John A. Williams

Start Free Trial

Biography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 911

John Alfred Williams is one of the most important African American writers of the twentieth century. The son of a laborer, John Henry Williams, and a domestic, Ola Jones Williams, Williams spent his boyhood in Syracuse and describes it as an urban idyll in which various racial and ethnic groups were crowded into one area. In April, 1943, he left high school and joined the U.S. Navy. It was a formative experience since he came into contact for the first time with organized racism. The treatment of African Americans by whites in the military became a touchstone for Williams, and he alludes to it in many of his later novels, even though his first attempt to write a book on those experiences never came to fruition. After being discharged from the navy in 1946, Williams began completing his education. He finished high school, attended Morris Brown College for a short time, and graduated from Syracuse University in 1950. A degree in journalism, however, did not provide immediate employment on newspapers, magazines, or in public relations. Instead, he worked in a steel mill and a supermarket and as an insurance agent. The problems that Williams and other black writers have had with publishers is a major theme in his novels. He kept writing all this time in the face of rejection and deception, and finally a novel was accepted by a publisher.{$S[A]Gregory, J. Dennis;Williams, John A.}

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Williams’s first novel, The Angry Ones, deals primarily with the difficulties of an educated and articulate black man in a white world. It is an early novel with a simple reversal structure; Williams avoided this structure and easy optimism in his later novels. Williams wrote two other early novels, Sissie and Night Song, but the breakthrough into his middle period came with the addition of historical contexts in The Man Who Cried I Am. The Man Who Cried I Am is an excellent though pessimistic novel in which the protagonist and another black writer are killed because they learned of a conspiracy to kill or relocate blacks. It is Williams’s first investigation of where power is located and how it works against blacks. Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light continues Williams’s investigation of a black man in a world in which the centers of power are controlled by whites; however, the historical vision has become more immediate and the race war that was contemplated by the repressive power structure in The Man Who Cried I Am has become a reality. Captain Blackman is also a novel deeply connected with history, but the perspective has been expanded. In the beginning of the novel Captain Blackman is in a firefight in Vietnam; suddenly, the time frame shifts, and he is a black man caught up in the events of the American Revolution. Williams traces his actions in all the wars that America fights; in each case, his contribution is ignored by those he has fought for and his condition is not improved.

Mothersill and the Foxes explores a new aspect of myths dealing with blacks: sex. Williams attacks the ludicrousness of these myths, which are another side of racism. The Junior Bachelor Society also confronts racial conflict, but the context is not war or politics but sports. !Click Song is a long autobiographical novel in which a black writer struggles with a white establishment. It contrasts the treatment given to a black writer and a Jewish one. The black writer meets nothing but opposition while the white writer is supported by the establishment, even to the point of critical approval of his novel about black people. It is more hopeful in using personal relationships as a focus, however, and it moves away from Williams’s genocidal vision of the fate of blacks in America. Sissie is an unusual novel in Williams’s canon: It is the one novel that is set entirely in a black world. This world is nurturing and loving, although it is filled with conflict. Night Song is also unusual since it deals not with the usual isolated black man but with a jazz musician who is modeled after a historical figure, Charlie Parker.

The most important element in Williams’s fiction is the struggle of blacks against the conscious and unconscious racism of a white society. Williams not only dramatizes the social and psychological problems engendered by racism but also places that struggle in a historical perspective and context. Williams often shows the positive black contribution to their country’s wars, economy, arts, and other areas that are wiped out, ignored, or hidden. He shows that the American Dream remains hollow for blacks oppressed by overt and hidden sources of power. Williams is in the tradition of Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison in exposing white myths of black life and people. He takes the conflicts of black and white that these writers present and carries them more than a few steps further into an analysis of the use and abuse of power in America. Williams does not give political answers to the problems he presents but takes the necessary step to make blacks and whites aware of the world they live in, who runs it, and how they run it. With that knowledge, and the demystification of myths about blacks, some kind of beginning might be made. It may only be between a black man and a white woman, as in !Click Song, but Williams shows how to begin.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Next

Critical Essays