Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Williams’s fourth novel brought him international acclaim for the power of his social thought and his artistry. It is a militant novel that was published during a decade of militancy and urgent questioning of the direction that should be taken by the movement for black liberation. Malcolm X, who represented the position that black Americans should defend and free themselves “by any means necessary,” had recently been assassinated by black gunmen who might have been directed by the federal government. Martin Luther King, Jr., who represented nonviolent mass action for redress of grievances, had achieved remarkable early successes but appeared to be losing effectiveness as the backlash by white supremacists gathered momentum.

In this context, Williams offered a double perspective on the pervasive effects of centuries-old patterns of American racism. Through his story of the discovery of the King Alfred Plan, Williams dramatized the secretiveness and desperation of racist collaboration and the necessity of unmasking and unveiling the agents and organizations of racism. He warned of the potentially disastrous extent of the racist threat to black Americans and to democracy. Through his protagonist’s life and death, Williams illustrated the perversion by racial prejudice and discrimination of every aspect of private and public life, from individual self-concept and romantic love to presidential politics and international intrigue. He also illustrated the terrible price paid by...

(The entire section is 609 words.)