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Hard truths 

John A. Williams illuminates the black experience

Part two of a two-part article.

When the revered novelist Chester Himes read The Man Who Cried I Am by relative newcomer John A. Williams in 1969, he could not contain himself. In a letter to Williams dated June 13, he wrote:

            "But for my money, The Man Who Cried I Am is the book... a blockbuster, a hydrogen bomb, it is by far the greatest book, the most compelling book, ever written about THE SCENE... It is a milestone in American literature, the only milestone produced since Native Son..."

            Williams is indeed a powerful writer. His novels encompass the scope of history and the personal struggles of individuals tangled within it. Williams has a gift for language that drives the narrative forward while making the reader want to linger over his wonderfully descriptive prose.

            At the age of 77, Williams is the author of 13 published novels, including Captain Blackman (1972) and !Click Song (1982), eight non-fiction books, and numerous articles and essays.

            But, when it comes to his frank descriptions of the black experience, Williams may be too powerful for popular taste. Despite praise from writers like Himes and Ishmael Reed, he has clearly not received the recognition his work deserves.

            This may be changing. The Man Who Cried I Am is included among the QBR (The Black Book Review Online) Sacred 100. And Williams' career is the subject of a fascinating exhibition at the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at the University of Rochester's Rush Rhees Library. Richard Peek, the library's director, believes Williams will eventually be viewed as one of the most important American writers of the second half of the 20th century. The Rare Book Library is the repository for Williams' papers.

            In last week's City Newspaper, Williams discussed his early years, his literary career, and his encounters with prejudice. In the second part of our interview, we began by asking Williams about covering the Civil Rights movement as a black journalist.

City: In the 1960s you were covering the Civil Rights movement for"Newsweek" and other magazines. Obviously you had strong feelings about this. Did you have any trouble with the blurring of the line between journalism and participation?

            Williams: No, I didn't. And I probably overstepped my bounds when I got on King's case.

            City: You've written more critically than most about Martin Luther King, and very early on. What did you see as his major short-coming?

            Williams: Women, primarily. Even as a kid that always upset me, when I would hear parents talking about Reverend so-and-so and Miss so-and-so. And the preacher's married and he's got a family of his own. I would ask myself, what is this? I decided I would never, ever be a preacher because I would never be able to screw around --- literally.

            City: Still, King has been elevated to a saint.

            Williams: That's alright with me. I've had my say-so. As it happened one of my major informants was a woman I was going with at the time. She had been going with Martin Luther King. He was even double-crossing her and everybody else he went with, let alone his wife. He was not a very trust-worthy man in that area.

            City: You met Malcolm X in Africa. You seem to have had a higher opinion of him.

            Williams: We all knew where he came from and what he was doing. He was a man of very few words, but they were very powerful words. I was very much attracted to him. I would put Malcolm in a separate category from the Black Muslims who were going to just run out and shoot people. I think Malcolm was much too wise for that. Though he sounded at times like he was very willing to do it, we never saw him pick up the gun.

            City: Do you think he would disapprove of the kinds of things Louis Farrakhan has said in recent years?

            Williams: Probably not now, if he were alive and Farrakhan's age.

            City: In "The Man Who Cried I Am" you contrast characters that closely resemble King and Malcolm X, and the Malcolm X character --- Minister Q --- plays a role in the book's climactic scene. He gets a phone call, disclosing a government plot and then he gets murdered by government agents. In real life wasn't he was murdered by rival Black Muslims?

            Williams: My information is they were paid to kill him by other forces.

            City: What do you think of the state of black leadership today?

            Williams: Where is it? Who is it? I think there is a vacuum. I just don't see conditions changing soon enough or well enough for us to ever produce the kind of person who would be acceptable to the rest of America, and I think what we have now are poor selections. The people who could be leaders --- Ralph Bunche for example --- they're just not around, and if they are they're just drinking their mint juleps and laying back saying the hell with it.

            City: Of course, if you asked me about white leadership, I'd have some trouble. [laughs] I have some general questions dealing with issues you've written about or touched on. Do you believe in any form of reparations for blacks in America?

            Williams: Yes, I think that would be a big help. When I think of the Jewish situation in Germany and I think of a comparable and perhaps even longer situation for black people here, it would be a big help. Historically, we are not even given the true figures of what happened here. I just keep stumbling across a lot of stuff. When I was up in Rochester I mentioned this work that was done in 1870 by a guy named Weston, I believe. And it was used in a book published in 1909 in which the figures given were upward of 40 million Africans. We're not talking 10 million; we're talking 40 million all brought from Africa by the French, the Spanish, the British, anybody who had a ship. Nobody ever deals with that figure. People don't even bother to check out the figures that are going around.

            City: I think the prevailing attitude is that the statute of limitations has run out on that crime.

            Williams: Ah, but it hasn't.

            City: Would you be in favor of monetary reparations?

            Williams: Well, if you could give me a better one, I might think about it. [laughs]

            City: Some people say policies like Affirmative Action are a way of dealing with this.

            Williams: But it's the same old thing. Look what they're doing with Affirmative Action. They're jawboning it to death.

            City: Do you think the New York Times abused Affirmative Action by putting Jayson Blair in a position way over his head to create a black star reporter instead of giving him time to learn the ropes?

            Williams: Yes, I do and you're the first person who's asked me that. [Former New York Times executive editor Howell] Raines is a Southerner. He's probably trying to do a good thing but you can't do that. If you've got somebody young you've got to guide him. You've got to watch him. You can't forgive and forgive and forgive. In a way I feel sorry for Raines. I can't imagine copy editors letting that stuff get by in the first place. You're not talking about one or two guys; you're talking about something like a board of directors.

City: Getting back to books, you use flashbacks extensively inyour novels. Is this to create a more dream-like feeling? Did you consciously work out this technique.

            Williams: No, it just seemed to come naturally. You reach a certain point where you feel you are now able to go back or perhaps even forward without losing the reader or yourself at that point.

            City: Some of the passages in your books seem to be written in a stream-of-consciousness sort of flow. In the course of your writing are these passages the toughest or do they simply flow?

            Williams: Sometimes you want the stuff not only to flow, but to flow very well, and somehow differently from other sections where things seem to be so smooth. You do this to get yourself out of that rut and brighten up your writing and lead the reader onward to expect even more.

            City: In "Clifford's Blues" there is a wonderful passage where jazz players use musical quotes from songs to communicate to each other. How important a role has jazz played in your work?

            Williams: I've always loved it and I've always been a frustrated musician. When I was a kid I was a very good bugler in a drum and bugle core. I went to Boy Scout camp outside of Syracuse and I was the camp bugler there. I would do morning calls and evening calls, tattoos. When I went into the Navy, I became the regimental bugler in my boot training camp. But I couldn't afford trumpet lessons, which, in a way, may have been for the best. My third son, Adam, is a musician. He's a guitarist and a producer.

            City: In"!Click Song"the protagonist goes to see Bud Powell and George Shearing at a club, and Powell ends up punching Shearing. In another scene he goes to see Charles Mingus and, when he talks too loud, Mingus tells him to shut up. These scenes seem very real. Are they?

            Williams: Yeah, they were. [laughs] I remember a session where Charlie Mingus was playing at a club called the Five Spot on Third Avenue, kind of a smallish club. And I went there with a couple of buddies of mine and we were chatting and Mingus was trying to play and finally he said, "You niggers shut up down there!" The Bud Powell story was told over and over again and everybody thought it was both funny and sad.

            City: Looking back, who are the 20th-century writers you most admire?

            Williams: I try not to do that. But one writer I've never gotten out of my head or my gut is Malcolm Lowry --- Under the Volcano. It's been a long time since I've read it, but it's still there.

            City: What is your view of the current state of book publishing and the lack of solid literature? Are we losing a generation of real writers?

            Williams: It stinks. If they are depending on writing to earn money we're going to lose some talent, I think. It's very easy to fall into a groove where you don't have to think, scheme, dream, or anything else, you just write out the copy. These books that are selling for $24 and $29 and $32, that is ridiculous. There's nothing there.

            City: One thing that turns up again and again in your books is the relationship between blacks and Jews. How important has that been in your life and work?

            Williams: I grew up in a community that was essentially black and Jewish in Syracuse. Neighbors and people who ran stores, and guys I played ball with and went to school with, were Jewish and my mother worked for a Jewish family, the Rubinsteins for, God, it seemed like 500 years. She was a maid. It was like two families together. They had two children. The boy was crippled; he couldn't talk too well or see too well. There were actually two families looking out for him. Our neighborhood in Syracuse was essentially Jewish and was called Jewtown as opposed to another section of town which was primarily black and that was called Bloodsfield. [laughs]

            City: In your early work you talk about the tension between blacks and the Jews who owned stores in ghetto areas. By the time you get to "Clifford's Blues" there seems to be more of an empathy.

            Williams: It's called survival. I've been to Israel three times and it was an extraordinary experience. I made a lot of friends there.

            City: One of the things I like about your books of a few decades ago is that you are not inhibited by political correctness. Does political correctness ever get in the way of your writing today?

            Williams: [laughs] No.

City: What does it mean to you to have your life's work in a university archive?

            Williams: It's very special. I'm always disappointed that my own university --- Syracuse --- was not terribly interested. But Rochester's close enough to Syracuse.

            City: Are you working on any current books?

            Williams: I'm working on a novel which is big and fat, and I've got one called Colleagues which, believe it or not, has been running around for eight or nine years. It's a big sucker. It's about college professors and all the politics.

            City: You have no shortage of ironies in your books, so I have to ask you about this unintentional irony. In "!Click Song" one of the themes deals with black culture going unrecognized at museums. Discussing one exhibition, you write that King Tut looks like Michael Jackson. What does it say, culturally, that since your 1982 publication Michael Jackson has had himself carved into a different statue?

            Williams: I never liked Michael Jackson. As a matter of fact, I can't deal with artists who give in to this whole public thing. That makes me quite uneasy.

            City: The Prix de Rome incident may have hurt your career; if you'd gone to Rome, you'd have had more opportunities. But you talked about Ellison and how he didn't write too much afterwards. One thing that's never happened to you --- you've never lost your edge. I'm not saying it's a good that they took away the award, but sometimes it's the struggle that makes the work great.

            Williams: I think I've gotten over it, so I'm always a bit surprised when people bring it up these days. I think I've gone way past it; I've survived, I don't harbor that many grudges. What the hell, if you're going to ride the train of life, sometimes you have to stand up. The seats are all filled.

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

Ours is not a nation deeply rooted in history; we have no temples or pyramids or aqueducts that were built with an unimaginable amount of slave labor. Our glories shall be gained in living up to the ideals we have set for ourselves. Perhaps that is why it is taking so long. It is comparatively easy to chip out and haul away a block of limestone and set it into place. It is not so with people, and I am not ignorant of the fact that much of what we have today was originally based on slave labor or the next thing to it.

            What we are faced with today is an alternative: to strive even harder for those credos we set for ourselves or to chip them from our lives altogether. We can no longer do both; history has seen to that.

            I searched and came away with hope. It is there in little pockets. Let it grow; help it grow. I am descended from the one in every 10 who survived and somewhere in the continuity of the existences of my forebears I am committed to the search, the hope, the challenge, whether I want to be or not, for America has yet to sing its greatest songs.

            This Is My Country Too, New American Library, 1964, 1965

John A. Williams, fiction

But it was the wind, I think, the wind that most hypnotized me. The wind said things; it said things in whispers, gusts and occasional roars. The wind had to know it all. It had whipped around this earth from the beginning, enveloping it as it moved through space. The wind had seen and heard everything: long-extinct beings communicating with !clicks, the Himalayas, the Alps, the Andes exploding up out of the plain while other ranges, now nameless, slid beneath the sea; it must have recorded the awesome sounds of lands breaking away to begin their inch-per-year journeys apart from each other; in reply what would the wind say about the sudden Cretaceous extinction of the great reptiles: They ate their own eggs? They drowned in a flood? God had been playing pool and when he destroyed the planet between Mars and Jupiter it spread deadly iridium over the Earth? Would this wind echo Akhnaton in his prayers perceiving the sun as Center, and was it now whispering as it slipped through trees and grasses, curled miniature tsunamis out on the lake, that all was now being brought to us by the people who stole everything from the Southern Tribes in whose sun-drenched lands gods were born? By the people who stole sextant and compass and grandly presented us with 500 years of Holy Crusades and channeled the Renaissance northward, evolving Descartes, Hobbes, Rousseau, et al., and who brought you the first multinational companies and over-ocean trade in souls and bodies, who implanted ovenry in the tale of Hansel and Gretel and made Jack-the-Real-Culprit the hero --- he who had stolen from the giant sleeping peacefully atop the beanstalk? Say what, wind, Typhon, Huracan, Zephyr, Tronada? This is being presented by the people who brought you the spinning jenny and the cotton gin, the steam engine, the Gatling, Spencer, Colt, the .75, .88, and the .105? And why not have developed the ICBMs and MIRVs after Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki?

            !Click Song, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982

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