Sherley Anne Williams Williams, Sherley Anne - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sherley Anne Williams 1944–

(Also Shirley Williams) American novelist, poet, critic, and author of children's books.

The following entry provides an overview of Williams's career through 1992.

Williams is highly regarded for her 1986 novel Dessa Rose, a fictional account of the life of an escaped slave. Focusing on blues music, her ancestry and upbringing, and the role and contributions of blacks—particularly black women—in American society, Williams's writings attempt to bring the female African-American experience into the American literary canon.

Biographical Information

Born in Bakersfield, California, Williams spent her early childhood in a Fresno housing project and often worked with her parents in fruit and cotton fields. Her father died of tuberculosis before her eighth birthday, and her mother died when Williams was sixteen. Consequently, she was raised by an older sister, whom she cites as a major influence on her life. Williams was also deeply affected by a particularly helpful science teacher as well as Richard Wright's Black Boy (1945), Eartha Kitt's Thursday's Child (1956), and other books by black authors. She has stated: "It was largely through these autobiographies I was able to take heart in my life." Williams studied at Fresno State College and Fisk, Howard, and Brown universities before deciding to become a writer. She has taught at the California State University, Fresno, where she earned a B.A. in history, and at the University of California, San Diego.

Major Works

Give Birth to Brightness (1972), a collection of critical essays focusing on the achievements of such twentieth-century African-American writers as Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, and Ernest J. Gaines, offers thematic analyses of their work and of black archetypes appearing in their fiction. Williams has described the book as "a public statement of how I feel about and treasure one small aspect of Blackness in America." Williams's 1975 verse collection, The Peacock Poems, is considered highly autobiographical and largely influenced by blues music. Focusing in part on her son's development and her role as a single mother, the volume is noted for its representation of Black English. The volume also contains, as Williams has noted, "something of that early, early life when my father and mother were alive and we followed the crops." Her autobiographical children's book, Working Cotton (1992), further explores her childhood, chronicling one day in the life of a young girl, Shelan, who works as a farmhand with her parents in the cotton fields of California. The pieces contained in Some One Sweet Angel Chile (1982) expand on the blues motifs employed in The Peacock Poems. These poems are grouped into sections, including one that is comprised of letters written by a black woman born out of slavery who goes to teach newly freed slaves in the South. Another section pays tribute to the "Empress of Blues," "the sweet angel chile" Bessie Smith, while the final section, "The Iconography of Childhood," incorporates memories of Williams's youth, juxtaposing the children's voices represented in earlier sections of the book with their adult counterparts. Two economically disadvantaged women are at the center of Williams's first novel and most highly acclaimed work, Dessa Rose. Employing alternating viewpoints, the book recounts the memories of its title character, a whip-scarred, pregnant slave jailed for committing violent crimes against white men. Dessa recalls her life on the plantation with her lover, who was killed by their master. In turn, Dessa attacked the master's wife, was arrested and chained to other slaves in a coffle, and ultimately escaped by killing her white captors during a slave rebellion. Tracked down and sentenced to die, Dessa is put in prison until the birth of her child—whom the whites view as valuable property and a future source of income. During her incarceration, she is interviewed by Adam Nehemiah, a white author who expects to become famous by publishing an analysis of her crimes. Dessa escapes again, giving birth to her child while on the run. She eventually finds refuge with other runaway slaves on a plantation run by Ruth Elizabeth "Rufel" Sutton, a poor white woman. While Dessa is recovering from the baby's birth, Rufel takes pity on the infant and begins nursing it, an act that leads to a special bond of friendship between the two women. In a scam designed by the runaways, Rufel earns money by selling the runaways as slaves, waiting for them to escape, and, once reunited, starting the process again. All goes well until Dessa is spotted by the enraged Nehemiah, but the two women elude capture with the help of another woman. Williams has said she hoped Dessa Rose would "heal some wounds" made by racism in the wake of slavery. In her view, she explained, fiction is one way to conceive of "the impossible … and putting these women together, I could come to understand something not only about their experience of slavery but about them as women, and imagine the basis for some kind of honest rapprochement between black and white women."

Critical Reception

Williams's favorable reception among critics is largely attributed to the success of Dessa Rose. Although occasionally faulted as clichéd, the novel has been lauded for its focus on female slaves, a group that has largely been ignored in historical and fictional accounts of American history. Recognized for its use of dialect and its emphasis on the relationship between language, identity, and power, the novel is also praised for offering multiple perspectives on nineteenth-century social thought; for example, critics note that the progression of the novel's three sections—which are entitled "The Darky," "The Wench," and "The Negress"—delineate an evolving, increasingly enlightened view of female slaves as human beings and not merely property. Dessa Rose has also been praised for its focus on the role of women—black and white—in the antebellum South, and discussion of the friendship that develops between Rufel and Dessa is considered central to any analysis of the story. Michele Wallace has written: "Dessa Rose reveals both the uniformities and the idiosyncrasies of 'woman's place,' while making imaginative and unprecedented use of its male characters as well. Sherley Anne Williams's accomplishment is that she takes the reader someplace we're not accustomed to going, someplace historical scholarship may never take us—into the world that black and white women shared in the antebellum South. But what excites me the most, finally, about this novel is its definition of friendship as the collective struggle that ultimately transcends the stumbling-blocks of race and class." Although mainly known for Dessa Rose, Williams has also achieved critical acclaim with Give Birth to Brightness, which is considered a seminal survey of African-American literature, and The Peacock Poems, which was nominated for a National Book Award.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature (criticism) 1972
The Peacock Poems [as Shirley Williams] (poetry) 1975
Some One Sweet Angel Chile (poetry) 1982
Dessa Rose (novel) 1986
Working Cotton (children's book) 1992

Mel Watkins (review date 8 July 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Some Art for Blacks' Sake," in The New York Times, July 8, 1972, p. 23.

[Watkins is an American editor, journalist, and writer of children's books. In the following excerpt, he offers a generally favorable assessment of Give Birth to Brightness, commenting in particular on Williams's theories regarding "neo-black" writing.]

During the last few years, questions concerning the pertinence of black literature to the black community have been hotly debated, along with the possibility of establishing a viable criterion for judging literature. Various writers and critics have suggested theories of a "black esthetic," but generally these theories have eschewed...

(The entire section is 648 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 August 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Peacock Poems, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. XLIII, No. 16, August 15, 1975, pp. 990-91.

[In the following, the critic favorably assesses The Peacock Poems.]

Overlooking the fact that the plumed, strutting bird Shirley Williams so nearly identifies with happens to be male, this autobiographical cycle of poetry [The Peacock Poems]—Williams' first book—genuinely engages your sympathies. This is all about how "every woman is a victim of the feel blues, too" and it comes together, piece by piece, from the poet's desertion by the father of her child, to a metaphorical statement on the situation of the black woman vis-a-vis her no-good...

(The entire section is 192 words.)

Holly Prado (review date 4 July 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Tentative, Poetic Lives of Black Women," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 4, 1982, p. 6.

(The entire section is 898 words.)

Marilyn Hacker (review date 3 December 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Some One Sweet Angel Chile, in Commonweal, Vol. CIX, No. 21, December 3, 1982, p. 668.

[Hacker is an American poet and critic. In the following, she offers praise for Some One Sweet Angel Chile.]

Some One Sweet Angel Chile, by Sherley Anne Williams speaks in tongues and sings in many voices. It begins with an elegant and revelatory series of epistolary poems, "Letters From a New England Negro," written in the persona of an educated young black woman gone south, in 1867, to teach her newly-freed people. She learns as much as she teaches; the contradictions and rewards of the life she has left, as well as the situation she has come to...

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Sherley Anne Williams with Claudia Tate (interview date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate, Continuum, 1983, pp. 205-13.

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 12 July 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Friendship in Chains," in The New York Times, July 12, 1986, p. 12.

[Lehmann-Haupt is a critic and novelist. In the following positive review, he offers praise for Dessa Rose.]

As Sherley Anne Williams explains in an introductory note to Dessa Rose, her first novel, the story is based on two historical incidents. In one, she writes:

A pregnant black woman helped to lead an uprising on a coffle (a group of slaves chained together and herded, usually to market) in 1829 in Kentucky. Caught and convicted, she was sentenced to death; her hanging, however, was delayed until after the birth of her baby.


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David Bradley (review date 3 August 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On the Lam from Race and Gender," in The New York Times Book Review, August 3, 1986, p. 7.

[Bradley is an American novelist and educator; his works include South Street (1975) and The Chaneysville Incident (1981). In the following review, he analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of Dessa Rose.]

Two things can happen when poets venture into fiction. They can approach the business with the arrogant (or naive) assumption that they already understand the purposes and problems of fiction, and end up producing books which, while sometimes pyrotechnic in terms of poetry, are duds in terms of prose. This, alas, is the usual case. Sometimes, however, a...

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Marcia Gillespie (review date September 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Seraglio, The Plantation—Intrigue and Survival," in Ms., Vol. XV, No. 3, September, 1986, pp. 20-1.

[Gillespie is an American critic and editor who has worked for Esquire and Ms. magazines. In the following excerpt, she positively reviews Dessa Rose.]

[In Dessa Rose, Sherley Anne Williams] works from historical fragments—in this case, the lives of two women from the antebellum American South. One, a slave, black and pregnant, was sentenced to hang after childbirth for leading an uprising in 1829; the other, a pampered daughter of the plantocracy, reportedly provided sanctuary for runaway slaves on her southern farm in 1830....

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Doris Davenport (review date Fall 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Dessa Rose, in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 20, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 335-40.

[In the following review, Davenport examines how Dessa Rose "fits into, yet subtly alters, several Afro-American literary traditions."]

Recently there have been panels, papers, anthologies, and fights devoted to revising, updating, and enlarging the "canon" of literature. Some professors, most feminist critics, and other enlightened people want to make the literature we read and teach more representative and inclusive of different classes (not just the middle), races (not just white), and at least two sexes. From the Society for the Study of...

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Michele Wallace (review date October 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Slaves of History," in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. IV, No. 1, October, 1986, pp. 1, 3-4.

[An American critic and nonfiction writer, Wallace was a founding member of the National Black Feminist Organization. In the following excerpt, she offers a favorable assessment of Dessa Rose, discussing Williams's use of plot, theme, and characterization.]

Speculation about "what really happened" in the plantation South has proven irresistible to American novelists and their readers. From Uncle Tom's Cabin to Gone With the Wind, from Mandingo to Roots to Beulah Land, the enduring fascination with the South as a hotbed of...

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Sherley Anne Williams with Cheryl Y. Greene (interview date December 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Essence, Vol. 17, No. 8, December, 1986, p. 34.

[In the following interview, Williams discusses various topics, including theme and characterization in Dessa Rose.]

Sherley Anne Williams's gentle yet intense manner and quiet, dry sense of humor give only a hint of the compelling power of her writing. Until recently that included two books of poetry, Some One Sweet Angel Chile and The Peacock Poems, a book of literary criticism, Give Birth to Brightness, stories and a play. Her first novel, Dessa Rose, published this year to critical acclaim, is one of those books that opens a window onto our souls, changing the way we...

(The entire section is 980 words.)

Katherine Bucknell (review date 17 July 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Slave to the Slaves," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4398, July 17, 1987, p. 765.

[In the following review, Bucknell provides an unfavorable appraisal of Dessa Rose.]

Dessa Rose is a novel about race and gender relations in the southern United States during the mid-nineteenth century. Slavery was then at its height, and Sherley Anne Williams turns the institution upside down in order to suggest that human relations were determined more by individual personalities than by social roles. Her plot is driven by the principle that a slave determined and clever enough could win freedom by violence or trickery; thus her black characters are not slaves...

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Deborah E. McDowell (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Negotiating between Tenses: Witnessing Slavery after Freedom—Dessa Rose," in Slavery and the Literary Imagination: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1987, New Series, No. 13, edited by Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 144-64.

[In the following essay, McDowell examines issues of identity, discourse, and textuality in Dessa Rose.]

How could she bear witness to what she'd never lived?

—Gayl Jones, Corregidora

History is "cannibalistic," and memory becomes the closed arena of conflict between two...

(The entire section is 6327 words.)

Elizabeth Schultz (essay date Spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "And the Children May Know Their Names," in Callaloo, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 371-77.

[In the following essay, Schultz examines the relationship betweeen language, naming, knowledge, and identity in Dessa Rose.]

The facts of slavery, historical and experiential, form the substructure for most Afro-American novels, yet only a few—Arna Bontemp's Black Thunder (1936), Margaret Walker's Jubilee (1966), Ernest Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada (1976), Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), and Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose (1986)—have focused explicitly on the...

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Mary Kemp Davis (essay date Summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Everybody Knows Her Name: The Recovery of the Past in Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose," in Callaloo, Vol. 12, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 544-58.

[In the following essay, Davis discusses the significance of names and naming in Dessa Rose as well as historical aspects of the novel.]

Not having been around people very much who are dying, I did not know until then how it felt to see somebody walking down the hall tonight, then not see them in the morning because they are gone. Gone with a big letter, gone with a capital G. I mean solid and really not-here-no-more—gone. Silent, with nobody to scream....

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Marta E. Sánchez (essay date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Estrangement Effect in Sherley Anne Williams' Dessa Rose," in Genders, No. 15, Winter, 1992, pp. 21-36.

[In the following essay, Sánchez provides a textual analysis of Dessa Rose, examining how Williams uses voice, narration, and parody as means of creating a sense of estrangement in the novel.]

In Dessa Rose, Sherley Anne Williams offers us a complex and nuanced exemplum of a slave narrative written by a woman. This is an especially noteworthy achievement in light of the fact that extant and published slave narratives in the historical record were written by black men. Black women wrote less than 12 percent of published slave...

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Hazel Rochman (review date 1 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Working Cotton, in Booklist, Vol. 89, No. 1, September 1, 1992, p. 55.

[Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Rochman is an American critic, editor, and nonfiction writer. In the following review, she favorably assesses Working Cotton.]

"The rows of cotton stretch as far as I can see." The voice is that of Shelan, a migrant child laborer in the cotton fields of central California, and the words hold both physical reality and bitter metaphor. [In Sherley Anne Williams' Working Cotton, which was illustrated by Carole Byard, she] tells of a long day of work with her family—from the cold smoky dawn to night. Byard's double-page acrylic...

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Lyn Miller-Lachmann (review date November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Working Cotton, in School Library Journal, Vol. 38, No. 11, November, 1992, p. 81.

[In the following review, Miller-Lachmann offers praise for Working Cotton.]

[The protagonist of Sherley Anne Williams's Working Cotton,] Shelan is the third of four daughters in a family of African-American migrant workers. With a spare grace, she narrates one day in their lives as they work in the fields picking cotton. Although she is too young to do much, the girl helps pile cotton for her mother, who carries baby Leanne as she works. Sometimes, she befriends other children, "But you hardly ever see the same kids twice, 'specially after we moves to a...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Henderson, Mae G. "(W)riting The Work and Working the Rites." Black American Literature Forum 23, No. 4 (Winter 1989): 631-60.

Discusses Williams's story "Meditations on History," noting its focus on discourse and relationship to William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner. "Meditations of History" was later expanded into Dessa Rose.

Inscoe, John C. "Slave Rebellion in the First Person: The Literary Confessions of Nat Turner and Dessa Rose." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 97, No. 4 (October 1989): 419-36.

Compares and...

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