Cheryl johnson

 May 2019

Cheryl L. Johnson teaches African American and American literature at Miami University of Ohio. Her undergraduate and graduate classes acknowledge the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality within historical, social, and cultural contexts and the critical, aesthetic , and theoretical influences and responses to African American literary productions. Prior to her appointment at Miami, she taught at Northern Illinois University, the University of Illinois, Chicago, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.  As a Fulbright teacher and researcher in South Africa, she taught African American literature at the University of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch University. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree at Spelman College, where she majored in English. She received her Master’s degree in English and her Ph.D. in English and education at The University of Michigan.

Cheryl Johnson is a native of Atlanta, GA, and she came of age during some tumultuous, sometimes horrific, other times exciting times in 20thcentury American history and culture. She witnessed and performed her racialized identity during Jim Crow racism, such as riding the back of the bus, drinking from Colored water fountains, and living in segregated neighborhoods . She also witnessed the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement and its artistic arm, the Black Arts Movement, the Feminist Movement, the Black Feminist Movement, and the Gay Rights Movement. All of these movements informed her professional life as a professor teaching and writing for change and intellectual activism. In addition, although she had studied and taught writings by African and Caribbean women writers, her year-long tenure as a Fulbright teacher and researcher introduced her to black South African women writers and, thus, began her concentration on black global feminism and criticism.  As director of Women’s Studies (now Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program), Cheryl Johnson worked to design the curriculum , offer classes, provide campus activities such as lectures, performances, and conferences, and hire faculty that would facilitate feminist, womanist , and LGBT discourses and concerns.

While a graduate student at The University of Michigan, Johnson met Gayl Jones who was a professor in the English department at Michigan; she is the subject of Johnson’s WISC project. Jones is part of a prominent group of black women writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Octavia Butler, Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, Alice Childress, Sherley Anne Williams, and Andre Lorde, who also came of age during the movements and historical, social, and political contexts mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Jones’s writings, four novels, four collections of poetry, a play, and a book on black literary criticism, are all informed by cultural shifts in perspectives on race, gender, class, and sexuality; her writings also reveal even as they complicate the role of context, language, both oral and written, history, and culture in shaping consciousness and effecting cultural practices and performances.  Gayl Jones has had a profound impact on African American literature and criticism, especially black women’s literary canon; yet many do not know this writer’s story. The questions informing Johnson’s work on the life of Gayl Jones are these: how did the contexts in which she came of age influence her literary and artistic imagination? How does one find voice in such shifting social and political forces? What, if any, is the responsibility of a black woman artist to her race and/or gender? How does one remain sane while negotiating racism and sexism?

Gayl Jones and her literary contemporaries created a space and absolute need for what Barbara Smith calls “a black feminist criticism.”  Along with Smith, critics such as Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Hazel Carby, bell hooks, Barbara Christian, Mary Helen Washington, Cheryl Wall, Mae Henderson, Hortense Spillers, Stanlie James, Saidiya Hartman, Kimberie Crenshaw, Brittney Cooper, Barbara Ransby Kaila Adia Story, Gwendolyn Pough, and too many more to mention, all respond to the call to provide black feminist discursive practices and critical, theoretical, and intellectual discourses. Johnson’s biography of Gayl Jones will become part of the continuing body of black feminist work that reveal the impact of racism and sexism in the lives of black women.  The story of this stunningly brilliant and tragic black woman writer testifies to the absurdity and surrealism of the politics of difference in this culture.