A prominent African-American author and scholar, he is best known for his novels, Dreamer (1998) and Middle Passage (1990), which detail black life in America. His other works include such non-fiction titles as The Joy of Being Buddhist: Dharma Essays and Stories and Black Men Speaking.
He studied journalism at Southern Illinois University and SUNY-Stony Brook. He also worked as a political cartoonist.
He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
He was born in Evanston, Illinois. He later taught for many years at the University of Washington.
He and Paul Foster have both received Guggenheim fellowships.