Sherley Anne Williams (1944-1999)

Sherley Anne Williams, ca. 1981
Courtesy New York Times, Fair use image

Sherley Anne Williams, American novelist, poet, and scholar, was born in Bakersfield, California in 1944 to Jesse Winson and Lena Silver Williams. She was raised in poverty in a housing project in Fresno. Williams’ mother, who discouraged Sherley from reading because she thought books would fill her head with false hope for the future, died when Williams was sixteen years old. Williams was placed in the custody of her sister, Ruby, who was a single mother, struggling to get by on her own. Sherley and Ruby managed to provide for themselves, eking by on income earned from odd jobs such as picking cotton, working seasonally in department stores, and cutting grapes.

After graduation from Edison Junior/Senior High School in Fresno in 1962, Williams attended California State University, Fresno where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English. In 1972 she received a master’s degree from Brown University. In 1975 Williams joined the faculty at the University of California, San Diego and became the first African American female faculty member in the university’s English department. She worked at the University of California, San Diego until her death in 1999.

Williams’ writing highlighted the importance of folklore and history in shaping black identity. While she started writing in 1967, the 1972 publication of Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature was the first piece that brought her national attention.  Give Birth advanced her theory that said black folklore should be examined as a force shaping African American identity.

Her 1975 book, The Peacock Poems, examined that theory by focusing on the history of her parents and their use of black dialect and musical forms such as spirituals and the blues.  The Peacock Poems was critically acclaimed and received a National Book Award nomination in poetry and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

In 1982 Williams published Someone Sweet Angel Chile, which also earned a second National Book Award nomination. Someone Sweet Angel Chile, like the Peacock Poems, reflected upon Williams’ childhood but in this instance attempted to locate her own story in the broader scope of African American history. The Peacock Poems and Someone Sweet Angel Chile earned Williams a place among popular contemporary African American poets as she infused spirituals, blues, and black dialect.

Williams also wrote a play entitled Letters from a New England Negro (1992), and two children’s books, Working Cotton (1992) and Girls Together (1999).  Working Cotton received a Coretta Scott King Book Award and was also named a Caldecott Honor Book by the American Library Association in 1993. Williams also wrote for television, including the programs, Ours to Make (1973), and The Sherley Williams Special (1977). She was also selected to write the introduction for Zora Neale Hurston’s 1991 edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Williams died of cancer on July 9, 1999 in San Diego.  She was 55.