A Voice of the Underclass

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.

The Peacock Poems

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Peacock Poems exemplifies Williams’s ingenuity in expression. It employs a nonlinear design suggestive of the fragmented life led by a woman who has to cope with the demands and constraints of reality in order to survive. The book’s structure is closely tied to the subject matter and the main theme of the poems, of which there are two types. The first type is situational poems dealing with significant aspects of Williams’s life experiences. Interweaving such experiences are poems in “classical blues” format that heighten the effects of the situations by acting as their lyrical commentaries. The situational poems and the literary blues reinforce and complement each other, so that the autobiographical sketches of the poet as a young, black, single mother in the first type of poems are thematized, in the second group, into a general history applicable to any woman with a background comparable to Williams’s. This movement from the individual to the communal is implied in the three divisions of the book. Their subtitles—“every woman is a victim of the feel blues, too,” “I neva thought I’d sing this song,” and “the lines converge here”—indicate that the poet’s task in the collection is to adopt the blues format as a vehicle for her personal experience, so that the blues that she sings can become a communal expression.

Williams’s thematization of her personal experience begins with “Any Woman’s Blues,” which is paradigmatic of the literary blues in the collection. Having established the connection between the poet and the blues tradition, the poem employs a bed as a “mascon” (an object, image, or metaphor, often used in blues, characterized by the “massive concentration” on its potential suggestions) to highlight how the bed has become “one-sided” from the woman’s “sleepin alone so mucha the time” and how it has been empty because “this man is messin with my mind.” As a prologue to the drama of black womanhood, the commentary in “Any Woman’s Blues” is borne out by the black woman’s predicament in the next few poems, in which readers witness a man confusing and alienating her in a sex-driven relationship (“This Is a Sad-Ass Poem for a Black Woman to Be Writing”), her sister chastising her for giving birth at an inappropriate moment (“Say Hello to John”), and the young mother plucking up enough courage to leave the man (“If he let us go now”), thus starting an odyssey between the coasts with a baby (“Time”). Although these experiences culminate in a crisis of anonymity (“A Walk into the Soft Soft”), they also strengthen the bond between a mother and child who spend their time together (“Time”) and above all contribute to the woman’s determination to make her life whole by integrating her memories of childhood in the San Joaquin Valley in California and her present predicament as a mother and student on campus in Providence, Rhode Island (“2« Poems”). Psychologically, the woman begins to mature in “Time,” a long poem charting the child’s growth and the woman’s development of rage. Her rage develops further into a feminist outrage in “Drivin Wheel,” in which the poet uses black English and slang to criticize black men for their “jiveness” and their subjugation of black women as a means of proving their manhood. The bitter and sometimes stormy tone provides a radical and militant variation to the blues.

The next two sections of The Peacock Poems...

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Some One Sweet Angel Chile

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In her second volume of poetry, Some One Sweet Angel Chile, Williams continued to exhibit the same merits, and her style mellowed. The book contains three distinct sections, each made up of a series of interwoven poems written from the perspectives of the personae involved.

The first section, “Letters from a New England Negro,” is a story in verse. Patient Herald (Hannah), the “herald of Emancipation’s/ new day,” sends a series of letters to Mrs. Josiah Harris (Miss Nettie) and Mr. Edward Harris, both in Newport, Rhode Island, as well as to Miss Ann Spencer of New Strowbridge, Connecticut. In her letters, she describes her experience as a black teacher in the South during 1867 and 1868. From the last letter, addressed to “Dearest One” (God), readers learn that Hannah had been a servant to the Harrises, a religious but liberal family to whom she is indebted for her education, which she has applied toward the uplifting of her race. The quasi-historical letters capture precious moments of humor, pride, humiliation, anger, perseverance, dedication, and courage when taken individually. As a whole, they are most striking for their treatment of an amicable and genial relationship between a white family and a black woman who possesses the best qualities of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois. The story also prefigures the black-white friendship in Dessa Rose.

“Regular Reefer,” the second section, is a composite portrayal of the celebrated blues singer Bessie Smith. The volume’s title comes from “some sweet angel chile,” a line in Smith’s “The Reckless Blues.” Structured like a montage, the series features a variety of poems including verse-pictures, simulated reminiscences, biographical portraits, approximations of Bessie’s speech and song, eulogies, and personal lyrics expressing the poet’s desire to be Bessie. The poems slide from one to the next, often making it difficult to determine not only where a poem begins and ends but also which voice—the poet’s or Bessie’s—is speaking. Bessie is a particularly appropriate mask for Williams, because she allows Williams to explore whether “if mask and woman/ are one, if pain is/ the sum of all your/ knowing, victim the/ only game you learned.” In the end, the identities of both the poet and the poet’s subject merge into one. Echoing...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Cutter, Martha J. Lost and Found in Translation: Contemporary Ethnic American Writing and the Politics of Language Diversity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Examines Williams’s use and representation of standard and nonstandard English.

Gable, Mona. “Understanding the Impossible.” Los Angeles Times Magazine, December 7, 1986, 22-28. An interview containing extensive biographical information.

Jones, Gayl. “Multiple-Voiced Blues: Sherley Anne Williams’ Some One Sweet Angel Chile. ” In Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Discusses Williams’s use of multiple voices in her poetry, which is inspired by the blues tradition.

Koolish, Lynda. “The Bones of This Body Say, Dance: Self-Empowerment in Contemporary Poetry by Women of Color.” In A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. Contains a section on Williams’s poetry discussing how she borrows from the slave-narrative tradition for formal and thematic inspiration.

Tate, Claudia. “Sherley Anne Williams.” In Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. An interview in which Williams discusses her identity as a black woman writer, her writing process, and her views on the teaching of American literature.

Williams, Sherley Anne. “The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry.” Massachusetts Review 18 (Autumn, 1977): 542-554. Discusses the history and techniques of blues. Important for understanding Williams’s poetics.