Singing in Color - Umberto Tosi

Charles R. Johnson
Charles R. Johnson puts the goal of our latest issue of Chicago Quarterly Review in clear, beguiling simple terms. "So one has to ask," he writes in his introduction to the black American writers' issue that he edited: "how did our black storytellers , poets, essayists and artists sing the world in the last year and a half?" Johnson asks -- in poetic uniquely American terms that echo Ralph Ellison and Walt Whitman: "What kinds of worlds do black creators sing in the twenty-first century?"

Johnson is the guest editor" who produced -- curated in the most meaningful sense -- CQR's latest special issue, just released -- Volume 33 devoted to African American writing. As Johnson describes it in the issue's powerful introduction: "Moving as a phenomenologist would through the contributions of twenty-seven poets, storytellers, essayists and artists in this special issue of Chicago Quarterly Review - of profiles on our lived experiences that defies oversimplification, easy ideological slogans, and sociological cliches." 

No one could be a more ideal editor, guide and creator of this special than Johnson, a distinguished black American writer and prodigious literary giant in his own right. 

Charles R. Johnson a scholar and the author of novels, short stories, screen-and-teleplays, and essays, most often with a philosophical orientation. Johnson's major works are known for the powerful ways they address the issues of black life in America - best noted for his novels, Dreamer, based on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King and his epic about the slave trade, Middle Passage.

Johnson was born in 1948 in Evanston, Illinois, and has been a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle through most of his writing and literary teaching career. Ever productive, writing a list of distinguished fiction and nonfiction works over the years, Johnson also served as  fiction editor of the Seattle Review.

Jean Toomer (c. 1920s)

Johnson says his mission is to enrich "African-American philosophical fiction," in the tradition of Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison

He made his creative mark first as a cartoonist. From 1965 to 1972 he produced hundreds of drawings, comic strips, panel cartoons and illustrations for newspapers and magazines, starting with his Southern Illinois University paper, The Daily Egyptian, and going on to be a regular for The Chicago Tribune, national African-American publications including Black World (formerly Negro Digest), Ebony, and Players.

He is also known as an eastern philosophy scholar, including studies and writings in  Buddhism, Sanskrit and Eastern thought.

The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English says that Johnson's works "combine historical accuracy, parable, and elements of the fantastic in rendering the experience of African Americans."

The songs of this troubled, pernicious, 21st-century world sung by the black creators summoned here by professor Johnson are powerful, and above all diverse. It is polyphonic - a magnificent improvisational fugue They sing of unique, individual as well as cultural black experiences and beyond into myriad eccentric irregular gems. As Johnson put it in an interview by Chicago's WGN 720 cultural commentator Rick Kogan: "The diversity of these pieces is stunning."

One of the sterling contributors to the issue, essayist and memoirist Jerald Walker juggles the paradoxes of cultural appropriation and minstrel shows with the metamorphic American miracles of mashups and liberating art in his contribution: "An American Right." Walker brings it all home in a quote from Ralph Ellison:

"... It is here, if we would but recognize it," wrote Ellison, "that the elements of the many available tastes, traditions, and values that make up the total culture have been ceaseless appropriated and made their own - consciously, unconsciously or imperialistically - by groups and individual to whose own backgrounds and traditions they are historically alien. Indeed, it was through the process of cultural appropriation (and misappropriation) the Englishmen, Europeans, Africans, and Asians become Americans..."

I am reminded of a vocal coach of my opera-singing mother used to opine that only those of Italian heritage could do justice of Verdi and Puccini, only Germans to Wagner and that only black people could play jazz - patently ludicrous even back in the 1940s when uttered.

Once again, I am especially proud to be a member of the CQR team - even for the small role I played in bringing this issue to life. The African American Writers issue is another in a series of distinguished special issues produced by CQR over its twenty-five-year run. Each has won high praise as well as many having gathered literary awards and honors.  These have included:

 - The Chicago Quarterly Review 25th Anniversary Issue: (which I helped curate and to which I contributed a short story):
 - The Australian Issue: #30 guest edited by Paul Williams and Shelley Davidow, presents a mosaic of diverse and exceptional writers’ voices from a multi-faceted multicultural land.

 - The South Asian American Issue  Volume 24, Winter 2017, introducing original short stories, essays, poems and other works by writers of South Asian heritage: “There was a time when the South Asian writer treaded the linguistic register rather carefully. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children shook things up and made many of us his children. Not anymore! The new South Asian American writer is a wild beast.”—from the Introduction by guest editor Moazzam Sheikh.

 - The Chicago Issue: Volume 17: 2014: packed with original stories, essays, poems, memoirs and art works about and by Windy City creators (including yours truly)

 - The Italian Issue: Volume 20, Spring 2015. New English language works by Italian writers.

Like those special issues past, readers of CQR's memorable, landmark, Black American Writers volume are sure to find this new issue illuminating, moving and delightful. 


Issue 33 - African American Writers; Contributors include: Jeffery Renard Allen * Steven Barnes * Arthur Burghardt * Cyrus Cassells * Louis Chude-Sokei * Aaron Coleman * Celeste Doaks * Rita Dove * Rachel Eliza Griffiths * Peter J. Harris * Le Van D. Hawkins * Tsehaye Geralyn H├ębert * David Henderson * E. Hughes * Charles Johnson * Jamiel Law * Clarence Major * John McCluskey, Jr. * E. Ethelbert Miller * Yesenia Montilla * David Nicholson * Delia C. Pitts * Mona Lisa Saloy * Sharyn Skeeter * Clifford Thompson * Jerald Walker * Jan Willis.


Umberto Tosi's books include, The Phantom Eye, Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published widely, most recently in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His nonfiction has been published widely in print and online. He began his career as a journalist for Los Angeles Times and an editor for its prize-winning, Sunday magazine, West, and as editor of San Francisco Magazine. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago.


Enjoy my new Hollywood noir detective thriller: The Phantom Eye (a Frank Ritz Mystery) newly released in paperback and ebook Light Fantastic Publishing.

 "Tosi writes with tremendous style and a pitch perfect ear for everything that makes the classic noir detective story irresistible. Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, make room for Frank Ritz!" - Elizabeth McKenzie, best-selling author of The Portable Veblen.

"... reminds me of Chandler's The Little Sister, and The Big Sleep of course." - Actor playwright Gary Houston.




Peter Leyland said…
Well, Umberto this sounds like someone I should have heard of by now. I've used both Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright in my teaching and many female writers like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Tracy K. Smith, but not this guy. It all sounds good in your article and I'm now marking it down. Where to start, I wonder? Thanks for opening a new door here, from Peter.
Eden Baylee said…
Thanks Umberto for introducing me to so many writers I had not heard of before. What a wonderful feeling to bring such an important collection to life!
Ruth Leigh said…
As always, fascinating Umberto and I read it just as I finished my piece for tomorrow, which has links to yours. thank you.

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