John Alfred Williams, the author of some twenty-one books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on 5 December 1925. An early member of the Black Arts movement, Williams had diverse experiences as an African American living in all regions of the United States. He served in the Pacific as a member of the US Naval Reserve, earned a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University in 1950, and taught at numerous colleges and universities including the City University of New York, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the College of the Virgin Islands, the University of Hawaii, Sarah Lawrence College, Boston University, and Rutgers University, where he served as the Paul Robeson Professor of English from 1979 until his retirement in 1994.
Williams’s acute sense of history, time, and place allows his novels to serve as specific documents for the historical researcher as well as a universal contemplation on how historical events and attitudes influence individual lives. His African American characters hail from all social and economic classes and resist the stereotypes that their environments attempt to impose on them.
His first novel, The Angry Ones (1960), explores the experience of a black professional in an interracial relationship. Sissie (1961) relates two siblings’ complicated relationship with their strong and forceful mother. Both novels received critical acclaim. The Man Who Cried I Am (1967) became a best seller. Captain Blackman (1972) was called “among the most important works of fiction of the decade” by the New York Times Book Review. The novel articulates the experiences of African American men in the US Army during the Vietnam War and other conflicts. Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light: A Novel of Some Probability (1969) investigates racism in the United States during the 1960s, particularly the rippling effect one hate crime has on the entire country. The book reveals the close linkages between people, especially when they strive their hardest to stay separated. Williams explores the little-known history of the African American experience abroad during World War II in Clifford’s Blues, in which a gay African American jazz musician is imprisoned at Dachau. Safari West: Poems (1998) showcases Williams’s poetry and illustrates his ability to address the African American experience in verse as well as prose.
Williams also published nonfiction, including works on Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Wright, and Richard Pryor; Africa: Her History, Lands, and People, an introduction to the people and politics of Africa in 1962 that emphasizes movements for independence; and a book about traveling in America, This Is My Country Too (1963). In addition, Williams edited several important works, beginning with The Angry Black (1962) and Beyond the Angry Black (1969). In the introduction to the second volume, Williams reflects on how the first book spoke of reason and truth: “What whimsy! . . . In order to nail down truth we must admit that our problems are dead and ugly and gnarled.”
- African American Literature Book Club website, www.aalbc.com
- William Grimes, New York Times (6 July 2015); Mississippi Writers’ Page website, www.olemiss.edu/mwp
- Jerry Ward, in Lives of Mississippi Authors, ed. James B. Lloyd (1981)