A landmark work, John A. Williams's The Man Who Cried I Am (1967; rpt. 1987) recounts journalist-novelist Max Reddick's struggles against an oppressive, murderous social structure. Terminally ill with colon cancer, Reddick inherits an enormous burden from his recently deceased friend and literary rival, Harry Ames: knowledge of the King Alfred Plan, an international agenda for annihilating all people of African origin. As he considers how to use the information, he reflects on his life and the events leading inevitably to this dilemma. Unaware of how closely he is being watched, Reddick transmits the information to an ally, Minister Q, over a tapped telephone, setting into motion events leading to his murder.
This synopsis risks oversimplification; part of the text's greatness lies in Williams's stylistic innovations. A chronological double consciousness controls the narrative, moving simultaneously through a single day in the present and the entire historical range of Reddick's literary and personal experience with racism in America, keying on events in his friendships with other African American writers to inform that movement. The flexibility of the chronological frame, and the subsequent breakdown of received linear preconceptions of history, is one of Williams's most significant contributions to contemporary African American literature. Similarly, his philosophical exploration of the interconnectedness of history and the states of being assigned to African Americans by the power structure sets a standard upon which writers like Charles R. Johnson, who acknowledges Williams's influence in Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970 (1988), have built.
Another significant feature of the text that critics note is Williams's inclusion of thinly disguised portraits of actual events and real people. The 1962 Prix de Rome scandal, in which Williams was promised an award and then inexplicably denied it, appears, happening not to Reddick, who arguably represents Williams himself, but to Harry Ames. Ames is unmistakably modeled on Richard Wright, just as Marion Dawes clearly represents James Baldwin. Williams does not stop with literary figures, however; Minister Q seems to reflect the ideas and attitudes of Malcolm X, and Paul Durrell appears to resemble Martin Luther King, Jr. This revision of the actual historical record indicates Williams's stylistic sophistication; he takes the so-called truth of the era and presents an alternative perspective through the lens of literature, offering in the process an insightful commentary on national and international affairs. Williams's alteration of history and his fusion of “fact” and “fiction” mark The Man as a postmodernist work, reflecting the general upheaval regarding definitions of “truth” and “fiction” that characterized American culture in the late 1960s.
Critics generally agree that The Man is Williams's finest work, citing the richness of the characterization and the structural complexity of the narrative as reasons. Within the relatively small body of existing criticism, The Man has consistently received the most attention. Its postmodern innovations and frank challenging of preconceptions about American history establish it as a crucial work.
William M. Burke, “The Resistance of John A. Williams: The Man Who Cried I Am,” Critique 15.3 (1974): 5–14.Addison Gayle, Jr., The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America, 1975.Gilbert H. Muller, John A. Williams, 1984.
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John A. Williams (b. 1925)