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Figure 1. Sherley Anne Williams
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Sherley Anne Williams

August 26, 1999

This ain’t the beginnin; maybe it’s the end

I’m not gon tell you my story; I know what you’ll say: sister, that’s where we all been.

—Sherley Anne Williams

No, I don’t know all the hearts I live in. But I do know the people who live in mine. And I want to be on very good terms with all those who live in my home.

—Sherley Anne Williams

Like poets, critics may have muses. And it is fair to say that Sherley Anne Williams was my muse—my critical muse. Her immense creativity gave inspiration to my critical musings. Yet, at this moment, I can only ask, in the memorable words of Ralph Ellison, “when confronted by such an unexpected situation as this, what does one say?” Ellison’s line resonates for me on the occasion of these reflections on the life and death of a muse, poet, novelist, critic, playwright, teacher, mother, and sister-woman whose life and death touch me personally and deeply.

I’ve spent much of my intellectual and professional life teaching and writing about Sherley Anne Williams’s superb work. I also knew her, although not so well, I imagine, as I might have. But on the rare occasions when we met, I found her observant, demure, somewhat mysterious, even enigmatic, yet always endowed with amazing grace (“My back never was bent, just the self I held in”). As the passages above are meant to suggest, she spoke loudest—and most eloquently—through her song, her literary song:

Life put a hurt on you   only one thing you can do. When life put a hurt on you   not but one thing a po chile can do. I just stand on my hind legs and holla   just let the sou’nd carry me through.

Sherley Anne Williams, the daughter of a migrant farm worker, was born in Bakersfield, California, and grew up in a place she wrote about in her poetry, “the heart of [End Page 763] the farm-rich San Joaquin Valley.” When her father succumbed to tuberculosis, the family went on welfare to survive. After her bachelor’s degree in English at Fresno State, Sherley studied at Fisk with Robert Hayden. As a protégé of Sterling Brown, she continued her graduate studies at Howard University, later completing her master’s degree in American Literature at Brown University. Writing of the author of The Peacock Poems, Brown professor and poet Michael Harper reflected, “She is a musician whose blues, comedy and heartbreak are a testimony to autobiography/history where both oral and literary Afro-American traditions touch and fuse . . . in the ‘I’ is always ‘we’; she’s met life’s terms but never accepted them, for the blues is exercise, not exhibition.” Yes, Sherley was a bluesy kinda woman, and like her own muse, Bessie Smith, she was “Some One Sweet Angel Chile.” Her fiction and poetry became sacramental expressions of a secular blues ethic and aesthetic.

By her own account, Sherley had attempted to escape her birthplace, the San Joaquin Valley, and the insularity it represented:

  I had hated this,hated all the squat Valley town; had left, returned,left: The memory of the sun on the dirt and grasson the shiny black skins of my family andfriends draws me back.

Nevertheless, she was drawn to a “city of light”:

Oh, I see myself as I was then skinny little piece a woman dying to get to Frisco and change.

We must await her biographer to research the details of her lifestory—to fill in the narrative gap between the San Joaquin Valley, Frisco, and San Diego, where she died in the summer of 1999. But what we do know is that the publication of her novel Dessa Rose (1986) became a landmark in contemporary American fiction, representing the inaugural moment of a genre that has since come to be known as the “neo-slave narrative.” It is a novel that I have written about again and again, and may yet write about again. But surely future generations will continue to write about the extraordinary work of an equally extraordinary woman—whose work is significant to me because it emphasizes the very ordinariness of that extra-ordinariness. Sherley wrote about ordinary women (“Tell Martha Not to Moan”) who become extraordinary in their ability to live through and transcend experience. She wrote about her mother and her sisters and her girlfriends—and her work spoke to me about my mother and sisters and girlfriends (Oh, why did I not tell her that we had more in common than she would ever know?). I suspect, however, that I am a better reader of her writing than I could ever be of her life; yet and still, hers was a life that shared notable parallels and intersections with my own (we were about the same age, both lost a parent early in our lives, and grew up ‘on welfare’). [End Page 764]

I recall the occasion of our first meeting: a closing reception for the now historic Reconstruction of Instruction NEH Seminar held at Yale in the late 1970s. The reception marked the finale of what had been an exhilarating experience for the twenty or thirty or so young scholars and artists participating—many of whom, along with Sherley herself, would become literary illuminaries. We had spent weeks together—reading, arguing, partying, and sharing other intimacies (“And shared love lives, even when the people move on”).

I was a graduate student and Sherley had just published her collection of critical essays Give Birth to Brightness (1972) and would shortly publish her first book of poetry The Peacock Poems (1975), a volume nominated for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It was a memorable evening, marked on the calendar of my memory by an historic but (to my knowledge) heretofore unrecorded moment—one that Ellison might have described as part of the “underground of our unwritten history.”

The formal reception that evening was the culmination of what had been, for many of us, a rite of passage, marking endings and beginnings. And while the reception was not exactly a love feast, it was most certainly a communal celebration, and a celebration of community. The spirit of community being with us and upon us, Sherley was moved to speak—in a spirit of adoration and anguish, of veneration and rebuke. I recall this moment as the one rather remarkable exception to what I always perceived to be her rather remarkable equanimity.

Passionately, the younger woman poet gave both tribute and censure to her self-acknowledged model and precursor, Amiri Baraka aka LeRoi Jones. While I cannot recall the exchange—time enough, I always thought, for us to reminisce about that moment—my recollection is that Sherley took him to task on the woman’s issue, importuning him to attend to the needs of the “sister” as well as the “brother.” Afterwards, if memory serves (I cannot always be sure that it does), they embraced—perhaps not an uncommon exchange between the brother and sister writers and activists during the 1970s, but, for me, a luminous and unforgettable moment!

That event became the inspiration for a brainstorm among an enthusiastic young group of black and white women graduate students at Yale, a group that included Hazel Carby, Susan Willis, Leslie Fishkin, Carolyn Jackson, and myself. African-American Studies invited Sherley, along with a host of young black women writers—including Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, Buchi Emecheta, as well as Joanne Braxton and Gloria Naylor (both of whom were then Yale graduate students)—to participate in what was most likely the first hemispheric conference on Black Women in the Diaspora.

The next time I saw Sherley was in Paris. We ended up at the same hotel (I think it was Hotel Residence de Lutece). The evening following the closing sessions, we hung out, drank, and discussed Dessa Rose. Sherley told me she had heard through the grapevine about a controversial piece I had recently given at Harvard University comparing Dessa Rose to Pauline Reage’s Story of O. Neither confirming nor denying my imputed literary connection between Reage and herself, she nonetheless seemed pleased with reports on an interpretation of her novel which acknowledged its sexual and political transgressive power. [End Page 765]

My next meeting with Sherley was in Chicago, shortly after our Paris encounter. Her full-length, one-woman drama, “Letters from a New England Negro,” was presented at the Chicago International Theatre Festival in 1992, and I attended with students from the Black Women Writers class that I was then teaching at the University of Illinois in Chicago. I had a surprise for her. By chance, I had discovered some of her personal belongings that she had inadvertently left behind at the hotel (our rooms were adjacent) where we had both stayed in Paris. (As I recollect, she was dashing to make her return flight to the U.S.!) After the performance, I presented her with the several items of clothing that had been left behind in Paris, explaining that I’d been intending to send them to her. Indeed, she had missed them, and rejoiced that that which was lost was now found. I rejoiced in another meeting and another encounter with her extraordinary talent.

The last time I saw Sherley was at a conference held in her honor at the University of California at San Diego in May 1998, a conference organized by Ann DuCille to mark the 12th anniversary of the publication of Sherley’s novel, Dessa Rose. As honoree at the conference on Black Women Writers and the “High Art” of Afro-American Letters, Sherley graciously shared her presence with the scholars there to celebrate her work. She expressed her thanks to the conferees with a simple, “Thank you for giving me my book back.” Once again, we reminisced about earlier years, but especially Paris. For the first time, we spoke conspiratorially and spiritedly (we were both inspirited), about the people we knew and the quirky things that had happened to us. She was carefree and so was I, and we both were gay at dinner that evening, thinking about what it must mean to be a BAP in Paris (private)!

Having taught and written about Sherley Anne Williams’s work, I think it now perhaps fitting to meditate, as it were, not so much on her history, as on those small moments, seemingly so insignificant at the time, but which are now etched in memory. Our lives touched only tangentially, perhaps less than a half dozen times; yet her work and those few random encounters bear much meaning for me. She was of my generation, and her untimely death, in some ways, harbingers its passing. But more importantly, her achievements betoken the legacy this generation will pass on to its survivors. Our community is a poorer place without Sherley Anne Williams; our inheritance, a richer one because of her song:

These is old blues   and I sing em like any woman do.These is old blues   and I sing em, sing em, sing em. Just like any woman do.My life ain’t done yet   Naw. My song ain’t through.

Mae Gwendolyn Henderson

Mae G. Henderson, author of a number of articles on African-American and feminist criticism and theory, is a professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She is co-editor of the five-volume Antislavery Newspapers and Periodicals: An Annotated Index of Letters, 1817–1871 and editor of the English Institute volume, Borders, Boundaries, and Frames: Cultural Criticism and Cultural Studies.

Books by Sherley Anne Williams (1944–1999)

Give Birth to Brightness. New York: The Dial Press, 1972.
The Peacock Poems. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1975.
Some One Sweet Angel Chile. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1982.
Dessa Rose. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1982.
“Letters from a New England Negro.” Produced: International Theatre Festival, Chicago, 1992.
Working Cotton. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1992.

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