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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

PROFILE: John A. Williams by Tony Lindsay


      

The original copyright date for The Angry Ones is 1960; however, the work was later published under Williams' title, One for New York, in 1975. In 1996 the book's title returned to The Angry Ones, and thirty-five years later new readers became aware of one the most important American novelist this country has produced: John Alfred Williams.

1950s and 1960s were decades of unrest in The United States, largely brought on by discrimination, segregation, and citizens demanding and protesting for civil rights. Many African American novels of the era were coined or labeled as protest novels. However, The Angry Ones (One for New York) not only speaks to the protesting mind set of Americans of the 50s and 60s, but it serves as an essential warning to those attempting to survive the institutional racism of today, and it reminds one of the physical, psychological, and spiritual sacrifices Williams' generation gave for civil rights advances.

Steve Hill, the protagonist of the novel, is engaged in a battle: a fight for his dreams. A World War ll veteran and college graduate, he is unable to find suitable employment. On the surface, his battle appears to be with Jim Crow maintained unemployment, but what John A. Williams offers the reader is a war for a basic human necessity: the ability to dream.

 In the novel, The Angry Ones (One for New York), the American dream was being denied by poor economics brought on by the segregation of the times. The majority of African Americans were forced to live below the standards of white Americans, and such meager existence left little energy to dream.  However, Williams' protagonist, Steve Hill did dare to dream.  He was not willing to accept his unemployment of Los Angeles, and he decided to move to the hopefully fairer New York City.

In New York, he encountered a more subtle but just as restricting and damaging menace: institutional racism. There he was given interviews, but it soon becomes apparent that he would go no further than the interview. Due to legislation of the day, companies had to interview and appear to seriously consider all applicants. But Steve Hill quickly learned that the interviews were a farce:

On the way downtown I thought of what Obie and I had talked about a couple of years before, that as opportunities for Negroes appeared on the surface to be getting better, they would at the same time become subtly worse for some segments. The gains made in blue collar arenas would be balanced by heighted barriers in the white collar fields, and would be the toughest in the professional fields stressing public contact.

In the first agency, tacked on the wall, was a big State Commission Against Discrimination poster. It didn't give me any confidence.

Later in the novel, Steve's friend Obie, who was unemployed due to a magazine folding, comments on the institutional racism he was forced to face, "… this thing is so massive without form, and so rigid without apparent strength."     

However, for Steve Hill the final confirming statements in regard to institutional racism came from an agency owner, Mr. Graff;

"I want to show you something." He brought some cards and placed them on the desk. "Look at these cards," he said. "They're from dead files of an employment agency I worked for years ago. Doesn't matter how long ago-they haven't changed their practices at all."

He took out a pencil and pointed to a space on the cards in which the interviewer's remarks were scribbled in ink. Excellent was the comment on the first card.

"You know what that means, Steve?"

"No."

"It's code. It means Jewish, don't send out. "

"Oh."

He picked up another card and pointed to another comment. "That means Negro, don't send out."

"Do most agencies use codes to get around the law?"

"Most," he said, shuffling the cards back together. "A lot simply file the applications away and forget them. There are codes for Puerto Ricans, Catholics, Orientals and so on."

"Who else is there to discriminate against?"

He laughed. "You would be surprised."

The unharnessed power of institutional racism proved too much for Steve's friend Obie. He eventually took his own life after being denied the right to dream and sustain himself. John A. Williams displays an uncanny ability to illustrate the stressors of that era and yet provide a warning for the readers of the future. The novel does ends on the positive however: Steve proposes to his true love, Mr. Graff has employment leads for him, and the American Dream seems possible with love and suitable employment on the horizon. 

What one leaves the work with is appreciation for past sacrifices, pride in what has been accomplished, and a cautious eye for the future… because history can, and has repeated itself.

Tony Lindsay is a writer and adjunct professor at Chicago State University. He can be reached at tonylindsay7045@sbcglobal.net or on Facebook at http://facebook.com/tony.linssay2.

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