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...
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