As the protagonist and narrator of Sherley Anne Williams's critically acclaimed neo-slave narrative and historical novel, Dessa Rose (1986), Dessa revises the trope of the “slave woman.” In her interactions with Nemi, a white male amanuensis who attempts to record her life story, and Miss Rufel, a white mistress of a half-finished plantation, she controls the narrative by giving them limited information on herself and by serving as omniscient narrator of the entire novel. Her control of the narrative best refutes the notion of slave woman, because although she is physically constrained by jail and the aftereffects of childbirth, she stresses that what matters most is that she owns her own mind. Unlike Nemi and Miss Rufel, Dessa has few misconceptions about the world she inhabits.
In refuting the concept of slave woman, Dessa fulfills her most important function: she stands as a heroine and a positive and possible fiction. Dessa speaks in and offers the perspective of a successful African American female insurrectionist to the literary realm, where traditionally African American women have been silenced. Yet what marks her most is that this former slave woman character narrates her story to her children and ensures that it is passed down. Dessa's acquired literacy represents the act of making history and, as such, contributes to the evergrowing body of African American texts.
Mary Kemp Davis, “Everybody Knows Her Name: The Recovery of the Past in Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose,” Callaloo 40.1 (1989): 544–558.
— Mildred R. Mickle