A Voice of the Underclass
Sherley Anne Williams, whose reputation as a writer was fortified by her novel Dessa Rose (1986), was an accomplished poet. Developing a poetics of blues drawn from the African American cultural tradition, Williams turned her experience of life’s hardships and her struggles into an aesthetic triumph in The Peacock Poems, which was nominated for the National Book Award in Poetry for 1976, and Some One Sweet Angel Chile. Sophisticated in structural design and original in thematic exploration, Williams’s poetry added new dimensions and fresh perspectives to contemporary American literature by giving a voice to black women of the economic underclass.
Williams’s writing was inseparable from her will to rise above the deprivations of her childhood—she grew up in a housing project in Fresno, California, her father died when she was eight years old, and her mother died eight years later. Despite her disadvantaged background, Williams managed to go to college, earning a B.A. from Fresno State College in 1966 and an M.A. from Brown University in 1972. She published Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature in 1972 and became a professor of Afro-American literature at the University of California at San Diego in 1982.
Williams’s creative writing is informed by a literary aesthetic developed from critical analyses of African American culture and history. As is evident from her critical writings, this aesthetic draws heavily from the traditions of the blues, slave narratives, and black speech.