In Memoriam: John A. Williams (December 5, 1925 – July 3, 2015)

[by Matthew Broussard]

HBW mourns the loss of John A. Williams, who passed away on July 3, 2015.

John Alfred Williams was born on December 5, 1925, in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1950, he earned a B.A. from Syracuse University in English and journalism, and then Williams worked as a journalist for publications such as Ebony, Jet, CBS, and Newsweek. Williams later taught at the City University of New York, the University of California-Santa Barbara, Boston University, and Rutgers University where he was the Paul Robeson Professor of English.

Williams was also a prolific and renowned author of fiction and nonfiction.

Williams’ books collectively tackle the theme of being black in America, and Williams was best known for using his writing to address the ignorance and malice of racism. A best seller, The Man Who Cried I Am (1967) critiques the civil rights era through the eyes of the protagonist, Max Reddick, a journalist who discovers a plot by the United States to prevent the unification of Black America and to end the “race problem” through genocide. Williams was awarded the American Book Award for !Click Song (1982) and Safari West (1998). In 2011, Williams was give the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Book Awards.

Despite his accomplishments, Williams was not able to escape the racism he condemned in his writings. In 1961, Williams was awarded a grant to the American Academy in Rome for his novel Night Song, but the award was rescinded, allegedly due to his relationship with a white woman (who he did, in fact, later marry).

Williams was prolific, producing nearly two dozen works of fiction and non-fiction over the course of his career. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, James L. de Jongh has written that John A. Williams was “arguably the finest African-American novelist of his generation.”

A scholar, a racial advocate, a husband, and a father of three, John A. Williams will be missed; his work and his legacy will live on.


In the Fall of 2015, The Project on the History of Black Writing paid tribute to John A. Williams through the GEMS INITIATIVE. GEMS contributes to African American scholarship by promoting conversation, increasing awareness, and archiving under-recognized or forgotten authors and artists who have had a significant impact on African American literature and culture. See HBW’s 2015 John A. Williams GEMS project below: