John A. Williams Williams, John A(lfred) (Vol. 13)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Williams, John A(lfred) 1925–

Williams is a black American novelist, journalist, short story writer, essayist, biographer, poet, and editor whose work concerns the effects of racism on individual identity and pride. Critics note that his changing personal opinions and literary style strengthen with each successive novel. The Man Who Cried I Am is his best known work. (See also CLC, Vol. 5.)

David Boroff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his new work, Sissie, [John A. Williams] draws in part on his authoritative knowledge of [the jazz] world, but this novel is far richer and cuts deeper than most books about jazz. For Sissie is a chronicle of Negro life in transition, and it unites, as few novels do, the experience of the brutalized older generation of Negroes with that of the sophisticated young, who, one way or another, have made it in American life. As such, it is full of vivid contrasts, and it conveys memorably an image of the double war that Negroes wage—against their white oppressors on the one hand, and generation against generation on the other. In its portrayal of the conflict of generations, Sissie suggests the American-Jewish novel of a few decades ago in which the younger generation rebels against, but is emotionally wedded to, the experience of its parents.

Sissie is a proud, indomitable matriarch with two surviving children, Ralph and Iris. On one level the story is almost a sentimental saga of a Negro family that struggles against poverty and demoralization and finally achieves strenuous respectability. Here the book is akin to the traditional American "immigrant" novel. But Sissie is steadily redeemed from sentimentality by the grain of its sensibility and its implacable anger. There is none of the congratulatory tone of the usual up-from-the-slums story. The author is far too keenly attuned to the monstrous price of the victory….

[Sissie] may well be the authoritative portrait of the Negro mother in America, that Machtweib who has given the beleaguered Negro family whatever strength and stability it has. Williams depicts Sissie with stunning fidelity—her capacity to endure, her cunning, and her abiding strength, at once supportive and disabling. For what Sissie is really about is the effort of her children to emancipate themselves from this Big Mama who in nurturing them almost destroyed them….

Inevitably, this novel invites comparison with James Baldwin's Another Country. Sissie is by far the better work. For all his platform polemics, Baldwin does not seem to possess the grasp of the Negro milieu that Williams displays. And where Another Country is shrill and noisy, Sissie is permeated by a quiet anger that builds and builds inexorably. John A. Williams may well be a front-runner in a new surge of Negro creativity.

David A. Boroff, "Blue Note for Bigotry," in Saturday Review (Entire issue copyright 1963 by Saturday Review Associates, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 30, 1963, p. 49.

Barbara Joye

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Man Who Cried I Am John Williams uses conventional craftsmanship to induce readers to suspend their disbelief; then, at the end, he reveals a conspiracy theory of recent history which links a United States government blue-print for Negro genocide with [real events]…. Flashbacks intertwine this shocker with a great deal of more easily assimilable material. Williams' generally believable characterizations and constant references to painful aspects of modern American history will prepare most readers to accept the ending as at least symbolically true. It may be viewed as the logical extension of what we already know. Other readers less predisposed to Williams' point of view will regard the often stilted dialogue and the overambitious plot as defects that prevent the book from totally convincing. (p. 411)

Williams records his impressions of almost everything that has ever happened between World War II and 1964. His ability to work all this in depends mainly on his choice of a hero, Max Reddick, who is not only a successful Negro novelist, former officer of a segregated army unit...

(The entire section is 1,739 words.)