Book Excerpt – The Man Who Cried I Am
The Man Who Cried I Am
by John A. Williams
- A Top 10 Book in the “Fiction Books from the 20th Century” Category
- 1 Time AALBC.com Bestselling Book!
- Selected for 1 Book Club’s Reading List
- A QBR 100 Essential Black Book
Publication Date: Apr 01, 1985
List Price: Unavailable
Format: Paperback, 420 pages
Imprint: Thunder’s Mouth Press
Publisher: Thunder’s Mouth Press
Parent Company: Thunder’s Mouth Press
Copyright © 1985 Thunder’s Mouth Press/John A. Williams No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher or author. The format of this excerpt has been modified for presentation here.
by Graham Hodges
The publication of John A. Williams’ fourth novel, The Man Who Cried I Am, in October, 1967, caused critics across the nation to acclaim it as a “seething, angry book,” “intensely American,” and “in a class with Ellison and Baldwin.” The Man Who Cried I Am was generally recognized as one of the most important American novels of the tumultuous 1960s and it remained a popular seller in paperback for over ten years. Eventually, it slipped out of print and the occasion of this first reissue by Thunder’s Mouth Press allows for a reassessment of Williams’ achievement. The Man Who Cried I Am is simply the fullest and most panoramic account of Afro-American life between World War II and the 1960s.
John A. Williams is among the best American historical novelists and The Man Who Cried I Am offers his unique insights into society. Through the eyes of Max Reddick, journalist, novelist, the reader relives the harsh segregation of the 1940s and the expatriation of a generation of black intellectuals to more accommodating yet more estranged locales of Paris and Amsterdam. Well-told are the initial, brave attempts of the southern Civil Rights movement and the harsh, brutal white reactions. Reddick covers in the north the rise of a new black nationalism. Both Civil Rights and Black Nationalist movements are inspired by the rise of nationalism in Africa and the creation of new African states. Both movements are hampered by deceptive white politicians; in particular, the stark disappointments of the Kennedy years are vividly portrayed. Indeed, the American government is not viewed as the benevolent sponsor of black hopes in this novel, but rather as an insidious, repressive agent of white supremacy. Ubiquitous in the novel are C.I.A. agents; the culmination of the book is the revelation of the totalitarian King Alfred Plan, the "final solution" for Afro-Americans.
Williams describes American society through two devices. First, powerful accounts of actual events and, secondly, by incisive capsule personal portraits. Students of Afro-American history will not only benefit from the penetrating analysis of major events during these two decades but also from Williams’ honest appraisals of Richard Wright, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and many others. One of Williams’ great virtues as a writer is that, like Theodore Dreiser, he is able to instill a deep sense of humanity and destiny in each of his characters whether they are major or minor.
The Man Who Cried I Am is no mere jaunt through the events of the past or through the upper realms of power. It is also a survival manual for Afro-Americans. As Max Reddick spends his hard earned moments in white institutions such as big-city newsrooms, publishers’ offices, liberal penthouses and, perhaps the ultimate example, the White House, he quickly learns of the fragility of his position and the constant, yawning gulfs between his white hosts and himself. Despite the official pronouncements of presidents, corporate leaders and well-meaning intellectuals, American society is not an open-door to opportunity, but rather a cocked bear trap, ready to snap shut at any time and sever his body and his hopes. The novel can be instructive to young Afro-Americans today who are bewildered by the two-faced qualities of corporate life; The Man Who Cried I Am is a reminder that despite the pressure from AfroAmerican movements and from a critical world, white American society only grudgingly gives the Max Reddicks temporary and risk filled chances.
For inspiration and guidance through this terrible dilemma that is American society, Williams turns to several sources. The book is in part homage to Richard Wright, the most important American writer of the mid-twentieth century. Portrayed in the novel as Harry Ames, the character of Wright is larger-than-life, powerful, a man who could take white society at its own terms and defeat it. Novelist, poet, lover, raconteur, and revolutionary, Harry Ames is the personification of success and personal achievement. Yet even he could taste defeat. Ames is denied an award which had been voted to him (an incident which actually happened to Williams). In Paris, where Wright spent most of his expatriate years, Ames is the central figure of Afro-American exiles. Lionized by the French, Ames is still human enough to help scuffling brothers with loans during hard times. In the novel, Williams describes a searing incident in which Marion Dawes (James Baldwin) acknowledges his huge and unpaid debt to Ames. As white society will only accept one major black writer, Marion Dawes argues that to succeed as a writer he must slay his father-figure, Ames. One great virtue of the novel is that the wisdom and courage of Richard Wright is pronounced throughout.
Even more ominous in this competition is the presence of spies and C.I.A. agents who dog Harry Ames and try constantly to stifle his critical pronouncements about America. Transcriptions of Ames’s coffee-house conversations are used to attempt to intimidate the great novelist. Too powerful a figure for such methods, Ames is finally able to offer Reddick, his true heir, information which is the key to understanding and resistance to the overwhelming white society.
Beyond the example of Wright, another area of resistance is Afro-American life in the city. It is in New York that Reddick encounters Minister Q, unyielding leader of a new nationalist movement and the figure with whom Reddick can entrust the terrible secrets bequeathed by Ames. It is in the city that Reddick can experience the blues music pouring out of Harlem bars, hear jazz at Minton’s, find solace in late-night parties, and discuss life with the imposing Seargeant Jenkins, the first black policeman in Harlem and without doubt the meanest. It is in New York that Reddick encounters Moses L. Boatwright, black intellectual and cannibal whose ironic example rings through the novel. And it is in the city that Reddick can find love.
The Man Who Cried I Am is very much a novel about that most difficult yet highest of human feelings, love. There is the wrenching story of Reddick’s love with Lillian Patch, an average, middle-class Afro-American woman, and of their conflicts over the unsure future of a black writer, a theme Williams examined well in Night Song. The tragic conclusion of their love sends Reddick through years of searching, through many temporary liaisons, until he finally can learn temporary happiness with Margrit, a Dutch woman. Interracial love has always been among the most sensitive subjects for American novelists. Williams handles it with tenderness and understanding. Although there are many affairs in the novel between blacks and whites which are conducted for satisfaction of the racial guilts or curiosities of the partners, Max’s love with Margrit is on a higher plane. They love each other as people, with all the loyalty, understanding and compassion that true lovers can feel. Almost alone among American novelists, Williams’ success in comprehending the fullness of this relationship lifts The Man Who Cried I Am far above any other work dealing with this fundamental truth: that black and white people can love each other without exploitation.
Finally, The Man Who Cried I Am is a major work about survival as an Afro-American writer and, by extension, as a writer in America. A writer in America, for Williams, must stand alone, lose the comforting graces of home life, and learn to confront equitably the hazards of ruthless publishing houses, capricious literary societies, not to mention the more private concerns of having to make a living. Learning how to survive as a writer in America combined with the knowledge of life inherited from Ames compels Reddick into the only possible position true to his life and art: revolution. To be a true Afro-American writer, argues Williams, during the repressive eras described in this book, allows only resistance and revolution as goals. For all of the hopes and dreams of the second American Reconstruction, the snap of the white bear trap in the last decade reaffirms this fundamental truth offered by The Man Who Cried I Am.