When I saw this book on sale, I felt a small sense of embarrassment because I did not know who John A. Williams (1925-2015) was. While it is true that he would be considered “before my time”, voices from the past are often as important as those of today. And any person that spends twenty years writing articles must have a significant number of experiences to reflect on. I gave in to my curiosity and decided to make the purchase. I can honestly say that I received more than I bargained for and have a newfound appreciation the late journalist. To be clear, the book is not an autobiography but more of a recollection of his most vivid memories about his early life, breaking into journalism and the numerous larger than life figures he had the chance to interview and, in some cases, form friendships with. Writers can tell you that composing an article is not always a simple as it seems and financially, it is not a way to get rich quick. In fact, the author removes all illusions of grandeur when he says:
“I’ve written all that time and if I’ve ever come to one single, positive conclusion it is that writing articles is no sane way for a man to make his living. Article Writing Highway is littered with wrecks, maimed and dead.”
Despite his gloomy summation of his trade, Williams wrote extensively, and his talents did pay the bills. But riches were never his goal and at no time in the book does he allude to fortune as his motive. He explains how he got into journalism in a time when Black Americans were prohibited from entering and being served at many establishments across America. Jim Crow was alive and strong and those fighting against it knew that it would die a slow death resisting all opposition to the very end. Williams did not let that deter him and travels domestically and abroad from one assignment to the next. And along the way, he observes things about America that even those who lived within its borders may not have seen. Those memories are presented in an engaging format and Williams pulls no punches in his assessment of the land of the free.
A significant portion of the book is devoted to Williams’ writings about the lives of figures who have their places in history such as Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), Charles “Bird” Parker, Jr. (1920-1955) and Malcolm X (1925-1965). Readers familiar with all three will know their stories but the section on Parker is deeply moving and disturbing as the late musician’s short and tragic life comes into focus. In just thirty-five years, Bird grew into the man who changed jazz forever and after his death, his former bandmate named Miles Davis (1926-1991) changed jazz again. Williams did conduct interviews with some of the subjects and his discussions with artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) and writer Chester Himes (1909-1984) offer a frank analysis on the situation in America at that time. Some might argue that the same discussions are being held today. I can say that the past truly is prologue.
Some readers may find the sections about his travels across America to be quite shocking. But it is imperative to remember that much of it took place before and around the passing of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964. The landmark legislation had been passed but America did not change overnight. As Williams drove from one state to the next, the threat of death is never far away, and he had some very hair-raising encounters while on the road. And the treatment he received at various establishments is nothing short of shameful. Those parts of his story will cause some to wonder how that type of behavior had been normalized in a nation that prided itself on democracy, liberty, and freedom. Williams was only one person, but his trials and tribulations were common to minorities who had come to realize that civil and equality could wait no more.
As I read the book, he reminded me of James Baldwin in the way he discusses America. Baldwin had visibility due to his status as a published author and activist. Williams may not have had the same level of popularity, but his observations of daily life are right out of the Baldwin play book. And like Baldwin, he loved America dearly despite his experiences in the military and later as a traveling journalist. He remains optimistic for true change in America and the society we see today has come a long way. There is still more work to be done but I am sure that if Williams were alive today, he would remind us that those much younger than he cannot imagine what life was like during his time. This book is a cold and hard look at the real America and how life was for millions of its invisible citizens.
ASIN : B01AJ7Z0CQ