John A. Williams
Notes on John A. Williams
BY TONY WOLK
These notes are provided as annotations to Wolk’s 1972 interview with James Baldwin.
JOHN A. WILLIAMS (1925-2015): Born in Jackson, Mississippi, grew up in Syracuse. After naval service in WWII, Williams graduated from Syracuse University in 1950. In 1975, Williams and his wife, Lori Isaac, moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, a place which “would not be inhospitable to a mixed marriage.” He became a full Professor at Rutgers University. In effect, another exile, like Wright, Baldwin, Himes, etc. His novels include:
The Man Who Cried I Am (Little Brown & Co., 1967), which has a latter-day cousin in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, in which it’s the Jews and not the Negroes who are being rounded up. (In Roth’s novel, this occurs after the election of Charles Lindberg in 1950.) At its heart, The Man Who Cried I Am has a coordinated plan by the colonial powers to crush all revolutionary movements in Africa. The United States, given the rise of black power movements, devises its own scheme, the “King Alfred Plan.” Its participating agencies (as it’s mapped out) are the National Security Council, the Department of Justice, the CIA, the FBI, and the Departments of Defense and Interior, including the National Guard units and the state police as well as other units as necessary. “Minority Members” will be evacuated from their cities and detained in public and military camps initially, “until a further course of action has been decided.” Meanwhile there will be twenty-four-hour surveillance of organizations like SNCC, the Black Muslims, CORE, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, NAACP, etc. Minority members of Congress, etc., “will be unseated at once.” And the person who is entrusted with this secret material is none other than Harry Ames, the ex-patriot dean of all black writers. Of course Harry Ames is based on Richard Wright. Even more, Harry is Richard Wright. For The Man Who Cried I Am is a roman a clef, a story with a key.
At the end of Williams’ novel, a CIA agent has “an object high pressure syringe jet of Rauwolfia serpentina.” When its handle is pushed, the poison will penetrate “both clothes and skin” and attack “the central nervous system at once, depressing it until death comes” . Judging from the context of the novel, this is how Harry Ames (aka Richard Wright) dies. “The usual autopsy report was death by heart attack.” David Leeming, in his biography of James Baldwin, references the jokes about Baldwin’s so-called friends in Istanbul being CIA agents. But, writes Leeming, “we liked the friends in question well enough to take the risk.” Leeming adds, “Still, Baldwin remembered the rumors of CIA involvement in Richard Wright’s death, and this was an age of assassinations. Our jokes seem less funny now, in light of the FBI files on Baldwin…revealed since the Freedom of Information Act.” Rumors surrounding Wright’s death are many, and it is true that at the age of fifty-two, and with no signs of heart problems, it is a sudden heart attack that killed Wright. Lastly, The Man Who Cried I Am is a powerful book by a fine writer.
The King God Didn’t Save (Coward-McCann, 1970), dedicated to Martin Luther King, for the man he would have become had he not been assassinated.
The Most Native of Sons: A Biography of Richard Wright (1970)
Sissie (Farrar, Straus, & Cudahy, 1963). In the Anchor Books edition (1969) Williams added a five-page introduction specifically about “the Negro family in America,” which is really at the heart of the novel. (Not until mid-novel does the character of Sissie achieve the point of view, the earlier segments devoted to her son and daughter.) Williams’ second paragraph lays out the thesis:
That black people in this nation have been capable of maintaining any family structure is so incredible a feat that it cannot yet be measured. The centuries of slave trade and slavery, if they were to be profitable to the fullest degree, as well as effective, did not dare to sustain the tribe, the group, the family. They were systematically destroyed except in rare, very rare cases. In such an atmosphere I would think that the instinct to be a part of or to raise a family would have been bred out, beaten out, slaved out, but it was not.
I came to this knowledge as a young man and for a long time wanted to sing of its triumph, for that is precisely what it is. In those instances where we have not quite resecured the triumph of a family system, we are being charged by the ignorant and the bigot, scientifically oriented or not, for living according to the behavior patterns with which he tried to inculcate us. From late in the fifteenth century to past the middle of the nineteenth century, he severed families, took children from mothers, sent mothers and fathers to the tobacco and cotton fields and then bred black people in the same manner as he bred his cattle and horses. In just over one century the black American family, still tattered and battered, has come back. That human triumph cannot be sung loudly enough.
Williams adds that “No black father who believes himself to be a man can remain in or as the head of a family group without supporting it. To remain without functioning is to suffer the loss of manhood or, if you will, economic castration.”
As Sissie unfolds we see the ambivalence of Sissie’s children, now adults. Not until the end of the novel do we see the power of Sissie to sustain her family as this pattern of emasculation unfolds. As James Baldwin says, Sissie is a book he likes “very much, indeed.” As Williams writes in the introduction: Sissie “is human and the white image of the matriarch she was not. Besides, I’ve known no black female head of a house who did not bemoan the absence of the male, and not for sex alone, but to provide the necessary discipline for raising black children in the society.” Williams adds in the next paragraph that it’s white America that is now faced with “the problem of a real matriarchy in its growing suburbs in which the male is seen only late at night and on weekends.” At the end of the intro, Williams writes (in anticipation, I’d say, of George Jackson): “Although guilt for living may drag at our feet, it is our physical presence that most causes our elation. And you could not feel guilt if you did not have a presence, if you were not alive and functioning.”