John A. Williams Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111207124-Williams.jpg John A. Williams Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.}

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...

(The entire section is 911 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Alfred Williams was born near Jackson, Mississippi, in Hinds County, to Ola and John Henry Williams. Williams’s mother, whose African name means “Keeper of the Beautiful House” or “He Who Wants to Be Chief,” had been born in Mississippi; his father’s roots were in Syracuse, New York, where the couple met. When Williams was six months old, he returned with his mother to Syracuse. The family resided in the multiethnic Fifteenth Ward, and Williams attended Washington Irving Elementary, Madison Junior High, and Central High School. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1943 and served in the Pacific. After discharge in 1946 and his return to Syracuse, he completed his secondary education, followed by a brief term at Morris Brown College in Atlanta and then enrollment at Syracuse University, where he studied creative writing.

In 1947, Williams married Carolyn Clopton, with whom he had two sons, Gregory and Dennis. In 1950, Williams earned his bachelor of arts degree and continued at Syracuse to pursue graduate study. During this period, he worked at a variety of jobs—foundry work, social work, public relations, insurance, radio and television—while developing as a journalist. Following the failure of his marriage in 1952 and a brief stay in California in 1954, he was determined to become a professional writer. In 1946, he had contributed pieces to the Syracuse newspaper, the Progressive Herald, continuing through 1955 as a reporter for the...

(The entire section is 462 words.)