Exhibit Cases One through Five
I grew up in Syracuse, New York, apple-knocker country, where summers are splendid and winters war against the psyche. Black people seem to have entered Syracuse history around 1769. My father's grandmother, Margaret Smallwood, was born in 1820, and she married Gorman Williams in 1838.
My mother’s grandfather was Anthony Jones, who was born in Mississippi in 1830 and died at the age of eighty-two in 1912. My mother, Ola (the only one in her family with an African name), who passed away in 1987 at eighty-three, recalls as a child trying to chase a fly from beneath the netting that had been stretched over Grampa Tony’s open coffin; she recalls church bells tolling beyond what she was used to counting. Grampa Tony had two wives and two sets of children; from the second came my grandfather, Joseph David Jones, who himself had two wives, but not the two sets of kids.
My mother was the eldest daughter of J. D. Jones. In the eastern region of Nigeria her name means Keeper of the Beautiful House; and in the western region, He Who Wants to Be Chief. Both terms apply to her. My mother left Mississippi in her late teens to work in Watertown, New York. When she’d paid off the expenses of her travel, she moved to Syracuse, where she met my father, whom she used to refer to as a sheik, or a lounge lizard.
The family photo was taken in summer, which explains the hole in my shoe. These were, as I recall, rather good times for us. During the summer, we got sneakers to wear. (For weeks, thereafter, I felt when I wore them that I could fly and run faster and farther than anyone else.) With the approach of school in September, we got new clothes and shoes, and my parents hoped they’d last. Obviously, mine did not. Nevertheless, you did not have a photo taken wearing sneakers. Although they cannot be seen, I am sure my father was wearing spats. Family photos were very special.
A week after this photo was taken, I was in the Navy. I am standing, third from the right. Coach Herbert "Hoppie" Johnson holds the ball.
Over the years I have written about or drawn upon those three years I spent in the Navy. The closest I came to being killed during the war, when arms were raised specifically against me, not just a bunch of people climbing a beach or working through a tropical forest, was when Americans, sailors, placed a .45 to my head and almost pulled the trigger. No Japanese bomber pilot rifleman or machine gunner ever did that.
This was my first night back in the States after two years in the Pacific. My sons have noticed that I looked quite drunk. The journey home had entailed three days bread and water in the fire control room of an LST, and ten days as a Prisoner-at-Large in Hawaii. The first offense was for washing in fresh water; the second for admiring the wonderful way civilians lived – which admiration had carried me off limits.
I typed Poems on a mimeograph stencil in the offices of Doug Johnson Associates in Hotel Syracuse. I worked there as a copywriter. How many copies I ran off I do not remember. The story that has me selling copies on the street corners of Syracuse is false. I carried them to three or four bookstores, whose owners or managers were kind enough to take them. I don't think they sold any copies.
This article appeared in the Syracuse Post-Standard on Sunday, 13 September 1953. At that time Williams was employed as a part-time copywriter for Doug Johnson Associates, a public relations firm.
"This story, offered in the book's first edition, disappeared from the second edition because two or three instructors disliked it and reported that it struck their students speechless with embarrassment. In response to a larger demand from instructors who found teaching it well worth their risk, it is now restored. Emotionally charged, it has a black narrator who makes candid observations of both blacks and whites. We recommend it for assignment only if you know your class well and believe them capable of a free, frank discussion of it. If you use it, why not assign it together with another brief story, just so you'll have something to pass along to in case of paralysis."
From the Instructor's Manual of Little, Brown's third edition of Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama (1983), edited by X.J. Kennedy. The story has appeared in many anthologies over the years, most recently in 2004.
THE ANGRY ONES (1960)
This was my first novel. I finished it in 1956 in a single-room-occupancy hotel on West 85th Street in New York. It was not published until January, 1960. My original title was One for New York. The first "nibble" came from the then preeminent paperback publishing house, New American Library. One of the editors there, however, told me they were reluctant to publish the book because of southern readers. The novel went through several drafts, at least two of them complete re-writes. One was done in twenty-four hours; the second in Castelldefels, Spain. When it was finally published by Ace Books, the title had been changed - but with my acquiescence - and the entire book had been edited without my knowledge and therefore without any consultation with me. I would not have approved of the cover art had I seen it.
THE BOP FABLES
These "Bop" fables kept me more or less in bread and butter through some tough times, since my public relations/marketing/promotion/advertising business, geared for the black market, wasn't successful. I think I was ahead of the times.
When I look at this grouping, I think of the places where the books and articles were written: the Upper West Side in an SRO hotel, the East Side in three small rooms at the rear of a store that had closed, and in the Village, in the Colonnades on Lafayette Street, all in New York City.
NIGHT SONG (1961)
It was not until long after this novel was published that I discovered it was really a tribute to all those journeymen jazz musicians who played around in the clubs in Syracuse. Of course, it was also a tribute to Charlie Parker and his existence as a black artist in the U.S. It was fun writing this. The novel won a "major" award, which was quickly and without explanation withdrawn. Night Song has been published in several American editions and in German and Nederlans (Dutch).
In 1966 a film called Sweet Love, Bitter, based on the novel, was released. It starred Dick Gregory in the only film he ever made, Don Murray, Diana Varsi, and Robert Hooks in his first film. Some of it was good, most of it was not.
THE ANGRY BLACK (1962)
Irwin Stein and Bernard Farber of Lancer Books asked me to put together this quickie anthology under this title, which had been cast in reinforced cement. This is not a memorable collection of writing, but it did keep me in food and rent for two or three months.