The novelist and poet Sherley Anne Williams died last month of cancer at the age of 54. She is probably best known for her 1986 novel, Dessa Rose. She also wrote children's books and a one-actor play, "Letters from a New England Negro," but she began her writing life as a poet. She was born in Bakersfield, Calif., the child of migrant farm workers; she was orphaned at 16 and survived, as her parents had done, by picking crops in the field. I was struck by something she was quoted as saying. She was talking about being a young woman who had seemed to have no prospects, finding herself with seemingly limitless opportunities as a student at the state college right in the middle of the Central Valley of California where she and her parents had done back-breaking stoop labor in the fields. She discovered in Sterling Brown and Langston Hughes the poetry of African-Americans. "I was just captivated by their language, their speech and their character" she said, "because I always liked the way black people talk. So I wanted to work in that writing." There couldn't be a better description of the enabling power of a tradition. Here's an example of her work:


Evangeline made her

own self over in

'65, sat she

looked in the mirror

at her face saw it

was pretty (her legs

was always fine and

she'd interrupt a

dude's rap to say how

it was a common


amongst our women


the same thang with her

neck pointin to

its length, its class. And

we dug where she

was comin from specially

that pretty part, how

she carried herself

with style, said go'n girl

so be it

Evangeline made her

self over and who

eva else didn't see

We is her witness

And here's another. It's about learning manners and another kind of tradition, the one that comes to children from listening:



We were not raised to look in

a grown person's mouth when they

spoke or to say ma'am or sir --

only the last was sometimes

thought fast even rude but daddy

dismissed this: it was yea and

nay in the Bible and this

was a New Day. He liked even

less honorary forms -- Uncle,

Aunt, Big Mamma -- mamma to

who? he would ask. Grown

people were Mr. and Miss

admitting one child in many

to the privilege of their

given names. We were raised to

make "Miss Daisy" an emblem

of kinship and of love; you

were never Miss Brown to me.


I call you Miss in tribute

to the women of that time,

the mothers of friends, the friends

of my mother, mamma

herself, women of mystery

and wonder who traveled some

to get to that Project. In the

places of their childhoods, the

troubles they had getting grown,

the rules of men they told among

themselves as we sat unnoted

at their feet we saw some image

of a past and a future self.

The world had loved them even

less than their men but this did

not keep them from scheming on

its favor. It was this that

made them grown and drew from our

unmannerly mouths "Miss"

before their names.

I call

you Daisy and acknowledge

my place in this line: 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.

These poems come from Some One Sweet Angel Chile, published in 1982. You will also find them in The Garden Thrives: Twentieth Century African-American Poetry, edited by Clarence Major (HarperPerennial).