“The other white men didn’t even rouse up as the guard thrashed off into the underbrush with Linda, but everyone on the coffle [a train of slaves chained together] was awake. Every night since Montgomery, one of the white men had taken Linda into the bushes and they had been made wretched by her pleas and pitiful whimperings. The noise from the underbrush stopped abruptly.”
However unpleasant the scene, surely we have evidence here of a masterful economy of words. In two random selections, then, I came upon material that was not only powerful but suggestive of the writer’s talent and expressive of the strained conditions found within the novel.
Yet the Bradley piece (I reminded myself) was a favorable review; and a good review in the New York Times was like money in the bank. So what if I found the reviewer’s remarks less than precise and thought his quote lackluster? Sherley Anne Williams was raised not to “hope too hard.” The corollary to this is, of course, to be grateful for what you get.
Following Williams’s death, the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a brief tribute. Williams was described as a pioneer in the study and teaching of African-American literature that began with her admission to the UCSD faculty in 1973.
“It was a time when [such literature] was still only marginally accepted,” said UCSD colleague Rosaura Sanchez. “Sherley put it on the UCSD literary map and made it central to our studies.”
During her career as an educator, Williams chaired the literature department at UCSD. She was a senior Fulbright lecturer at the University of Ghana and a visiting professor at Stanford University, usc, and Sweet Briar College in Lynchburg, Virginia.
In 1975, The Peacock Poems, Williams’s first book of verse, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. She won an Emmy Award for a television performance of poems from her second book of verse, Some One Sweet Angel Chile. It was another National Book Award nominee. Her one-woman drama, Letters from a New England Negro, was performed at the National Black Theatre Festival in 1991 and at the Chicago International Theater Festival in 1992.
Working Cotton, her first children’s story, won an American Library Association Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Honor. Williams had recently published another children’s book, Girls Together.
The New York Times’ obituary concluded with a list of the survivors: Her son, John Malcolm Stewart of Lancaster, California; a sister, Ruby Birdson; and three grandchildren.
The word count of the Times obituary totaled 696. The number itself gave a neat symmetry to the messy stuff of living.
“Her life was a tough one and you felt it in her writing,” Dijkstra told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “It’s a tragic loss for us all, but she will live through her writing. And that’s what she wanted.”
And it was to her writing that I went. Her children’s stories were on the shelves and easy to come by. I’d paid twice the original price for my copy of Dessa Rose and nearly four times the original price for her poetry books. I was able to borrow Give Birth to Brightness from a friend. Following my experiment with flipping pages, I opened Dessa Rose in earnest, eager to gorge myself on the story. It was tough. On the jacket, a blurb from Nobel Prize–winner Toni Morrison reads, “Having this treasure of a book available again for new and more readers is not only necessary, it is imperative.” Necessary and imperative — the terms of extremity should have warned me. Indeed, from almost the first moment with Dessa Rose and Kaine, I was caught up in an account so harrowing that each new paragraph threatened to rub me as raw as the iron cuff on the slaves’ ankles. Williams said that in doing her research for the book, she was brought “to the brink of despair.” I wanted to put the book aside.
“No, finish it,” prize-winning poet Philip Levine told me later. “It’s worth it.”
My search for Sherley Anne Williams was spurred on by three things — a peevish tone in a book review, an obituary in the Washington Post, and a personal association. The review was written by New York Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. On July 12, 1986, in a review of Dessa Rose, he called Williams’s imagination “tough and realistic,” cited her storytelling gifts, and wrote “Thus has Sherley Anne Williams breathed wonderful life into the bare bones of the past.” But then Lehmann-Haupt mentions that in the introduction to her novel, Williams calls to account a controversial book, The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. He suggests that Williams came late to the debate raging about the Pulitzer Prize–winning book — that is, whether a white man (Styron) could give a fair first-person narrative of a slave rebel. And the critic nitpicks, berating Williams for mistaking the publication date of the book (a fact that should have been caught by an editor). Lehmann-Haupt’s tone was so testy that I wondered exactly who was this woman who could get a seasoned critic to drop his measured tones and squall like a wet cat.
The Washington Post obituary was written by Robert Hass, the 1995–1997 U.S. poet laureate. He was brief, recounting in one paragraph Williams’s history and her achievements and reminding readers that she had begun her career as a poet and that she had discovered the poetry of African-Americans. “I was just captivated by their language,” he quotes her, “their speech and their character, because I always liked the way black people talk. So I wanted to work in that writing.” Hass ended his tribute with two of Williams’s poems. The concluding lines of the second poem (“you were never miss brown to me”) echoed in my head long after I set the notice aside.
- …I am
- the women of my childhood
- just as I was the women of
- my youth, one with these women
- of silence who lived on the
- cusp of their time and knew it;
- who taught what it is to be grown.