Friends and Colleagues Remember: A Memorial Service for John A. Williams

John Williams passed on July 3rd 2015. With the exception of a few items held by Syracuse University, the University of Rochester holds the complete, extant John A. Williams archive: manuscripts, typescripts, drafts, notes, proofs, photographs, audio-visual materials, ephemera, diaries/journals and correspondence.

Williams worked in television and radio, was a publisher, foreign correspondent, lecturer and college professor.  He has written 29 books and novels, some derived from his experiences growing up in Syracuse, NY.  Please see John A. Williams Archive at University of Rochester for a full representation of Mr. Williams work.

The following is the text from a presentation given on May 29th at the John A. Williams Memorial service by longtime friend, Jeffrey Tucker.

Good afternoon. It is an honor to address this group, which has gathered to remember John A. Williams. My name is Jeffrey Tucker; I am an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Rochester, where the John A. Williams Papers are collected at Rush Rhees Library. I got to know John and Lori when I interviewed John about a dozen times in 2005 and 2006 at the suggestion of their friend and then-Director of Rare Books and Special Collections at UR, Richard Peek. I’ve been asked to say a few things about John’s professional career. Let me start by saying that I flew in last night from San Francisco where this year the American Literature Association is holding its annual conference. On Friday, I presented on a panel entitled “Remembering John A. Williams,” which also featured a presentation from Gregory Pierrot of the University of Connecticut at Stamford, the Vice President of the African American Literature and Culture Society and the organizer of the panel, and from Heidi Bollinger of Hostos Community College in New York City, a former student of mine who wrote a chapter of her dissertation on John’s last novel, 1999’s Clifford’s Blues, and published a scholarly article based on that chapter in a 2014 issue of The Journal of Narrative Theory.

As for me, I am currently working on Conversations with John A. Williams, a collection of interviews with John in a variety of media–newspapers, scholarly journals, radio, television–from every decade of the second half of the 20th Century and the first decade of the 21st, which will be published by the University Press of Mississippi. And I teach John’s works in both graduate and undergraduate honors seminars. I go into these details to show how John’s writing continues to be studied, taught, and held in high esteem.

John inhabited a variety of professional identities: novelist, journalist, biographer, editor of books and journals, poet, educator, and more in a significant career in 20th-century American letters. John was featured on 26 episodes of a show on WPVI television in Philadelphia hosted by Joe Hunter, who consistently and earnestly introduced John as “America’s finest writer,” an opinion shared by writers such as Ishmael Reed and Alexs Pate. The Dictionary of Literary Biography has called John “arguably the finest Afro-American novelist of his generation (and) certainly the most prolific.”

John published twelve novels, including 1960’s One for New York, based in part on his experiences working at a vanity press in New York City; 1961’s Night Song, a jazz novel that was adapted into the film Sweet Love, Bitter directed by Herbert Danska; 1963’s Sissie, based partly on members of John’s family, particularly his mother; 1967’s The Man Who Cried I Am, a novel about expatriate African-American writers that established John as a major figure in American literature; 1972’s Captain Blackman, in which a black Army officer, wounded in Vietnam, imagines himself as a soldier in every major military conflict in American history; 1976’s The Junior Bachelor Society, adapted into an ABC TV-movie, in which old friends reunite in a city that resembles John’s hometown of Syracuse, NY; 1982’s !Click Song, an illuminating representation of the nitty gritty of life as an African-American writer; and Clifford’s Blues, a novel in the form of the diary of a gay black jazz pianist imprisoned in the concentration camp at Dachau during WWII, and one of John’s finest works, IMO.

John also published six works of non-fiction, including biographies of Richard Wright, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Richard Pryor, the latter of which he co-authored with his son Dennis. A play, a book of poetry, the libretto to Vanqui, an opera based on the African-American quest for freedom with music composed by Leslie Burrs, and numerous essays and scholarly articles add to John’s writerly legacy. And I must mention that among my favorite works by John is “Assess the Mess,” the spoken-word performance that opens Transform, the 2003 album by the rock group Powerman 5000, of which John and Lori’s son Adam was a member; it’s a track that exemplifies what renowned literary critic Arnold Rampersad identified as John’s aesthetic “vision”: “the purified essence of integrity at play in the social world.” in which John’s “fiction and his journalism, like that of his peers Richard Wright and Chester Himes, are both firmly grounded.”

John also worked as a journalist, particularly in American bureaus in western Africa, publishing in the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, and The Nation as well as in black newspapers and periodicals. John’s writing earned him numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award, the Phyllis Wheatley Award for Outstanding Contribution to African-American Culture, and an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Rochester. In 1994, John retired from Rutgers University–Newark where he had taught Journalism and Creative Writing since 1979 and served as Paul Robeson Professor since 1990.

If I may, a personal note: My father passed away in 2001. Since that time, I have realized that one never stops needing someone in their life, usually someone older, who can provide wisdom based on experience, good-natured guidance, and encouragement when things get tough. My relationships with my elders–whether they are relatives, colleagues, or neighbors–have become increasingly important to me for this reason. In hindsight, I benefitted greatly from getting to know, and just being around, John to the extent that I did. He was an example of how to be a husband, a father, a teacher, how to overcome doubts (one’s own as well as those of others), how to keep one’s nerve, and how to take satisfaction in work well done as well as the work one is currently doing. And for all of that I am grateful.

I’ll conclude with a short poem from Safari West, written by John, I believe, upon the passing of a friend. The image it offers suggests that things continue to shape the world even after they appear to have gone away. The poem is entitled “A Stone for Marty Scheiner.”

The stone was cast into the sea

Only the Ancient beheld the hole it made

Silt and slugs embraced it * Sun caressed it * Life arose

Around it.


by Jeffrey A. Tucker