A Subaltern Black Woman Sings the Blues: A Blues Aesthetic Analysis Sherley Anne Williams' Poetry

By Armstrong, Jasmine Marshall | Journal of Pan African Studies, April 2018 | Go to article overview

A Subaltern Black Woman Sings the Blues: A Blues Aesthetic Analysis Sherley Anne Williams' Poetry


Armstrong, Jasmine Marshall, Journal of Pan African Studies


The Green-Eyed Monsters of the Valley Dusk  sunset knocks the edge from the day's heat, filling the Valley with shadows: Time for coming in getting on; lapping fields lapping orchards like greyhounds racing darkness to the mountain rims, land's last meeting with still lighted sky. This is a car I watched in childhood, streaking the straightaway through the dusk I look for the ghost of that girl in the mid-summer fields whipping past but what ghosts lurk in this silence are feelings not spirits not sounds. 

The first two stanzas of the hauntingly beautiful poem above by Sherley Anne Williams, provide perhaps the best evocation of California's Central Valley, a place known for its flat surface, hemmed in by the Sierra Nevada and Coast Range--and as a parched, forsaken and poverty stricken region. Williams' poem evokes the crushing heat, the endless cycles of labor with the metaphor of the greyhounds lapping the field. The "ghost of that girl in mid-summer fields" likely refers to the poet herself, the child of African-American agricultural workers, or her sisters, all of whom worked picking cotton and harvesting other crops in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley. What emerges is a as powerful as a Blues song, one that calls up the past, but anchors the listener to the spot contemplating a sense of place--its beauty and oppressions, its impact upon the girl child lapped by the swift, greyhound-like heat and light. The girl, watching the car, watching the passage of light and time, is not the daughter of a wealthy grower. The poet's Blues tone clues the reader in that this girl is a proletariat figure, whose body and being have been marked by laboring on that sun baked soil.

The San Joaquin Valley is known for problems of persistent, systemic unemployment, poverty and even violence, some might be tempted to wonder what aside from valuable agricultural commodities this region of California has produced worth celebrating. Yet it is a region which has produced a bounty of poets, including Williams, a native of the region, who has been hailed as one of the greatest African American poets of the latter half of the 20th Century. Despite being orphaned by the death of both parents by her teens, William would become a nominee for the National Book Award and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, as well as an important developer of theory regarding the Black Arts aesthetics. Although Williams' novel Dessa Rose is one of the most important neo-slave narratives by an African American woman in the past 50 years, I shall not be dealing with that work for the purposes on this paper, as I feel it deserves more time than I could devote to it here. The works discussed shall also all be reflective of Williams' status as a Central Valley and California member of the Black Arts Movement.

In this paper, I shall argue that Williams used her poetry, children's literature and theoretical writings in order to transform both her own personal and her community's painful experiences of poverty, racism and defacto segregation both here in the Central Valley and in urban California into transformative, empowering art, reflecting Antonio Gramsci's contention that truly liberating arts and literature must come from subaltern, proletariat peoples who speak for themselves--resisting the hegemony of the dominant white culture. Grasmsci himself noted that popular culture and music in particular, can create an artistic aesthetic rooted in the working classes (373). In early 20th Century Italy, Gramsci called this "The Operatic Conception of Life" in his writings on popular culture. (1) He writes,

It is not true that a bookish and non-innate sense of life is only to be found in certain inferior strains of the intelligentsia. Among the popular classes, too, there is a 'bookish' degeneration of life which comes not from books, but from other instruments of diffusion and culture and ideas (373). 

Gramsci argues that for the working class of his Italy, the Opera of Verdi and others provided a means of interacting with popular tropes through which to understand their lives and oppression. …

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