many other things I owe to my mother, I am indebted to her for seducing me with the beauty of blank pages—a diary she gave me to record my thoughts. But this was by no means a new infatuation. As with books, it was into drawing that I regularly retreated as a child. There was something magical to me about bringing forth images that hitherto existed only in my head where no one could see them. I remember spending whole afternoons blissfully seated before a three-legged blackboard my parents got me for Christmas, drawing and erasing until my knees and the kitchen floor beneath me were covered with layers of chalk and the piece in my hand was reduced to a wafer-thin sliver.
Something to understand about Evanston in the 1950s and ’60s is that, unlike many places, the public schools were integrated. From the time I started kindergarten I was thrown together with kids of all colors, and I found it natural to have friends both black and white. Evanston Township High School, we were constantly reminded, was, at the time, rated the best public high school in the nation. It was a big school, almost like a small college—my graduating class had almost a thousand students; black students made up 11 percent of that population. In its progressive curriculum we found an education provided, clearly, by the wealthy white Evanston parents who sent their children there. I took advantage of all the art and photography, literature and history classes.
And to its credit, ETHS offered a yearly creative-writing class taught by the short-story writer Marie-Claire Davis. At the time she was publishing in the Saturday Evening Post. As an aspiring cartoonist, I thought writing stories was fun and I came alive in my literature classes, where we read Orwell, Shakespeare, Melville, and Robert Penn Warren, but writing wasn’t the kick for me that drawing was. Regardless, I let a buddy talk me into enrolling in Marie’s class with him. We talked to each other the whole time and barely listened to poor Marie. But she put Joyce Cary’s lovely book Art and Reality in front of us, without discussing it in class, and with the hope that we might read it on our own, which I did, and something in me so enjoyed his essays on art and aesthetics that I thought, yes, someday I’d like to do a book like this, too. (You might say you’re holding that book in your hands right now.) When I turned in my three stories for Marie’s class in 1965, she rushed them into print in the literary section of our school’s newspaper (with my illustrations), which she supervised. I always feel indebted to her. And so in the 1990s I established an award, the Marie-Claire Davis Award, at the high school—$500 for the best senior student portfolio of creative writing. For years before her death, Marie would travel from Florida to shake the hand of the winner of that award.
Inevitably, the passion for drawing led me to consider a career as a professional artist. From the Evanston Public Library I lugged home every book on drawing, cartooning, and illustration, and collections of early comic art (Cruikshank, Thomas Rowlandson, Daumier, Thomas Nast), and pored over them, considering what a wonderful thing it would be—as an artist—to externalize everything I felt and thought in images. Some Saturday mornings I sat on the street downtown with my sketchbook, trying to capture the likenesses of buildings and pedestrians. And I made weekly trips to Good’s Art Supplies to buy illustration board with
my allowance and money earned from my paper route (and later from a Christmas job working nights until dawn on the assembly line at a Rand McNally book factory in Skokie, and from still another tedious after-school job cleaning a silks-and-woolens store where well-heeled white women did their shopping). Good’s was a little store packed to the ceiling with the equipment—the tools—I longed to buy. The proprietor, a fat, friendly man, tolerated my endless and naïve questions about what it was like to be an artist and what materials were best for what projects; he showed me a book he’d self-published on his theory of perspective (I never bought it), and after he’d recommended to me the best paper for my pen-and-ink ambitions, I strapped my purchase onto the front of my bicycle and pedaled home.
For a Christmas present my folks finally did buy me one of Good’s drawing tables, new for $25. I made space for it in my bedroom and set it up like a shrine. That table would carry me through two years of drawing furiously for my high school newspaper (my senior year, in 1966, I received two second-place awards in the sports and humor divisions for a comic strip and panel from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s national contest for high school cartoonists), through my first professional job as an illustrator when I was seventeen—drawing for the catalog of a magic-trick company in Chicago. And then that first drawing table was with me, like an old friend, for the next four years of college when I drew thousands of panel cartoons, political cartoons, illustrations (even the design for a commemorative stamp), and every kind of visual assignment for my college newspaper, for the Chicago Tribune (where I interned in 1969, then worked for as a stringer when I returned to college), for a newspaper in southern Illinois, and for many magazines known as the “black press” in that era: Jet, Ebony, Black World (né Negro Digest), and Players (a black version of Playboy), all of which
culminated in 1970 when I was twenty-two years old with an early PBS drawing show, Charlie’s Pad, that I created, hosted, and co-produced.
After that early, exhaustive seven-year career, I was ready to start writing fiction full-time. To tell stories with words and not just visual images.