The Michigan Daily - Tuesday, July 26, 1983 - Page 7
Prof reinterprets English
By KAREN TENSA
When students read The Great Gat-
sby for Professor Lemuel Johnson's
English courses, they usually skip over
parts they don't understand. Instead of
being open to new or strange ideas,
most students shut themselves off to the
unfamiliar, says Johnson.
Students probably don't understand
half of what they read, Johnson says
but he is determined to change that.
"I WON'T allow my students to silen-
ce the text," says Johson, who teaches
Core III, a required course on modern
literature for students concentrating in
"For example, when we read The
Great Gatsby in class, I ask my studen-
ts who Ferdie is. They never know,"
says Johnson in his quiet, accented
Ferdie is the chauffeur for Daisy
Buchanan, the main character in
the novel. Johnson likes to quiz students
on "servants in the background who
keep the story going" to encourage
more than a quick, surface reading.
FOR STUDENTS to understand a
novel, they must read the full content of
the book - even the parts they consider
insignificant, he says.
Some of the most important
messages in English literature are con-
veyed through innocuous characters or
through characters who are relegated
to the background, Johnson explains.
All the main characters in The Great
Gatsby are white and rich yet "step and
fetch it" servants like Ferdie are key to
keeping the main characters' lives fun-
ctioning, Johnson says.
BY FOCUSING on seemingly in-
'Some students don't really believe that
other groups aside from their own culture
exist - and for all practical purposes, for
some they don't.
significant characters Johnson teaches
students to search for deeper meaning
instead of simply skipping over parts of
the book that are obscure or difficult to
"I don't want to terrify them with this
concept, though, and make them
realize how much work they must do,"
Johnson's teaching style is not
characteristic of other University.
English professors who stick to the
"norms of literature" in their courses.
"I THINK that ideas are bounded by
gender, race and culture," said John-
son, who was born in Nigeria. "For
example, a white University student
will be puzzled when reading a book by
a Latin American who identifies
characters as being white, Anglo or
pale-faced. (After reading the book)
they must then think about the
literature the way blacks always
"Some students don't really believe
that other groups, aside from their own
culture exist - and for all practical
purposes, for some they don't," he
In Johnson's office in Haven Hall,
students are exposed to books by
authors who are relatively unknown.
He assigns books written by Chicanos,
Native Americans, Latin Americans
and blacks to expose students to ex-
periences of other minority groups.
JOHNSON IS strongly tied to his own
African culture. He is a member of the
Sierra Leone Creole ethnic group,
descended from a group of "rebellious"
slaves based in Freetown, Sierra Leone
in west Africa.
A small map of Freetown sits on
Johnson's bookshelf. He explains that
rebellious slaves during the late 1700s
were sent from British territories like
Nova Scotia, Jamaica and Trinidad
back to west Africa. These eman-
cipated slaves founded Freetown.
Although Johnson grew up in Nigeria,
he went to school in Sierra Leone, whre
the link to his culture intensified.
WITH THE encouragement of the
government in 1961, Johnson came to
the United States to train for a position
as a United Nations interpreter.
He earned a modern languages
degree at Oberlin University in Ohio as
well as a second degree in Spanish,
Italian, and Portugese. Looking for
some variety, Johnson then "hid out"
at Pennsylvania State University
where courses in comparative
literature made the interpreter job
seem a little too "non-creative," says
Johnson, who speaks 11 languages.
"At first, the idea of being a UN in-
interpreter seemed exciting, very
glamorous," says Johnson. "But I was
cured of that idea when I began to
TRANSLATING language seemed
unimaginative and dull compared to
writing poetry or short stories. "I had a
terror of boredom," he explains. "I
thought of what it would mean to be a
translator for a relatively unimportant
Soon after, Johnson says he
developed an "impatience with non-
creative use of language" and came to
the University, earning a doctrate
degree in comparative literature in
Johnson began his career at the
University as a Spanish instructor in
HE RETURNED to Sierra Leone in
1970 with his family to teach English at
Fourah Bur College, a division of Sierra
"Fourah .Bur has an exchange
program with Kalamazoo College,"
said Johnson. "It was intriguing - I
taught the American students a special
course in African culture and
Johnson returned to the University a
year later and became an associate
professor in the English department.
HE HAS A great love of teaching, but
admits sometimes there are days when
he hears himself talking in class and "is
bored stiff" and the students are so
anxious to leave, their "eyes look like
hot coals of fire."
On the good days, though, he doesn't
want class to end, he says.
"I feel the absence of student's
knowledge in the areas of minority
literature and culture justifies my role
as a teacher," says Johnson.
TO READ of another cultural group
is to be both blessed and threatened,"
he says. "I want students to know of
these fringe literatures to make them
aware of the necessities to make life
decent and complete."
Despite his advanced education and
"dignity appropriate to a University
professor," Johnson is, to his dying
shame, addicted to Kung Fu movies,
"especially the originals with Bruce
Lee", and horror movies. He says they
are "so bad they are delightful."
"I am known to stay up late on Friday
and Saturday nights to watch old
movies," he says, admitting that his at-
traction to these movies is "quite
HE ALSO confesses a love of the
movies of the 30s and 40s, particularly
Mae West films.
Johnson lives in Ann Arbor with his
family. His wife, Marion, is a dental
hygenist and is also of Sierra Leone
Creole descent. Neither of his two
children are interested in "anything
professorial like their father" says
Yma, his daughter, will enter Pioneer
High School next fall and is interested
in becoming a doctor. His son, Yshelu,
named after Johnson's father, is in-
terested in electronics and computers.
Profile appears every Tuesday.
Daily Photo by ELIZABETH SCOTT
English Prof. Lemuel Johnson has a vast range of interests - from "The Great Gatsby" to old, late night horror