Dessa Rose

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Dessa Rose, a novel in three parts, recounts the story of a young slave woman’s courageous struggle to secure her freedom. As the novel begins, Dessa Rose, the pregnant protagonist, is being held in the local sheriff’s root cellar, pending the birth of her baby, after which she is sentenced to hang for her role in a violent slave revolt. During the lonely hours of her confinement, Dessa dreams of her last days on the plantation of her former owner, Mr. Terrell Vaugham. She remembers her work in the fields and her love for Kaine, the plantation’s gardener and father of her unborn child. Much of the first section of the book explores Dessa’s preoccupation with her life on the plantation, especially the chain of events that leads to her incarceration in the root cellar.

Adam Nehemiah, a white journalist gathering information for a book on methods of preventing slave revolts, obtains permission from the sheriff to question Dessa about her role in the revolt. Dessa, however, artfully evades the journalist’s questions, choosing instead to talk about her life with Kaine on the Vaugham Plantation. By reconstructing her final days on the plantation, Dessa hopes to impose some measure of order on her past, to make sense of it. The central conflict in this section of the novel arises from Dessa’s refusal to comply with the journalist’s persistent requests for specific details about the revolt. The section ends with Dessa being rescued from the root cellar by two slaves, Harker and Nathan—an event which leaves the unsuspecting journalist and self-styled expert on slaves feeling humiliated and angry. He vows to find her and bring her back to be hanged.

In part 2, the scene shifts to an isolated farm in northern Alabama where Dessa’s rescuers take her and her newborn baby. Ruth Sutton, the owner of the farm, permits runaway slaves to live on the farm in exchange for their help with the crops. The hostility that erupts between Ruth and Dessa becomes the central focus of this section. In the pivotal scene, Dessa is outraged by Ruth’s claim that her recently deceased mammy loved her. Given Dessa’s experiences in slavery, she cannot conceive of any conditions under which a slave could love his or her master. Dessa forces Ruth to acknowledge the selfish, superficial relationship she had with her mammy of eleven years. When Ruth cannot recall Mammy’s given name, the truth of Dessa’s charge becomes painfully evident, casting doubt over her previously unshakable faith in Mammy’s love. The tension between the two women threatens to disrupt Ruth’s arrangement with the other runaway slaves.

In the final section of the novel, Harker and Nathan persuade Dessa and Rush to lay aside their personal enmity and participate in a scheme to raise money to finance the slaves’ escape to freedom. Ruth, who is desperately in need of money, is promised half the profit. According to the plan, Ruth, posing as owner of the runaway slaves, will sell them to various buyers. The slaves will then escape and meet Ruth at an agreed-upon location and be resold in the next town. Traveling together from town to town, Dessa and Ruth come to know and respect each other.

Dessa Rose is a skillfully drawn, multidimensional character. As a young slave on the Vaugham Plantation, Dessa dreams of escaping to the north with Kaine, where she hopes that they can rear their children free from the constant threat of beatings and separations that haunt slave families. Tragedy strikes, however, before she can realize her dream of freedom. Kaine unexpectedly attacks Vaugham with a hoe, prompting him to kill Kaine. As Kaine lies dying, he tries to explain the meaning of his act to Dessa. Dessa comes to view Kaine’s attack on their master as a bold act of self-liberation, an assertion of his manhood. Inspired by Kaine’s example, the normally quiet, nonaggressive Dessa Rose surprises the plantation community when she attacks her master and mistress. For this offense, she is whipped, branded, and sold to a slave trader. Although she is barely fifteen years old and nearly eight months pregnant, Dessa Rose plays a decisive role in the revolt of the slaves traveling with her en route to the slave market. Survivors of the uprising credit Dessa with killing several guards single-handedly. Thus, Dessa reaches within herself and finds tremendous resources of courage and strength.

Like Dessa Rose, Ruth Sutton is a dynamic, sensitive, and courageous woman. A native of Charleston, South Carolina, Ruth grew up in a family of slave owners. Because of her background, Ruth viewed all slaves, including her beloved mammy, as somewhat less than human. When she is abandoned by her husband, estranged from her family, and ostracized by her white neighbors, Ruth comes to depend on the fugitive slaves for...

(The entire section is 1965 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Dessa Rose, in its novelistic approach to the painful legacies of nineteenth century American slavery, features one African American woman’s struggle for agency in the face of racial, sexual, and economic oppression. The text explores tensions between slavery and freedom, orality and literacy, fact and fiction, women and men, whites and blacks. It also affirms the cultural values of unity, cooperation, and community that Sherley Anne Williams considers such an important part of African American history. The title character, cast as heroine, finds herself sentenced to death for defying her slavemaster. The unfolding of the novel involves the efforts by onlookers, including readers of the novel, to unravel the events of Dessa’s life in order to understand the nature and origin of her “crime.” Any actions considered criminal on the part of slaves must be weighed against the larger injustice of slavery itself.

Dessa Rose attacked the wife of her white master, a man who had killed Kaine, a fellow slave and the father of Dessa’s unborn child. In response to her attack, Dessa’s slavemaster brands and sells her. While she is being transported to the market, accomplished by moving her with a large number of slaves in a coffle, Dessa effects her escape. In the process of extricating herself from the coffle, she kills a white guard. In time, Dessa is captured, but execution for her crime is delayed pending the birth of Dessa and Kaine’s child,...

(The entire section is 584 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Sherley Anne Williams’ adaptation of the slave narrative as a historical and literary form situates her in a longstanding tradition of African American women’s writing, dating back to Our Nig: Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859), by Harriet E. Wilson, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), by Harriet Jacobs. Williams’ entry into the genre of late twentieth century African American women’s fiction also places her in the historical context of what some critics have identified as a literary renaissance. Critical works such as Joanne M. Braxton and Andree Nicola McLaughlin’s Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance (1990) explore the interrelationships among the critically acclaimed and best-selling writings of such women as Williams, Alice Walker, Morrison, and Toni Cade Bambara. As a critic, novelist, poet, and university educator, Williams has contributed in substantial ways to both the practice and the interpretation of women’s literature.

Dessa Rose represents an effort to recover African American slave women’s speech, agency, emotion, and heroism. In its effort to supply an alternative account of African American womanhood, Williams’ novel has been compared to others in which women struggle for the right and the opportunity to speak to the validity and insight of their own inner realities, such as Morrison’s Sula (1973) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). This emphasis on a woman’s voice, outlook, and life story makes it more possible for readers to see African American women during slavery as brave and resourceful historical actors rather than as merely the passive victims of an inhumane institution. With the publication of texts such as Dessa Rose, African American women writers have begun to reconstruct a rich expressive tradition capable of liberating the history of American slavery and making it possible through fiction for these historic African American women to “tell a free story”—their own.


Dessa Rose is set in the deep South in the 1840s in an area of deep brutality and slavery for blacks in America. The backdrop of the conditions and social mores of the South in this period of United States history influences the motives and actions of the characters.

In 1792, the invention of the cotton gin increased cotton production in the South. From 1820 to 1830, the South nearly doubled its production. At the time of the Civil War, the American economy relied heavily on the sale of American cotton goods. An area of land from the Carolinas, through Georgia, and to the Mississippi Valley was allocated for cotton production. The wealth from cotton production relied chiefly on slaves. As cotton production...

(The entire section is 906 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Byerman, Keith. Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Study of the representation of history in African American fiction. Includes a chapter on the subersive nature of Dessa’s voice and its effect upon the American historical imagination.

Davenport, Doris. Review of Dessa Rose, by Sherley Anne Williams. Black American Literature Forum 20, no. 3 (Fall, 1986): 335-340. Places Dessa Rose in the context of the debate over the literary canon. Davenport sees both Ruth and Adam as attempting unsuccessfully to exercise control over black female reality.

Davis, Mary Kemp. “Everybody Knows Her Name: The Recovery of the Past in Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose.” Callaloo 12, no. 3 (Summer, 1989): 544-558. Argues that Williams uses names and naming to critique the language and ideology of slave culture and to assert the slave’s power of self-definition.

Fulton, DoVeanna S. Speaking Power: Black Feminist Orality in Women’s Narratives of Slavery. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. Analyzes Williams’s representation of the past horrors of slavery as an intervention in present injustices. Compares Dessa Rose to work by Toni Morrison, Octavia E. Butler, and Jewelle Gomez.

Goldman, Anne E. “’I Made the Ink’: (Literary) Production and Reproduction in Dessa Rose and Beloved.” Feminist Studies 16, no. 2 (Summer, 1990): 313-330. Argues that both the bodies and the words of slave mothers were means of production controlled by the slavemaster. Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Dessa Rose reclaim their own texts to pass on to their own children.

McDowell, Deborah E. “Negotiating Between Tenses: Witnessing Slavery After Freedom—Dessa Rose.” In Slavery and the Literary Imagination, edited by Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. Sees Dessa Rose as a contemporary rewriting of the text of slavery, one which emphasizes agency and control by the black woman subject.

Reames, Kelly Lynch. Women and Race in Contemporary U.S. Writing: From Faulkner to Morrison. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. This study of the representation of female interracial friendships in American literature includes a chapter on Williams’s treatment of such friendships in Dessa Rose.