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Author: Lincoln Faller
Title: Lemuel A. Johnson (1941-2002)
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Lemuel A. Johnson (1941-2002)
Lincoln Faller

vol. 1, no. 1, 2004


Lemuel A. Johnson (1941-2002)

Scholar, critic, poet, and teacher, aged 60, Lemuel Johnson died at home March 12, 2002, after an extended illness. Born December 15, 1941 to Sierra Leonean parents in Nigeria and educated at the Sierra Leone Grammar School in his home country of Sierra Leone, he earned in 1960 the highest marks in all West Africa on the Cambridge University Higher School Certificate examinations. He was graduated with an A.B. in Modern Languages from Oberlin College, 1965, an M.A. in Spanish from the Pennsylvania State University, 1966, and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Michigan, 1968. Appointed assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan in that same year, he rose rapidly to the rank of professor.

Professor Johnson also held an appointment as Professor investigador at the Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City, and at various times taught at Fourah Bay College at the University of Sierra Leone, on the Faculty of Literature at the Salzberg Seminar, and as a Visiting Distinguished Professor at Oberlin College. He was elected president of the African Literature Association (1977-78) and Vice President of the Association of Caribbean Studies (1983-85), and served on the Africa Committee of the Social Science Research Council (1985-1990). From 1985 to 1991, he was Director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan.

Professor Johnson's scholarly interests ranged over the globe, which he traveled widely. Fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and German, as well as Krio, his national language, and Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo, he had a broad and detailed knowledge of the significant literatures in all these languages as well as English, but, as a leading scholar of the African diaspora, he was especially interested in American, Latin American, Caribbean, and African literature.

The author of numerous articles, Professor Johnson published two books of scholarly criticism, The Devil, the Gargoyle, & the Buffoon: The Negro as Metaphor in Western Literatures (1970) and Shakespeare in Africa & Other Venues: Import and the Appropriation of Culture (1998), and a translation into English from the Spanish of Rafael Alberti's play, Night & War in the Prado Museum (1969). He was also the author of the much-acclaimed Sierra Leone Trilogy (1995), which comprised three volumes of poetry, Highlife for Caliban, Hand on the Navel, and Carnival of the Old Coast. At the time of his death, he had essentially completed a seventh book, to be titled Private Parts & Public Bodies: The Experience of Sexuality in African Literature. Colleagues are currently working to bring this manuscript to publication.

At the University of Michigan Professor Johnson was honored by a number of awards, including a Steelcase Research Professorship at the Institute for the Humanities, the Faculty Recognition Award, a Recognition Award from the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, and a Certificate of Distinction for Outstanding Teaching. He was a demanding, committed, and charismatic teacher deeply concerned with preparing his students to live in and to appreciate the diversity and complexity of human experience on a global scale, and with "detoxifying" (as he called it) the noxious consequences of racialist thought and imaginings.

Descended from mutinous and rebellious slaves who found their way back to Africa from the Americas, and others taken off intercepted slave ships and resettled in Freetown, Professor Johnson was ever an advocate for human liberty and human dignity for people of all races, all genders, all creeds. A scrupulous and sophisticated scholar, an elegant and passionate poet, a generous and much-loved colleague, in thought, imagination, and practice he was—often quite charmingly but sometimes quite fiercely—a persuasive and effective enemy to all bigotries and a discountenancer of little minds.

Over the last seven months of his life, Professor Johnson endured an increasingly painful and hopeless illness with good humor, unfaltering courage, and immense courtesy. He retained a sweetness and serenity of disposition through his last moments of consciousness and died as he lived, with grace and dignity, assured of the love of his family and friends, and seeking to reassure them.

About the Author

Lincoln Faller is professor of English language and literature at the University of Michigan.