John A. Williams might be one of the most prolific writers most people have never heard of.
Although he was often compared to Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Williams didn’t much like that. He felt that when black writers were lumped together by the literary establishment, only one at a time would be allowed to succeed. His novels, which were always focused through the prism of race and were told from his black characters’ point of view, were well-reviewed. But Williams never reached the level of fame of writers like Wright, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.
Williams died on July 3, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, in a veterans home in Paramus, N.J. He was 89 years old and is survived by his second wife, Lorraine; his sons Dennis, Gregory and Adam; his sister; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Williams was a prolific writer, penning almost two dozen books and countless essays in his long career. His characters were black, but they were not monolithic. Williams peopled his pages with jazz musicians. In Night Song, they played in Greenwich Village; in Clifford’s Blues, it was a German concentration camp. There were housekeepers in Sissie, old players trying to keep their game tight in Mothersill and the Foxes, and aging high school athletes in The Junior Bachelor Society. Williams also wrote a picture history of Africa and a book for young readers. And, with his son Dennis, he authored a biography of comedian Richard Pryor.
Williams’ best-known book is a long rumination on race, black writers and political intrigue, The Man Who Cried I Am. The title is a reference to the protagonist, expatriate black writer Max Reddick, who has achieved success in the white literary world as a black writer. “All you ever want to do is remind me I am black. But, goddamn it, I also am.” The book centers on Reddick’s discovery, through a box of inherited papers, of something called the King Alfred Plan, a government plan to intern and destroy America’s black population. King Alfred is a tightly held secret, and the quandary of what next? moves the book along. Williams’ description of the plan is so persuasive that a lot of Internet black helicopter conspiracy theorists adamantly believe it’s real.
At one point, it was a must-read by black students in the late ’60s. “I didn’t read a lot of black literature in college,” says UCLA professor Richard Yarborough. “But The Man Who Cried I Am was one of those required books when you’re black and in college and conscious about your blackness.” It was a rite-of-passage kind of book for many black collegians.
“It’s a big book. Very demanding,” says Yarborough, “full of sophisticated ideas, subtly expressed.” And it was not stick-it-to-the-man formulaic, as some black novels of the period could be.
Williams was born in Jackson, Miss., but his family went North, part of the Great Migration. He attended high school in upstate New York, in Syracuse, but left before graduating to join the Navy during World War II. There Williams served in the Pacific theater as a medical corpsman. After his service, Williams went to Syracuse University on the G.I. Bill. He moved to New York City and held several public relations jobs before transitioning to journalism. He spent a year as the European correspondent for Ebony and Jet magazines, and briefly covered Africa for Newsweek in the mid-1960s. He perceived that he’d only be allowed to go but so far in journalism, and left the field.
Journalism never left him, though. For one thing, it meant his writing was very clean, says Yarborough. For another, his overseas reporting left him with “a world view that was interested in the black diaspora — especially post-colonial Africa and how it connects to the civil rights movement in the U.S.” It was a point of view ahead of its time.
Thirty years later, Williams would break more ground with Clifford’s Blues, a tale about a gay piano player in Nazi Germany who finds himself in a concentration camp. Yarborough says when he invited Williams to appear on a panel that discussed black masculinity, Williams read from his new book. “The audience was thrown,” Yarborough chuckled. “Who at that time was addressing black gay issues?”
Williams liked stirring the pot, sometimes to the point that it boiled over. Barely two years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Williams wrote The King That God Didn’t Save: Reflections on the Life and Death of Dr. Martin Luther King. In it, Williams posited that King’s ego had blinded him to the fact that he would always be constrained by the powers-that-be only to the victories they would allow him. King’s belief in the ultimate “beloved community” of racial conciliation and harmony, Williams said, made him unable “to perceive the manipulation of white power and in the end white power killed him.”
For black believers and white liberals, for people who hung commemorative King plates and portraits on their walls, this did not go down well. Williams’ next novel, Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light, is a thriller about a former civil rights activist who gives up on nonviolence after deciding it no longer works and turns to homicide instead.
Williams never lost his edge, but he chose to soften it a bit in later years with The Junior Bachelor Society. In his obituary for Williams, The New York Times’ William Grimes described it as “an unexpectedly heartwarming story about a group of middle-aged black men who return to their hometown to honor their football coach and mentor.” NBC later turned it into a mini-series and retitled it The Sophisticated Gents.
UCLA’s Richard Yarborough says Williams found himself in “this odd, in-between position: younger than Wright and Baldwin, older than Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Ishmael Reed.”
Because he chose not to make himself visible on the lecture circuit and as a talking head, John A. Williams did not receive as much prominence as many critics believe he deserved.
His legacy will be his intellectual rigor, his insightful look at human psychology, and his fearlessness in addressing issues of race and creativity.
Writing about race, and about the intractability of racism, would prove corrosive for some writers. Not Williams. “I’m still angry,” he once told Publisher’s Weekly, “but you can’t just be angry all the time.”