Friday, July 10, 2015

A Reflection on the Life of John A. Williams by Houston Baker

John A. Williams was NOT, as anyone who had extensive dealing with him knows, an "easy" person to get along with. Somebody on Creation Day uploaded the "John Model" with seven times the necessary and sufficient supply of surly paranoia. I think few who spent any long time interacting with John would radically dispute this characterization.

When I was proudly and with the marginal hubris of a totally young self saluting myself on the publication of my anthology Black Literature in America, I got a nocturnal telephone call on our home's landline from John. "Is this Houston Baker?" the low-boiling voice of the caller inquired. "Yes," I answered. "This is John Williams and I just want to know where you got your information from. How could you repeat the misinformation of misinformed white people who have talked about my academic credentials?" What?!  What John was objecting to was my biographical sketch of his life and career. He went on to tell me if I was going to be successful, I needed to get my facts straight.

In subsequent years, I had more than one occasion to interact with John. I reviewed his work several times. Some of the reviewing he approved (with caveats, mind you). Other reviewing, he chastised me for -- once suggesting that I needed to get my definition of "potboiler" straight. What was most compelling about John for me was his labile self-confidence. It was sort of like cloud formations in the mountains -- ceaselessly morphing from dark and brooding to spirals of bleached wind and wonder. His was the weather of latent and emergent genius.

The Man Who Cried I Am is a hard won and indisputable classic of global fiction. As an exemplar of what can be achieved in the creative writing life, John's sojourn is not to be missed. He was a relentless and hard edged stayer in the game. He did not suffer formal or casual insult or ignorance lightly. In collaboration -- creative, collegial, or scholastic -- John was a concerted team player. He was wise and well traveled. Articulate and inexorable in his adjudication of the world and its ways. He was a studious and in so many ways "impeccable" judge of the nature and magnitude of his own labors. I liked him and learned from interacting with him and studying and teaching his books. His loss is not an easy turn to bear.

Houston Baker

[printed with permission from Dr. Baker]
[the title is a creation of the editor, not Dr. Baker]

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