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.
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.
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."
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.