In 1986, Sherley Anne Williams published Dessa Rose, a historical novel about slavery. The novel is written in the style of a slave narrative and incorporates elements consistent with narratives written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
The novel is divided into three sections (in addition to a Prologue) offering different perspectives of Dessa Rose. In “Darky,” Dessa illustrates the viewpoint of Adam Nehemiah, a reporter who is seeking information about her and other slaves in the Wilson Rebellion, a slave uprising that resulted in the deaths of white men. “The Wench” is about Dessa’s relationship with Miss Rufel, a white mistress and unsuspecting abolitionist. In “The Negress,” Dessa provides her view point about Rufel and their travels through the South.
Williams explains that the novel is based on two historical events that she has blended together in the novel. In 1829 in Kentucky, a pregnant black woman helped to lead an uprising in a coffle (a group of slaves chained together and usually taken to market). She was caught, convicted, sentenced to death and executed after the birth of her baby. In a separate event in North Carolina in 1830, a white woman was reported to have provided a safe haven for a group of runaway salves. Williams brings these two women together in Dessa Rose.
This novel was written as a response to William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), which Williams considers flawed historical fiction. Dessa Roseattempts to reclaim that history and give an authentic voice to the experience of slave life. Williams's poetry and her early essays such as Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature (1972) reflect her interest in preserving an authentic black aesthetic—incorporating rhythm and blues, spirituals, and poetry. Dessa Rose was produced as a musical in New York in 2005.