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Hard truths

John A. Williams illuminates the black experience


Visitors to the Rare Books Library at the University of Rochester this summer may feel like they have entered a parallel world. Filling 19 large display cases are books, articles, manuscripts, journals, letters, and photographs by, or related to, the man writer Ishmael Reed has called the greatest American novelist of the 20th century. So why is it so many people have never heard of John A. Williams?

            "Right now he's under the radar," says Richard Peek, the director of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at the UR's Rush Rhees Library. "But he will be rediscovered."

            Peek isn't waiting for the world to wake up to Williams. The UR's Rare Book Library is the repository for Williams' papers; Peek decided to give them the prominence they deserve. It's an astute decision. Williams is a singular figure in American literature, one well worth getting to know through his complex novels and riveting non-fiction.

            In his introduction to the show's catalog, Reed explains why Williams is not as well-known as he should be. "Nobody can accuse John A. Williams of shying away from the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts."

            Over his five-decade career, Williams has often been too radical for the literary establishment and too uncompromising for popular taste. In the early 1960s he traveled across America in a new white car, recounting the hostility he encountered in a book, This Is My Country Too. (Williams jokes that the book, written in the tradition of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charlie, could have been called Travels With Mr. Charlie.) Barely two years after the death of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. he published The King God Didn't Save, a critical look at the life and work of King that won him no shortage of disdain from King's many admirers.

            Williams' fiction initially drew praise from the literary world. In 1962 a panel of jurors consisting of John Hersey, S.J. Perelman, John Cheever, and others unanimously awarded him the American Academy of Arts and Letters' prestigious Prix de Rome, a traveling and writing fellowship. But, after an interview with the Director of the American Academy in Rome, the fellowship was revoked. Something about Williams was threatening to the system.

            Over the decades, Williams' achievements have occasionally been recognized. He has won a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1977), the American Book Award (1983), and the Phyllis Wheatley Award for Outstanding Contribution to African-American Culture (2002).

            But none of this means he can get his latest novel published. While the bookstore shelves and best-seller lists are filled with ghost-written celebrity biographies and fiction hardly worth the pulp it's printed on, Williams' 1999 novel, Clifford's Blues (an excellent book about a black, gay musician imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp during World War II) was published only in paperback by an obscure press. His latest work has not found a publisher.

            But 13 of his novels, eight non-fiction books, and two books of poetry have been published and are available in libraries across the country.

            We spoke to Williams recently by phone. The following is an edited version of our conversation.

City: While a teenager in Syracuse you were working on sanitation department trucks. Later you held many other non-writing jobs. Did you know then that, even though this may have been the expectation of white society, it was not your fate?

            Williams: I wasn't all that concerned about what society expected of me. I knew that my mother worked for a number of white families as a maid and my father worked for the city as a trash collector and a number of other things.

            City: When you enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, you were fighting for your country, which wasn't exactly looking out for you. Were you still holding on to some idea of the American Dream?

            Williams: I don't think I ever had any concept of the American Dream. When I was growing up, what I hoped to achieve was to become a super athlete. I loved playing football, basketball, and baseball, and running track. I hoped to be good enough at those things to get a scholarship somewhere for college. The war gave me that opportunity, making it possible for me to go to college on the GI Bill.

            City: You had a close call in the military and it wasn't the enemy, but your fellow sailors who threatened you.

            Williams: They were really pure crackers, there's no other term for it. And I just didn't fit into the mold. This was an outfit in transition; it was picking up more men. And we --- maybe there were five or six black guys --- were also waiting for shipment ostensibly to a black outfit, which is exactly what happened. But, in the meantime, you had a lot of people transferring in and out and an awful lot of them were southerners. I never knew there were so damn many southerners in America. These guys did not know what to do with some of us who did not come from the South. We just were not taking that shit. One night we got into it and one cracker put a .45 to my head and the other crackers really got scared because they knew that something bad would happen to them even if something worse happened to me. So they backed off. But that was one time that I almost got killed by our own troops.

            City: After a tough start, you began publishing. And your novel "Night Song" was noticed enough to make you the unanimous choice of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the Prix de Rome in 1962. But after an interview with the director of the American Academy in Rome, the prize was revoked. What do you believe happened?

            Williams: The director didn't want me there. They'd had Ralph Ellison there and Ralph was always a compliant guy. I'm not taking anything from his writing skills, although I would have thought that he would have produced in his life a hell of a lot more than he did. I'm not saying this because he's dead; I said this when he was alive.

            City: You're right."Invisible Man" was great but where are the others?

            Williams: I think he did one more, Shadow and Act. And Ralph was the kind of guy who would not help younger black writers. He was very, very selfish; very, very pompous. I never got close to him and I never wanted to.

            City: But, in terms of the Prix de Rome, there was some speculation that you may have been turned down because you were going with a white woman at the time and this was in the early 1960s.

            Williams: Yes, I was. And I married her, too. And it's worked out really well.

            City: Later on, while in Rome, you wrote the director a note saying, "How does it feel to have almost finished my career?"

            Williams: Yes, I did. [laughs] But I never heard from him.

            City: This real episode in your life became a central plot element in one of your most acclaimed novels, "The Man Who Cried I Am." In the book you blend fact and fiction in terms of your personal life and the life of the protagonist, and also in your use of fictionalized historical figures. Is that a delicate thing to balance?

            Williams: No, not at all. Because I've always loved history and I can't see writing a book that doesn't contain some level of the parameters of history.

            City: In the same book you wrote of the "King Alfred" plot, a plan to round up minority populations at a time of National Emergency. Ishmael Reed has written that, while this may have seemed far-fetched in 1967, government documents have since shown that it wasn't too far from the truth. Were you on to something?

            Williams: I don't know what got me started. I guess I have not been a very trusting person concerning our government and the way it's dealt with various people, beginning with the Indians. My father was part Indian. It's just been a mess.

            City: Ishmael Reed also says that you are the greatest author of the 20th century, but because of your radical point of view you were unpalatable to the literary establishment.

            Williams: I think that's been true. Even other writers who I've admired and who have appeared to like my work have just sort of gone off on different tracks. When it all began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we were after something, even if we didn't know precisely what it was. We wanted to correct something bad that we sensed, knew, or had experienced. I don't find that anymore.

            City: There is also the idea that the literary establishment only has room for one black writer at a time, whether it's Richard Wright, James Baldwin, or Ellison.

            Williams: I don't think they would deny that too much.

City: I just finished "Clifford's Blues" and it's a wonderful book. But I noticed it's published by an obscure, small press. Is that the way things are going?

            Williams: That has been the case. Nobody wanted to touch that book and one of the senses that I got was that black people are not supposed to have been involved in the Holocaust. This is pure crap. You know, I made two trips to Dachau to do that book and I did an awful lot of research around the country and in Germany and Europe, too. So I knew whereof I wrote. People didn't believe me, but I've seen the pictures there in the camp. I've seen an entire column of black prisoners walking down one side of the camp. And I've seen pictures of single black inmates or small groups of black inmates.

            City: In the last two decades more attention has been paid to female black writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Have you observed that?

            Williams: I've observed it and so has [Ishmael] Reed, and we've laughed about it and joked about it.

            City: Do you think people find it less threatening?

            Williams: Yes.

            City: There was another irony with "The Man Who Cried I Am." It came out in the same year, 1967, as William Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner." While this book on the black experience by a white author cleaned up in terms of awards, your book got comparatively little attention. You wrote an essay questioning Styron's assertion that this was the only slave rebellion. He clearly was not aware that there were many.

            Williams: Yes, that was idiotic. How can a writer make a statement like that without checking?

            City: When you were sent across the country in 1964 to write the articles that resulted in "This is My Country Too," did you take it on as a personal challenge against the whole system? There are parts of the book when you are traveling in the South and you have some pretty close calls, but you remain defiant.

            Williams: I was a grown man with kids and I was not about to take any crap, certainly not any more than when I was a kid and overseas in the service. I wasn't always so bold, sometimes I was just very clever. If I picked up a cop following me, I would very soon pull over and rush out of the car and open the trunk and get some tools like I was having car trouble. Sometimes they would speed up and go by. Sometimes they would stop and just make sure I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and leave me alone. Sometimes I would simply tell the cop I was having car trouble and could he direct me to a station and I could see the chagrin on their faces. I'd drive into a garage, hang around for 10 minutes and get out, make it to the quickest highway I could and then leave town.

            City: How much do you think things have changed in 40 years? There were incidents in the Senate in the last few years that reminded me of your book. I think it was Fritz Hollings who slipped and used the term "Nigra." And, of course, the Trent Lott affair.

            Williams: I think for some people things will never change. My editor at Holiday, a guy whom I loved, Harry Sions --- he was a correspondent in the Italian Campaign during World War II. Twice, in the time I knew Harry, he slipped and he said "nigger."

            City: What do you think when you hear rappers use the word?

            Williams: I'd like to slap them in the mouth. I really would.

            Next week: Williams discusses Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Affirmative Action, his writing style, the state of literature and publishing, and the relationship between blacks and Jews.

Writings of Consequence: The Art of John A. Williams continues through September 30 in the Rare Books & Special Collections Library at the University of Rochester's Rush Rhees Library, River Campus. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Info: Richard Peek, 275-9335.

John A. Williams, non-fiction

For a great many Europeans, the black man is still the exotic stranger. Some Negroes who have lived in Europe for decades, starting as entertainers in the 1920s, have passed through this period of greatest "pre-Negro" exoticism and now live quietly in large homes they bought with money they made; they are no longer victims of racism in reverse. But how often have even the most intelligent Europeans interjected remarks about Louis Armstrong into our conversations! The man is an institution abroad and I think it's because he fits the image of what a black man should act and look like. Jazz impresarios have been known to cater to this image under the guise of bringing the best jazz to Europe. They will bring the worst musicians to their countries because they are black, and because they know that no local group, no matter how good, can fill auditoriums as black musicians do.

            Black Man in Europe, Flashbacks: A Twenty Year Diary of Article Writing, Doubleday, 1967

King feared the phrase "black power" the way people fear a truth they are not ready to hear. A power that was all black eliminated whites and, quite probably, their contributions; an all-black power negated King's concept of an all-Christian life that went beyond the color of one's skin. But the rapidity with which the phrase gained acceptance in the black communities, and the venality with which it was described in the white communities indicated that its meaning and validity were clearly understood by all.

            The King God Didn't Save: Reflections on the Life and Death of Martin Luther King, Coward-McCann, 1970

John A. Williams, fiction

The cab rolled easily over the cobblestones; it passed the couples lingering over the edges of the canals. Max suddenly felt frightened. There would be a billion other nights in Amsterdam as soft as this one, filled with the odor of sea and old bricks and tarred wood pilings; and there would be the smell of food, drifting gently down upon the street from those Vermeer kitchens; there would be young men and young women, unjaded as yet, talking about loving one another.

            I don't want to miss it! Max thought, I don't want to miss any of it! I want to live forever and ever and ever and ever...

            The Man Who Cried I Am, Little, Brown & Company, 1967

Danko swiveled his head from me to the Oberleutnant and back; he scowled at the others, What's going on? I know he didn't get any answers. Franz was whisking those brushes around so soft that I knew he didn't want to miss any answer that might come. It was just me and Ulrich. In phrases that ran just beside the melody (and I knew he was searching) he found the reprise of "My Buddy." "Buddy" my behind, I thought, and threw him "I'll Never Be the Same." He got to his feet and planted them and damned if he didn't cut the rhythm right in half to play um humm-humm da da da-da da dummmmm, um humm-humm da da da-da da dummmmm... "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, Nobody Knows My Sorrows." I led him back to "The Man I Love" and gave everybody time to get in, and we closed out.

            Clifford's Blues, Coffee House Press, 1999