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Born near Jackson, Mississippi, and raised in Syracuse, New York, John A. Williams has inhabited a variety of professional identities: novelist, journalist, biographer, editor, poet, educator, and more. Perhaps it is best to describe Williams as "a writer," which is to say that writing is not only an activity he performs, it is an ontological matter; a way of being in the world. "Writing's become a way of life," he has said; "...I write practically every day. For me it's like putting on pants.... I most like language and ideas and weaving cloth from them as well as from experiences." It is a praxis that has resulted in one of the most prolific careers in twentieth-century American letters.
Williams is perhaps best known for his 1967 novel The Man Who Cried I Am, the story of an African-American writer abroad, who struggles against racism and cancer and learns of the U.S. government's "King Alfred Plan" for African Americans, which is comparable to Hitler's "Final Solution." Williams's first novel, The Angry Ones, originally titled "One for New York," was published in 1960. Other titles include, Night Song (1961), Sissie (1963), Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969), Captain Blackman (1972), Mothersill and the Foxes (1975), The Junior Bachelor Society (1976), !Click Song (1982), The Berhama Account (1985), Jacob's Ladder (1987), and the 1999 novel Clifford's Blues, the story of a black, gay, jazz pianist imprisoned at Dachau, rendered in the form of a diary. Williams has also published short stories, poetry, plays, essays, non-fiction, and a libretto.
Williams's novels have been described as "merging history into fiction to create new dimensions for the writings of Black novelists and fresh images for black readers to digest." Captain Blackman and Clifford's Blues are two novels in particular that demonstrate Williams's interest in histories that have not been adequately told or sufficiently heeded, whether black military history from Bunker Hill to Vietnam, or the experiences of homosexuals and peoples of African descent in Europe during the time of Nazi Germany. Williams says, "I want to inform people of what they should know and don't know."
Williams also says he likes to "switch hit" from fiction to non-fiction, a genre represented in his corpus by works such as The King God Didn't Save: Reflections on the Life and Death of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1970), The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright (1970), and with his son Dennis, If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor (1991). He has also authored Africa: Her History, Lands and People (1963), the American travelogue This Is My Country Too (1965), and Flashbacks: A Twenty-Year Diary of Article Writing (1973).
As that last title suggests, Williams has published extensively as a journalist, writing for historic black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier and periodicals such as the Los Angeles Times, The National Leader, Holiday, The Nation, Newsweek, for which he was African correspondent, and Ebony and Jet, for which he was European correspondent, among many others. He has done radio and television journalism and served as a contributing editor to periodicals such as American Journal and Journal of African Civilizations.
The numerous honors and awards that Williams has received prove that his has not only been a prolific literary career, but also a significant one. A list of these honors includes, among others, the Richard Wright-Jacques Roumain Award, 1973; a National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1977; a New Jersey State Council on the Arts Award, 1985; and the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award for !Click Song in 1983 and for Safari West, a volume of poetry, in 1998. Also in 1998 he was inducted into the National Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent, and two years later he received the Phillis Wheatley Award for Invaluable Contributions to African American Letters and Culture. Now you can add to that list an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Rochester.
In 1994 Williams retired from Rutgers University at Newark, where he had been professor of English, journalism, and creative writing since 1979 and Paul Robeson Distinguished Professor of English since 1990. His retirement closed an impressive career in higher education, which included teaching at a variety of institutions and numerous visiting professorships. His thoughts on higher education can be found in the essay "Through the Glass Looking" in Power, Race, and Gender in Academe, published in the year 2000 by the Modern Language Association. And his literary and cultural criticism has been published in Callaloo, Black American Literary Forum (now African-American Review), and The Melville Society.
In Ishmael Reed's wildly anachronistic novel Flight to Canada (1976), the fugitive slave poet Raven Quicksill ruminates over American literary history:
The original subtitle for Uncle Tom's Cabin was "The Man Who Was a Thing." ...Over one hundred years after the appearance of Stowe's book, The Man Who Cried I Am, by John A. Williams, was published. Quicksill thought of all the changes that would happen to make a "Thing" into an "I Am." Tons of paper. An Atlantic of blood."
Like Reed, who reminds readers that "writin' is fightin'," and Richard Wright, who used "words as weapons," Williams has chosen "paper" - i.e. writing - as a mode for combating racism and ignorance. His work has been described as a critical response to stereotypes, "unified... by the effort to... dispel common myths and misunderstandings about black Americans." The project of representing African Americans as subjects and not mere objects of a dominant gaze requires a number of techniques. Williams demonstrates a black racial pride and is ever-vigilant in his anti-racism. He also demonstrates an understanding that the experiences of African Americans can transcend racial differences, and speak to non-black contexts. He has criticized what he calls "the ghettoization of black writers." As Max Reddik, the protagonist of his most famous novel, says to "the Saminone, " his sharp-tongued, dozens-playing inner voice, "All you ever want to do is remind me that I am black. But goddamn it, I also am." Captain Blackman, about a wounded soldier in Vietnam who has visions of black participation in past wars, can therefore be read for its similarities to--and divergence from--Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee as well as similar experimental novels approaching the topic of time travel, such as Joanna Russ's The Female Man. Williams can also be seen as recasting the "double-consciousness" theorized by W.E.B. Du Bois as not only a struggle, "a war between unreconciled strivings," but also as a constitutive multiplicity. Expatriots, soldiers, gays and straights, working- and middle-class black folks, writers, and more constitute a portrait of African-American diversity in his works. "Sometimes we think of our race as one and the same," Williams says; "We're individuals.... We must accept differences - celebrate it. We're not a monolith - one thing."
Summations of John A. Williams's career often cite James De Jongh's evaluation of the author as "arguably the finest Afro-American novelist of his generation." It is Williams's affirmations of black culture and the diversity of the people who produce that culture, his analyses of racism and oppression throughout history, and his assertion of cultural and human connections across racial differences that make him a figure to be emulated by African-American writers of subsequent generations.
University of Rochester