Sherley Williams; Migrant Worker Became Woman of Letters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a life that began without prospects in the hot, dusty cotton fields and orchards of Fresno, and blossomed into one of limitless possibilities.

Sherley Anne Williams, the daughter of African American migrant workers who became a leading poet, author and scholar at UC San Diego, has died of cancer at 54.

Her life was one of extremes. After a poverty-stricken childhood in the San Joaquin Valley, she became an accomplished poet and eventually achieved a broader literary stardom when "Dessa Rose," which one Times reviewer called "an uncommonly absorbing novel," was published in 1986.

She told a reporter some years ago that the transformation was daunting.

"To go from having no prospects at all to having seemingly limitless opportunity . . . well, in my case, I feel I just wasn't prepared for seemingly limitless opportunity."

Prepared or not, the opportunities came and she made the most of them. Her first book of verse, "The Peacock Poems," was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in 1975. She won an Emmy Award for a television performance of poems from her second poetry book, "Some One Sweet Angel Chile," another National Book Award nominee. Her full-length, one-woman drama, "Letters From a New England Negro," was a featured play at the National Black Theatre Festival in 1991 and the Chicago International Theatre Festival in 1992.

Her 1992 children's tale, "Working Cotton," won an American Library Assn. Caldecott Award and a Coretta Scott King Book Award, and was listed among the best books of 1992 by Parents magazine. She recently published a second children's book, "Girls Together."

Williams was born in Bakersfield and grew up in a poor area on the west side of Fresno, where her family survived on welfare. She was 8 when her father died of tuberculosis, and 16 when her mother had a fatal heart attack.

To survive, she picked cotton and fruit in the same dusty fields her parents had worked. Her upbringing, she told freelance writer Mona Gable, who profiled her for the Los Angeles Times Magazine some years ago, "was the most deprived, provincial kind of existence you can think of."

She loved books, but her mother, a pragmatic woman from rural Texas, thought she read too much and tried to discourage her.

"I think she felt reading wasn't a skill I needed to have to the excess I was taking it, and that it would put ideas in my head beyond the possibility of them being fulfilled, so I would be really dissatisfied with my lot in life," she told Gable.

But in eighth grade, a science teacher thought Williams showed promise and made her enroll in college prep courses. In high school, she discovered she liked to write, and another teacher encouraged her to apply to college.

At Fresno State University, she discovered the work of Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown in a freshman poetry class.

"They were the earliest influences on my work," she told Gable. "I was just captivated by their language, their speech and their character because I always liked the way black people talk. So I wanted to work with that in writing."

She went to graduate school at Howard University and Brown University, where she received her master's degree. She started her teaching career at Fresno State in 1972 and moved to UC San Diego in 1973. She received tenure there in 1975 and later served as chairwoman of the literature department. Her specialties were African American literature and fiction writing.

Her biggest writing success was "Dessa Rose," a novel of suffering and redemption that began as a short story and took four years to write.

In it, she details the lives and the coming together of two women who, on the surface, seem to have nothing to bind them. One is a pregnant slave named Dessa, who has been sentenced to die after the birth of her baby for killing a white slave trader. The other is Rufel, a meek woman living in Charleston, S.C., who has been abandoned on a rundown plantation by her gambling husband.

The telling of their separate tales brings them to a fierce intersection that is far from the standard sisters-against-the-world story. The book is now in its fourth printing and has been translated into German, Dutch and French.

"Basically, I have survived my childhood," Williams told Gable. "I kind of lucked into this middle-class occupation, and those times I might have fallen and did not get up, there was this middle-class system propping me up."

Williams died July 6 at a San Diego hospital.

She is survived by her son, Malcolm, three grandchildren, a sister and three nieces. Her family has asked that donations be made to the Jamila Ramsey Scholarship Fund, Christian Fellowship Church, 1601 Kelton Road, San Diego, CA 92114.

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