Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Dessa Rose, Sherley Williams’s first novel, was published in a post-1970’s wave of revisionist fiction about slavery. For its focus on the sufferings and the resistance of the enslaved, substantiated by meticulous research and spoken from a black viewpoint, the novel stands with such lionized works as Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge (1991), and Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966). Dessa’s tale evolved both from an earlier work that told the story from Nehemiah’s perspective and from the critical response to William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), a best-selling novel that came under fire for neglecting the strengths of slave communities and underestimating the potency of black expressive traditions.
Like the characters who populate it, the novel looks behind and forward in relationship to Williams’s wide-ranging artistic productions. Beginning her career with poetry—her first collection, The Peacock Poems (1975), was nominated for a National Book Award—Williams has cultivated the themes of community, spirituality, love, leadership, and resistance that demarcate Dessa Rose. The oppositional gazes and surreptitious glances that blinker transactions among the novel’s slaves and slaveholders are looks that anticipate Williams’s sojourns into cinema and drama, which include an Emmy Award-winning reading of her poetry.