Other literary forms

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Known primarily as a novelist but also as a short-story writer, John A. Williams has produced an extraordinary number of nonfiction pieces, many of them journalistic. He was among the first African Americans of his generation to write a fact book about Africa, Africa: Her History, Lands, and People (1962). His treatment of 1960’s social issues can be found in The Protectors: The Heroic Story of the Narcotics Agents, Citizens, and Officials in Their Unending, Unsung Battles Against Organized Crime in America and Abroad (1964) and in This Is My Country Too (1965), which documents Williams’s travels throughout the United States in 1963-1964, from articles serialized in Holiday magazine.

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A controversial work, The King God Didn’t Save: Reflections on the Life and Death of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1970) is a critical look at civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.’s public and private life, and The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright (1970) treats the life of the famed black novelistRichard Wright. A comprehensive compilation of articles, some autobiographical, was published in Flashbacks: A Twenty-Year Diary of Article Writing (1973). Williams has also produced an award-winning book of poetry, Safari West (1998), the play Last Flight from Ambo Ber (pr. 1981), dealing with the Falashas in Ethiopia, and the libretto for the opera Vanqui (pr. 1999).


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One of the most prolific and influential writers of his era, John A. Williams infuses his works with self-exploration, reflecting the collective social experience of African Americans. He has lectured widely, contributed extensively to anthologies, and edited numerous collections, such as The Angry Black (1962), Beyond the Angry Black (1966), Amistad I (1970), Amistad II (1971), Yardbird No. 2 (1978), The McGraw-Hill Introduction to Literature (1985), Way B(l)ack Then and Now: A Street Guide to African Americans in Paris (1992), and Bridges: Literature Across Cultures (1994). In the 1970’s, he was a contributing editor for such publications as American Journal and Politicks, and in the 1980’s he served in a similar capacity for the distinguished, groundbreaking publication Journal of African Civilizations.

Williams has been the recipient of numerous awards, beginning with his recognition in 1962 by the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His other honors and achievements include the Richard Wright-Jacques Roumain Award (1973), the National Endowment for the Arts Award (1977), the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, Rutgers University (1982), the American Book Award for !Click Song (1983), the New Jersey Literary Hall of Fame Michael Award (1987), the American Book Award for Safari West (1998), and induction into the National Literary Hall of Fame (1998).


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Cash, Earl A. John A. Williams: The Evolution of a Black Writer. New York: Third Press, 1975. This text is the first book-length study of Williams’s works, covering the nonfiction and the novels through Captain Blackman.

Fleming, Robert. “John A, Williams.” Black Issues Book Review 4 (July/August, 2002): 46-49. A profile of Williams and his work.

Gayle, Addison, Jr. The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975. Gayle addresses the shift from protest to history in The Man Who Cried I Am and Captain Blackman.

Muller, Gilbert H. John A. Williams. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Containing a chronology and thematic approach, this study is a comprehensive treatment of Williams’s life and work through !Click Song.

Nadel, Alan. “My Country Too: Time, Place, and Afro-American Identity in the Work of John Williams.” Obsidian II: Black Literature in Review 2, no. 3 (1987): 25-41. This article examines selected nonfiction and fiction, showing political orientation and modernist patterns.

Ramsey, Priscilla R. “John A. Williams: The Black American Narrative and the City.” In The City in African-American Literature, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert Butler. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995. Focusing on urban realities, this study offers an overview of selected Williams novels.

Reilly, John M. “Thinking History in The Man Who Cried I Am.” Black American Literature Forum 21, nos. 1/2 (1987): 25-42. Reilly considers Williams’s novel in relation to naturalism and history.

Ro, Sigmund. “Toward the Post-Protest Novel: The Fiction of John A. Williams.” In Rage and Celebration: Essays on Contemporary Afro-American Writing. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1984. This essay argues that Williams’s novels develop from protest fiction to novelistic treatments of 1960’s racial issues.

Smith, Virginia W. “Sorcery, Double-Consciousness, and Warring Souls: An Intertextual Reading of Middle Passage and Captain Blackman.” African American Review 30 (Winter, 1996): 659-674. Smith asserts that Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage was influenced by Captain Blackman. She points out a number of similar themes between the novels, such as war and interracial and intraracial conflict.

Tal, Kali. “‘That Just Kills Me.’” Social Text 20 (Summer, 2002): 65-92. Discusses Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light in a study of militant black futurist novels.

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Critical Essays