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Summary Article: Williams, John Alfred
From Encyclopedia of African-American Literature

Also known as: J. Dennis Gregory

(b. 1925–)

American novelist, poet

Although born in segregated Hinds County, Mississippi, Williams grew up in Syracuse, New York's multiethnic Fifteenth Ward, where Jews, blacks, Italians, Irish, Poles, Indians, and others, as he fondly recalls in his autobiographical odyssey, This Is My Country Too, “shared conversation and other small joys” and “the religious holidays of all were greatly respected.” In 1943 William disrupted his high school education to join the navy; he served in the Pacific during World War II. In the navy, he became disillusioned by the racism he encountered. Receiving an honorable discharge in 1946, Williams returned to Syracuse, completed high school, married, fathered two sons, and enrolled at Syracuse University, where, in 1950, he completed his B.A. degree in journalism and English. Although he sought to pursue a graduate degree in English immediately, family responsibilities demanded that he work full time. He returned to the foundry where he previously worked, but a back injury forced him to leave it for employment in various occupations, including as a life insurance salesman and a staff worker for CBS and NBC TV.

Williams is best known for his novel The Man Who Cried I Am (1967); however, he began writing poetry while in the Pacific and later was a freelance journalist writing for and publishing in such prestigious black newspapers and magazines as The Chicago Defender, Jet, and Ebony. In 1963 he traveled across the United States on a two-article assignment for Holiday magazine, and the following year he traveled extensively in Europe, Africa, and the United States for Newsweek. These personal experiences greatly influenced Williams's writing, including This Is My Country Too, which is an expansion of the Holiday assignment. He draws on his experiences as a civil rights activist and journalist for Newsweek for Africa: Her History, Lands and People (1963) and The King God Did Not Save (1970), a comprehensive indictment of the historical distortions of the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In The Man Who Cried I Am, Williams, grounding his protagonist's quest for meaning in fundamental existentialist tenets, explores issues related to existence, much in the manner that Richard Wright does in The Outsider. Williams's protagonist, Max Reddick, is, like the author, a journalist and novelist. In the process of reflecting on his historical and racial identity before he dies (he is suffering from rectal cancer), Max must come to grips with what he has learned in 30 years of working and traveling about being black in 20th century America. While attending a funeral in Paris, Max gains access to the King Alfred Plan, which details the American government's plan to commit genocide against black Americans rather than grant them full citizenship. Despite the implied pessimism and bleakness of the novel, The Man Who Cried I Am is not a protest novel of the tradition associated with Wright. Max, realizing his condition, must act to give meaning to his existence; a failure to be responsible for his own existence would be to act falsely and in bad faith.

Williams authored several other novels, including The Angry Ones (1960), Night Song (1961), Sissie (1963), Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light: A Novel of Some Probability (1969), Captain Blackman (1972), The Junior Bachelor Society (1976), Click Song (1982), The Berhama Account (1985), Jacob's Ladder (1987), and Clifford's Blues (1999). Night Song (1961), Sissie (1963), Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light: A Novel of Some Probability (1969), Captain Blackman (1972), The Junior Bachelor Society (1976), Click Song (1982), The Berhama Account (1985), and Jacob's Ladder (1987). He is also the editor (with Charles F. Harris) of Amistad I and Amistad II and McGraw-Hill's Bridges: Literature across Culture (1993).

Williams has received several awards and honors, including a National Institute of Arts and Letters award, a Linback Award from Rutgers University, and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. He lives in New York with his second wife, Lorrain Isaac Williams.

Further Information
  • Muller, Gilbert John A. Williams. Twayne Boston, 1984.
  • George Barlow
    Copyright © 2013 by Wilford D. Samuels

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