An American Milk Bottle
by Charles Johnson
What rests mysteriously under glass is a thick, cloudy milk bottle, very scarred, that bears in relief the inscription "One Pint. This Bottle Property of and Filled by JOHNSON DAIRY CO., Evanston, Il. Wash and Return."
The venerable Johnson who owned that bottle was my late, great-uncle William. He was born in 1892 in rural South Carolina at the end of Reconstruction, near the little town of Abbeville, and just three years before Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Compromise address (and the publication of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine). His people lived close to the land. They farmed, spent their winters hunting, and produced everything they needed. Their water came from a well. Answering nature's call in the middle of the night meant a lonely walk outside to a foul-smelling outhouse, one's feet stepping gingerly to avoid snakes. They put their children to work at age five, making them fetch things for the adults and older children as they worked. In their daily lives nothing came easily, or was taken for granted, and I am convinced that as a boy Uncle Will was mightily influenced by Booker T. Washington's famous program of self-reliance and his "philosophy of the toothbrush" (cleanliness and meticulous care in all things personal and professional). That, and perhaps Thoreau's challenging boast in Walden: "I have as many trades as fingers."
Like many black people who migrated to the north after World War I, he traveled to Chicago and settled in Evanston, a quiet suburb, bringing with him nothing more than a strong back, a quick wit, and a burning desire to succeed against staggering racial odds during the era of Jim Crow segregation. In Evanston, he discovered that white milk companies did not deliver to blacks. Always an optimist, a man who preferred hard work and getting his hands dirty to complaining, building to bellyaching, Uncle Will responded to racism by founding the Johnson Dairy Company, an enterprise that did very well, thank you, delivering milk each morning to black Evanstonians until the Great Depression brought his company to an end.
When that business failed, Uncle Will worked on a construction crew until he learned the ropes, then he started his second venture, the Johnson Construction Company, which lasted into the 1970s and was responsible for raising churches (Springfield Baptist Church), apartment buildings, and residences all over the North Shore area -- places where today, long after my great-uncle's death in 1989 at the age of 97, people still live and worship their god. In fact, once this second business took off, he was able to promise his brothers in the South jobs for their sons and daughters if they came north. My father accepted his offer, and met my mother shortly after relocating to Evanston, which began the chain of causation that leads 54 years later to this meditation on how being an American has shaped my life as a novelist, short story writer, literary critic, philosopher, college professor, and professional cartoonist. (For example, my great-uncle is portrayed in Chapter 7 of my last novel Dreamer as the fictitious, black contractor Robert Jackson, whose architectural triumphs are inescapable in Evanston.)
Put simply, I grew up in a town where every day I saw or entered buildings that were produced by the ingenuity, sweat, and resourcefulness of my great-uncle's all-black construction crew, which once employed my father and uncles. And so, as a child, I never doubted -- not once -- the crucial role my people have played since the 17th century colonies in the building of America on all levels -- the physical, cultural, economic, and political. (On my mother's side, I can trace our family back to Jeff Peters, a New Orleans coachman born around 1812.) Growing up in Evanston, and attending schools integrated since the 1930s, I knew -- thanks to my parents, elders, and teachers -- that American democracy was a "work-in-progress," as well as an invitation to struggle (as I believe Benjamin Franklin once phrased it): an open-ended experiment in freedom which, like a torch, was passed from one black generation to the next for its refinement and realization. My elders taught me that racism was atavistic, destined for the trash heap of human evolution, and beneath anyone who truly understood the real spirit of America.
As for Will Johnson, well this: I remember him as a bald, dark-skinned, potbellied, suspender-wearing family patriarch (a role my father later assumed) who had a pew reserved just for him in our A.M.E. church (he tithed heavily), watched the evening news on his black-and-white TV as if it was the oracle of Delphi (every victory during the Civil Rights Movement made him cheer the progress blacks were making in the 1950s and early '60s), and loved to see his brother's kids and his great-nephews and nieces come over for dinner in the two-story apartment building he had designed and built himself (he lived, naturally, on the top floor; he rented the first floor to a beauty parlor and barber shop, and he had his office, filled with maps, blueprints, and mysterious [to me] surveying equipment, in the basement). I remember him once singing to me the nifty jingle he created for his milk company. To this day I kick myself for having forgotten it. But I thank whatever powers that be for delivering to me that lonely milk bottle, which was sealed inside the wall of a building in downtown Evanston in the '30s (whoever had it didn't "wash and return"). A white photographer who collected curios discovered it when the building was being remodeled in 1975; he kept it and ultimately returned it to me as a gift in 1994 in exchange for a signed copy of my novel Middle Passage after I gave a commencement address at Northwestern University (they first asked President Clinton, but when he didn't reply, they asked me), one covered by the photographer, who when I mentioned my great-uncle, thought to himself, "Say, I have that bottle at home!"
Whenever I walk through my living room, passing Uncle Will's milk bottle, I can hear the urgency that entered his voice when he counseled his great-nephews and nieces to, "Get an education. That's the most important thing you can do. Lacking that is the only thing that slowed me down." He understood -- and made us see through his personal example -- that while black people had endured often mind-numbing oppression, America was founded on principles, ideals, and documents (the Declaration of Independence and Constitution) that forced it to be forever self-correcting. That, he knew, was the ground that nurtured black Americans. The opportunities denied him would be there for us, he said. But only if we were educated and hard-working.
His vision of America, I later learned, is shared by most, if not all, the recent African, Russian, and Asian immigrants to this country that I've been privileged to meet and converse with. I did not fully appreciate the way foreigners view the positive features of American life, or see that it echoed the beliefs of my own family, until I went away to college and met a journalism major, a Ghanaian student named Fortunata Massa, who in the late 1960s said to me, "The thing I like most about America is that no matter what you want to learn, there is someone here who can teach it to you." With those words my African friend summed up nicely the life of this native son. (And well might he have added other virtues of American life, such as this nation's support for research that leads to almost weekly discoveries in science and technological innovations; a political system the rest of the world admires; and a healthy promotion of competition that urges us always to be the best we can be.)
In elementary school my talent was for drawing. Writing I did for fun. I've kept a diary, then a journal since I was 12; and I published my first two short stories in 1965 in my high school newspaper's literary supplement. But it was drawing that fired my imagination and brought the greatest praise from my teachers. At age 14, I declared to my parents that I intended to be a cartoonist and illustrator, a fact that alarmed my father, who was concerned that this impractical decision might ruin my financial future. In his gravest voice, he told me, "Chuck, they don't let black people do that." I knew, of course, that he was wrong. My father only had a fifth-grade education (unlike my mother, who finished high school and was a voracious reader who belonged to three book clubs) so he knew nothing of black artists like the great political cartoonist Ollie Harrington, E. Simms Campbell whose work appeared in Esquire and Playboy, Morrie Turner, or George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat. (Few people, in fact, knew Herriman was black because all his life he passed for white.) My father's words, conditioned by his Jim Crow childhood, prompted me to fire off a letter to a New York cartoonist I'd read about in Writer's Digest, Lawrence Lariar. He was the cartoon editor of Parade magazine in the 1960s, a former Disney studio "story man," editor of the annual Best Cartoons of the Year, and the author of more than 100 books, some of them best-selling mystery novels. I told him what my father said. Within a week Lariar mailed me a spirited reply: "Your father is wrong. You can do whatever you want with your life. All you need is a good teacher." To shorten a long story, Lawrence Lariar, a liberal Jewish man (he changed his last name in the '40s) who frequently infuriated his neighbors by inviting black artists to his Long Island home, where he instructed them, became my teacher. (My dad, after seeing Lariar's letter, backed off and paid for my lessons.) Two years later I was publishing illustrations for the catalog of a Chicago company that sold magic tricks, and I won two awards in a national competition, sponsored by a journalism organization, for high school cartoonists. Over the next seven years, between 1965 and 1972, I published over 1,000 cartoons and illustrations; two books of comic art, Black Humor (1970) and Half-Past Nation Time (1972); and while earning a bachelor's degree in journalism at Southern Illinois University, I created, hosted, and co-produced an early, nationally televised PBS series called "Charlie's Pad" (1970) on which I taught others how to draw -- the series ran on public TV stations around the country and Canada for about a decade. The best of this juvenalia has been anthologized, and can be seen in Paul Mandelbaum's First Words: Earliest Writing From Favorite Contemporary Authors (1993), Tonya Bolden's Tell All the Children Our Story (2001), and in John McNally's Humor Me: An Anthology of Humor by Writers of Color (2002).
The insight of Fortunata Massa and my great-uncle was proven again when, in 1970, I began seriously writing novels, producing six in two years before I decided I needed to find a good teacher, one who would understand my desire to explore and expand the 20th century tradition of American philosophical fiction. As luck would have it, as I was finishing a master's degree in philosophy and starting my seventh novel, Faith and the Good Thing, the late novelist and writing teacher John Gardner, himself a philosophical writer, became my mentor, providing me with brilliant literary guidance and friendship from 1972 until his death in a motorcycle accident ten years later. As a teacher for 26 years, I know -- as I know nothing else -- that since the 1960s the availability of knowledge is the single greatest feature of American democracy, one that empowers and liberates its citizens.
It is a gift I have never taken for granted, not after promising my great-uncle that, yes sir, I would "get an education." I relied on this virtue of Yankee life when in 1967 I began training in the Chinese martial arts at a kwoon in Chicago, then at other schools in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and co-directed with a friend our own Choy Li Fut kung-fu studio for ten years; when I earned a doctorate in philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, devoting my dissertation, Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970, to the creation of a phenomenological aesthetic for black fiction; and, finally, when -- after receiving a MacArthur fellowship four years ago -- I decided to deepen my life's long devotion to Buddhism by learning Sanskrit, not at a university but instead by studying the holy texts of Hinduism and Advaita Vedanta in the original Devanagari script with a Vedic priest who lives in Portland, Oregon, and offers private instruction. As Fortunata put it, whatever you want to learn, there is someone in America who can teach it to you. Yet with this freedom comes a footnote: Because we enjoy such liberty, we are obliged all our lives to give in even greater measure to others.
So I've always seen my American life as an adventure of learning and growth and service. In this country no individual or group, white or black, could tell me not to dream. Or censor me. Or prevent me from laboring until those dreams of artistic creation and self-improvement became reality. Some tried, of course, but in America I knew that our passions define our possibilities. Sometimes when I'm working late at night, and walk from my second-floor study downstairs to the kitchen for a fresh cup of tea, I see his milk bottle on an end-table, and I try to imagine how Will Johnson must have looked, early in the morning before sunrise, carrying clinking bottles like this down empty, quiet streets from one Negro family's doorstep to another, hustling to get ahead, to carve out a place for himself and his loved ones against the backdrop of the New Deal and a world careening toward war. I wonder how tightly the dreams of this tall, handsome, industrious black man were tied to these tiny pint containers. Did other black men tell him he was foolish to try competing with the white milk companies? Did he stay up nights wondering, like any entrepreneur (or artist), if he might fall on his face with nothing to show for his sweat and sacrifices except spilled milk? If so, then that was just all right. For America guaranteed that he would have the chance to dream again.