(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In writing Dessa Rose, Sherley Anne Williams both invoked and transformed the most formative textual genre in African American history and letters, the slave narrative. Emancipation stories by such well-known figures as writer Frederick Douglass recount how their authors endured in slavery, escaped the institution and its horrors, and lived to tell (and write) the tale. Since comparatively few women published slave narratives, fiction enables Williams to recast the form of the slave narrative and render it from a woman’s perspective.

In another important sense, Williams’ writing of Dessa Rose is her explicit and self-conscious response to a text by white novelist William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). In this much-debated novel, Styron combines historical and fictional modes of storytelling to produce a book that he described as a “meditation on history.” Styron took as his subject for this volume the 1831 slave rebellion led by Turner in Southampton County, Virginia. Styron titled his work of fiction after the historic document of the same name written in 1931 by white attorney Thomas Gray, a text purportedly rendering the “as-told-to” memoir of the captured Turner. Gray’s book, though complicated by the circumstances and language in which it was rendered, was not nearly as controversial as Styron’s fictional work, with its psychological characterization of Nat Turner and its attribution of sexual motives to the slave leader. The debate became fierce regarding to whom history—or its telling—belongs.

By 1968, outcries against Styron’s “meditation on history” were heard widely, and the volume of essays edited by John Henrik Clarke called William Styron’s “Nat Turner”: Ten Black Writers Respond appeared. According to Albert E. Stone, author of The Return of Nat Turner: History, Literature, and Cultural Politics in Sixties America...

(The entire section is 793 words.)