Sherley Williams – from Fresno to La Jolla

Raised not to hope too hard

Sherley Anne Williams and son Malcolm, c. 1973. Sherley had showed up for her UCSD interview with Malcolm, then three years old. “Sherley’s willingness to go it alone was a part of her character.”
  • Sherley Anne Williams and son Malcolm, c. 1973. Sherley had showed up for her UCSD interview with Malcolm, then three years old. “Sherley’s willingness to go it alone was a part of her character.”

Sherley Anne Williams was delighted when the New York Times listed her novel on its recommended reading list. The book had gone into a third printing, and her publisher had nominated the novel for a Pulitzer Prize. Talking to a reporter, Williams said that she had always wanted to write books about black people — books, she said, “that people would still be reading hundreds of years from now.”

Ruby (center) holding Szongaia, clockwise from top: John Malcolm (Sherley's grandson), Jacquelyn, Arreon, Javon Malcolm (Sherley's grandson), Evangeline

Ruby (center) holding Szongaia, clockwise from top: John Malcolm (Sherley's grandson), Jacquelyn, Arreon, Javon Malcolm (Sherley's grandson), Evangeline

Williams, then 41 and already an established poet, was speaking of her novel, Dessa Rose. The book had won critical acclaim and made its author hot copy. That Williams, a small woman with a striking smile, was the child of African-American migrant farmworkers and had picked cotton and fruit in the San Joaquin Valley, made her life nearly as remarkable as those of the characters in her novel. “My childhood,” reflected Williams, “was the most deprived, provincial kind of existence you can think of.” Poverty, however, had taught her some valuable lessons. One of these was an injunction “not to hope too hard.” Which was perhaps why, after sharing her dream of a literary immortality with the reporter, she backtracked some:

Sherley Anne Williams, c. 1981. A New York Times review suggests Williams came late to the debate on The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Sherley Anne Williams, c. 1981. A New York Times review suggests Williams came late to the debate on The Confessions of Nat Turner.

“Of course,” she added, catching the newspaper man hard on the chin with one of her double-dimple smiles, “I won’t be living hundreds of years from now, so how would I know?”

On July 6, 1999, Sherley Anne Williams died in the intensive care unit at Kaiser Permanente, where family, friends, and colleagues had maintained a round-the-clock vigil. At her death, Williams was living in her three-bedroom home in Emerald Hills, an upscale community in Southeast San Diego. For more than 25 years she had taught African-American literature and creative writing at UCSD. She was 54, and the ovarian cancer was already at stage four when it was detected. “Basically we’re looking for a miracle,” her doctor had said. After learning of the diagnosis in February, she waited weeks before telling her friends, still longer before telling her family.

Frances and Philip Levine on Williams: "She wrote about her life in West Fresno, and she made her world come alive for the reader.”

Frances and Philip Levine on Williams: "She wrote about her life in West Fresno, and she made her world come alive for the reader.”

When I heard of her death, I went in search of a copy of the book whose paperback rights had been sold 13 years before for $100,000 and whose film rights were secured by Irwin Winkler, a film veteran with ten Oscars to his credit. The movie, however, was never made; and when I looked, not only her novel, but also her book of literary criticism, Give Birth to Brightness, and her two books of poetry were all out of print.

Levine remembered that the cast for the movie Dessa Rose was assembled when word came that filming was not going to happen. Cicely Tyson and Donald Sutherland were reportedly signed for parts.

Levine remembered that the cast for the movie Dessa Rose was assembled when word came that filming was not going to happen. Cicely Tyson and Donald Sutherland were reportedly signed for parts.

Through a computer search of on-line used-book dealers, I hunted down secondhand copies of her book. I paid with plastic and, while awaiting my copies in the mail, I read the nearly 100 obituary notices, as well as interviews and reviews, now more than 13 years old, of Dessa Rose.

The book was a fictionalized story of two historical figures. One was a nameless pregnant slave in Kentucky who led a revolt in 1829, was captured, and was kept alive until the birth of her baby (deemed the rightful property of the slave’s master); then she was hung. The other historical figure was a white woman who lived on a remote North Carolina farm in 1830 and gave sanctuary to runaway slaves. Williams brought the pair together in her narrative, which was cited by a critic as “a fiercely moving account of suffering and redemption.” Those vying for film rights compared the book to The Color Purple, the novel Steven Spielberg adapted for the screen and made a mainstream hit. “Academy Award was written all over it,” said Sandra Dijkstra, Williams’s agent. That was the word out of Hollywood.

At the novel’s publication, David Bradley, writing in the New York Times, spoke of Dessa Rose as “artistically brilliant, emotionally affecting and totally unforgettable.” Williams showed that she could write a novel better than a lot of novelists while, he said, never cutting herself off from her poetic roots.

“Kaine, his voice high and clear as running water over a settled stream bed, swooping to her, through her…,” quoted Bradley as evidence of Williams’s “poetic roots.” “He walked the lane between the indifferently rowed cabins like he owned them, striding from shade into half-light as if he could halt the setting sun.… Talk as beautiful as his touch.… Kaine’s eyes had been the color of lemon tea and honey. Even now against closed eyelids, she could see them.”

What, I asked myself, was the big deal? I read and reread the quote and found that whatever poetic beauty was there came because the recollection follows Kaine’s brutal murder. Without that context, Bradley’s choice seemed to me to have all the distinction of a supermarket Harlequin romance.

By contrast, Doris Grumbach’s review of August 3, 1986, for the Washington Post opened with the chilling phrase Dessa Rose makes to the white man recording her story: “I kill white mens…I kill white mens cause the same reason Masa kill Kaine. Cause I can.”

Grumbach’s choice seemed far more evocative. Was hers the result of a closer reading of the text because she was a novelist herself, or because she was a woman seeing in the novel a feminist tract? I decided to experiment. When my copy of the book arrived I flipped through, randomly stopping on page 48. There I found the passage below. It turns out that this is another recollection Dessa Rose has of Kaine:

“They had seldom loved at night; the realization was like a fist in her stomach. Nighttime was for holding, for simple caresses that eased tired limbs, for sleep.… They had had only the one winter of love; and the mornings.”

The quote did double-duty. It illustrated the author’s power with words, her “poetic roots,” and at the same time conveyed the desperate conditions in which the novel’s characters find themselves. The slaves were so tired by the end of the day that they could do no more than hold each other’s exhausted bodies.

I tried my experiment a second time, flipping pages again until I came to page 61:

“The other white men didn’t even rouse up as the guard thrashed off into the underbrush with Linda, but everyone on the coffle [a train of slaves chained together] was awake. Every night since Montgomery, one of the white men had taken Linda into the bushes and they had been made wretched by her pleas and pitiful whimperings. The noise from the underbrush stopped abruptly.”

However unpleasant the scene, surely we have evidence here of a masterful economy of words. In two random selections, then, I came upon material that was not only powerful but suggestive of the writer’s talent and expressive of the strained conditions found within the novel.

Yet the Bradley piece (I reminded myself) was a favorable review; and a good review in the New York Times was like money in the bank. So what if I found the reviewer’s remarks less than precise and thought his quote lackluster? Sherley Anne Williams was raised not to “hope too hard.” The corollary to this is, of course, to be grateful for what you get.

Following Williams’s death, the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a brief tribute. Williams was described as a pioneer in the study and teaching of African-American literature that began with her admission to the UCSD faculty in 1973.

“It was a time when [such literature] was still only marginally accepted,” said UCSD colleague Rosaura Sanchez. “Sherley put it on the UCSD literary map and made it central to our studies.”

During her career as an educator, Williams chaired the literature department at UCSD. She was a senior Fulbright lecturer at the University of Ghana and a visiting professor at Stanford University, usc, and Sweet Briar College in Lynchburg, Virginia.

In 1975, The Peacock Poems, Williams’s first book of verse, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. She won an Emmy Award for a television performance of poems from her second book of verse, Some One Sweet Angel Chile. It was another National Book Award nominee. Her one-woman drama, Letters from a New England Negro, was performed at the National Black Theatre Festival in 1991 and at the Chicago International Theater Festival in 1992.

Working Cotton, her first children’s story, won an American Library Association Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Honor. Williams had recently published another children’s book, Girls Together.

The New York Times’ obituary concluded with a list of the survivors: Her son, John Malcolm Stewart of Lancaster, California; a sister, Ruby Birdson; and three grandchildren.

The word count of the Times obituary totaled 696. The number itself gave a neat symmetry to the messy stuff of living.

“Her life was a tough one and you felt it in her writing,” Dijkstra told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “It’s a tragic loss for us all, but she will live through her writing. And that’s what she wanted.”

And it was to her writing that I went. Her children’s stories were on the shelves and easy to come by. I’d paid twice the original price for my copy of Dessa Rose and nearly four times the original price for her poetry books. I was able to borrow Give Birth to Brightness from a friend. Following my experiment with flipping pages, I opened Dessa Rose in earnest, eager to gorge myself on the story. It was tough. On the jacket, a blurb from Nobel Prize–winner Toni Morrison reads, “Having this treasure of a book available again for new and more readers is not only necessary, it is imperative.” Necessary and imperative — the terms of extremity should have warned me. Indeed, from almost the first moment with Dessa Rose and Kaine, I was caught up in an account so harrowing that each new paragraph threatened to rub me as raw as the iron cuff on the slaves’ ankles. Williams said that in doing her research for the book, she was brought “to the brink of despair.” I wanted to put the book aside.

“No, finish it,” prize-winning poet Philip Levine told me later. “It’s worth it.”

My search for Sherley Anne Williams was spurred on by three things — a peevish tone in a book review, an obituary in the Washington Post, and a personal association. The review was written by New York Times critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. On July 12, 1986, in a review of Dessa Rose, he called Williams’s imagination “tough and realistic,” cited her storytelling gifts, and wrote “Thus has Sherley Anne Williams breathed wonderful life into the bare bones of the past.” But then Lehmann-Haupt mentions that in the introduction to her novel, Williams calls to account a controversial book, The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. He suggests that Williams came late to the debate raging about the Pulitzer Prize–winning book — that is, whether a white man (Styron) could give a fair first-person narrative of a slave rebel. And the critic nitpicks, berating Williams for mistaking the publication date of the book (a fact that should have been caught by an editor). Lehmann-Haupt’s tone was so testy that I wondered exactly who was this woman who could get a seasoned critic to drop his measured tones and squall like a wet cat.

The Washington Post obituary was written by Robert Hass, the 1995–1997 U.S. poet laureate. He was brief, recounting in one paragraph Williams’s history and her achievements and reminding readers that she had begun her career as a poet and that she had discovered the poetry of African-Americans. “I was just captivated by their language,” he quotes her, “their speech and their character, because I always liked the way black people talk. So I wanted to work in that writing.” Hass ended his tribute with two of Williams’s poems. The concluding lines of the second poem (“you were never miss brown to me”) echoed in my head long after I set the notice aside.

  • …I am
  • the women of my childhood
  • just as I was the women of
  • my youth, one with these women
  • of silence who lived on the
  • cusp of their time and knew it;
  • who taught what it is to be grown.

My last reason for going in search of Sherley Anne Williams was personal. Of her poetry collection Some One Sweet Angel Chile, Sherley Anne wrote, “The angel chile of the title is the ‘knee baby,’ the child next to the youngest waiting at the mother’s knee, while the ‘lap baby,’ the youngest, gets the affection and the oldest child gets the attention.” Williams described herself as a knee baby. I had never heard the term before but realized that a trick of birth had also left me as knee baby. And as one knee baby to another, I wanted to find out what Williams had made of her life.

Frequent-flyer miles on Southwest Airlines got me to New York City; the number 2 subway of the Manhattan Transit Authority got me the rest of the way to Brooklyn Heights. There was no nearby six-lane freeway, no blue California sky; here the houses crowded in close, making the streets seem narrower and the curbs taller. The urban colors were deeply saturated. It was October 12, and the autumn air had the fruity taste of Comice pears. Gray pigeons pecked at the pavement where eleven o’clock sunlight fell through a lacy scrim of ginkgo leaves in a drizzle of gold. Manhattan, that massive crunch of concrete and steel, was just across the Brooklyn Bridge, five minutes from here. But the metropolis with its hordes and mayhem seemed to belong to another distant world. When I rang the doorbell of the multiple-unit brownstone, the sound tore through the stillness and sent the pigeons scrambling into the air.

On the other side of the clear-glass panel of the front door, Philip Levine descended to the foyer. “Hello,” he said, unlocking the door and opening it. I stepped into a thick, sweet smell of warm chocolate. “Someone’s baking,” he explained, leading the way upstairs to the third floor, where the chocolate smell had faded into the mixed stale odors of an old building. His wife met me at the door.

Frances Levine was around the same age as her husband, who is 71. She wore no makeup, and her hair, thick and gray and falling below her shoulders, set off the bony intelligence of her face. She was cleaning the house, dressed in a loose shirt and jeans that had been bleached of much of their original denim color. Levine wore an olive green cashmere sweater, sweat pants, and a black baseball cap pulled down low. Husband and wife were both slim and looked fit, and between them was held an intimacy at once easy and unspoken. She was at the moment stripping the bed to wash the sheets.

The large living room led to a roomy kitchen and both had a woodsy Scandinavian sparseness. The furniture was of undistinguished design and vintage, the second-house stuff found in beach cottages and summer homes. The Levines live in Brooklyn half the year with their children and grandchildren nearby; they return to Fresno for the winter and spring. I took a seat on the couch.

“So you wanted to talk about Sherley…”

Philip Levine won the Pulitzer Prize for his poems in 1995, the first American Book Award for poetry in 1980, the National Book Award in 1991, and twice received the National Book Critics Circle Award. After 30 years at the California State University, Fresno, he retired and now teaches one course at New York University in the fall term. He spends most of his days writing but agreed to give me a few minutes to talk about Sherley because she had been his colleague and friend. Their relationship began in his classroom when she was a freshman. My search for Sherley Anne thus formally starts in 1963 when she is 18. Her life was already a third over.

“I was a young professor, and she was clearly a very bright, very talented student. In over 30 years of teaching poetry, I have found that it is the rarest of events to come across a supremely gifted student. I was lucky.” Levine counted back, reflecting that Sherley was enrolled in his Introduction to Literature course that was offered in the second semester of her first year. He remembered that she liked to sit in the front of the class, near the door, that she favored brightly colored clothes, and that in those first years she wore her hair short.

“She dominated the class, there is no doubt about it. The other students listened to what she said and praised what she wrote. There was no question in anyone’s mind that she was bright.”

Levine paused and sat back, looking at the ceiling. In the background, the washing machine churned through its wash cycle.

“You know,” I said, choosing this moment to come clean, “she certainly can write — you can tell that right away — but I’m having trouble with the novel.”

“Why is that?”

I explained that I’d grown to care so much for the characters, I could not bear to learn something bad happens to them. I’d had this deep identification with a book’s characters only twice before, when reading Pearl Buck’s Good Earth about starving Chinese peasants, and a suspense novel, The Collector by John Fowles, in which a young woman is held captive by a psychopath.

“No, finish it. It’s worth it,” he assured me.

I asked Levine what Sherley looked like. Slender, he answered, and very attractive. “She had beautiful, expressive eyes. She was physically very energetic,” he clenched his fists to illustrate, “and very articulate. Sherley liked to talk and was highly opinionated about what she read. She took a strong position, and we argued.”

I wondered how difficult that was, coming from a student. He looked over at me.

“Once I understood how serious she was, how she was absorbing the material, I went with her. She was eager, eating everything up, and what teacher doesn’t thrill to have a student like that?”

He said that he assigned the class to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. “It was a savage and amusing book,” Levine recalled, “and discussion was heated.”

At the end of the class period, Sherley and he were still in disagreement on some point. He waved his hand in the air, as if to grasp that point now so many decades old. But in the end, his palm open and his fingers spread wide, he admitted that while they’d gone back to his office and continued to debate, he could no longer remember what it was they had argued about.

“I do know that at the next class I stood up and said that I had been forced to reconsider my position and that Sherley’s point was better taken.”

It must have been a pretty heady moment for a freshman.

“The next semester she took a poetry course from me, and her poems were often masterful. She wrote about her life in West Fresno, and she made her world come alive for the reader.” He recalled her poem “the wishon line” that was collected in her second volume of verse, Some One Sweet Angel Chile. “From the first, she had three great strengths. Sherley always had a strong story line, a narrative. She always had characters. And because she was reading a lot, she was developing her sense of pacing, her ear. She had an excellent ear.”

He pointed a finger at me. “But her strength was also her greatest weakness. She had a lot of pride. God knows she needed it, but sometimes that pride got in her way.”

Levine recounted how one afternoon she brought in work that was not up to her standard.

“The fact was, it was not a very good poem, but the other students were afraid to say so. Some of them had tried to write like her, but they did not have her talent. And when this poem came along, they did not know how to respond. I explained why it wasn’t very good. Sherley was not happy, but I did it because I knew what she was capable of. I owed it to the poet I knew she could become.”

During the course of the criticism, he said, Sherley remained quiet, sitting absolutely still. It was only when he was through that she raised her hand. Levine interrupted himself to say that all his students called him Phil.

“Sherley too,” he went on. “But this time she said, ‘Professor, may I say something?’ She was staring and had not taken her eyes off me. I was standing in the front of the class, and I said, ‘Of course, Sherley. What would you like to say?’ ‘GO FUCK YOURSELF, LEVINE!’ ”

With this, the poet whipped off his cap and laughed.

“Then she gathered her things and stormed out of the classroom.”

What did you do? I asked.

“What did I do? At the next class meeting, she appeared and nothing was said of the incident.”

I was not sure what surprised me more, an angry outburst from a teenage undergraduate or an instructor’s decision to let the incident pass. With his cap off, I had my first full look at Levine’s eyes. They were a clear child’s blue. And at the moment they were twinkling.

“You had to know Sherley,” he explained. “At the next class, we just looked at each other and that was it, the incident was finished. We understood each other. She participated in class and we never had another problem.”

In her second year, she told Levine she wanted to go to a black college and wondered what he thought about her transferring to Fisk. He urged her to apply.

“She got in and studied under Sterling Brown, I think. He is a superb poet. He writes exquisitely in the tongue of black Americans, and I think you see his influence in her work.”

But she was not happy at Fisk and returned to Fresno, where she graduated. She went on to Brown University for graduate work, but she dropped out in 1972 after earning her master’s degree. She returned to California, with a baby.

“She came back to Fresno State and sat in on a poetry course of mine. But she did not need me. She was writing poetry and fiction and needed a community of writers. And she found one.”

I described the challenge I’d found in assembling copies of everything she had published. “There is one book you will not be able to find,” he said. “It was her first novel.”

Her story, he said, was an account of a poor young black woman living in West Fresno, “more or less like Sherley.” The woman supports her child and a brother by working as a domestic for a white jeweler and his wife. The jeweler is a louse who hopes to sleep with the girl. At the same time, a black street hood is trying to charm her while organizing a hustle that would draw the young woman’s brother into trouble.

“Sherley had submitted the manuscript, still incomplete, to a publishing house for consideration. This was why she asked me to read it. She told me that in her ending, as she conceived it, the sister and brother would affirm their affection for each other and work together to pull themselves out of the situation. I said it sounded wonderful and that she should get it published. And that was her dilemma. The publishers apparently had agreed to print the book but said it lacked violence. They suggested that the brother kill the hustler. And they wanted more sex in it too, something about the woman being a prostitute. And poor Sherley, this was her first novel and she really wanted to see it published.”

I thought about Sherley Anne Williams before the honors, before the tenured spot at UCSD She was ambitious and talented, and, like her heroine, she was a single mother with a child to raise.

“I told her, ‘Sherley, you made those characters, and the most beautiful thing in it is the relationship between the brother and sister. I think you should finish the book on your own terms.’ ” Levine’s eyes conveyed a weary sadness. “And that’s what she did. She finished the book as she had planned it, with the love between the siblings defining the book and giving the characters the strength to survive. She finished the book her way, and she never sold it.”

There’s a voice at the window that calls me

by a name only the brotha should know.

I’d have to leave my house to answer

yet one night I was tempted to go.

How did she do at a reading, I asked.

“She had a remarkable voice and could use it to great effect. She may have been professionally trained. She would go back and forth, breaking into the black voices of her characters, and then returning to the neutral voice of the narrator.” She worked hard to get her material across, he said, and referred to a reading they did together in 1981 in Birmingham, Alabama. The theater had a raked auditorium and good acoustics. It was a perfect setting for Sherley, Levine said, and she brought a real class act to the community of black people who had come to hear her. Suddenly Levine called out to his wife in the kitchen. What, he asked, did Sherley wear that night in Birmingham? Frances stepped into the living room.

“She wore a two-piece turquoise outfit with large gold earrings.”

Later, in San Diego, Sherley’s sister Birdson would describe how, after their father’s death, the family went on welfare and the four girls wore Goodwill “hand-me-downs” and charity offerings. The hardest part about wearing other people’s clothes, according to Birdson, “was fixing yourself so that the clothes didn’t stand out, so you looked like everybody else.”

That night in Birmingham, Williams stepped onstage so well put together that years later a friend could instantly recall the blue shade of her dress, the size of her earrings. But few in the audience knew how hard she had worked to earn that turquoise blue outfit and those big gold earrings.

By the time of the Birmingham reading, Philip Levine and Sherley Anne Williams were colleagues, established faculty members with acclaimed books to their credit. But there was that interim period, after Sherley returned from Brown University, no longer a student but still not established in her own right. She was writing the ending of a book that would never be published. Levine remembers that time for its racial climate.

“This was the late ’60s and early ’70s, and there was a lot of racial stuff going on. Somebody called Sherley a ‘nigger.’ ”

I asked if she had a problem with whites.

“Sherley?” said Frances, who had remained in the living room. “No. She had a problem with phonies and hypocrites, and in the end it didn’t matter what color they were.”

At that reading in Birmingham, Alabama, she stood before the audience of 300 people and thanked Philip Levine for encouraging her to become herself. “She was generous to me,” he recalled.

I collected my things. By the way, I asked, why was the movie of Dessa Rose never made?

Levine remembered that the cast was assembled and on location when word came that filming was not going to happen. Cicely Tyson, Donald Sutherland, and Natasha Richardson, a British actress just beginning her career, were reportedly signed for parts. Later I would read that the studio had been sold and in the shuffle of properties, Dessa Rose got lost.

“We were sitting in the kitchen in our place in Fresno when she told us,” Levine said.

It had been early morning and their small wooden house, surrounded and made private by tall trees, had been quiet. Williams talked of how she had been with the film crew in South Carolina, ready to film, when the phone call came.

“Oh, Phil, I wanted that money,” she told him. “But that was it. We packed our bags and came back home.”

Levine could see that she was disappointed. “But when she told me that they’d killed the project — ‘They just killed the whole thing’ — she laughed. That was Sherley. She just laughed.”

On the train ride back to Manhattan, I jotted down what the couple had said of their last meeting with Sherley Anne. It was in the summer of 1996 and Williams had traveled to Fresno for a reading. She brought her grandson, Malcolm (named after his father, Sherley’s son). Levine recalled that the child, who must have been eight or nine, was disruptive during the reading. Later, he asked Sherley what was going to happen to the boy. “I’m going to raise him,” she said. She had raised her son alone, and now she was going to raise her grandson. At the time she was over 50.

The next day, before returning to California, I ducked into the Museum of Modern Art. The museum is just a few blocks from the Donnell Library on 53rd Street where, in the spring of 1978, at an evening sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, Sherley read her poems. It was among her finest hours.

I thought of that on the second floor of the museum when I came upon a sculpture by Aristide Maillol of an immense young woman lying on her side. Small-breasted and naked, she was falling off what looked like a plank or a mattress or the edge of the world.

The day before, Phil Levine had described for me how at the Academy of American Poets reading the library had been packed with people, including Amiri Baraka, the celebrated playwright and activist.

“It was that kind of evening, and Sherley shined.”

She was staying in Brooklyn with the Levines, and the next morning she and Phil were in the kitchen going over the highlights of the evening before when Frances walked in. She had taken a shower and was wrapped in a white floor-length terry-cloth robe.

“Goddamn!” exclaimed Sherley, when she saw her. “I wish I looked that good.”

Now, at the museum, studying the Maillol, I imagined Sherley in the Brooklyn Heights kitchen the morning when Frances entered the room dressed in the robe. Here was a woman with an adoring husband, children who were prospering in the world, two homes. At her public triumph the night before, Sherley had had no partner to share that experience, no one to lighten the immense burden of responsibility she felt for her nine-year-old son. Was she not the woman represented by that Maillol sculpture — small-breasted and ripe, and dangerously balanced on what might be a mattress, or a plank, or the edge of the world?

“I would trip through / neon-lit city nights tryin / to make it fast through all my / young woman years till I could / be old and not be called on / to love no man, but just to / have what I have suffice and / all this wantin be covered by / a spreadin body, buried / in a old woman heart.”

She did achieve the “old woman heart,” but she never got to be old.

“Fresno? How was Fresno for Sherley when she was here?” Gene Bluestein whispers the words, his blue eyes fierce and bright. “Fresno was a shithole! And if you’re black or Mexican or someone from Southeast Asia, it’s still a shithole!”

The Valley

  • The Valley, i. e., the San Joaquin Valley of
  • California; also known as the Central
  • Valley. It lies between California’s two
  • great mountain ranges, the Coast Range
  • to the west and the Sierra Nevada to the
  • east. On the south, it is bounded by the
  • Tehachapis, a lesser range. Irrigation of
  • the arid southern half of the Valley and
  • the long growing season, which often
  • begins as early as February, has made
  • farming highly profitable. The economy of
  • the region is based on agriculture and re-
  • lated business and industry, food-proces-
  • sing, the manufacture of farm equipment,
  • and the like. Its principal crops include
  • raisins, figs, cotton, barley, and citrus fruits.
  • The Valley is not the most fertile farming
  • area in the world. It is the richest.

A stroke ten years ago left Bluestein unable to take deep breaths and incapable of speaking much above a whisper. The stroke also deprived him of the full use of his arms, so that his wife, Ellie, helped him dress for our interview. His blue shirt was tucked in at the waist and buttoned to the neck, his hair was slicked down like a schoolboy going to a dance recital.

The Bluesteins moved to Fresno in 1963, the same year Sherley entered college. Their home is a few minutes from the university where Gene once taught. The neighborhood is quiet, with single-story ranch-style homes. Years before, instead of planting a neat lawn like those on every side, Gene and Ellie planted trees that today bend under their weight of fruit; perennials and rosebushes crowd in thorny fragrance over the brick walkway. The couple had the bracing earnestness of longtime progressives. In 1999, Ellie was honored with the Fresno Free College Foundation Free Speech Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Gene Bluestein took the message of racial justice and social equality onto the stage where, as a folksinger and musician, he recorded commercial albums with his four children. Photographs hanging on walls show Gene as a young husband with a full, thick head of hair and a passion, clearly visible and almost intemperate, smeared across his open face. In other photos, as he grows older and passes into the role of father and university professor, the passion looks to have dimmed and his hair receded. In stolid middle age, he wears a beard. Today, at 71, the beard and most of his hair are gone. Close to 40 pounds trimmer than in any of his photos, he looks almost frail. Almost.

In my own nervous need to make sense of the changes effected over time, I brought up the subject of his stroke. “Surely there must be something to learn in this,” I suggested, “some value in acceptance.”

“Value, schm-alue!” he snapped, his eyes blazing.

Not all of the extraordinary vitality observed in the photos had been drained off by the stroke. While it might not make his condition easy to live with, for himself or for his wife, it was reassuring to see he still had fight left.

Ellie placed before me a plate with a bagel and cream cheese. She offered coffee and I said yes. Like Frances Levine, she wore her hair long; her cotton blouse was from Guatemala. “You might like one of these,” she said a moment later, setting down a small bowl of figs. It had been a long time since I’d had a fig, and even longer since I’d had one fresh from a tree. I bit through the purplish skin, still wet from rinsing.

“ — terrific,” Gene Bluestein was whispering, “and talented. Sherley had lots of ability.” Bluestein, who had accepted an invitation in 1977 to serve as a distinguished visiting professor at Brooklyn College, was in the audience with his wife that spring night in 1978 for Sherley’s Academy of American Poets reading. Gene had been her instructor at Fresno State and had recognized her talent. She was a very sharp person with a keen memory, he recalled.

And she was courageous.

He remembered how, after returning to Fresno in 1972, Sherley taught a course or two at the university. She proved a popular instructor at a time when students were demanding course relevancy and faculty diversity. For Sherley Anne Williams, a product of the ghetto, “Black is beautiful” and “Power to the people” were not just catchphrases. They were precious, hard-won prizes.

She wrote a play in which a white racist figures, and she asked Gene to play the role. He accepted and later that year turned the tables when he directed and played in Amiri Baraka’s two-scene, two-character play Dutchman. With Gene playing Clay, the young black Ivy League college student, he asked Sherley to play the role of Lula, a white woman who picks up Clay in the subway, taunts him as a third-rate imitation white man, and then kills him.

“There was a lot of pressure on her. Black students said she shouldn’t play the role. But she said that if I could play a racist, she could play a white woman.”

None of this, however — not her clear talent, not her rapport with students, not her master’s degree from Brown, not the fact that her book on African-American literature, Give Birth to Brightness, had received wide praise — was good enough for Fresno State to offer her a professorship.

“There was no way they were going to let her in,” whispered Bluestein, his eyes flashing. “No way.”

In 1973, UCSD hired Williams to teach writing and introduce African-American literature at the school. The appointment, perhaps inspired by demands for relevancy from an increasingly integrated student body, was still thought controversial. And Sherley had showed up for her interview with Malcolm, then three years old. Twenty-five years ago, the idea of an unwed mother raising her child alone must have raised eyebrows, even among university personnel touted for their liberalism.

“But Sherley’s willingness to go it alone,” Gene Bluestein said, “that was a part of her character.”

Dimple Merritt, English-department coordinator at California State University, Fresno, remembers Sherley when she was an instructor there and spoke before an Ethnic Studies forum. Merritt thought Sherley was clear and articulate. When Merritt helped organize a Young Writers Conference in 1987, she got to know Sherley better.

Merritt, a robust, powerfully built, no-nonsense woman whose first name derives from the fact that she has one prominent dimple, has a face in which feelings are seen to pass over like thunder clouds in the sky. And on Dimple’s face, a storm looked to be brewing.

“Yes, Sherley got into the conference,” she said, struggling to keep her voice down. “But the faculty did not go out of its way to welcome her, and few people attended her reading. Sherley understood. After all, she was from here!”

Williams was an alumnus and former faculty member. She had published a book of poems and a novel to great praise. Under the circumstances, the department at Fresno State felt compelled to invite her.

“But hardly anybody showed for her reading.”

Afterward, Dimple took Sherley to lunch at the nearby Harlem Restaurant. “I told her I felt bad because so few people came to hear her. Sherley tried to cheer me up. She said she was pleasantly surprised by the numbers who did come.”

Nineteen eighty-seven, and although Sherley Anne Williams had already proven herself, she was remembered as a black girl from the wrong side of town who had returned from Brown unmarried, with a young son in tow. So what if by then she had become a full professor at UCSD or held the departmental chair? What was to be made of her lines, say, that describe slaves in their “praise grove”? “ ‘Dey ain trus mo’n / one darky alone wid Chris; / two darkies togetha need / a live white man near.’ ” How could anyone take this kind of thing seriously?

Dimple turned to me, her tone conspiratorial. “Over lunch, I told Sherley how people were talking about things changing here, how Fresno State was changing. And you know what she said? ‘Fresno changing, never ever changing.’ I’ll always remember that. It was like a child’s rhyme. ‘Fresno changing, never ever changing.’ ”

  • This is really the story of a
  • sista who was very too-ga-tha
  • in everythang but life. You
  • see she was so too-ga tha
  • she had nothang but
  • strife.…

If the university in 1987 was “business as usual,” I noticed during my visit that the city of Fresno was aiming for big changes. A convention center was nearing completion, and great swatches of downtown real estate were empty and ready for development. Urban planners were talking about Fresno doing an economic turnaround along the lines of, say, Santa Rosa in Northern California. But Santa Rosa lies one hour north of San Francisco with its yuppies, and two hours north of the Silicon Valley. Fresno is a dusty flatland with Bakersfield to the south and Sacramento to the north and an ever-more-mechanized farming industry in between.

“But would you abandon your mother?” asks Rubi Pegues-White. Rubi is executive director of the African-American Historical and Cultural Museum, and she works with the Uptown Committee. She sees things changing for the city. “That’s what I tell people who say that Fresno is not happening. I say, okay, but she took care of you when you were young, like your mother, and would you abandon your mother just because you grew up and she couldn’t take care of you anymore?”

Pegues-White speaks in her office at the museum, a two-story structure a few blocks from downtown. The modest building stands beside a route that skirts a dead-zone desert of transient motels, gangs, drugs, and prostitutes and takes cars speeding back and forth between East and West Fresno. The African-American museum is strikingly empty. It is busiest during the school year, especially in February, Black History Month, when students visit. The museum exhibits the work of local artists. Its walls are hung with published accounts and framed photographs of San Joaquin Valley residents — high school principals, the first black police sergeant, local sports figures. It is an amateur undertaking but a valuable service, according to a handout, established to show the “long and storied history of African-Americans to the development of the San Joaquin Valley, and especially Fresno County.”

“I’m a cheerleader for Fresno, no doubt about it,” admits Pegues-White. After graduating from high school, she married, raised a family, and started a successful business that she has since sold. Now, she says, she wants to give something back.

“Sure, I knew Sherley. I sat behind her in high school. I’d tell her to move her paper over so I could copy her answers.”

Pegues-White may not have had all the test answers, but she had many other things that counted. Originally from Louisiana with its Creole culture (a mixture of African, French, and Spanish), Pegues-White is an outgoing woman who describes herself as caramel colored with royal blue eyes. She was popular in high school. She eventually married, she said, the best-looking man in the San Joaquin Valley.

She and Sherley worked on the Edison High School annual, The Inventor, but they ran in different circles. Rubi could not remember if Sherley went to the prom.

“You know, the girls had to be able to buy their dresses, and the boys had to rent a tuxedo and buy a corsage. And there were other expenses — the dance, and there was dinner — so I wouldn’t think she was there, no.”

Williams once told a reporter, “Even in a poverty-stricken environment, we were enormously poor.” By her senior year of high school, Sherley had lost both parents. She lived with her sister and young niece in a cramped, run-down apartment, doing her homework at the kitchen table in the early morning before anyone awoke.

Pegues-White, divorced mother of two, founded the Hair Interns School of Cosmetology, the business she sold a few years ago. At the high school class’s 25th reunion, it was Pegues-White who was voted “Most Successful.”

It was a little after three when I crossed the railroad tracks that divide the city of Fresno into two unequal parts. Only recently, I was told, had a freeway been built so as to better integrate West Fresno with the rest of the city. By the time I’d traveled deeply into West Fresno, students were leaving Edison High School, strolling to waiting buses or milling together in small groups. I saw Mexicans, Southeast Asians, and African-Americans. The Edison High School teams call themselves the Panthers. The beige-colored gym wall had a huge black panther painted near the top, well out of reach of graffiti artists from rival schools.

Columbia, the elementary school Sherley attended, lies off A Street. The building, bulky and nondescript, is now surrounded by wood-frame portables. A chain-link fence encloses the playground. The yard had been recently blacktopped.

West Fresno, Sherley’s old neighborhood, resembles parts of Southeast San Diego. The streets are wide, the houses old, and some have extensions that look tacked on. Alleys cut behind the houses; front yards sprout crabgrass; screen doors hang off their hinges.

After cruising around, I drove back to the Radisson Hotel where I was staying. Casting its shadow over the convention area of downtown, it is a tall barn of a building rising ten stories. The Radisson hosts large conventions and vagabond businessmen on their way someplace else. There is reddish marble and mirrors at the elevators, tiny blinking lights strung year-round through fake ivy that sprouts near the bar, the dining area, and the elevators. A workout room is jammed into a broom closet; an outdoor swimming pool is the size of a teacup. There are four thrift shops within one block of the hotel, a Motel 6, car-part shops, and dozens of empty buildings for rent or lease.

From my room on the eighth floor, looking west, I watched evening approach and the dull sky go pewter gray. The wind came up as soon as the sun went down. I was awakened once or twice in the night by the sounds of a distant freight train passing. The train whistle, carried by the wind, scraped against the chilled air. Sherley grew up hearing freight trains and their lonely whistles.

Her children’s book, Working Cotton, was listed by Parents magazine as among the best books of 1992. “Cotton smell like morning,” she wrote, “sometime, kind of damp. It smell dusty now it’s warm, like if you get too close, you sneeze. The rows of cotton stretch far as I can see.”

It was true. The next morning, as I headed south on 99, cotton fields stretched far into the distance. The waist-high plants had hard brown stalks and mean pods that opened like claws to show their tufted white. Rising dust created a gritty fog that cut off the horizon line. There seemed to be no edge to the San Joaquin Valley, no end to it. But Sherley Anne Williams got out

Sherley was the third of four daughters born to Jesse and Lelia Williams, who picked their way across the country, from rural Texas to California, traveling from one migrant farmworkers’ camp to another. They married and had their first two daughters, Jesse Marie and Ruby Louise, in Texas. The family moved sporadically, staying in each camp a few months, maybe a year; sometimes they circled back for work, but always they headed west, toward the San Joaquin Valley. Sherley Anne was born in Bakersfield, and the youngest, Lelia Vivian, was born at the county hospital in Fresno, the center of California’s fertile basin. As children, the girls worked in the fields alongside their parents.

Jesse Winson Williams was a hard-muscled man, with gray eyes and a habit of stern silence. Lelia Marie Siler was a brown-skinned woman who, it was said, lacked good sense and was fortunate to have married a man 21 years her senior and sure to take care of her. A patriarch and strict disciplinarian, Jesse Williams showed his daughters that hard work was nothing to be afraid of and that books were a fine way to spend one’s precious free time.

Jesse Williams’s word was law. For example, he abhorred nicknames, and so nicknames were not allowed. But his daughters got around that stricture by stringing their first and middle names together so that Jessie Marie was called Jesmarie, Ruby Louise went by Ruise, Sherley Anne was Sherlanne, and the baby, Lelia Vivian, was called Le’rn. Sherley used the names in her poems and in Working Cotton, and in the same vein she played with the names of the characters in her novel. Dessa is short for Odessa, Rufel for Ruth Elizabeth.

“There were camps for the whites, the Mexicans, and the blacks,” recalls Ruby Birdson, darker and plumper than her sister and endowed with a plain-speaking wisdom that sustained Sherley, she said, throughout her life.

“If there were any cabins to be had, the whites got those, and if the Mexicans lived with them, they got the cabins too. The blacks,” she said, “always got the worst living conditions.”

Birdson remembers the various homes of her childhood as one-room affairs with wood floors and siding and roofs made of tarp. The four girls would sleep in one bed, their parents in another. For heat and cooking there were wood-burning potbellied stoves with a couple of burners. There was no running water and no toilet; they used an outhouse. A single utility cord would deliver electricity from a generator.

In 1950, the family was living in Bakersfield. On the last day of school before Christmas vacation, teachers in Ruby’s primary school selected in each class the child of the poorest family and gave him or her the class’s Christmas tree.

“Being a child, I never thought about being poor,” Ruby told me. “But in the first grade I got to carry the Christmas tree home. That’s how I found out we were poor.”

It was a long way up the dirt road from where the bus dropped her off to where she lived with her family. It was a heavy load for a child to carry.

When Jesse Williams was diagnosed with tuberculosis, he built himself a one-room shack behind their house in Fresno and lived there surrounded by the books he loved, careful not to contaminate his family. He later was admitted to the tuberculosis wing of the county hospital.

  • I member we went to the hospital that day.
  • The only mirror in the house a small
  • piece we keep in the kitchen window
  • sill.…

Ruby has only one photograph of her father. Forty-five years old, it is blurred and faded and smaller than the standard-size pictures printed today. Jesse Williams stands on hospital grounds, a sweep of grass and sidewalk at his back. He stares at the camera, his hands on his hips, the sun in his eyes, his features bleached out. He was a feisty man who always wore a hat. He wears one here, the fedora adding distinction to his drawstring pajamas. He died at the county hospital not long after the photo was taken. Sherley was eight.

The family went on welfare, lived off various charities, and wore cast-off clothes, said Birdson. “Once in a while we’d get something new, but most of the time we relied on charity.”

Like their father, Sherley loved to read. The three oldest girls went to the library once a week and each took out the five-book limit and then spent the rest of the week reading each other’s books.

In a 1986 Los Angeles Times interview, Sherley told a reporter that she and her sisters listened to music, fairy tales, and biblical dramas on the radio, and she read historical romances and murder mysteries. But Lelia Williams, her mother, worried that her daughter read too much and tried to discourage her. “I think she felt reading wasn’t a skill I needed…and that it would put ideas in my head.” Sherley described her relationship with her mother as “rocky.”

“She never really made the successful adaptation from a rural existence to an urban life. Without my father there to intercede, the forces of the town just overwhelmed her. She was really one of the people broken by the American dream.”

In the eighth grade, a science teacher saw promise in Sherley and urged her to enroll in college preparatory courses.

“I was really full of inarticulate longings I didn’t know how to express,” she told the Los Angeles Times reporter. She assumed that she would have babies. Both her older sisters had had children and dropped out of school. Ruby was 14 when she became pregnant. “I remember walking the shelves in the library one day, trying to see if I could tell by the titles of the books if they were about black people because I was too embarrassed to ask the librarian. I mean, what if there were no books?”

She came upon Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Eartha Kitt’s Thursday’s Child. It was largely through these autobiographies, she said, that she was able to take heart in her life.

Williams recalled in that interview that the Fresno of her youth was so segregated and “racial hostility in some towns in the Central Valley so pervasive that most black people avoided them entirely.” She and a girlfriend were stunned when they first saw a black doctor in Fresno. They decided that he must be African, that he could not be an American.

Lelia Williams died when Sherley was 16, and she went to live with Ruby and her daughter, Jacquelyn. Often in need of money, the sisters went into the fields ringing Fresno to pick fruit and cotton.

In high school, Sherley discovered that she liked to write. A chemistry teacher encouraged her to apply for college. “All these other people were applying, so I did too.”

Her life was about to change.

Ruby showed me a snapshot. Sherley, she said, must have been 16 or 17 in the picture. Like the shot of her father, this black-and-white photo is blurred and faded. Sherley has one hand on her hip, one leg crossed in front of the other. She wears a loose dark skirt and blouse and her legs are bare. “Look at her!” hooted Ruby, her voice rising. “Doesn’t she know she’s just too much.” She was not talking to me but to the image of her sister in the photograph. “That girl is just too much indeed!”

  • She carried herself
  • like she didn’t know she
  • was ugly, almost
  • like she didn’t know she
  • was black — …

Years later, when Dessa Rose made the news, Sherley’s UCSD colleague Rosaura Sanchez spoke of Sherley to reporters, describing the circumstances of her achievement. She was the only one in her family to go to college, she said, and to have become an academic; her success had been achieved without the usual support of a family or a husband. She had, said Sanchez, the strength to overcome a number of obstacles.

“To go from no prospects at all to having seemingly limitless opportunity,” Sherley explained, “…I feel I just wasn’t prepared for seemingly limitless opportunity.”

Ruby Birdson leaned on an aluminum cane as she made her way from her apartment to my car. In a poem, Sherley described her sister as a young girl with “The long waisted / body, the long straight neck.” Now she is a short, thick woman in a midnight blue dress, her medusa-head of tie-on braids falling neatly to her shoulders. She moved slowly, each step laid down with caution. The arthritis in her knees was bad that evening, she explained. At the car, she backed in and folded her legs after her. She made sure the cane did not catch as I slammed the door. On the other side of the glass she looked at once serious and satisfied, like a nesting squab. Climbing in behind the wheel, I asked if she much minded the cane.

“No. Besides, it’s good for knocking heads in case I need to,” she added, indicating the men standing outside her apartment building in East San Diego.

Ruby Birdson lives here with her younger daughter, 24-year-old Evangeline, and her 4-year-old grandson, Szongaia. The two-story unit, with a swimming pool sunk in its center, is gated, but the gate is never locked. And while in their leases tenants agree not to loiter outside the property, as I make a U-turn and head for Bancroft Street, my headlights flare over men — some of them residents in the building — grouped in handfuls across the street and down the block.

“But we’re moving, so I don’t have to worry much longer,” said Birdson. She has already signed the lease for their new apartment in a quieter area of East San Diego. She, her daughter, and her grandson will each have a bedroom. The apartment is on the second floor, but Ruby does not foresee the climb as a problem. The main thing, she says, is she wants out.

Birdson has been responsible for clearing her sister’s estate, going through the papers, meeting with lawyers, and negotiating the dispersal of Williams’s effects. Jacquelyn Miller-Allen, her older daughter, took charge of the funeral and prepared Williams’s home in Emerald Hills for purchase, but there is still much to do. Birdson, 58, works full time as a receptionist at WD-40 headquarters in the Morena district. When her daughters’ schedules require it, she looks after Szongaia and Jacquelyn’s nine-year-old son Arreon. She picks them up from school on her way home from work, sees they are fed and do their homework, sees they get bathed and puts them to bed. She is overworked but maintains this stressful balance because she must. Her job offers health benefits, and, at her age, she says, health benefits are important. She enjoys her young grandsons and keeps them in line with tough affection. Ruby was her father’s favorite — he called her his jewel — and there is much of Jesse Williams in Ruby. All of her life, Birdson has worked hard and somehow succeeded under harsh conditions, like a desert plant. And now she is moving.

“It’s because of a neighbor. She’s got an attitude. She’s jealous.”

The woman, she said, lives on the second floor, in an apartment that offers a clear view of the tenants’ assigned parking spaces. In recent weeks, both Ruby and Evangeline have found their tires slit or punctured with long nails. When Ruby used Sherley’s blue Acura, it too was vandalized.

“I leave the house to go to work, come outside, and find I’ve got a flat. Or driving on the freeway and suddenly the tire goes flat. That’s happened too.”

I imagined getting up in the morning wondering if my car has been vandalized in the night. Ruby had said the woman was jealous, and I searched for a casual way to phrase what I knew to be a blunt inquiry: “Jealous of what?” After all, Ruby Birdson’s life — a juggling act of responsibilities — seemed to be nothing anyone would wish on herself. What if she had a car, a job with benefits, an apartment, and nice clothes to wear? She’d paid dearly for them.

“What a drag,” I finally came out with.

Ruby is the last surviving child of Jesse and Lelia Williams. Jesse Marie choked to death on a turkey sandwich 23 years ago. Lelia Vivian never seemed to get her act together; a drinker and drug user, she died of a heart attack less than a decade ago.

We chose a Chinese restaurant at Grossmont Center. Ruby ordered chicken fried rice. I was served a dish in which fat black mushrooms gleamed among broccoli like so many sea urchins. Our food sat in front of us, untouched, while I put forth questions: What about the father of Sherley’s child? What were his feelings?

“At first she was hurt that he had not asked her to marry him, but later she said if she had married him she would have had to worship at the shrine of his genius. But hell,” said Ruby, “Sherley was a goddamn genius herself!”

While in Fresno, I had made a long-distance telephone call to the father of Sherley’s son. He happens to be a well-educated man, married with a family. He holds a position of intellectual significance. I described to him the article I was writing. He told me he had nothing to say for this article and wished to remain anonymous.

  • His daddy call
  • my name and I turn to him and wait.
  • It be cold in the Grapevine at night
  • this time of year. Wind come whistlin down
  • through them mountains almost blow this old
  • VW off the road. I’ll be in
  • touch he say. Say, take care; say, write if
  • you need somethin.
  • I will him to touch
  • us now, to take care us, to know what
  • we need is him and his name. He slap
  • the car door, say, drive careful and turn
  • to go. If he let us go now … how
  • we gon ever take him back? I ease
  • out on the clutch, mash in on the gas.
  • The only answer I get is his back.

I asked Ruby what it was like when she found out Sherley had cancer and was really ill.

“She was my sister,” answered Ruby, “so I didn’t want to believe it.”

Two years before she died, Sherley had had a hysterectomy. Afterwards, she began to complain of chest pains. She had a recurrent cough. On several occasions she doubled over in pain, unable to move, and Ruby took her to Kaiser’s emergency room. More than once, she was in such pain they called an ambulance.

“But since cancer didn’t run in our family, nobody thought to check for it.”

Our food was stone cold. We asked to have it bagged to take home. Although the food was no longer warm, my car filled with the greasy odors of fried rice and broccoli.

Ruby’s apartment was turned upside-down. She was moving that weekend and framed posters were stacked in a corner, plastic kitchenware was set on the counter, and books were piled and ready for boxing.

All the walls were stripped clean except for the lithograph on the wall behind my chair. In it a half-dozen women stand in silhouette, their African garb colored in bleached-out earth tones. Sherley commissioned Synthia Saint James, the artist who illustrated Girls Together, to do the piece for Ruby. Sherley had dedicated Girls Together to Ruby and included her as well in the book’s characters: “Ruise, the oldest, skinny as a snake, have a grin make you grin with her, her teeth so white and straight.”

“It must be difficult to be without her,” I said.

Ruby had taken the couch opposite me. To relieve pressure on her legs and help with blood circulation, she had kicked her shoes off and put her feet up. She has small, plump hands, and I’d already noticed that she’d treated herself to a manicure; now I saw that her toes had been done as well. “You’d be surprised,” she’d told me earlier, “how doing a little something nice for oneself can help you get through the day.” All 20 digits winked a faint, pearly pink.

“This never was supposed to happen,” said Ruby. “I was older. I was supposed to go first.”

On the round maple-red table next to the TV set stood a photograph of Sherley. She is seated, while Ruby and her two daughters stand behind her. It was the last photo taken of Sherley, and she had not liked it because the chemotherapy had left her with little hair. In the photograph she appears thin and self-possessed. Her feet are crossed at the ankle, and the tips of her shoes peek out from under the hem of her full skirt. Her hands rest in her lap. The dress is a warm russet color. Sherley Anne Williams smiles at the viewer, but her thoughts seem to be elsewhere. She looks tired.

“Relationships were very important to her, especially family,” explained Luvenia Alfred, a longtime friend. “She always felt responsible for them.”

As it happened, Sherley told Luvenia about her illness before she told her sister.

“Sherley was very private that way. She did not want people to worry, and you have to understand that her family had always depended upon her. She was worried about how they’d take the news.”

Twenty-five years ago Luvenia’s cousin, Becky Thierry, introduced Luvenia to Sherley. Becky was Williams’s assistant during her tenure as department chair, and she recalls the pleasure of that time. “As chairman of the African-American studies department, she would open up her home to the students. She lived in a small condominium in La Jolla. This was before University Towne Centre was built, so the view was all trees and the ocean. The place would be wall-to-wall people — students, poets, friends. The word would go out whenever there was a party at Sherley’s. Everyone loved her.”

In 1980, at the end of her tenure as chairperson, and after seven years at UCSD, Sherley was due for a sabbatical. She convinced Ruby to move to San Diego from Fresno.

“She told me, ‘Girl, we need to raise these kids together.’ My youngest was little, and she had Malcolm, and she told me that we should combine forces and raise the kids together. When she wanted to, Sherley knew how to talk, so I packed up and I drove here to San Diego and when I get to her place, she hands me the keys to her car and her house and says, ‘Here! I’m gone!’ ” Ruby laughed loudly.

Sherley and Becky Thierry left for Washington, D.C. Becky came back soon, but Sherley stayed. Jacquelyn, her niece, brought her son to visit. Sherley did research, wrote, and relaxed.

  • work two ways, baby.
  • We together and I hear
  • you breathin, the
  • air raspin over tongue
  • and teeth and lips
  • we come together or apart
  • and it don’t matter.
  • You mine. I made you
  • in the private night:
  • Makin work mo ways than one
  • and I have put it on yo mind.

In her poems the relationship between men and women is frankly sexual — an encounter between equals — and often the woman is observing the failure to make a deeper connection. Even in her novel, Dessa Rose’s precious intimacy with Kaine is short-lived.

“Relationships were difficult,” acknowledged Luvenia Alfred. “She was an accomplished writer and she had a position in the university. There were not a lot of men who felt comfortable with that.”

In one of her poems collected in Some One Sweet Angel Chile, published in 1982, after her sabbatical, Sherley wrote:

  • But these men don’t care
  • a thing about me
  • Or if they do it’s
  • some paradise behind
  • my eyes that my body
  • might be key to

To friends, Sherley could be warm and endearing. As a faculty member, she was more likely to be serious and sometimes curt.

“She was a very private person,” said Lucinda Rubio, literature-department coordinator at UCSD. “There are people who talk to you about their home life, about their weekends and their families. You get to know them well.” Lucinda keeps track of a faculty of 50. Dark-haired, with an open, generous face, she radiates calm and goodwill. Her eyes are bright and her smile is ready. It would be hard not to stretch the boundaries of professional decorum, to lean across the desk and speak of private matters — scuffles with the kids, boredom in a marriage, illness.

“But Sherley was not like that.”

In 1973, Sherley Anne Williams was hired at UCSD. She did not have a doctorate, but her literature review, Give Birth to Brightness, had been well received and the promise she showed as a poet and fiction writer was enough for the university to invite her to join the faculty. In 1975, she was granted tenure. What did she think then?

Her earliest years had been spent in a series of farmworker camps. She’d picked cotton and fruit and moved from one shack to another. After her father died of TB, her family went on the county dole. She’d been prepared to have babies and drop out of school like her sisters and friends had. At Brown University, she’d cared for her child without the benefit of a family or husband. She was, she said, haunted by the memory of poverty, by the fear that there would not be enough.

Now, with tenure, she had the security of life-time employment. The Peacock Poems, published the year before, had been nominated for a National Book Award. There would be other nominations and honors, like television’s Emmy Award. San Diego was the place where the fruits of Sherley Anne Williams’s efforts grew sweet and ripened.

“No, I cannot say I knew her well, not until the very end,” said Lucinda.

I left many peoples and places

tryin not to be alone.

Left many a person and places

I lived my life alone.

I need to get myself together.

Yes, I need to make myself to home.

“Sherley called up to talk about scheduling changes, and that was when I got an idea that something was wrong. She would not have said anything, but I asked questions and found out she was ill and needed help.”

Lucinda organized matters. She called on Ann DuCille, who the previous year had set up the Black Women’s Writer’s Conference at UCSD to honor Williams’s contribution. Colleagues delivered food to Sherley’s home twice a week, and someone drove her to the doctor’s for her chemotherapy. Because Malcolm, her grandson, was living with her, the meals, Sherley said, had to appeal to an 11-year-old.

“I cooked meat loaf and mashed potatoes and vegetables,” recalls Lucinda. “Then my husband and I delivered it.”

Within a few weeks, Malcolm’s young mother, Renee, took up residency and made sure Sherley had food. But Sherley still needed help getting back and forth for her chemotherapy. Colleagues spent much of the day at the hospital; Sherley found the four-hour experience depressing and enjoyed the company. The chemotherapy made her ill, and at home she went right to bed.

In early June, Sherley was feeling well enough to invite members of the faculty and friends to her house for a potluck get-together. Lucinda remembers that there was jazz playing and lots of food. Everyone, she said, seemed to be having a good time. Sherley, confined to a chair, was the center of attention. In the course of the party, a friend “laid on hands” — a faith-healing technique in which toxins are said to be pulled from the body when the practitioner introduces “healing energy” to the sick person through her hands. Sherley, who was always so private, welcomed the presence of her friends as observers. The power would be enhanced, she said, if they offered positive thoughts, their hope for her cure. The party prayed silently.

“It was really a way for Sherley to say good-bye,” suggests a guest who was there. “She did not want lots of tears and crying.”

“Here,” said Lucinda, rising from behind her desk and pulling out a massive drawer of a nearby desk that held papers and tapes that would go into Sherley’s archive at UCSD. She handed me three videotapes. Although I’d traveled across the country exploring Williams’s life and read what she had written and what had been written about her, I had never seen her except in a photograph in her sister’s living room and I had never heard her speak.

“This will give you an idea.”

In a 1977 videotape, Sherley reads her poetry in front of men and women who sit at round tables while she stands onstage. A jazz quintet backs her up. Philip Levine had earlier told me he thought Sherley’s voice was professionally trained. He was wrong. What he thought of as professional training was simply a woman playing with the music of words and passages. It was a particularly black performance, with a staccato and cadence that echoes with the bassline that rappers such as Puff Daddy and Tupac Shakur would later make their own. Sherley Anne Williams wrote of the value of music and the role of the musician in black culture.

In the video, her short Afro, dyed a tangerine color, heightens the blush tones in her skin. She wears a buttercup yellow floor-length gown made of heavy cambric. Because Sherley was small, the halter-top bodice falls gracefully. Her neck and shoulders are exposed, and the wonderfully naked look of them gives her face a special vulnerability (“I surprise girlhood / in your face”). The camera picked up once or twice, when it shot her from the rear, that there was no back to the dress. She wore gold studs in her ears. If she grew up wearing clothes from Goodwill, it was only so that now she might stop the world dead in its tracks.

In the second video, 15 years later, in 1992, Sherley has aged and thickened some. Her hair is braided close to her head and pulled away from her face. Her brass earrings dangle, one square and one round. With her cheeks fuller, her dimples show more prominence, and her eyes have achieved a depth so that she looks full into the kpbs studio camera without flinching. She read two poems accompanied by a bass player.

I once heard Doris Lessing, author of Golden Notebook, say that a woman disappears in middle age. She meant that a middle-aged woman is no longer the object of the fevered male gaze. Certainly the person in the yellow gown might have been another woman, with no relationship to this person in black slacks and a red silk blouse that looked frosted, like raspberries, under the studio lights. Lessing said she welcomed middle age, for it relieved her of the temptation to play on her sexuality. As an older woman, Lessing felt free to make of herself a subject and claim herself for herself.

I am not sure how eager women are to embrace the invisibility of middle age. Did Sherley welcome the loss of her youthful good looks? She was now a woman of 48, whose allure came more from her words. In expressing herself, her talent no longer competed so much with the package it came in.

Fifteen years. On the fruit tree high up, clutching the limb, the young fig is hard and green. But the black fig, heavy and nearly past ripe, is eager to fall into the hand. Warmed by the sun, its purplish skin about to split open, it hangs with its fruit-meat more than sweet, more than ready. The figs that Ellie Bluestein offered me in Fresno lacked only the act of my eating pleasure for their completion.

  • …She’d go to
  • a party and pick out the
  • finest brown. “I’mo
  • give you some Empress
  • Brand trim. Tonight you
  • pay homage to the
  • Pussy Blues made.”
  • And they always did.

The last videotape Lucinda Rubio gave me was filmed on October 21, 1999, at the Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre at UCSD, “A celebration of the life and legacy of Sherley Anne Williams,” declared Floyd Gaffney, professor emeritus and master of ceremonies. The camera was on hand as the auditorium filled. Onstage was a photograph of Williams, her smiling face blown up to poster-size. Next to the photograph stood a four-foot bouquet, an original design from the French Flower Market on University Avenue. Mixed in with yellow lilies and daisies were several stems of white cotton, delivered from the San Joaquin Valley.

At the memorial service, a soloist from Sherley’s church, the Emerald Hills Christian Fellowship Congregation, sang the song Sherley once listed as her favorite, “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” The UCSD Gospel Choir sang a soothing tribute, colleagues shared anecdotes, and her niece Jacquelyn read from The Peacock Poems. Members of Omo Ache, an ensemble of musicians, dancers, and singers, performed several pieces. Carlos Blanco-Aguinaga, professor emeritus at UCSD, reminded the audience of the honors Sherley had brought to the university. Hollis Gentry played a haunting solo saxophone rendition of “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and Saul Steirer, now teaching at San Francisco State University, spoke with great feeling of his first meeting with Sherley, of his coming to know her family, of the responsibilities and honor of that friendship. Professional actors performed selected dramatic readings from Dessa Rose. Finally, Rosaura Sanchez listed the breadth of Sherley’s professional activities — poet, novelist, essayist, short-story writer, critic, playwright, and teacher.

In the end, like pieces of a puzzle, friends, colleagues, and family constructed a composite as clear as the photograph on display. Sherley Anne Williams was prolific, with wide-ranging interests. She loved to cook and over the years had accumulated rare jazz and blues albums that, at her death, made up a large and valuable collection. She collected photographs and posters from the ’60s of black experience in California, and she had an impressive library on black culture. She was sometimes temperamental, opinionated, idealistic, and pragmatic, “but,” as someone said, “worth every minute of it.” Missing in all this, and central to her life, was her son.

John Malcolm Stewart resides at the Lancaster State Prison in the Mojave Desert, just 90 miles south of Bakersfield, where his mother was born. He will be released in a year or so. In the meantime, he asked me to leave him there, undisturbed. The lure of the streets and the long-term insidious nature of drugs successfully undercut Sherley’s influence. Ill when she last visited him in prison, she wept as she told a friend that to see him there behind bars at the end of her life broke her heart.

“Here is a picture,” said Jacquelyn. We were looking around Sherley’s home in Emerald Hills, and she had found a photograph taken with Malcolm in the living room of their condominium in La Jolla.

My son springs up from the bottom

of the pool head back eyes closed

water sheeting his body

with light and caught like stars in

the dark burrs of his hair. It’s

not the sun whose shine dances

on the waves. That is his face.

And although I see the name

he has named himself I would

never tell it even if

my mind my mouth could say it.

The racial climate in La Jolla was a prime factor in Williams’s decision in 1978 to move to East San Diego. Once, for example, Jacquelyn couldn’t complete her purchases at a grocery store: the checker refused to take her money.

The two-story house in Emerald Hills, an upscale integrated community, is located on the western rim of a cul-de-sac. Set atop a canyon, the residence stands high enough to offer a view of the smoky blue Pacific and the pale swoop of the Coronado bridge. Sherley had walls taken down so that rooms opened up. She modernized the kitchen and bathrooms and gave herself the luxury of two library-study areas, one on each floor. The master bathroom has a shower-Jacuzzi handsomely encased in dark green, black, and red tiles. The toilet stands in a glassed-off enclosure without a door. A shiny scarlet red wall leads from the bathroom into the master bedroom. Over the queen-size bed lies a coverlet of cranberry red.

“She was lying there,” said Jacquelyn, indicating the right side of the bed, “and my mother and I were sitting with her. We had been talking for a while and she looked up and said she could not remember when was the last time a quarter of an hour had passed without her complaining of pain.”

Sherley was 12 when Jacquelyn was born, and the two were like sisters. Jacquelyn had been named by Sherley, and she always called her “Jack.” Jacquelyn called Sherley “T,” for Auntie.

Jacquelyn and her sister, Evangeline, are good-looking women. Jacquelyn is petite and wears her hair shoulder-length, while Evangeline, 19 years younger, is tall with long legs that show to good advantage in the micro-mini skirts she favors. Evangeline, who is in graduate school in business, is said to have Sherley’s intellectual gifts and acerbic disposition. Sherley recognized her ability and assigned full control of her grandsons’ trust funds to her.

Jacquelyn speaks quietly and seems well suited to the hospitality work she did at the San Diego Hilton. Used to turning heads, both women are conscious of their looks and take care of themselves. Like their mother, they recognize the value of a pedicure to get them through rough times.

“I stayed away at first. I did not want to accept the fact that she was really that sick, that she was dying,” admitted Jacquelyn. “But that afternoon in her bedroom, she told me, ‘Jack, I think you’d better start preparing for my funeral, just in case.’ ”

Ruby had spoken of that same conversation. She told me she turned to her sister, saying she was allowing herself to lose faith.

Sherley denied this. “I just think it makes good sense to put everything in order.”

This turned out to be no easy task. Sherley grew up poor, but she died a woman of means. There were papers to fill out regarding retirement funds and royalties, trust funds to set up, cars to be sold, and deeds of property to be signed over.

“Jack, I’m counting on you.”

Sherley’s condition worsened; she needed full-time medical care. She was admitted to Kaiser Permanente and her condition stabilized. She was then transferred to the Alvarado Convalescent Hospital in Mission Valley. There she worked well with the rehabilitation nurse but less than 36 hours later was back at Kaiser. She had pneumonia, a condition she’d had twice as a child, and was unable to catch her breath.

“She worried about feeling confused,” Lucinda Rubio told me. “She spoke to one of her doctors, who told her confusion was sometimes a sign that the cancer may have gone to the brain.”

When she heard this, Williams got on the phone to her sister. “They tell me it’s imminent,” she said. Ruby and her daughters and the lawyer rushed to the hospital and signed papers.

Rosaura Sanchez, Beatrice Pita, Ann DuCille, Christa Beran, and Lucinda Rubio, as well as Jacquelyn and Evangeline, were maintaining a round-the-clock vigil. It was summertime and members of the faculty did not have classes, but Lucinda and Christa Beran, who were on staff, had to juggle work schedules and home life with their hospital stays. For everyone, it was a stressful time, but it is recalled today with a kind of joyful wonder.

“One morning when she was going in and out of consciousness,” recalled Lucinda, “she was in the bed, and I heard her say, ‘Chewing gum is so low class.’ ” Lucinda laughed.

“Another time she sat up. ‘I have the solution!’ and I said the solution to what? ‘I have the solution!’ she said. ‘I know what the problems of New York are!’ ”

The inability to catch her breath was very stressful, and when Sherley returned to Kaiser, she was scared. Originally, she had requested that no life-support systems be used if she went into a coma. But now she asked the doctors to do all that was necessary to keep her alive. “I want to live,” she said.

A visitor to the hospital the morning of July 6 recounted her surprise to find Sherley in the intensive care unit. She had been intubated: a tube carrying oxygen ran down her throat, and she could not speak.

“And she was restrained,” recalled the friend, “and that really bothered me because here was the author of Dessa Rose, the story of a slave who had been restrained. It all just came back to me.”

Sherley could not speak because of the tube, but she gestured that she wanted the tube and the restraints removed. Her doctor was brought in.

“Do you understand what this means?” he said.

Sherley nodded. The tube was removed, and the restraints.

“I’m ready,” she said.

Morphine was administered to ease the pain.

Lucinda Rubio, just home from work, was rushing to change and leave for the hospital when, at around four o’clock, the call came.

Jacquelyn and I sat on stools at the counter in Sherley’s Emerald Hills kitchen. Afternoon sunlight streamed into the living room, through the glass doors that faced west and led to the backyard.

Weeks of tracking Sherley and I had just about everything she’d ever published. I had press-release photographs of her on my desk; I had videotapes; I was friendly with her friends and felt at home with her family. She and I were the same age, both of us writers, both of us descendants of slaves. In 1966 — four generations and 101 years after the conclusion of the Civil War — we became the first in our respective families to graduate from college. Beyond this, comparisons fell away as sharply as the steep trajectory of Sherley’s life and extraordinary career — both all the more remarkable for having begun in the cotton fields of the San Joaquin Valley. And here in her house, I imagined her descending the stairs, reading one of her poems as she sometimes did with guests. I would have liked to have been there one of those times; or better, and more privately, to have sat sometime in her kitchen and had coffee and talked. But sometimes sometime is too late.

Jacquelyn broke the silence.

“She said one thing she regretted was that she did not have more time for writing. And she always wanted to write a mystery. She loved to read mysteries, and she was going to make the detective a black woman.”

We scooted off the stools and cleared out. Sherley’s second car, a red Jetta, was parked in front of the garage. The house looked in good shape, the lawn kept mowed by neighbors across the street. A fenced-in patch of garden lay on the side of the house. Of the three rose bushes, two held a single bloom. One bush had a red rose and the other a white one.

I would always remember Sherley as she was in the 1977 videotape, when she stood before the camera with musical backup and performed her poems. I’d remember her for what she said and how she said it and also for how she looked in that yellow gown. All glamour and elegance, that was the dress she never got to wear to the prom 15 years before, the dress she never wore to her wedding. As a teenager in West Fresno, she first came upon Thursday’s Child, the autobiography of Eartha Kitt. She said it had meant a lot to her. The title, I knew, was taken from an old poem that begins “Monday’s child is fair of face / Tuesday’s child is full of grace…” Thursday’s child, according to the rhyme, “has far to go.”

“You want to know what is my favorite image?” asked Ruby. She did not take long to consider my question.

“When Dessa Rose came out and there was all the to-do, her publisher decided to send her on a promotional tour. The morning she was supposed to go, she called me up and said, ‘You’ll never guess what’s out front waiting to take me to the airport! A chauffeur-driven limousine!’ ”

Ruby remembered how she could hardly contain herself. She was living nearby at the time and told her sister to make sure the driver came down her street. Sherley worried that the driver might think it was a little out of the way. Ruby said she didn’t care, she wanted to see her.

“And she drove past in the limousine, smiling and waving. That’s what I remember.”

When Sherley discussed plans for her funeral, she had one special request.

“Jack,” she instructed her niece from her bed that afternoon, “before I get put away, I want a caravan to drive me through the neighborhood. Make sure.”

“I’ll do that, T,” promised Jacquelyn, and a little before noon, on Saturday, July 10, a long white limousine passed slowly through the quiet community of Emerald Hills, a line of cars following.

Sherley Anne Williams was proud to be an African-American woman. She loved black culture. Traveling widely to speak and participate in symposia and conferences on the African and African-American experience, she built her career celebrating the ways black folks talked and acted. School-wise, street-smart, and quick-tongued, she reserved her deepest antipathy for those outside the African-American experience who tried to define the culture. In her introduction to Dessa Rose, she expressed outrage over William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner. The author, she suggested, had gotten his facts wrong and had given a distorted picture of the rebel leader. In Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s 1986 review of Dessa Rose in the New York Times, the critic questions Williams’s decision to speak out. “Everyone is entitled to his imagination of the past,” he wrote, “and one person’s vision does not diminish another’s, unless of course he tries to legislate it.”

Over the past six months, I had come to know Williams, to understand what she fought for and what she had to fight against. If Lehmann-Haupt scolds Williams for speaking out against Styron’s novel, it must be understood that he and much of the literary establishment were heaping praise upon Styron for his achievement. Styron’s Pulitzer Prize–winning, best-selling book put forth the supposition that it was Turner’s unsatisfied hunger for a white woman that prompted perhaps the most celebrated of slave rebellions. Williams and other critics, most of them black, censored the author for perpetuating an image of black psychopathology. Williams felt the image was untrue and insulting.

Thirteen years later, and five months after Williams’s death, in the December 13, 1999, issue of the New Yorker, the Nat Turner controversy found new fuel in an article entitled “Untrue Confessions.” The article’s subhead, “Is most of what we know about the rebel slave Nat Turner wrong?” hints at what the long article makes clear. William Styron’s novel, described at the time as a breakthrough psychological portrait, failed to correctly present the facts, and his supporters were misled. If my search for Sherley Anne Williams began in early summer on the day she died, I suppose it ended in late autumn when I finished the New Yorker article. The critics had been proven right. Williams would have been happy. She liked a good fight and she expected to win.

Williams thought that women counted least in this society, and the least valued were women of color. She made it her business to speak for them. Perhaps on this account, nowhere was she more articulate than in the life she wrote for herself.

The day after the October 21 memorial service at UCSD, Jacquelyn flew to Chicago to represent her family as Sherley Anne Williams was inducted into the Black Writers Hall of Fame along with Maya Angelou, Ishmael Reed, Quincy Troupe, and others. Jack read the “Peacock Song.”

  • …But if I’m a peacock
  • my feathers’ s’posed to cover
  • all hurts and if you want to
  • stay one then you got to keep
  • that tail from draggin so mines
  • is always held up sky high.

On August 8, 1999, more than one month after she died, the San Diego Union-Tribune Sunday book section ran a short memorial announcement of Sherley’s death. This time the Union-Tribune included a photo. Two days after the tribute ran, the paper offered an apology. The announcement had been accompanied by the photo of the late Shirley Day-Williams, founding director of the African American Museum of Fine Arts. Day-Williams had died in October 1996.

  • Old and in pain and
  • bearing up bearing up
  • and hurt and age These
  • are the signs of our
  • womanhood but I’ll
  • make book Bessie did
  • more than just endure.
  • ?
  • hear it?

In the car, I took the gentle curve of the cul-de-sac that sent us slowly, indifferently, on our way. I was making the turn when I glanced in my rearview mirror. Two doors down from Sherley’s home, neighbors had put up a banner announcing the birth of a child. Lifted by the afternoon breeze climbing up from the canyon floor, the banner, waving like a hand, read “It’s a Girl!”

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