With a National Book Award, MacArthur Fellowship and Writers Guild Award for screenwriting to his credit, Charles Johnson is among the most-lauded writers in America. The American Academy of Arts and Letters gave him its prestigious award in 2002, praising his short stories for ingeniously braiding “history, philosophy, and imagination in making postmodern fiction of the highest order.”
The eight stories comprising “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” Johnson’s third collection of short fiction, combine these interests in unexpected and challenging ways. While some of the stories could rightly be called modern fairy tales or speculative fiction, the book also has deeper intentions, both moral and philosophical. This underlying tension drives several stories, most notably “The Gift of the Osuo,” which features Shabaka, an aged 17th century Allmuseri king, who sees a chance to change his life with one stroke of a magically endowed piece of charcoal. The charcoal is a gift from two arguing sorcerers who had demanded that the befuddled king solve the duality first posited by Rene Descartes in his famous statement: Cogito ergo sum. (I think, therefore I am.) Shabaka’s shallow resolution of the mind-over-matter conundrum and his impulsive use of the enchanted chalk sets in motion a nightmarish chain of events that weaves together the Cartesian dilemma, African history and more.
The title story is a humorous, richly human tale about a young Martin Luther King Jr. Unable to write his weekly sermon, he raids the refrigerator and finds in the Hawaiian pineapple, Mexican tortillas and German sauerkraut the metaphors that will inform his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail” as well as his lifelong quest for social justice. "[H]e saw in each succulent fruit, each slice of bread, and each grain of rice a fragile, inescapable network of mutuality in which all earthly creatures were codependent, integrated, and tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Yet the story that lingers in the mind longest may well be “Executive Decision,” possibly the first published story on affirmative action. It is much more than that. The author uses a once-liberal CEO’s difficulty in choosing a black man or a white woman for a key job in his family-run company as a way to explore personal preference, Emmanuel Kant, the individual’s obligations to redress social wrongs and Harvard professor John Rawls’ theory that “when justice is seen as fairness, men of unequal circumstances agree to share one another’s fate.” One wishes this landmark story were required reading for every corporate, governmental or nonprofit leader struggling over how to make our workplaces more inclusive.
Although “Dr. King’s Refrigerator” has a few flaws -- some stories become didactic, others could make their points more forcefully -- they are minor in a collection that is more inventive than invective, more philosophical than puerile. At a time when challenging short fiction, especially by African Americans, seems harder and harder to find, that’s more than enough to warrant placing “Dr. King’s Refrigerator” on the must-read list. *