Sherley Anne Williams Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The poet, critic, and novelist Sherley Anne Williams was one of the talented African American writers who emerged on the post-Civil Rights movement literary scene. Born to Lena and Jessee Winston Williams, hardworking farm laborers in the San Joaquin Valley, Williams experienced a childhood marked by loss: Her father died of tuberculosis when she was seven, and her mother died when Sherley was sixteen.

Williams attended California State University at Fresno, where, in 1966, she received her bachelor of arts degree. A student of literature, Williams began writing her own fiction during her college years. Viewing writing as a means of communicating, she wrote with publication as her goal, one she soon achieved: The Massachusetts Review published her first short story in 1967. “Tell Martha Not to Moan” was inspired by Williams’s desire to write about lower-income black women, largely absent from literature. This drive to communicate the significance of black women, to give them a voice in literature, forms a common thread throughout Williams’s writing.

As she started her writing career, Williams continued to pursue the education necessary for her career as a teacher. From 1966 to 1967 she studied at Howard University. In 1972 she completed her master’s degree in English at Brown University. During her years of graduate study Williams wrote her first critical study of African American literature. In Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature Williams defines a contemporary black aesthetic, one that represents black life as culturally rich on its own terms, and not merely in terms of its relationship to white culture. Analyzing the role of the hero in Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman (pr., pb. 1964) and The Slave (pr., pb. 1964), James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie (pr., pb. 1964), and Ernest Gaines’s Of Love and Dust (1967), Williams concludes that the black hero must be rooted...

(The entire section is 812 words.)


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Sherley Anne Williams was born on August 25, 1944, in Bakersfield, California. She lived with her parents, Jesse Winson Williams and Lena-Leila Marie (Siler) Williams, and her three sisters in a housing project in Fresno, California. Her parents were migrant agricultural workers who harvested cotton and fruit in the San Joaquin Valley. Williams was eight when her father, who had tuberculosis, died. At age sixteen, she mourned her mother’s sudden death.

Williams read constantly as a child. Several teachers recognized her potential and suggested that she take advanced classes. Williams graduated from Edison High School in 1962. At Fresno State College (later California State University, Fresno), she concentrated on history and literature courses, and admired Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’s work. In 1966, Williams received a bachelor of arts degree. She moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to attend Robert Hayden’s poetry classes at Fisk University, then to Washington, D.C., to study poetry with Sterling A. Brown at Howard University.

Williams returned to California, giving birth to her son John Malcolm Stewart in September, 1968. She and her son moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where Williams started graduate school at Brown University, pursuing her goal of becoming a college professor. She earned a master of arts degree in American literature in 1972; her thesis “Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black...

(The entire section is 450 words.)


Sherley Anne Williams (1944-1999) was an African American critic, poet, novelist, playwright, and professor. She was born in Bakersfield, California, and raised in Fresno. Her family survived on welfare and worked as migrant workers in the orchards and cotton fields of the San Joaquin Valley.

Williams’s father died of tuberculosis when she was eight, and her mother died when she was sixteen. Although a teacher had encouraged her to go to college, Williams could not afford it, so she worked in the cotton fields to support herself. Eventually she earned a place at Fresno State University and she later completed her master’s degree at Brown University. She joined the literature department of the University of California-San Diego in 1973.

Williams initially wrote poetry. Her first book of poems, The Peacock Poems, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. In 1986, Williams focused her attention on her experiences in cotton fields and completed research to develop the main character for her novel Dessa Rose.

The enslaved woman Dessa Rose tells her story through her own voice. Williams focused on this particular aspect quite keenly as she admired the manner of speech in black culture. The three different voices of Dessa, as she describes herself at three different points in her life, reflect an evolving spirit emerging from slavery into what it is to be free.

Throughout her poetry and fiction, Williams reflects the influences of Langston Hughes, Phillip Levine, Amiri Baraka, and Richard Wright. The lyrical content of Dessa Rose pays homage to the rhythms of blues music. Her first short story, “Tell Marth Not to Moan” (1967), was her first attempt to incorporate this sound into her writing.

Williams's work, particularly Dessa Rose, incorporates fully developed female characters, with their psyches and sexual natures presented in a straightforward manner. This allows Williams to illustrate multiple dimensions of a slave woman’s identity, particularly the idea of desire, which had often been suppressed because of the oppression and sexual violence slaves suffered.

Williams died at the age of fifty-four of cancer in 1999.