Dessa Rose, 1986
The Peacock Poems, 1975
Some One Sweet Angel Chile, 1982
Children’s/Young Adult Literature:
Working Cotton, 1992
Girls Together, 1999
Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature, 1972
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 in black culture, community, and folklore.
While studying and writing, Williams was also gaining teaching experience as a community educator at Federal City College in Washington, D.C. After finishing her master’s degree, she returned to California State University at Fresno, her alma mater, to teach English. In 1975 she moved to the University of California at San Diego.
Though talented in fiction and criticism, it was Williams’s poetry that first brought her national attention. The Peacock Poems, published in 1975, was nominated for a National Book Award in poetry. This collection combines poetry, lyrical prose narratives, and the blues tradition in a highly autobiographical work. Poems about Williams’s son frame the collection: “Say Hello to John” describes his birth, and “I See My Life” describes his movement from child to mature individual. Between these poems, Williams’s lyrical blues poetry renders a woman’s suffering and pain and the transcendent healing the blues makes possible.
Published in 1982, Some One Sweet Angel Chile extends Williams’s poetic exploration of the blues tradition. Drawing upon nineteenth century slave narratives, part 1, “Letters from a New England Negro,” describes the experiences of the fictional Hannah, a freeborn woman of color, as she teaches freed slaves in the South. Part 2, “Regular Reefer,” focuses on an actual historical figure, blues singer Bessie Smith. The poems in this section use blues rhythms and language to chronicle events from Smith’s life. Parts 3 and 4, “The Songs of the Grown” and “The Iconography of Childhood,” also draw upon the blues. Throughout Some One Sweet Angel Chile, Williams uses poetry to recover and give voice to the history of black women and to re-create imaginatively histories that have been lost.
In Dessa Rose, published in 1986, Williams chose the novel as her vehicle for recovering the history of black women. In the author’s note she explains that her title character and plot are based on historical incidents. One, from Angela Davis’s “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves” (1971), involved a pregnant black woman who led an uprising among a group of slaves. The second, from Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts (1969), concerned a white woman who assisted runaway slaves. In Williams’s novel these historical figures join forces to subvert the forces of sexism and racism; their collaboration makes it possible for Dessa Rose to journey from slavery to freedom, from silence to literacy, and from isolation to community. She becomes the sort of hero that Williams celebrates in Give Birth to Brightness, one rooted in an African American community and folklore tradition. Dessa Rose was named a notable book by The New York Times.
In her author’s note to Dessa Rose Williams observes, “Afro-Americans, having survived by word of mouth–and made of that process a high art–remain at the mercy of literature and writing; often, these have betrayed us.” Throughout her literary career, Williams sought to correct that betrayal and to restore to the American literary tradition the voices and stories of African American women.