Interview with Andy Johnson

Andy Johnson
Andy Johnson

Andy Johnson is an instructor of English at The University of Alabama, specializing in African American Literature.

How long have you been teaching?  What made you want to teach your subject?

I’ve been teaching for about six years now.  When I tell people what I do for a living, they always say, “Oh, I hate writing! I’m terrible at it.” I had the same experience—my high school teachers told me my writing skills were weak at best. I went into college thinking I was a terrible writer. I only developed confidence in myself much later.

When studying culture, literature is one of the most important aspects of the culture to study.  What do we get from studying literature that we cannot get by simply studying history?

Fiction and poetry search for the truth; history searches for facts. Facts are externally verifiable data: the number of leaves in a tree, the course of rivers, etc. Truth guides us when we have to make decisions, so we encode bits of truth in all sorts of narratives, such as nursery rhymes, fables, and folk sayings.  Take Little Red Riding Hood for example. Do I believe this tale is factual? No. Wolves don’t talk or wear women’s clothing. Do I believe Little Red Riding Hood is truthful? There’s certainly a warning embedded in the tale, something about the predators young girls may meet when they hit puberty. There’s some truth in that story.  History itself is another narrative, come to think about it. Maybe archeology is the search for fact, and fiction is the truth history searches for.

Who are some of your favorite African American authors?

That’s like asking who my favorite child is. I can tell you who’s on my syllabus this semester:

Kindred, Octavia Butler

The Piano Lesson, August Wilson

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

All Stories are True, John Edgar Wideman

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans

That Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

An Untamed State, Roxane Gay

Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

The N Word (DVD). D: Todd Larkins

12 Years a Slave (DVD). D: Steve McQueen

Beasts of the Southern Wild (DVD). D: Benh Zeitlin

Blood on the Fields (CD). Wynton Marsalis

Longstoryshort (CD), Sekou Sundiata

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang

I’d add Jeffrey Renard Allen’s Song of the Shank to that list, plus Zadie Smith, ZZ Packer, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Richard Pryor, Tupac Shakur, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and many, many others.

I’m currently taking a course with Dr. Kristen Warner in the Telecommunication and Film Department called “Race & Gender in TV and Film.”  Do you think people could learn as much from African American cinema as African American literature?

I think the ideas are very similar, and I include a few films in my classes. However, cinema is always made under financial pressures that we don’t see in writing. (I’m not saying there are no financial pressures in publishing.)

I saw that you are a Kimbilio Fellow, which is an organization out of the English Department of SMU.  Tell me about Kimbilio Fiction.

Kimbilio means ‘safe haven’ in Swahili. We’re a collection of writers who have created a safe intersection for race and the craft of fiction. Most of us came from MFA programs that discussed craft in fiction workshops, and race in literature classes, but never managed to put both in the same space. So we made a space.

You also teach a class called African American comedy, which a friend of mine attended.  I am an aspiring stand-up comedian.  What could I learn from taking that class?

You could learn about the theories of humor, dozens, signifying, minstrelsy, Lucille Bogan, Blaxploitation, double consciousness, Rudy Ray Moore, Moms Mabley…you should take the class.

You also teach a few African American studies classes, one of which is called #blacklivesmatter.  What do you discuss in this class?

#blacklivesmatter discusses how African-American authors have responded to state-sponsored and/or state-condoned violence. We also discuss how current students can develop responses to the violence and discrimination they experience on campus and around Tuscaloosa.

What does the #blacklivesmatter campaign mean to you?

I live in historic downtown Northport, right near City Café. About a year ago, a white female tourist parked her car near my house, just as I was going out for a walk. She took one look at me, got visibly frightened, clutched her purse, and scurried into the nearest restaurant. Here’s the thing: I was more afraid of her than she was of me. If I called 911 and said, “Help! There’s a middle-aged white woman in front of my house acting strangely,” they wouldn’t do much about it. If that woman called 911 and said, “Help! There’s a black man following me,” I’m sure they would have responded, and their response could have resulted in my death. #Blacklivesmatter means many things, but to me, it means that I should be able to feel safe, especially in my own neighborhood.