Williams, John A. 1925–
John A. Williams 1925–
Novelist and educator
Many African-American writers have addressed the theme of white racism in America and the ongoing struggles black Americans have waged against it. Few of those writers, however, have addressed the problem with the imagination of John A. Williams. In his over 20 books he has turned to a striking variety of subjects and techniques. He has written of the refined world of publishing and literature, but has also pioneered a darkly militant brand of speculative fiction that has drawn the attention of science-fiction readers. One of the senior figures in African-American fiction at the twentieth century’s end, John A. Williams seems positively youthful in the unflagging energy of his inventive powers.
Williams was born on December 5, 1925, on his grandfather’s farm near Jackson, Mississippi, but grew up in Syracuse, New York, where his parents—a laborer and a maid—lived. His neighborhood was a diverse, close-knit one, and he attended school and participated in scouting and other community activities. The Depression of the 1930s, however, broke Williams’s family apart. His parents divorced, and Williams dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Navy in 1943.
Sent to the Pacific at the height of World War II, he found that, in the still-segregated armed forces, his white countrymen could pose a more immediate danger than anything he faced from the Japanese. “The closest I came to being killed during the war,” he wrote in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, “...was when Americans, sailors, placed a .45 to my head and almost pulled the trigger.” After the war Williams was among the myriad service personnel who benefitted from the GI Bill. He returned to finish high school and went on to Syracuse University, where he graduated in 1950. He aspired to a career as a journalist.
At the time there were few black journalists working outside of black-owned publications, and Williams failed to take into account the discrimination he would encounter in the seemingly progressive publishing industry. In the early 1950s he worked variously in a steel mill, a supermarket, a public-relations firm, the CBS radio network, and a county welfare office. He moved with his wife and two children to New York in 1955 to take a marketing job with a publisher called Comet Press, but then founded a publication of his own, the Negro Market Newsletter. In the late 1950s Williams wrote for Ebony and Jet magazines, and also worked as a radio and television producer.
All this wandering through the employment world served a purpose for Williams, who had begun to develop an ambition to write serious fiction. Many of his experiences would come to serve as raw materials for his novels, and his stint at Comet Press was lightly reworked in his first novel, One for New York, which
At a Glance…
Born December 5, 1925, near Jackson, Mississippi; raised in Syracuse, New York; son of John Henry and Ola Mae Williams; married Carolyn Clopton, 1947 (later divorced); married Lorrain Lsaac, 1965; three children, Gregory, Dennis, and Adam. Education: B.A., Syracuse University 1950; graduate study, Syracuse University, 1950-51. Military service: Served in U.S. Navy in Pacific theater, World War II.
Career: Writer. Case worker, county welfare department, Syracuse, NY, early 1950s; public relations, Doug Johnson Associates, 1952-54; staff member, CBS radio and television network, 1954-55; publicity director, Comet Press, 1955-56; publisher and editor, Negro Market Newsletter, 1956-58; European correspondent, Ebony and Jet magazines, 1958-59; radio and television announcer, public stations WOV and WNET, 1959; African correspondent, Newsweek, 1964-65; numerous visiting professorships and lectureships, 1969-93; professor of English, Rutgers University, 1979-1993.
Selected awards National Institute of Arts and Letters award, 1962; LL.D,, Southeastern Massachusetts University, 1978; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship; Lindback Award, Rutgers University, for distinguished teaching; American Book award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1983 (for Click Song).
Addresses: Home —Teaneck, NJ; Office—Department of English, Rutgers, NJ, 07102.
was published in 1960 as The Angry Ones. In the words of The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, the book “tells the story of Steve Hill, an artist who fights his own personal war against American racism.” The artist works at a publishing house called Rocket Press. Williams followed up that work in 1961 with Night Song, a novel set in the jazz world with a protagonist who resembled the then recently deceased saxophonist Charlie Parker. Reviewers, in search of a work of fiction that evoked the ambition and sensibilities of jazz, generally praised the book.
Williams entered Night Song in the competition for the prestigious Prix de Rome, a literary prize that would enable the author to spend a year in Rome, Italy, with all expenses paid. The novel won the award, but controversy broke loose after the prize foundation’s director revoked Williams’s award. According to Williams, the switch came about because of suspicions that aspects of the novel—specifically an interracial marriage—reflected Williams’s own life. The eventual prize winner defended Williams in his acceptance speech, but the experience left Williams embittered. It was not long before his fiction took a more militant turn.
His third novel, Sissie, dealt with African-American family relationships, but his next book, The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), took a sharp new turn. It depicted a dying African-American journalist who uncovers a genocidal U.S. government plot, the King Alfred Plan, designed to eradicate the nation’s black population. The work, which remains perhaps Williams’s best known, drew praise for its skillful integration of historical fact into a nightmarish narrative; a section of the book detailed a mass confinement of African Americans not far removed from what had actually been provided for by the U.S. Congress in the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950.
Williams’s next two books also focused strongly on racial conflict. Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light: A Novel of Some Probability tells of a race war that erupts after an Irish policeman kills a black teenager, and 1972’s Captain Blackman, a novel with a fantasy element unusual in serious fiction, depicts a 200-year-old soldier, representative of the unheralded contributions of African-American service members in general, who has fought in all America’s wars from the Revolutionary War era to the present. By the 1970s, the soldier’s compatriots have become so disillusioned that they organize a conspiracy to infiltrate and neutralize the American military’s nuclear capability.
Some of Williams’s later novels expand on the themes introduced in his earlier work. Click Song, published in 1982, returns to the world of literature and publishing; Williams has said that he considers this novel his finest work. Jacob’s Ladder (1987) returns to the theme of large-scale racial conflict, portraying the plight of an African American solider sent to an African country that is trying to resist the global influence of the United States. Williams turned to more mainstream material and experienced popular success with The Junior Bachelor Society (1976), which followed the lives of nine African-American friends. The book, was made into a mini-series entitled The Sophisticated Gents by the NBC television network in 1981.
Williams has also been known for nonfiction works. Africa: Her History, Lands and People (1963) stressed the ancient roots of African cultures well before such a focus had gained general currency. This Is My Country Too (1965) collected journalistic travel narratives in which Williams exposed the realities of Southern segregation, and Minorities in the City (1975) investigated urban experiences. Williams penned biographies of two prominent African Americans: The Most Native of Sons (1970) told the life story of Richard Wright, and The King God Didn’t Save (also published in 1970) was notable and controversial for its partially negative depiction of its subject, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
With his son Dennis, a magazine editor, Williams wrote another biography, If I Stop I’ll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor (1991). He has also edited literary anthologies, written a play and a film screenplay, and published numerous short stories and journalistic pieces. Despite his Prix de Rome setback, Williams has received recognition from other literary and cultural organizations; among his many awards are those from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Institute for Arts and Letters. Between 1979 and 1993 he taught at Rutgers University in New Jersey, after which he retired to write full-time. In 1999 he was inducted into the Black Literary Hall of Fame.
The Angry Ones, 1960 (later republished under original title One for New York).
Night Song, 1961.
The Man Who Cried I Am, 1967.
Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light: A Novel of Some Probability (capitalization of title varies), 1969.
Captain Blackman, 1972.
Mothersill and the Foxes, 1975.
The Junior Bachelor Society, 1976.
Click Song (also known as !Click Song), 1982.
The Berhama Account, 1985.
Jacob’s Ladder, 1987.
Africa: Her History, Lands and People, 1963.
This Is My Country Too, 1965.
The Most Native of Sons (biography of Richard Wright), 1970.
The King God Didn’t Save (biography of Martin Luther King Jr.), 1970.
Minorities in the City, 1975.
if I Stop I’ll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 1991 (with Dennis Williams).
The Angry Black (reissued as Beyond the Angry Black), 1962.
Amistad I, 1970.
Amistad II, 1971.
The McGraw-Hill Introduction to Literature, 1985.
Bain, Robert, et al., eds., Southern Writers: A Biographical Dictionary, Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Metzger, Linda, et al., eds., Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors, Gale, 1989.
Ousby, Ian, ed., The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Pederson, Jay, ed., St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, St. James, 1996.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1999.
Publishers Weekly, February 15, 1999, p. 17.
—James M. Manheim
Williams, John A(lfred)
WILLIAMS, John A(lfred)
Nationality: American. Born: Jackson, Mississippi, 5 December 1925. Education: Central High School, Syracuse, New York; Syracuse University, A.B. 1950. Military Service: Served in the United States Navy, 1943-46. Family: Married 1) Carolyn Clopton in 1947 (divorced), two sons; 2) Lorrain Isaac in 1965, one son. Career: Member of the public relations department, Doug Johnson Associates, Syracuse, 1952-54, and Arthur P. Jacobs Company; staff member, CBS, Hollywood and New York, 1954-55; publicity director, Comet Press Books, New York, 1955-56; publisher and editor, Negro Market Newsletter, New York, 1956-57; assistant to the editor, Abelard-Schuman, publishers, New York, 1957-58; director of information, American Committee on Africa, New York, 1958; European correspondent, Ebony and Jet magazines, 1958-59; announcer, WOV Radio, New York, 1959; Africa correspondent, Newsweek, New York, 1964-65. Regents' Lecturer, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1972; Distinguished Professor of English, LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, 1973-78; visiting professor, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Summer 1974, Boston University, 1978-79, and New York University, 1986-87. Professor of English, 1979-90, Paul Robeson Professor of English, 1990-94, and since 1994 professor emeritus, Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey. Bard Center Fellow, Bard College, 1994-95. Member of the Editorial Board, Audience, Boston, 1970-72; contributing editor, American Journal, New York, 1972. Awards: American Academy grant, 1962; Syracuse University Outstanding Achievement award, 1970; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1977; Rutgers University Lindback award, 1982; Before Columbus Foundation award, 1983; American Book award, 1998. Litt.D.: Southeastern Massachusetts University, North Dartmouth, 1978; Syracuse University, 1995. Agent: Barbara Hogenson Agency, 19 W. 44th St., New York, New York 10036. Address: 693 Forest Avenue, Teaneck, New Jersey 07666, U.S.A.
Night Song. New York, Farrar Straus, 1961; London, Collins, 1962.
Sissie. New York, Farrar Straus, 1963; as Journey Out of Anger, London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1968.
The Man Who Cried I Am. Boston, Little Brown, 1967; London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1968.
Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light. Boston, Little Brown, 1969; London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1970.
Captain Blackman. New York, Doubleday, 1975.
Mothersill and the Foxes. New York, Doubleday, 1975.
The Junior Bachelor Society. New York, Doubleday, 1976.
!Click Song. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
The Berhama Account. Far Hills, New Jersey, New Horizon Press, 1985.
Jacob's Ladder. New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1987.
Clifford's Blues. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 1998.
Africa: Her History, Lands, and People. New York, Cooper Square, 1962.
The Protectors (on narcotics agents; as J. Dennis Gregory), with Harry J. Anslinger. New York, Farrar Straus, 1964.
This Is My Country, Too. New York, New American Library, 1965; London, New English Library, 1966.
The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright. New York, Doubleday, 1970.
The King God Didn't Save: Reflections on the Life and Death of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York, Coward McCann, 1970; London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1971.
Flashbacks: A Twenty-Year Diary of Article Writing. New York, Doubleday, 1973.
Minorities in the City. New York, Harper, 1975.
If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, with Dennis A. Williams. New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991.
Flashbacks 2: A Diary of Article Writing. Westport, Connecticut, Orange Ball Press, 1991.
Editor, The Angry Black. New York, Lancer, 1962.
Editor, Beyond the Angry Black. New York, Cooper Square, 1967.
Editor with Charles F. Harries, Amistad I and II. New York, Knopf, 2 vols., 1970-71.
Editor, with Gilbert H. Muller, The McGraw Hill Introduction to Literature. New York, McGraw Hill, 1985.
Editor, with Gilbert H. Muller, Bridges: Literature Across Cultures. New York, McGraw Hill, 1994.
Editor, Ways In: Approaches to Reading and Writing about Literature. New York, McGraw Hill, 1994.
Editor, Introduction to Literature 2/e. New York, McGraw Hill, 1995.*
Syracuse University, New York; Rochester University, New York.
America as Seen by a Black Man by Robert T. Haley, unpublished thesis, San Jose State College, California, 1971; "The Art of John A. Williams" by John O'Brien, in American Scholar (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1973; The Evolution of a Black Writer: John A. Williams by Earl Cash, New York, Third Press, 1974; American Fictions 1940-1980 by Frederick R. Karl, New York, Harper, 1983; John A. Williams by Gilbert H. Muller, Boston, Twayne, 1984; article by James L. de Jongh, in Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955 edited by Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris, Detroit, Gale, 1984.
John A. Williams comments:
I think art has always been political and has served political ends more graciously than those of the muses. I consider myself to be a political novelist and writer to the extent that I am always aware of the social insufficiencies which are a result of political manipulation. The greatest art has always been social-political, and in that sense I could be considered striving along traditional paths.* * *
An essayist, novelist, anthologist, poet, and biographer, John Alfred Williams is the author of nearly twenty books including a dozen novels that span four decades. With so diverse an oeuvre, it is helpful to group Williams's novels into particular phases, representative of the author's maturing vision of his principle theme—the tension between black experience and American ideology, portrayed against the backdrop of history.
The first phase comprises, The Angry Ones (One for New York ), Night Song, and Sissie, and marks a semi-autobiographical focus. Tracing its protagonist's employment as a publicity director for a vanity press, The Angry Ones explores the hypocrisy of corporate America, the vanishing of the American dream, the psychological complexities surrounding interracial sex, and the black writer's challenge to maintain cultural integrity in an exploitative society. The main character, Steve Hill, leads a life that resembles Williams's. After leaving the navy, Williams worked in New York's burgeoning publishing industry. In Night Song Williams expands the narrow, first person focus of the first novel by relaying point of view through three distinct, though equally tragic protagonists: Richie "Eagle" Stokes, a decaying, self-destructive jazz musician; David Hillary, a self-pitying, ex college professor; and Keel Robinson, a former preacher. A study in nocturnal landscapes and the symbolic portrayal of mental desuetude, the novel draws from the mythic life of Charlie "Bird" Parker and pioneers what would later become the subgenre of "jazz fiction." The novel also concerns the decay of social optimism, miscegenation, and the gaps between white and black America. These early novels also lay the important sociopolitical groundwork that undergirds all of Williams's work. This is perhaps especially true of Sissie with its relentless framing of individual characters against a politically charged history. A grand biography of the Joplin family's struggle over several generations, Sissie testifies to Williams's growing skill with a complex form of narrative time mechanics that has been likened to Faulkner, and which would later be put to effective use in The Man Who Cried I Am. In this first phase, Williams dramatizes black social struggle, but suggests the possibility of success in characters who do not resort to violence or reactionary politics, as they strive to reconcile their idealisms with the brutal facts of an oppressive racial system.
It is in the second phase that Williams reverses this political orientation. Now characters do realize the necessity of acquiring a heightened political and historical consciousness in order to not only succeed, but to survive in America. Written after being ruthlessly passed over for a promised Prix de Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the highly political novels of the second phase articulate most clearly the rage of the "angry black" and show the author's movement away from the image of the black protagonist struggling for confirmation of his self-worth. In The Man Who Cried I Am, a novel that has been called his masterpiece, Williams creates Max Reddick, a black writer who becomes a "success" in the white world, but who eventually asks himself "was it worth what it cost?" Reddick's final confirmation of "self" comes not from the white world, but from a metaphysical, interior space where the fact of existence outweighs the superficiality of race: "All you ever want to do is remind me that I am black. But, goddamn it, I also am," exclaims Reddick famously. Few writers match Williams in destroying the illusions of the black man as a victim subjugated by the pressures of racial injustice in the Western world. Slowly dying from rectal cancer, Reddick eventually learns of a secret plan kept by the American government. In times of emergency, the King Alfred plan calls for a mass detention and imprisoning of African Americans. Finally, after tragically realizing the impossibility of national identity, Reddick dies having stumbled across this information. The Man Who Cried I Am delivers perhaps the bleakest commentary on the incommensurability of national inclusiveness and national racist agendas, while plotting the convergence of tumultuous historical and cultural forces on the figure of the African American. In Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light Eugene Browning mulls over the advantages of knowing his past. But it is with reason and without anger, that Browning, after coming to the conclusion that civil rights and freedom marches would not bring justice to blacks, employs Mafia tactics in the assassination of a policeman guilty of killing a sixteen-year-old black boy. Novels of the rage period advertise the heightened sense of group conscious, self-resolve, and resourcefulness needed by blacks to eliminate racial injustices. Captain Blackman confronts American history from a military perspective. A Vietnam officer and also a teacher of military history, Abraham Blackman drifts back in time to recount black experiences in early American wars. In Blackman, the novel presents an allegorical figure of the black soldier, a paradoxical icon of heroism and national belonging, but also an object of hateful scorn to generals and politicians. At times the novel merges into historical nonfiction, as Williams inserts little-known but heavily documented letters which reveal the racism of such leaders as Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln with starling clarity. All of the novels of the second phase register the need to both come to terms with history and to struggle against it.
With the publication of Mothersill and the Foxes and The Junior Bachelor Society, Williams enters a brief third phase noted for sexual parody, a modified politics, and technical complexity. Breaking away from traditional narrative modes, Williams experiments with postmodernism to relate the sexual odyssey of Odell Mothersill and the "foxes" whom he courts. The novel broaches bizarre sexual scenarios—incest, voyeurism, masturbation—in an uneven variety of techniques, ranging from surrealistic parody to pastoral fairy tale. Ludicrous, naturalistic, and absurdist, the novel's scenes of sexuality often devolve to horrific grotesques, which like the many allusions to grotesque art, comment on the macabre lack of emotion regarding sexuality and corporeality in Mothersill's picaresque world. The Junior Bachelor Society returns to the multi-character plot structure of Williams's earlier novels, as it cross cuts among the lives of its nine aging protagonists, who attend a hometown reunion in celebration of a former high school coach. Reminiscent of Sissie in its poignant portrayal of individuals striving against a repressive social order and in its concern for interpersonal relationships, the novel focuses on varieties of middle class and blue collar, late middle-aged, African-American masculinity. While investigating the vexed role that sports play in American culture and in the black imagination, the novel also stresses the relationship between physical contests and success in life.
In his fourth phase, Williams seems to reinvest in the political and social themes of his first two stages, but now through sharply drawn characters whose interior conflicts mirror the external political forces shaping history. !Click Song, The Berhama Account, Jacobs Ladder, and Clifford's Blues return to techniques that investigate the dynamics of storytelling while conveying a deeply political, increasingly global consciousness.
!Click Song reprises a character central to Williams's fiction, the black novelist. An obvious literary descendent of Max Reddick, Cato Douglass must bear the humiliating racism that drives the publishing industry as he develops relationships with his three sons, each from different wives: one white, one black, and one in Spain. Behind his scathing bitterness, Douglass shields an essentially artistic, deeply philosophic mind, which cleaves to its productions, both artistic and filial, in order to shore up some defense against the abuses of the literary establishment. The Berhama Account is a tale of international political intrigue and the panacea of romantic love. Another multi-plot story of personal optimism, the novel concerns a fake assassination, the political struggle of a Caribbean nation, and a re-ignited love affair that heals a journalist recovering from cancer. Although The Berhama Account evidences a global awareness of racist power dynamics, it finally expresses a degree of hope and possibility through love that is unparalleled in Williams's other novels. Jacob's Ladder turns to Africa and the specific problems in nation building that Fasseke, the newly installed president of Pandemi, faces. When African-American war hero Henry Jacob arrives to help Fasseke, much of the resulting dialogue between them explores the diasporic tensions separating Africans from African Americans. The novel critiques colonial history, slavery, and inter-African prejudice, while responding to American culture from a post-colonial vantage point. No less historically sophisticated is Clifford's Blues, which recounts in journal format the experiences of Clifford Pepperidge, an itinerant, homosexual, black American jazz musician who finds himself interred by the Nazis in Dachau. To stay alive, Clifford assembles a jazz band with other prisoners to entertain the Nazi officers. Like Captain Blackman, Clifford's Blues is an informative novel built upon exacting historical research of blacks in concentration camps, but its vivid, somber prose prevents it from waxing didactic. As with Sissie, NightSong, and The Junior Bachelor Society, Clifford's Blues eloquently dramatizes the individual's triumph of will in the face of great adversity, and thus transcends the thematics of American racial injustices to evoke a wider sense of historical barbarity and heroism.
—Michael A. Chaney
Williams, John A(lfred)
WILLIAMS, John A(lfred)
WILLIAMS, John A(lfred). American, b. 1925. Genres: Novels, Poetry, Biography. Career: Doug Johnson Assocs., Syracuse, NY, public relations officer, 1952-54; with CBS Radio-Television Special Events, Hollywood and NYC, 1954-55; Comet Press Books, NYC, publicity director, 1955-56; Negro Market Newsletter, NYC, editor and publisher, 1956-57; Abelard- Schuman Inc, NYC, asst to publisher, 1957-58; Ebony magazine and Jet magazine, European correspondent, 1958-59; Newsweek magazine, Africa correspondent, 1964-65; LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, distinguished professor, 1973-79; Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, professor, 1979-90, Paul Robeson Professor of English, 1990-94. Sarah Lawrence College, guest writer, 1972-73; Cooper Union, distinguished visiting professor, 197475; visiting professor: Boston University, 1978-79, New York University, 1986-87, Bard College, 1994-95. Publications: NOVELS: The Angry Ones (One for New York), 1960; Night Song, 1961; Sissie (in UK as Journey Out of Anger), 1963; The Man Who Cried I Am, 1967; Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light, 1969; Captain Blackman, 1971; Mothersill and the Foxes, 1975; The Junior Bachelor Society, 1976; !Click Song, 1982; The Berhama Account, 1985; Jacob's Ladder, 1987; Clifford's Blues, 1999. NONFICTION: Africa: Her History, Lands and People, 1963; The Protectors, 1964; This Is My Country, Too, 1965; The Most Native of Sons: Richard Wright, 1970; The King God Didn't Save Martin Luther King, Jr., 1970; Flashbacks, 1972; Minorities in the City, 1975; (with D.A. Williams) If I Stop I'll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 1991. EDITOR: The Angry Black, 1962; Beyond the Angry Black, 1967; Amistad I and II, 1970, 1971; Y'Bird #2, 1978; (co) Introduction to Literature, 1985, 2nd ed., 1994; (co) Street Guide to African Americans in Paris, 1992, 2nd ed., 1996; (co) Bridges: Literature across Cultures, 1993; Ways In: Approaches to Literature, 1994, 2nd ed., 2003. OTHER: Safari West (poetry), 1998; Vanqui (libretto), 1999.