Author of 12 novels, eight nonfiction books, one volume of poetry, two plays, 43 articles and essays, 10 edited/coedited volumes, and librettist for an opera, the American Book Award winner John A. Williams, in his various positions of Navy hospital corpsman, journalist, professional writer, and university professor, has traveled globally in the 40 years of his writing career to illuminate the conditions of racial disparity and struggles for freedom experienced by African Americans at home and abroad. As a politically conscious black intellectual whose nascent writing career started in the 1950s and progressed to coincide with the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Williams has worked diligently to expose and to ameliorate the transcendent effects of racial injustices to people of African descent. Like his freedom-fighter predecessors Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright, Williams believes that the struggle for black liberation is a lifelong commitment of the black intellectual.
Born on December 5, 1925, in Jackson, Mississippi, John A. Williams found himself moved shortly after birth to Syracuse, New York, where his parents placed him and his four siblings in a seemingly racist-free environment. Quitting high school during World War II to join the Navy in 1943, Williams learned the contrary firsthand while playing the role of patriot in a racially charged military system. He returned to Syracuse after an honorable discharge in 1946 not only to complete high school and pursue his undergraduate degree at Syracuse University in 1950 but also to enter graduate school in 1951. He worked alternately as a manual laborer and social worker before he landed more lucrative stints with CBS and NBC as a journalist during the mid-1950s. During the latter part of this decade, Williams completed the two drafts of his first novel, One for New York (later retitled The Angry Ones), which was published in 1960.
The 1960s was the angry period of black militancy, and Williams was angry but prideful, too. From 1960 to 1964, he traveled globally and domestically throughout Africa, Europe, the Mideast, and the United States as a broadcast journalist for CBS and NBC and a print journalist for Holiday, Ebony, and Jet magazines. The post-World War II era brought varied global crises—African and Asian peoples clamoring for decolonization, the race for power between the United States and the Soviet Union, and incipient civil turbulences from blacks in the United States; Williams wrote articles on the state of affairs of blacks scattered throughout the African Diaspora. Not accepting rising 1960s black nationalist platforms that excluded white scholars, critics, or writers from engaging in black cultural critiques, Williams, nonetheless, stood firm in resisting gross misrepresentations of black culture. In 1962, he began writing counter responses to negative images and distorted histories of blacks created by white historians through shifting the lens of representation to the perspective of a well-educated, well-traveled black intellectual. His style marked the trend of other black writers of the 1960s onward. Williams also began producing book-length works; he wrote Africa: Her History, Lands and People (1963) and edited the Angry Black (1962), later nominated for the Prix de Rome but then rejected by the American Academy in Rome.
Not bitter by such outward American racism, Williams simply responded by becoming more vocal. He published three more nonfiction books, The Protectors (1964), This Is My Country Too (1965), and Omowale, The Child Returns Home (1965), reflecting black pride and cultural consciousness springing from his travels and emerging militancy. The acclaim of his second, third, and fourth novels earned Williams entry into academia around this time as a lecturer in writing at City College of New York. With the publication of Night Son (1961), a nihilistic novel loosely based on the life of Charlie Parker, and Sissie (1963), a counter-discourse novel exalting black culture traditionalism within cohesive black American families, Williams followed the trend of sociological writing established by Richard Wright, his predecessor. However, with The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), often viewed as the third novel in a trilogy, Williams not only established himself as a realist writer but also as a politicized writer critiquing the plight and dangers of the black intellectual through his character Max Reddick, a hero clearly parodic of Richard Wright and his electrifying rise and tragic fall as a man and writer.
From the mid-1960s to the present, Williams has produced a book or work of art each year, whether fiction, nonfiction (both adult and juvenile), editions of books, a volume of poetry, or coauthorship of an opera. His fiction includes Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969), Captain Blackman (1972), Mothersill and Foxes (1975), The Junior Bachelor Society (1976), Click Song (1981), The Berhama Account (1985), Jacob’s Ladder (1999), and Clifford’s Blues (1999). Critics note Williams’s style synthesizes fact and fiction, denoting postmodernist writing, and illuminates the historical consciousnesses of his main male characters, sometimes allegorical figures, as in The Man Who Cried I Am, Captain Blackman, and Clifford’s Blues. Further, Williams writing recalls tradition, and namely the stylistics of slave narrator, playwright, and travel writer William Wells Brown. Following Brown’s lead, Williams challenges how truth is authenticated and/or legitimated as illustrated by his public outcry, along with nine other black writers, against white Southern writer William Styron’s gross distortion of slave hero Nat Turner’s militant character captured in Thomas Gray’s jailhouse transcript The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831). With Williams’s focus on the arbitrariness of fact and fiction as explored in the triptych of his historical novels, he ensures that his readers relive history with his characters by way of their interlocking past and present experiences. In Captain Blackman, the characters were black soldiers in the American Revolution through the Vietnam War, while in Clifford’s Blues, the exemplary character was a black civilian concentration camp victim at Dachau in World War II during the Nazis’ final solution to exterminate all vestiges of racial impurity.
Williams has also written biographies for adult and children audiences, including The Most Native of Sons: Richard Wright (1970), The King God Didn’t Save (1970), Reflected in Malcolm: Living in The Time of X (unpublished), and If I Stop, I’ll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor (1991). In 1998, Williams released a collection of poetry entitled Safari West, and in 1999 served as librettist for the opera Vanqui. He is at work on his autobiography, tentatively titled Over My Shoulder. Williams’s works are widely anthologized.
Williams has been the recipient of two honorary doctorates and two American Book Awards, as well as inducted into the National Literary Hall of Fame. He held numerous lectureships and a chair as the Paul Robeson Professor of English at Rutgers University from which he retired in 1994.
African Literature; Civil Rights Movement; Wright, Richard
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