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The Greatest Storyteller of Black Life in America You Never Heard of: 6 Facts about John A. Williams

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By Dana C. Ayres

Sometimes, the best appreciation comes to those who sacrifice fame in order to live truthfully and reflect that integrity in their art.  John A. Williams was just that type of writer.  His work was pure genius for the very reasons he was relegated to the literary fringes…his coverage of unconventional topics that other mainstream Black writers of his day never thought or cared to address.  Williams claimed that he wrote to keep his sanity.  He addressed his own life story through his characters and they all told a similar tale of being Black, a soldier and a writer in America. Here are 6 Facts about John A. Williams.

  1. Famous for Not Being Famous                                                                                                                                                                                                 According to NJ.com, his talent is compared to greats like Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. While he shared the same company with towering Black writers, he didn’t receive the same level of fame. As a result, he was actually famous for NOT being famous.
  2.  Published 12 Novels-3 of them critically acclaimed.                                                                                                                                                           One of his great academically and critically acclaimed novels was The Man Who Cried I AM, a story, ironically, about the experiences and struggles of Black writers in America.  Another critically acclaimed work dealing with writer persecution was !Click Song.  Captain Blackman was a novel he wrote about what it was like being a black serviceman in America’s White military.
  3. Harsh Critic of  Martin Luther King Jr.                                                                                                                                                                                  His biography The King God Didn’t Save: Reflections on the Life and Death of Martin Luther King Jr.  brought Williams public backlash and furor. Despite any backlash he may have received, he would still go on to become one of the most celebrated novelists of the Civil Rights Movement or what the New York Times chooses to coin in William’s case as “the second Harlem Renaissance.”
  4. His work was featured in popular magazines                                                                                                                                                                  He was a celebrated journalist and versatile writer, as well and was published in mainstream as well as alternative press such as Jet Magazine, Ebony Magazine and Newsweek.
  5. Didn’t Like Being Compared to Other Famous Black Authors                                                                                                                                      According to the New York Times, Williams stated that he never much cared for the comparisons to Ellison and Baldwin. He believed the tendency to group black writers together was a way to ensure that only one at a time could become successful. He regarded his peers as E. L. Doctorow, John Updike and Norman Mailer.
  6. Died as He Lived                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    He died quietly from Alzheimer’s in a veteran’s home in Paramus, New Jersey on July 3, 2015. He was 89 years old.

Here’s a short clip and high tribute to the life and work of this African American, unsung literary giant…

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