In her debut chapbook of 18 timely poems, Williams (Humanities/Forsyth Technical Community Coll.) illuminates the African-American condition.
“To be black and happy in America is a fundamental paradox,” Williams says. The title’s qualified optimism thus reflects her ambivalence—celebrating black community and traditions on the one hand, condemning institutional racism on the other. “For Dubois” pinpoints poverty and a divided self as the common lot of African-Americans, while “Abandoned Aprons” shows how the place of black women is still defined by societal expectations. It’s not all outrage, though; some verses are pastoral recollections of a Southern upbringing (“mason jars / full of sweet tea”) or hymns to female solidarity (“Sister Speak”). Marriage and motherhood offer symbolic opportunities to join with ancestors in making a beautiful “tapestry” from “fraying ends.” Williams makes superb use of alliteration and sibilance to create chanting rhythms and gentle paradoxes: “unscathed but scarred…sweetly street” and “we savored your sullied beauty”—the latter expressing compassion toward Gil Scott-Heron rather than dismissing him as an addict. The book’s core is a handful of timely protest poems. The best one, “Meanwhile in America…,” contrasts inane celebrity culture (“Kimye births…While Miley twerks”) with Trayvon Martin’s wrongful death through the ironic refrain: “The system works / And Zimmerman walks.” Slant rhymes add to the sense of things being not quite right. “Diallo,” about the Guinean immigrant shot by New York City police in 1999, reminds us that police brutality is nothing new. Williams also defies opinions about the advances of the Obama administration: “Things ain’t better. / We ain’t making progress,” she insists. Likewise, “The If/Then Promise” flies in the face of sanctioned responses to violence: “I will not quote MLK….I will not seek calm.” Not quite happy, but with police or gunmen violence against African-Americans in the news seemingly every week, it’s justified. Books like Williams’ wield power to convince readers that black lives matter.
Williams picks up the baton from Maya Angelou, raising her voice to decry racism and sexism in America.