Sherley Anne Williams on A Careless Hug


Sherley Anne Williams (American, 1944-1999) was a multi-talented writer who sought to bring the black experience to literature. Born into a poor family that lived by picking cotton and fruit, she became the first African American literature professor at the University of California, San Diego. She is known for her works of literary criticism, children’s books, and poetry. Her children’s book Working Cotton won the Coretta Scott King Award. A televised version of her second book of poetry Some One Sweet Angel Chile won an Emmy Award.

Her novel Dessa Rose grew out of two true stories: one about a slave woman who led a slave revolt, and another about a southern plantation woman who hid runaway slaves. Dessa Rose is what Williams imagined might have happened if these two women met up and became friends. Dessa Rose was a New York Times Notable Book, and in 2005  was made into a Broadway musical.

The following excerpt is from Dessa Rose p. 130.

Rufel was awakened sometime before dawn by the baby’s muffled cries. She lay still a moment, consciously struggling out of sleep, feeling puffy-eyed and heavy-lidded, breasts throbbing faintly. He had been crying, she realized as she stumbled out of bed, for some time, and wondered why the stupid wench hadn’t brought him to her or at least called her. She bent to pick him up, her muttered complaints abruptly silenced by the memory of how reluctantly she had nursed him earlier in the evening. Wench still should have enough sense to know I wouldn’t let him go hungry, she thought a trifle self-righteously; yet, she was rather pleased to realize she had some real power over the wench and Ada. The baby seemed to recognize her touch for he stopped crying and turned his face to nozzle at her bosom. He was such a tiny thing to have so big a voice, so fierce a will, she thought. A careless hug could kill him, yet he demanded care and trusted someone to provide it. Shaken by a sudden wave of protectiveness and remorse, she climbed back into bed and bared her breast to his searching. She had used the baby’s hunger to spite the wench and was shamed by the knowledge.

Can you think of two historical people living at the same cusp of time, but apart, whose lives would have been different if they had met? What would their new story be?

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