John A. Williams: An Observant Artist
John A. Williams is a great writer.
It is easy to forget that John A. Williams is a great writer as our attention is consumed by such recent writing as Jeffery Renard Allen’s Song of the Shank, Keenan Norris’ Brother and the Dancer, and James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. Our memory of writing that prepared us to read these three novelists with some intelligence grows dim. Thus, we are obligated to thank Ishmael Reed for his intervention, for his reminding us several years ago of a duty to rediscover what is good and lasting in the works of John A. Williams. We can be led to the water. We can’t be forced to drink. So too we can be directed to the path of right reading. We cannot be forced to journey along that path. Mindful that Williams was writing blackly before, during, and after the ascent of the Black Arts phenomenon, we must will ourselves to discover or rediscover his literary geopolitics.
According to the symbolic gestures used in American higher education, Williams is “canonized.” Segments of his novel The Man Who Cried I Am (1967) appear in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, a book widely used in the teaching of what is currently deemed “literary.” Segments of his nonfiction are absent. Literature and the literary, we do remember, are subsets of the vast field constituted by practices of literacy and cultural expression. The representation of particles of a writer’s work in an anthology is not sufficient and necessary evidence that the writer has a secure place in cultural memory; much that is included in an anthology is not actually taught in our efforts to increase cultural literacy.
It is probable that Williams’ greatness manifests itself more powerfully as a body of writing than as individual works, some of which are ostracized from the territory of the literary and the aesthetic. To experience the force and necessity of his greatness, we have to read and interpret much more of it than any anthology can contain. We should read Williams at once inside and outside a canon.
Williams’ concise biography of Richard Wright The Most Native of Sons (1970) is an example of an observant artist at work in documenting the achievements of an ancestor. The perceived relationship of the biography to The Man Who Cried I Am gives us clues about how deeply invested Williams is in observing, hearing and seeing and illuminating strategies of detection. We learn from him how to see better. He helps us to discriminate visual and cognitive acuity from what American literary commentators so casually code as anger.
The title Williams chose for his first novel was One for New York. That choice was overruled by the publishers, who with profit in mind renamed his manuscript The Angry Ones (1960). American readers were manipulated into believing that Williams was a typical/stereotypical angry and bitter Negro writer climbing a racial mountain. “Angry” was a dirty code word that authorized readers to say that Williams and other black writers were “forcing us to remember all those unpleasant things our society prevented us from forgetting or refashioning as non-threatening entertainments.” Such limitation of critical vocabulary fogged appreciation of Williams’ technical prowess, his nuanced imagination. His revenge was to become a better writer.
One of the few critics who had sympathetic understanding of what Williams was aiming for, Bernard W. Bell wrote with critical sensitivity about Williams’ fiction in The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (1987). He was not immune to speaking of anger and bitterness, but he was smart enough to give notice to the primal importance of how Williams used experimentation and mastery of realism’s array of techniques. For him, Night Song (1961), Sissie (1963), The Man Who Cried I Am (l967), Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969), Captain Blackman (1972), Mothersill and the Foxes (19750, The Junior Bachelor Society (1976), and !Click Song (1982) constitute a spectrum from competent to excellent. I suspect he might have said the same for The Berhama Account (1985), Jacob’s Ladder (1987), and Clifford’s Blues (1999). We can observe a special excellence in how Williams wove together the horrors of Dachau and the Hebraic tribulations of being a gay jazz musician in Clifford’s Blues. Only a gifted, observant artist can pull off such an achievement. Observe that this novel amplifies a long-forgotten meditation on gayness in The Man Who Cried I Am.
Bell recognized fusion of individual and historical perspectives does not always succeed, but one would be hard put to say that Williams “failed” in his use of craft to deal with experiential diversity. As Bell observed, Williams’ novels are “in the tradition of realism” and they “reveal a growing radical consciousness and preoccupation with form” (253). Bell helps us to notice that Williams succeeded in rewriting Sutton Griggs into twentieth-century modernism; that he took us to the interior where art is born in struggle by alluding to Miriam Makeba’s performing the Xhosa click song in the title! Click Song; that he played with time in Captain Blackman by engaging the gravity of actual history with a brief nod to Virginia Woolf’s time-twisting in Orlando: A Biography (1928), a funny bit of androgynous writing. We might also notice that Williams fused the discipline of keen-eyed journalism with the looser discipline of fiction.
We have scant evidence that engaging Williams’ works is a commonplace practice in African American literary histories. His name is mentioned neither in Gene Andrew Jarrett’s Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature nor in John Ernest’s Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History. He is mentioned once (page 12) in The Cambridge History of African American Literature. In a desirable future sustained engagement with the greatness of John Alfred Williams might increase. Engagement must include critical attention to his nonfiction ---- This Is My Country Too (1965), The King God Didn’t Save (1970), Flashbacks: A Twenty-Year Diary of Article Writing (1973), If I Stop I’ll Die: the Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor (1991) and Dear Chester, Dear John: Letters Between Chester Himes and John A. Williams (2008). The prospect, however, is contingent. We have no guarantees it will actually happen. We only have the agency to make it happen.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
June 19, 2014