|Writer Sherley Anne Williams|
Sherley Anne Williams was an accomplished writer and poet. Shirley Anne Williams was the first black woman I ever called “professor.” Williams grew up the scorching fields of Fresno, Calif. where she picked fruit and cotton. Her family also toiled in the fields and lived on government assistance, according to the Los Angeles Times. At 8 years old she lost her father to tuberculosis. By 16 she was parentless when her mother died from a heart attack. *
So how does a poor, orphaned black girl from rural California eventually become a revered writer and college professor? Thank God for good teachers and, I assume, the audacity to dream. Williams loved books and was encouraged by her eighth grade and high school teachers to pursue college. A master’s degree, Emmy award and published books later—she was soaring in the literary world.
I met Prof. Williams in the spring of 1999. I was a sophomore at UC San Diego and enrolled in her Intro to African American Literature class. Whew, she and her TA ripped my papers up. I clearly remember a B- on one paper. I was going through some things at the time so I admit I wasn’t the best student. Still, I learned a lot from her. Prof. Williams introduced me to authors I never heard of like Nella Larson. She showed our class one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen in my life, “Daughters of the Dust.” And she left an impression on me when I read her groundbreaking novel Dessa Rose. The book is about a pregnant black slave on the run for killing a slave trader. A white plantation mistress who keeps her in hiding and they develop an interesting friendship. Dessa Rose was her most popular work and this year marks the 25th anniversary of its publishing.
Sherley Anne Williams was the first black woman I called “professor.” And I was one of the last students she taught at UCSD. I visited her office a few days after taking the final. Her room was filled with special mementos, pictures and literary conference posters from all the people and places she visited in the world. She told me about her travels and how she has given talks in different parts of the world. I had no idea her work was so revered in the African-American literary world. She never bragged about her accomplishments in class like some professors do. We had a great conversation. I explained how her teachings excited me about writing and literature. And I told her I was looking forward to taking more classes with her because I was going to minor in literature. Prof. Williams’ face changed. She gently cupped my hands. Her eyes softened and she gave me a weak smile. I thought it was sincere, but a little strange.
A few days later I went home for the summer. I got a call from my literature classmate. Prof. Williams had died from cancer in July. We didn’t know she was sick. Prof. Williams missed quite a few classes, but TAs filling in for professors at large public universities was common. I was upset when I heard the news. She was only 54. Her behavior during her office hours made sense to me. The woman was dying, but she took the time to answer all of my questions about her background, achievements and literature in that meeting. She cared and that’s what good teachers do. My love for literature began to mature after listening to Prof. Williams’ lectures. Life is interesting. She grew up a fruit picker, but planted seeds of knowledge through her writings and teachings.
Sherley Anne Williams was my professor.
*Facts are from LA Times