John A. Williams Essay - Williams, John A(lfred) (Vol. 5)

Williams, John A(lfred) (Vol. 5)

Williams, John A(lfred) 1925–

Williams, a Black American novelist, poet, and journalist, has produced increasingly complex fictions which transcend the personal, or protest, novel.

In his latest novel Williams … turns to black history, and while it is evident that the author has done his homework, his failure here is as a novelist. Captain Blackman is an ambitious attempt at a fictional chronicle covering about two centuries of black military history. Its hero is named, appropriately enough, Abraham Blackman; his archenemy of many years, now his battalion commander, bears the equally symbolic name of Ishmael Whittman….

The novel is a stinging polemic demonstrating how blacks have been used by a racist military establishment that encouraged them to fight and die for a freedom ultimately denied them…. Captain Blackman has the merit of bringing a buried past to our consciousness and our conscience; the work, however, suffers from a doggedly mechanical structure.

Leonard Fleischer, in Saturday Review (copyright 1972 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 13, 1972.

John A. Williams' The Man Who Cried I Am (1967) has attracted considerable attention among the general public not so much for its literary excellence but because in the last pages of the novel its protagonist, Max Reddick, discovers a monstrous plot—code named "King Alfred"—to eradicate the black population of the United States. The plot, similar in many ways to Nazi Germany's "final solution," employs enough facts from everyday life to give the reader an uneasy feeling that perhaps this section of the book is not pure fiction: only slightly disguised, James Meredith, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin all appear in the novel; so do numerous black organizations ranging from the Urban League to the Black Muslims (the Black Panther Party had not come to prominence at the time Williams was writing the book). Add to these facts the recent furor over detention camps still in existence and the growing suspicion of the CIA and the FBI, and it is not surprising that a black critic such as David Henderson should approach the book as a social document, a part of the protest school of black writing, which points out and documents real examples of racial prejudice and persecution.

This feature of the novel is not to be ignored. By suggesting the logical extension of America's past and present treatment of black people, the novel, hopefully, may jolt the conscience of the nation and influence its future policies. However, Williams deserves credit for the art of the novel as well as its message. The King Alfred extermination plan is only one item in a series of nightmarish elements which Williams uses to dramatize not only the psychological problems of the main character but also the frightening social conditions which foster them. Like most nightmares, these particular elements of the novel evoke emotions of fear and repugnance and often a frantic refusal to accept what is detestable or unbelievable. As in a nightmare, the seemingly impossible happens, and evil or death is manifested in peculiarly horrifying ways; perversion, savagery, and hatred may threaten one's humanity, reason, or life itself. Employing these gothic elements with considerable artistic success, Williams frees himself from the naturalistic protest format which for a time seemed the sole metier of the black novelist. (pp. 186-87)

What purpose does the King Alfred portion of the novel serve? White readers are likely to dismiss King Alfred as something like science fiction, while black readers are likely to accept it as showing real insight into contemporary attitudes and conditions. Viewed from a literary perspective, however,… King Alfred serves a valid artistic purpose. In one sense, black people have been systematically killed off in the United States since their first introduction to its shores. Malnutrition, disease, poverty, psychological conditioning, and spiritual starvation have been the tools, rather than military operations and gas chambers, but the result has often been the same. King Alfred is not only a prophetic warning of what might happen here but a fictional metaphor for what has been happening and is happening still.

What has Williams accomplished by his use of bizarre and horrible metaphors for racial conflict and the plight of the black American? Perhaps his most important achievement is his escape from the protest novel tradition that has threatened to confine black writers within one narrow school. Since the publication of Native Son (1940), black novelists have either written naturalistic protest novels only to be compared unfavorably with Wright or have attempted to find a new form which would bring a freshness to their work but would still express their powerful moral indignation. (pp. 195-96)

Williams has demonstrated his ability to work with a type of horror tale which transcends mere documentation of ghetto conditions yet still carries the message he feels he must convey to his readers. The nightmarish scenes which emerge from his otherwise realistic novel startle the reader into attention and leave him with memories that he will not forget as soon as he may wish. Williams' success with this shock technique suggests one of the new directions that may be taken by the black novelist. (p. 196)

Robert E. Fleming, "The Nightmare Level of 'The Man Who Cried I Am'," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring, 1973, pp. 186-96.

The human spirit transcends the accidents of history and is not bound by the brutal processes of nature…. The theme of [The Man Who Cried I Am] seems to be that by resisting the oppressive forces of cancer and politics Max Reddick insists on the value and dignity of his life as a man and as a Black and, by extension, affirms the value of all individual life.

The novel also illustrates a basic pattern in Williams' fiction: in each of his novels the black protagonist, much like the wounded Hemingway hero, suffers from some physical or emotional affliction, at bottom a symbol of interracial relations in the world. (p. 13)

Of all [his] characters, … Max Reddick of The Man Who Cried I Am best illustrates Williams' concern with oppression and the will to resist it. Reddick is the most knowledgeable—he has traveled widely in three continents; he has worked as a journalist, writer, and presidential adviser; he has developed a sense of history. The novel, too, ranges further in time, space, and ideas than any of the others, thus providing a panoramic background that lends depth to the figure of Max Reddick. The most significant of Williams' protagonists, he has a greater awareness of the diverse forces that afflict him; and because his death from cancer is imminent, his resistance becomes even more meaningful. Indeed, Max Reddick dramatizes in a grand manner what the other protagonists have been concerned with implicitly: the need to affirm one's worth by resisting the racism that would deny it. (p. 14)

William M. Burke, "The Resistance of John A. Williams: 'The Man Who Cried I Am'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1974), Vol. XV, No. 3, 1974, pp. 5-14.

John A. Williams may not be an incarnation of the "black writer" of the 1960's, but he stands pretty much at the center of the black fiction of that decade. Not only a writer, he has become a monitor of black writing in general, working hard for its propagation and improvement. He is not the overt activist that Amiri Baraka has become, nor a militant pusher of "black aesthetic." He is concerned with a revolution, and just as the beginning of his writing career coincides with the early activist phase of the Civil Rights Movement (his first novel, The Angry Ones, was published in 1960), so all of his work has a distinctly political focus.

His subject is race, and his themes reflect the most advertised concerns of the revolution: the economic and psychological emasculation of the black man by the white, the struggle of the black man to preserve his manhood, the black will to survive and the enduring strength that brings victory. He is not the kind of political novelist Irving Howe speaks of, whose main challenge is "to make ideas or ideologies come to life, to endow them with the capacity for stirring characters into passionate gestures and sacrifices." Instead, he seeks to convince the reader that his picture of society, with its black ideological tilt, is accurate, bringing home to white Americans the extent of their crime and demonstrating to blacks the means by which they might triumph over white discrimination. He has picked up the baton from Richard Wright and set out to use his art to help his people, to embody the sociopolitical concerns of black Americans in fictional form. (pp. 81-2)

Williams's novels are consistent in reflecting his ideological bias, but artistically they are quite uneven. The Angry Ones, dealing with discrimination against blacks who try to get specialized employment, and Night Song (1961), an excursion into the world of black jazz, indicate that from the beginning Williams knew how to put a novel together, but that he had not developed the emotional restraint or insight to put a good novel together. Sissie (1963), about the changing black family and the emergence of a new generation, is a great improvement. Williams, having learned much about himself and his subject, found a way to capture the complexities of both. The Man Who Cried I Am (1967) rises to art, as if the three earlier novels were exercises of preparation. Its story of two black novelists makes one of the best novels of the 1960's. But Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969) and Captain Blackman (1972) show a sharp falling off. The former, about the use of Mafia techniques in a "possible" future, and the latter, about the role of the black soldier in America's military history, are both thin and theme-ridden.

That he has not been more frequently successful is largely explained by the fact that he has expended his talents more on politics than on art. Perhaps more important, the course upon which his political and racial loyalties have guided him is not completely the course of his natural bent. The arena in which he is most comfortable is the world of the black intellectual. His prototypical character is the man of thought whose creativity is sapped by racism. The strength of the character and his interest for the reader lie in his powers of self-analysis and understanding. (p. 82)

He can write first-rate fiction; the irony is that his first-rate fiction, which is less loaded with doctrinal intentions than his second-rate, seems more effectively to do the job he sets out to do. Honest politics—good politics—is much better served by good art that is not overtly or designedly political than by bad art that is. In fact, the politics that calls on its artists to falsify their vision and slant the findings of their personal observation cannot be good politics and cannot produce good art. (pp. 85-6)

The Man Who Cried I Am is Williams's adaptation of the rhetoric of black power to his own needs as a novelist. It is a gloss on a sentence in This Is My Country Too: "Today the strength of the contemporary Negro is in being ready to die." But the novel also expresses a feeling about the implications of prototypical black militancy no other novel has. It does not end with a flourish of trumpets and a martyred death of a black victim who triumphs even in defeat; it ends on a note of sadness and uncertainty, of lament for the necessary metamorphosis of the new black into a revolutionary ready to die. Melancholy pervades the novel, not heroic anger or righteous wrath. The violent ending cannot erase the sorrow that dominates every scene, sorrow over the tarnishing of America's bright dream. After the political implications in the failure of the American Creed comes yet another discovery that makes the politics of the novel so complex and effective: men, black and white, can be petty and self-serving; women can be grasping and self-centered. Every relationship carries with it warm human promise, and every promise gradually dissipates in the air of human frailty and the deficiency of conditions. No motive is pure, no act is untinged with bias. Blacks as well as whites display greed, jealousy, duplicity, opportunism. (pp. 98-9)

The Man Who Cried I Am is in a sense Williams's Huckleberry Finn. It reflects his deep skepticism over the capacity of America to live up to its professed ideals, and a development of deep pessimism about whites in particular and man in general. The intensity of its melancholy demonstrates the strength of Williams's emotional attachment to America. The gloom that the novel conveys is the result of seeing that one's most optimistic convictions are laid in sand, and that the building of the pure ideal was doomed from the start. (p. 99)

In The Man Who Cried I Am, Williams fuses the pessimism and the optimism that divide his own mind and feelings and makes good fiction and good politics. By recognizing men's moral, mental, and physical limitations, he delivers to politics a vision that is both more realistic and more human than the conventional political rhetoric gives us. He frees politics of its exaggerations and posturing and helps the reader avoid the danger of believing in the over-simplified version of the struggle that reduces all contention to the conflict between hero and villain. Though Williams resolves the paradox of "fortunate oppression" in The Man Who Cried I Am, he has perhaps gone too far on the road to polemics to turn back. He has chosen, more often than not, to use his art for the narrow rather than the larger political purpose, and it has led him into implausible exaggeration and offensive sentimentality. Unless a change in the times frees him of his deep sense of obligation to the narrower purpose, he will probably never write another novel as good as Sissie or The Man Who Cried I Am. (p. 100)

Jerry H. Bryant, "John A. Williams: The Political Use of the Novel," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © James Dean Young 1975), Vol. XVI, No. 3, 1975, pp. 81-100.