Critical Overview

Dessa Rose (1986) was Williams's first novel after she had become accomplished as a poet. African American literature had been picking up speed since the strong work of the 1960s from writers such as Ishmail Reed (Amiri Baraka), Nikki Giovanni, and Audre Lorde. In the 1970s, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker introduced their voices. The 1980s welcomed Rita Dove, Gloria Naylor and multiple titles from Morrison. In the 1980s, African American women wrote in a distinctly feminist perspective; the story lines focused on the bonds and communities of women who face adversity. Gloria Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place (1982) and the community of women in Morrison’s Beloved (1973) display these voices and characteristics of African American writers as does Dessa Rose.

Dessa Rose has received favorable criticism for its focus on the role of both black and white women in the South. The discussions and friendship between Dessa and Rufel is realistic and refreshing in its honesty and tensions. Alice Walker praised the title as a rich and compelling work. Williams reconstructs the past of women’s friendships across racial lines.

Critics praised Williams’s work as a powerful story that is an authentic and innovative portrayal of the American South before the Civil War. Particularly strong, many note, is her depiction of antebellum society, especially in regard to her portrayal of female slaves. Williams also effectively develops a unique rhythm and sound in the dialect that she portrays among the slave characters in particular.

Williams has been criticized for occasionally under-dramatizing key events and for problems with pacing. The travels with the fugitive slaves and Rufel take up a disproportionate part of the novel for the comparatively weak emotional effect that it offers. It takes several scenes before the reader experiences any tension for Dessa in her public life as a...

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