Javon Johnson has been at home on stage since he was a young boy reciting speeches in church. He discovered poetry in high school, and as a first-generation college student, he was an All-American national speech and debate champion. By the time he began grad school at California State University, Los Angeles, he had achieved popular success as a poet and spoken word/slam artist with appearances on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and a growing fan base.
Johnson’s lab of sorts — Da Poetry Lounge in L.A. — ignited his passion for research on the emerging creative community there. After completing a Ph.D. in performance studies at Northwestern University, the artist became an academic. Today he is an assistant professor and director of African American and African Diaspora Studies at UNLV, where he helps students understand blackness in social, cultural, literary, and historical contexts.
I arrived here after having spent four years at San Francisco State University in the communication studies department. I had a desire to work at a research institution because I’m a researcher who writes. There’s opportunity for growth here in a number of places that I was attracted to.
You grew up in L.A. What was life like there?
It was 1980s South Central — crack infested, high gang culture. I’m aware of all the issues, but I believe there are structural impediments that don’t allow people to live their fullest and freest lives, and it creates a space that almost demands a certain kind of hostility. With that being said, I didn’t know it was terribly bad. I experienced bad moments…but I didn’t know I was poor until much later in life. I experienced things that we as children probably shouldn’t have to experience. Community played a major role in coming together and taking care of its children. I had a good childhood.
How did growing up there inform the work you do?
I don’t know that I ever set out to be a professor in the first place. It never crossed my mind as a desire. Certainly I understand intimately what it means to be in a lower-class population. I know that from such an intimate space that the textbooks named what I already knew to be true in my bones. The way in which we discuss poverty….racism….structural sexism and all these other problematic “isms” in academic texts — these are things that I experienced. There’s a way that folks from “the ‘hood” know how to speak that isn’t always seen as acceptable by the dominant culture, as a way to name their truths. I didn’t have a way to name them that would be considered acceptable by dominant culture until I learned to speak in ways that I do now. It does influence how I think and move in the world as an academic and an artist.
As a poet and spoken word artist, what motivated you to pursue a career as an academic?
I’m not an academic who’s interested in art; I’m an artist who’s interested in academia. That trajectory is the best way to name how I came here. Now I’m here, and they pay me to teach and research about a number of things. I’m still a creative person at heart — sometimes more than the academy would like or would make space for. They kind of coincided — the poetry thing was more intentional; the academic thing was more free-flowing. My attitude was 'let's see where it goes,' and it worked itself out.
Name a time when you’ve been daring.
Maybe the daring thing is that I just go with how life takes me. I’ve come to believe that life is a process that we’re just trying to figure out and none of us knows. I’m able to give in to that idea — the idea that there is no real security in life. I’m OK with that.
Being a director as an assistant professor — that’s been daring. These are normally roles people take on as associate (professors) because that rank allows you to advocate from a much safer space. The other thing is that associates have been here and have a certain institutional knowledge that would allow their advocating to be more impactful. It’s been incredibly challenging. What offsets that is I’ve been supported by some senior faculty, and the dean’s office seems to be very supportive of all that we want to make the program to be.
Advice for success?
Work at understanding how structures work against you. Working hard works if you have opportunities. Structural impediments mean that some may not have opportunities. Whatever success I have being booked as a poet or a speaker, it’s not overnight. It’s been a mountain of work that’s culminated into this moment and more work that will culminate into other moments. It may look like overnight because you may not have known me yesterday, but it is work. Every day I write something. Every day I read something.
If I couldn’t work in my current field, I would like to…
Well I’m doing it. I would just go to creative writing and performing full time. I always told myself I might go back to school one day and get a law degree. I’m not finished living and learning. As long as I’m alive, I’m going to keep doing. Who knows? I get a discount here for tuition.
I play basketball a lot, flag football, I box; I try to stay active. I watch an incredible amount of terrible TV. I hang out with friends and brunch a lot. I get home to see my nieces and nephews. That’s probably what brings me the most joy right now. I also have a French bulldog who is stubborn and lovable.
Is there an object in your office that has particular significance?
A framed photo collage. That’s my mom who is wearing my Ph.D. cap the day I graduated. She’s “Dr. Mom,” according to her. Below there is my hand shaking my grandfather’s hand who never so much as graduated from elementary (school). My mother graduated from high school. She jumped him by two degrees, and I jumped her by another three. I flew him out (for the graduation) because I wanted him to be there. His grandson graduated from a university that never would’ve allowed him to set foot on campus. Below that are four black folks. We all graduated together from various departments. We really held each other down. We are all still friends and had a makeshift cohort that supported each other both in the academy and outside. That series of pictures is incredibly important to me.