John A. Williams, a writer whose exploration of black identity, notably in the 1967 novel “The Man Who Cried I Am,” established him as one of the bright lights in what he liked to call “the second Harlem Renaissance,” and who caused a furor with an unflattering biography of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died on Friday in a veterans’ home in Paramus, N.J. He was 89.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his son Dennis said.
Mr. Williams, whom the critic James L. de Jonghcalled “arguably the finest Afro-American novelist of his generation,” excelled in describing the inner lives of characters struggling to make sense of their experiences, their personal relationships and their place in a hostile society. His manifest gifts, however, earned him at best a twilight kind of fame — a reputation for being chronically underrated.
“Night Song,” his second novel, published in 1961, caught the attention of critics with its compelling picture of the jazz world of Greenwich Village and the retrospective ruminations of its hero, a dying saxophonist. “He gets close enough to the good novel about jazz that has never yet been written to make one hope he may write a good novel about something,” the British magazine The Spectator said in its review.
That novel was “The Man Who Cried I Am,” a look at 30 years of American history through the eyes of a dying black American writer living in Europe who reflects on his life and on his troubled marriage to a Dutch woman. Eliot Fremont-Smith, in his review for The New York Times, called it “a compelling novel, gracefully written, angry but acute, committed but controlled, obviously timely, but deserving of attention for far more than that.”
In “The King God Didn’t Save: Reflections on the Life and Death of Martin Luther King Jr.” (1970), Mr. Williams argued that Dr. King, suffering from hubris, was essentially a dupe, bought off with small concessions by the white power structure and blocked from effecting meaningful change.
“He did not understand that it had armed him with feather dusters,” Mr. Williams wrote. “He was a black man and therefore always was and always would be naked of power, for he was slow, indeed unable, to perceive the manipulation of white power, and in the end white power killed him.”
The negative portrayal, so soon after his assassination, dismayed many of Dr. King’s supporters.
By the late 1960s, Mr. Williams had earned a dual reputation, as a scathing critic of endemic racism in the United States and as a writer who, despite the constant comparisons to Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, had been denied the credit due his talent.
“John Williams has so far been luckless,” John Leonard wrote in The Times in 1967. “That peculiar mechanism which transforms writers into celebrities, and their books into preferred stock, just hasn’t worked for him.”
Over time, some of the fire abated — “I’m still angry, but you can’t just be angry all the time,” Mr. Williams told Publishers Weekly in 1976 — but his reputation as a supremely talented but undervalued writer remained unchanged.
John Alfred Williams was born on Dec. 5, 1925, in Jackson, Miss., and grew up in Syracuse. He left high school to find work, and in 1943 joined the Navy, serving as a medical corpsman in the Pacific.
After the war, he completed high school and enrolled at Syracuse University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1950. Unable to break into journalism, he spent time as a foundry worker, a supermarket vegetable clerk and a case worker for the Onondaga County welfare department. He moved to New York City in 1955, working sporadically as publicity director for a vanity press and as director of information for the American Committee on Africa, an organization founded to support African liberation movements.
In 1958, he became the European correspondent for both Ebony and Jet magazines. In the mid-1960s, he reported for Newsweek from Africa and the Middle East and from Europe for Holiday magazine.
“Night Song” plunged Mr. Williams into a literary tempest when the American Academy of Arts and Letters, impressed by the book, unanimously recommended him for a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. In an unprecedented decision, the Rome academy rejected the selection, offering no explanation. Mr. Williams said he believed himself to be the victim of a false rumor that he was about to marry a white woman. He was offered a $2,000 grant instead, which he rejected.
A prolific writer, Mr. Williams published in a variety of genres. He wrote a travel book, “This Is My Country Too” (1965); a biography of Richard Wright and a picture history of Africa, both for young-adult readers; and, with his son Dennis, the biography “If I Stop I’ll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor” (1991).
In the early 1970s, he was an editor of the periodic anthology Amistad, devoted to critical writing on black history and culture.
His novels include “Sissie” (1963), which narrates the life of a Southern domestic worker as seen through the eyes of her two estranged children, and “Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light” (1969), a thriller about a civil rights activist who turns to murder after losing faith in nonviolence.
Mr. Williams confounded critics with “The Junior Bachelor Society” (1976), an unexpectedly heartwarming story about a group of middle-aged black men who return to their hometown to honor their football coach and mentor. It was made into a mini-series, “The Sophisticated Gents,” which was broadcast on NBC in 1981. His own favorite was “!Click Song” (1982), a screed against the publishing industry and the travails that await black writers.
Mr. Williams taught at several colleges and universities, most recently Rutgers in Newark from 1979 until his retirement in 1994. He lived in Teaneck, N.J.
In addition to his son Dennis, Mr. Williams, whose first marriage ended in divorce, is survived by his wife, Lorrain; two other sons, Adam and Gregory; a sister, Helen Musick; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Williams never much cared for the comparisons to Ellison and Baldwin. The tendency to group black writers together, he theorized in an essay for Saturday Review in 1963, was a way to ensure that only one at a time could become successful. He regarded his peers as E. L. Doctorow, John Updike and Norman Mailer.
“I do have faith in myself and my abilities to write,” he told The Washington Post in 1976. “I believe very much in what I have to say. I’m too old to start wavering now.”