Introduction to The Man Who Cried I Am by Walter Mosley
|John A Williams 1925-2015.|
We know that it's important what this man is saying. We can tell that by the timbre of his cries but it could mean so many things. Black people have been hollering out in pain for centuries, fighting for freedom, dying in slavery, belittled by little men, and denied by kings and history. Sometimes these black folk have just laid down and died. But mostly they have survived with deformed psyches and distorted notions of the world. Sometimes evil has begotten evil and the one-time slave has slaughtered and even cannibalized his oppressor.
The Man Who Cried I Am called out in English and French and Dutch language. He forgot his own tongue and so found his words ill-fitted to the task at hand - though still eloquent. But even here his mastery of the master's tongue called down taunts and barbs though most people who listened only concerned themselves with the music and not the words.
John A. Williams's magnum opus earned him international acclaim when it was first published in 1967. There's little wonder why. This novel breaks down the barrier between the epic poetry of the pre-literate world and the modern-day novel; it combines history with high literature and then adds popular fiction because it is a book for everyone, all of us lost in the machinations of a world gone awry.
I suppose that one could compare this book with the other modern masterpieces like Invisible Man and Native Son . It certainly stands up to those books with its deep understanding of mid-century America and the racism and imperialism that presses her, even now, into the twenty-first century. Williams understands the politics and exclusions, the crushed spirits and incredible survivals of that world and of the black men and women (and the white men and women) who lived through it. But to contrast Williams with Ellison and Wright would be to call him a Negro writer; as if race had anything to do with his genius.
I could on the other hand try to put Mr. Williams's work side by side with Mann and Malraux or Joyce. The romanticism and existentialism and artistic sense would certainly fit the depth of the work. But here I would have you believing that this novel is merely a work of contemporary literature when indeed it is so much more than that.
To understand the profound nature of this book we should start with the father of the tradition - Homer. This novel is certainly an Iliad and an Odyssey . The battlefield is a race war exacted upon an entire continent and every representative of that continent everywhere in the world. And the journey home is more dangerous than the Odysseus could ever imagine. The heroes her are not warriors but poets trying to describe the world so that they can restore the fabric of truth that has blown ragged with the passage of centuries.
We know from the first page that Max's battle is lost. We know from the beginning that Home has been burned to the ground and that love, through ever-present, shall never keep its own company.
Williams's epic is also a tragedy without even the benefit of the final scenes. Instead characters fade away while no one is looking. Death occurring as naturally as it does in real life.
Like the Greek bard Williams treats us to a long list if the materials in his world. But we aren't presented with the oxen and arrows and swords of the ancient Greeks. Williams gives us the insults and limitations, the self-prohibitions and self-hatreds of the ex-slave. The packs of cigarettes, bottles of whiskey, acres of sex, and the myriad forms of the ever-present violence visited upon women and men who walk through the world as if it were a sleeping prison waiting to rise up and close in.
There are dozens of women who come near to our protagonist. They all have beauty and power and they are all unable to help Max escape the pain of his life. Rather than a woman waiting for him to end of the journey there are women waiting for him everywhere; waiting - but our Odysseus, max, is always, always a day late.
In these pages we experience World War II in its less heroic moments, anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism (inside and out), Jim Crow, Europe, the fiction writer's life, the political life, the journalist's life, and the faith of fools.
In a brilliantly detailed thumbnail sketch we are shown how two ham hocks and a sack of beans can keep a man going for a week or more.
There are three races present in Max Reddick's world: whites, Negroes, and Jews. Between them there are all manners of misinterpretation and distrust. But no one can be defined solely by race. There are black traitors, Jewish princes (and princesses), and white guys who live and let live.
The novel begins in the sixties with a man who is dying of cancer. Max Reddick has traveled to Europe to say his final good-byes to his friend and rival Harry Ames, who has died quite recently.
There is no future here.
Max travels from Amsterdam to Leiden in real time while in his mind he drifts back to the forties in New York and then the war in Italy. He remembers his days among the black people in Africa and Paris and the deep south. The events of the book transpire in less than three days but we get a whole life-time therein. And not just the life of an interesting, if damaged, genius but also a world of change unknown to those Americans used to celebrating the United States' mid-century battle for freedom against the communists and the fascists.
In his memories we see many recognizable characters with different names. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Richard Wright, JFK, and many others. These semi-fictionalized characters are enthralling but they pale next to the story that unfolds.
The first section of the book burrows in the gut like the cancer afflicting Reddick. It turns over a fertile soil in which he is destined to sow his final seed.
This beginning is an ode to Death, a delirium of a bitter man's last days. There's no sugar coating, no Good Negro . This is a story about a man facing a monumental enemy - his own mortality in a world that conspires against him.
The story is delivered in a bebop tempo with complex intertwining themes that would challenge Charlie Parker's improvisational skills.
One of the most enthralling aspects of the novel is that it moves exactly as a fictive narrative should: a swirling whirlpool in descending cycles, a conically flowing river of thought realized in ever-changing parallels.
Reminiscent of Moby Dick the narrative voice is elusive. It has all the earmarks of a classic first-person narrative delivered almost tongue-in-cheek in the third-person voice. But at times the thread of the story turns away from Max to delve into the private lives of separate characters and situations.
The cry of this novel does not only echo through our past. In a way it is a visionary story predicting through its cracked prism the Patriot Act and the neo-con plan to control natural resources from the Middle East to India. I can imagine that many a moderate reader would have felt the fever of paranoia upon reading this book in the late sixties. But today even the most conservative American might be ready to consider the thriller-like conspiracy that Max uncovers at the end.
This novel cannot be contained inside of an introduction or even a single reading. From the first page there is an urgency of a man who has never had enough time, of an afflicted people who stood in the waiting room until they expired and were replaced by their children's children's children. You feel Max's frustration and turn the pages impatiently wanting to know that he will find success or love or at least a moment's respite.
When he's a fool you curse him and when he's wronged you remember your own circumstances. And when you get to the end you begin rereading sentences and paragraphs to make sure that you understand exactly how these final moments play out. But then you realize that there was another level to the book, another novel buried inside the vignettes and subplots.
Another story was unfolding while the bittersweet pain of Max and his friends took the limelight.
At some point you realize that Max was not a victim but a hero. His life was not as he experienced it. He never found what the foreign (master's) tongue articulated as happiness but he lived a magnificent (even epic) existence. Fate, I finally found myself believing, conspired to make Max's greatness. He lived in interesting times and navigated thorough them. He lived to the fullest even in the last moments of life.
Who but a Homeric hero could make such a claim?
The canvas for this novel is the history of America, and much of the west, painted over by John A. Williams in economic strokes - like a kind of graffiti. The president holding out a hand in welcome has a rude pistol pasted onto his fingers. The Good Negro bowing in front of his mistress is hiding an erection while glancing furtively at a landscape that is being rained upon by droplets of blood. Peasants are freed by genocidal armies and Africa eats its own flesh under the table of European conquest.
These templates, placed upon a history we thought we knew, are disturbing and, once exhibited, they take their place in the mind next to Max's cancer. We become aware of the possibility for corruption under the veil of lies placed upon us by the maneuverings prompted by madness and greed.
The indictment was true in the year it was published, it is true today, and a thousand years from now, when America has another name and is peopled by technologically enhanced mutants that combine the attributes from a hundred species, it will still be a document extolling the best and worst characteristics of humanity.
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.
An Important Note from Activist-Artist Brother Dinizulu Tinnie:
There is nothing quite like a renowned author reviewing the work, especially the "signature piece," of another renowned author, especially when the renown is deserved.
Mosely is inspired by Williams to poetic heights of his own, but, much more relevantly, he masterfully places the Williams novel very accurately in the historical and social context from which it emanated, which, arguably, was the whole reason for creating it in the first place.
The novel has been described as the quintessential bourgeois literary form, a by-product of the printing press, that invention inspired by Marco Polo's discovery of print technology in China which had so much of a role in bringing about the European "Renaissance," the period which saw merchant and banker class in the cities begin to usurp the power of the Old Order of monarchies and nobility, the Protestant religious revolt against Catholic Church orthodoxy, and, notably, the beginnings of European exploration and imperialism. The novel was the first time that what we call literature was produced in prose, rather than verse. Perhaps most significantly, however, from the sociological point of view, the novel was (and is) a celebration of individualism: It narrates the trajectory of individual characters through a world which ultimately becomes one of their own making, a conquest of surrounding forces, or a good try at it, and, equally important, the reading of the printed novel is an individual experience (much like the individual reading and interpretation of the Bible that the Protestants insisted was more authentic than the standard interpretations that were being foisted on the public by the deeply corrupted Church of Rome). Born was the bourgeois definition of "freedom." This was a radical departure from the old sense of literature (or, more precisely, "orature"), which was the collective experience of communities listening to epics and other tales recited in verse by traveling bards, going all the way back to Homer and beyond.
In the wake of slavery, colonialism, and general continuing oppression, Africans. for our part, forcibly, and often willingly, embraced concepts, inventions, and traits that were quite foreign to our traditions, not least European languages themselves. But the wonder of it all, which History will remember much more than the violence with which western Europe imposed its cultural ways on other peoples (most notably displaced and colonized Africans), is the way that Africans took these foreign importations to heights unimagined by their originators. (I often cite the saxophone and the basketball as prime examples, but this applies to even deeper elements like religion and language, including the language creation known as the novel.)
Historically, not only did enslaved Africans "invent," as it were, a new literary (i.e. printed) prose form with the publication of "slave narratives," beginning with those of Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano, but literate African Americans would ultimately adopt (and adapt) the novel form in novel ways, quite different from its European origins. Critics have pointed out Frederick Douglass's use of "I" in his nonfictional writings and speeches to be always collective, rather than individual. He speaks for the entire enslaved African American population, enslaved and other.
In much the same way, Walter Mosely enlightens us, John A. Williams' classic fictional novel turns the individualistic, bourgeois novel form on its head, and makes it a kind of anthem of a collective experience which, like Max Reddick's cancer, just won't go away, doing its accumulative daily damage. "The Man Who Cried I Am" is an aptly titled metaphor for all that Black men and women have endured, and continue to endure, in this social and political environment. And yet, as Mosely lets us know with eloquent artistry that only helps to prove his point, Williams' main character experiences a heroic, "even epic" life, as, in a very real sense, beyond rhetoric, each of us do.
We might be reminded of Albert Murray's "The Omni Americans," which pauses, so to speak, amidst all of the noise and bad news, to celebrate a side of the African American life that is not given much attention in public (verbal) discourse, but plays out every day in actions, whereby, to paraphrase, barbers and beauticians, tailors and seamstresses are held to standards of performance worthy of the pharaohs of Egypt. (Need we mention performance on, say, the basketball court, or in that quintessential African American creation called "jazz," where the individual and the collective are so inseparable that the fate of the whole tribe rides on the ability of each player to not only compose in the moment but execute the composition flawlessly? This is Ubuntu -- "I am strong because my Village is strong; my Village is strong because I am strong" -- spoken in the poetry of notes and action rather than words, especially printed words.)
The performance of the African American Classical Music idiom known as "jazz," is, arguably, our modern-day version of anointed and gifted traveling bards gathering our villages to recite the epic tales of who we are and the heroes/sheroes and heroism that have made us so. It is also our evening Village palaver beneath the sacred iroko tree. To turn the printed word, the individualistic bourgeois novel form into an experience of "jazz" is a heroic feat and coup in itself, a kind of reversal, we might say, of the Roman Prometheus myth, this time stealing fire from the Devil, so to speak, rather than the gods, and delivering it to humanity for our betterment.
In that African American tradition, Mosely acquits himself with distinction of his own on behalf of Williams, not so much as the individual genius that he has every entitlement to claim to be, and to showcase, but more as the Village djale, or griot, poetically reciting to us an inspiring epic of one of our heroes of yore, and in doing so becoming one himself, yet only one of many in our Village, and in a nation, where no life is unimportant, and every life, just experiencing the saga of survival, is epic, is crying "I am!"
This revisiting and review by Walter Mosely of the John A. Williams classic could hardly be more timely than in this launch year of the International Decade for People of African Descent. This might be timely encouragement for many in the international community, and of the generation which has come of age since the novel's publication, to (re)discover its multilayered, multifaceted richness, so well described here by Mosely, and its climactic revelation at the end, which is lasting food for thought.
Thanks again for sharing,