After 'viral' summer, poet comes to SF State

The story of how Javon Johnson began writing poetry seems straight out of a sitcom or after-school special.

"This girl in high school who I was attracted to was like, 'Hey Javon, I heard you write poetry.' And I didn't, so I go, 'What?' And she goes, 'Yeah, that's so sexy that you write poetry.' And I was like, 'I totally write poetry,'" Johnson said. "That night, I wrote her a poem. She loved it. I think it was the worst thing written in human history."

A photo of Assistant Professor of Communication Studies Javon Johnson.

Assistant Professor of Communication Studies Javon Johnson

Johnson's poetry has improved significantly since then, and now the noted slam and spoken word performer and scholar is a new communication studies professor at SF State, this fall teaching oral interpretation courses.

With the job, the Southern California native has come full circle from his time at California State University, Los Angeles, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees. In addition to being able to work in a major California city, Johnson said, the ability to come back to the CSU system and teach students like himself was one of the things that attracted him to SF State.

"I'm able to work with a diverse population, the same kinds of students that come from the same kinds of places that I came from," he said. "I was a first generation college student, grew up poor."

In addition to teaching classes and serving as an advisor, Johnson keeps busy performing in a 90-minute stage play in L.A. as well as up to 40 colleges per year. He's also a widely published expert on communication, performance, gender and African American studies.

SF State students have gotten to know him over the past few weeks, but people all over the world got to know him in August after a performance from the National Poetry Slam in Boston went viral on the Internet. More than a half-million people have viewed footage of "Cuz He's Black" in which Johnson emotionally shares his fear and anger that his young nephew lives in a world where "young black boys are treated as problems long before they are treated as people."

The response to the video didn't surprise Johnson, though how quickly it spread did. The conversations it has started, he said, fall in line with his belief that he should serve as a "public intellectual," or someone who brings the debates and discussions of academics into the broader community.

"One of the things I think I do well is I figure out ways to take that," he said, pointing to a bookshelf full of textbooks, "and put it into poems. Much of what I write is informed by the theories and high intellectual conversations we're having in academia. And I think that fits into the service mission of SF State, which is the idea that we ought to serve the community around us."

Those discussions, Johnson added, can be difficult, so he said he makes sure to try and connect with his students on a personal level. In addition, he emphasizes the need for them to learn "not what to think, but how to think."

"I was glad I found some profound teachers, and it is their everlasting impact on me that made me want to come back to the CSU," he said. "Hopefully, I can be half as meaningful to my students as my teachers were to me."

-- Jonathan Morales