Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Fresno Writers in the Black Arts Movement

Fresno Writers Played role in The Black Arts Movement
Fresno, California produced two of Black America's greatest authors, Sherley Ann Williams and Marvin X. They attended elementary school together and were high school lovers. Both graduated with honors from Edison High School. Sherley became a poet, playwright, novelist, critic and professor, while Marvin X became a poet, essayist, philosopher, social activist, a co-founder of the Black Arts Movement and now considered the father of Muslim American literature.
In the radio interview that follows, Ph.D. student, Kim McMillon of UC. Merced, interviews Marvin X on his role in the Black Arts Movement. She questions Marvin X on his role in the Black Arts Movement, the most powerful literary and artistic movement in American history. BAM radicalized American academia by forcing the inclusion of ethnic and gender literature in the White Supremacy curriculum. From the fight for Black Studies emerged Native American Studies, La Raza Studies, Women's Studies, Gay/Lesbian Studies, Asian Studies, et al. 

Indeed, Asian poet and wife of Rev. Cecil Williams, Janice  Miritkitani tells people, "Yes, Marvin X woke me up to my ethnicity." And then Jan says, "He's been a thorn in my side ever since."
But even after we opened the door of academia for our children, because black studies was soon systematically diluted and polluted, watered down to a Miller Lite Pan African and Diaspora studies with the focus on "other worlds" (Dr. Nathan Hare) or anywhere but focusing on North American Africans, with the result, according to Amiri Baraka, "Our children come back from college hating us and everything we're about and they don't even know what we're about!" And finally, partly as a result of the reaction to radical Black Nationalist Studies by White Supremacy academia and the black sycophants, real black studies, ironically, has had to reach young black men in prison where they get a varied dose of Islamic black studies, whether NOI, Moorish Science or Five Percenters. Many of the young black brothers on the streets who are unable to read have now become "Youtube scholars" who devour black consciousness from watching DVDs. And this is a good thing although some of the black scholars cry about lack of royalties and the selling of pirated tapes (ancestor Asa Hilliard, et al) while they are not only tenured professors but receive honorariums in the amount of $25,000. These black studies negroes should be happy their knowledge is finally getting to the people in this New Age of Consciousness! 

Sherley Anne Williams

Biography / Criticism

I am the women I speak of in my stories, my poems. The fact that I am a single mother sometimes makes it hard to bring this forth to embody it in the world, but it is precisely because I am a single mother of an only son that I try hard to do this. Women must leave a record for their men; otherwise how will they know us?
          — Sherley Anne Williams

Born August 25, 1944, in Bakersfield, California, to Lena-Leila Marie Siler and Jesse Winson Williams, Sherley Anne Williams is the third of four daughters. -- She, her parents, and her three sisters, Ruby, Jesmarie, and Lois, fought the constant despair of life in the housing projects in Fresno, California. Her family earned their living by picking fruit and cotton. Williams's father died of tuberculosis when she was eight years old, and her mother died when Williams was 16. An older sister, whom she credits with being a major influence in her life, reared her after the mother's death. During her early years, Williams found herself associating with people whom she said could be termed "juvenile delinquents"(Draper 1950). However, she was able to separate herself from those influences through her love of history and biography. Along with encouragement from her science teacher, she was also influenced by books such as Richard Wright's Black Boy and Eartha Kitt's Thursday's Child. Williams has been quoted as saying, "It was largely through these autobiographies I was able to take heart in my life"(CLC 318). Other writers such as Amiri Baraka, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, and poet Philip Levine, her professor at Fresno State University, also greatly influenced Williams.
She was educated at Fresno State College (known today as California State University) and received her bachelor's in English in 1966. Williams also studied on the graduate level at Howard University and received her master's in English from Brown University in 1972. She began writing in 1966 and literally wrote for the remainder of her life. Supporting herself with her writings and by teaching, Williams in 1973 became the first African American literature professor at the University of California at San Diego. She constantly worked toward diversification of, not only the faculty and students, but also the canon. On the cover of her children's book Girls Together, Williams states that teaching satisfied her desire "to help students see relationships and make connections between some of what has gone before and what is going on now and what may come later. "
Although Williams contributed greatly through her teaching, her writing career is even more impressive. Her first short story, "Tell Martha not to Moan,"was published in 1967, and in 1972 her first book, a literary criticism called Give Birth to Brightness, followed. Mel Watkins notes that this book examines black fiction from the nineteenth century to the present with particular focus on contemporary works which Williams labels as "neo-black writing"(Draper 1951). "The Peacock Poems, Williams's second book, was published in 1975. Highly influenced by blues music, these poems focus on Wiliams's life as a single mother as well as on her young son, Malcolm. The book also includes poems that relate to her early life with her family and the work they did in the fields. A second volume of poetry entitled Some One Sweet Angel Chile followed in 1982. The poems in this book are sectioned into three parts. The first part addresses a free black woman in the 1860's who travels south to teach slaves. The second part focuses on the blues and Bessie Smith with the final section focusing on the author's youth. In addition, in 1982, Williams produced Letters from a New England Negro, a full-length, one-woman drama that is an excerpt from Some One Sweet Angel Chile.

Williams published her first novel, Dessa Rose, in 1986. This novel describes the fictional relationship between a pregnant young slave woman and a white woman who has been abandoned by her slaveowner husband in Alabama. Dessa Rose is based on two true incidents, one involving a pregnant black woman who helps lead a slave uprising in Kentucky in 1829, and the other involving a white woman living on a farm in North Carolina in 1830 who gave refuge to runaway slaves. Williams, having read of these two accounts, expressed in the novel's introduction, her sadness that the two women never met. Dessa Rose reflects Williams's interest in history, biography, and women and race issues. In 1992, Williams's children's book Working Cotton was published. This autobiographical work records a day in the life of a young girl working with her farmhand parents in the cotton fields of California. Williams's experiences as a child picking fruit and cotton are described vividly in this award-winning book. In 1999, her second children's book, Girls Together, was published. It is the happy story of the strong friendships that develops between five girls growing up in the projects in poverty.
Williams has been nominated for and has received several awards and honors for her work as both a writer and professor.The Peacock Poems, her collection of autobiographical poems, drew a National book Award nomination in 1976 and was nominated for a Pulitzer. In the collection, Williams uses blues poetry to express herself. She won an Emmy for the television performance of Some One Sweet Angel Chile, and this book of poetry was also nominated for a National Book Award. In 1984, she had the honor of serving as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Ghana. Her drama, Letters from a New England Negro, was the feature play at the 1991 Black Theater Festival and the Chicago International Festival in 1992. Williams also won a Caldecott Award and the Coretta Scott King Book Award for Working Cotton. In 1998 at the UCSD conference celebrating "Black Women Writers and the High Art of Afro-American Letters," Williams was the guest of honor. The mayor of San Diego, Susan Goding, officially proclaimed May 15, 1998 "Sherley Anne Williams Day. " In the same year, Williams was also awarded the AALCS's Stephen Henderson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Literature and Poetry.
On July 6, 1999, at the age of 54, Sherley Anne Williams, one of the great talents of the literary world, succumbed to cancer. Her son Malcolm, a sister, three nieces, and three grandchildren survive her. At the time of her death, she was working on a sequel to Dessa Rose. Williams identified with the struggles of lower income black women, and through her work, she continues to allow the rest of us to identify with them as well.

Selected Bibliography

Works by the Author


  • Dessa Rose (1986)
  • Working Cotton (1992)
  • Girls Together (1999)


  • The Peacock Poems (1975)


  • Giving Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature (1972)

Works about the Author

  • Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. Black Women Writers and the American Neo-Slave Narrative. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 89. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. 318-358.
  • Davis, Mary Kemp. "Everybody Knows Her Name: The Recovery of the Past in Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose. " Callaloo 12.3 (Summer 1989): 544-558.
  • Draper, James P. "Sherley Anne Williams. " Black Literature Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Most Significant Works of Black Authors Over the Past 200 Years. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. 1950-1961.
  • Magill, Frank N. Masterpieces of African-American Literature. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.
  • Magill, Frank N. , ed. Masterplots II: African American Literature Series I. Pasadena: Salem Press, 1994. 357-361.
  • Metzger, Linda et al. Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. 602-604.
  • Nagel, Carol De Kane. "Sherley Anne Williams. "African American Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994. 787-789.
  • Wiloch, Thomas.Contemporary Authors. Vol. 25. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. 492-497

Related Links

Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site: Working Cotton
Hurst offers a brief review of Working Cotton and notes that the book can be enjoyed by children young and old.
Furious Flower - African American Poetry, 1960-1995, Sherley Anne W...
This site provides a bibliography of Williams' works, discussion questions, and a brief biography of Williams. The California Newsreel provides information on educational videos for and about African American life and history. 
University of California : In Memorium, 2000 Sherely Anne Williams,...
This site provide information from Williams' colleagues at University of California.
Report a dead link or suggest a new one by emailing


This photo of Marvin X, 1969, when he lectured in Black Studies at Fresno State University but was removed from campus on the orders of Gov. Ronald Reagan, who demanded State College Board of Trustees, "Get him off campus by any means necessary." He lectured at UC Berkeley, 1972, San Francisco State University, 1974, UC San Diego, 1975, University of Nevada, Reno, 1979, Laney and
Merritt colleges, 1981, Kings River College, 1982.

Marvin X 1944–

Marvin X 1944–

Poet, playwright, educator, activist
Formerly known as El Muhajir, Marvin X was a key poet and playwright of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) in the 1960s and early 1970s. He wrote for many of the leading black journals of the time, including Black Dialogue Magazine, Journal of Black Poetry, SoulBook, Black Scholar, Black Theater Magazine, and Muhammad Speaks. He founded Black Arts West Theatre, San Francisco, 1966, along with Ethna X. Wyatt, Ed Bullins, Duncan Barber, Hillery Broadous and Carl Bossiere. Co-founded The Black House with Ed Bullins, Eldridge Cleaver and Ethna X. Wyatt, which served for a short time as the headquarters of the Black Panther Party, the militant black nationalist group, and a community theatrical center on Broderick Street, San Francisco.

Always a controversial and confrontational figure, Marvin X was banned from teaching at state universities in the 1960s by the then state governor, Ronald Reagan. When asked in 2003 what had happened to the Black Arts Movement, Marvin X told Lee Hubbard: “I am still working on it, telling it like it is.”
Marvin X was born Marvin Ellis Jackmon on May 29, 1944, in Fowler, California, an agricultural area near Fresno. His parents were Owendell and Marian Jackmon, who published a black newspaper The Fresno Voice; his mother ran her own real estate business. Details about when and why he changed his name are scarce, but he has been known as Nazzam al Fitnah Muhajir, El Muhajir, and is now known simply as Marvin X. Marvin X attended Oakland City College (Merritt College) where he received his AA degree in 1964. He received his BA in English from San Francisco State College (San Francisco State University) in 1974 and his MA in 1975.
At San Francisco State, the drama department produced his first play Flowers for the Trashman, 1965. While at college Marvin X was involved with various theater projects and co-founded the Black Arts/West Theater with Bullins and others. Their aim was to provide a place where black writers and performers could work on drama projects, but they also had a political motive, to use theater and writing to campaign for the liberation of blacks from white oppression. Marvin X told Lee Hubbard: “The Black Arts Movement was part of the liberation movement of Black people in America. The Black Arts Movement was its artistic arm…[brothers] got a revolutionary consciousness through Black art, drama, poetry, music, paintings, artwork, and magazines.”
By the late 1960s Marvin X was a central figure in the Black Arts Movement in San Francisco and had become part of the Nation of Islam, changing his name to El Muhajir and following Elijah Muhammad. Like the heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, Marvin X refused his induction to fight in Vietnam. But unlike Ali, Marvin X decided to evade arrest. In 1967 he escaped to Canada but was later arrested in Belize. He chastised the court for punishing him for refusing to be inducted into an army for the purpose of securing “White Power” throughout the world before he was sentenced to five months’ imprisonment. His statement was published in the journal The Black Scholar in 1971.
Despite his reputation as an activist, Marvin X was also an intellectual, and a celebrated writer. He was most concerned with the problem of using language created by whites in order to argue for freedom from white power. Many of his plays and poems reflect this struggle to express himself as a black intellectual in a white-dominated society. His play Flowers for the Trashman (1965), for example, is the story of Joe Simmons, a jailed college student whose bitter attack on his white cellmate became a national rallying call for many in the Nation of Islam and other black nationalists. Marvin X’s own poetry is heavy with Muslim ideology and propaganda, but it is supported by a sensitive poetic ear. Perhaps his greatest achievement as a poet is to merge Islamic cadences and sensibilities with scholarly American English and the language of the black ghetto.
Like his close friend Eldridge Cleaver, in the late 1980s and 1990s Marvin X went through a period of addiction to crack cocaine. His play One Day in the Life (2000) takes a tragicomic approach to the issue of addiction and recovery, dealing with his own experiences with drug addiction and the experiences of Black Panthers, Cleaver, and Huey Newton (1942-1989). The play has been presented in community theaters around the United States as both a stage play and a video presentation. After emerging from addiction Marvin X founded Recovery Theatre and began organizing events for recovering addicts and those who work with them. His autobiography, Somethin’ Proper (1998) includes reminiscences of his life fighting for black civil rights as well as an analysis of drug culture. Drug addiction and “reactionary” rap poetry are two areas of black culture that he has argued have “contributed to the desecration of black people.”
In the late 1990s Marvin X became an influential figure in the campaign to have reparations paid for the treatment of blacks under slavery. He organized meetings, readings, and performances to promote black culture and civil rights. He has worked as a university teacher since the early 1970s, as well as giving readings and guest lectures in universities and theaters throughout the United States. Marvin X has also received several awards, including a Columbia University writing grant in 1969 and a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1972.

At a Glance

Born Marvin Ellis Jackmon on May 29, 1944, in Fowler, California; married; five children. Education: Oakland City College (now Merritt College), AA, 1964; San Francisco State College (now University), BA, 1974, MA, 1975.
Career: Poet and playwright, 1965-; Soul Book, Encore, Black World, Black Scholar, and other magazines and newspapers, contributor, 1965-; Black Dialogue, fiction editor, 1965-; Journal of Black Poetry, contributing editor, 1965-; Black Arts/West Theatre, San Francisco, co-founder (with Bullins), 1966; Black House, San Francisco, co-founder (with Bullins and Eldridge Cleaver), 1967; Al Kitab Sudan Publishing Company, San Francisco, founder, 1967; California State University at Fresno, black studies teacher, 1967; Black Theatre, associate editor, 1968; Muhammad Speaks, foreign editor, 1970; Your Black Educational Theatre, Inc., San Francisco, founder and director, 1971; University of California, Berkeley, lecturer, 1972; Mills College, lecturer, 1973,
Awards: Columbia University, writing grant, 1969; National Endowment for the Arts, grant, 1972; Your Black Educational Theatre, training grant, 1971-72.
Addresses: Home-California,

Selected writings


Somethin’ Proper, autobiography: The Life and Times of a North American African Poet, Blackbird Press, 1998.
In the Crazy House Called America, essays, Blackbird Press, 2002.
Wish I Could Tell You the Truth, essays, BBP, 2005
How to Recover from the Addiction to White Supremacy, BBP, 2007
Beyond Religion, toward Spirituality, essays on consciousness, BBP, 2007
Eldridge Cleaver: My friend the Devil, a memoir, BBP, 2009
The Wisdom of Plato Negro, parables/fables, BBP, 2012


Flowers for the Trashman (one-act), first produced by the drama department at San Francisco at San Francisco State College, 1965.
Come Next Summer, first produced in San Francisco at Black Arts/West Theatre, 1966.
The Trial, first produced in New York City at Afro-American Studio for Acting and Speech, 1970.
Take Care of Business, (musical version of Flowers for the Trashman) first produced in Fresno, California, at Your Black Educational Theatre, 1971.
Resurrection of the Dead, first produced in San Francisco at Your Black Educational Theatre, 1972.
Woman-Man’s Best Friend, (musical dance drama based on author’s book of same title), first produced in Oakland, California, at Mills College, 1973.
In the Name of Love, first produced in Oakland at Laney College Theatre, 1981.
One Day in the Life, 1996.
Sergeant Santa, 2002.

Poetry, Proverbs, and Lyrics

Sudan Rajuli Samia (poems), Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1967.
Black Dialectic (proverbs), Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1967.
As Marvin X, Fly to Allah: Poems, Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1969.
As Marvin X, The Son of Man, Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1969.
As Marvin X, Black Man Listen: Poems and Proverbs, Broadside Press, 1969.
Black Bird (parable), Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1972.
Woman-Man’s Best Friend, Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1973.
Selected Poems, Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1979.
(as Marvin X) Confession of a Wife Beater and Other Poems, Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1981. 
Liberation Poems for North American Africans, Al Kitab Sudan Publishing, 1982.
Love and War: Poems, Black Bird Press, 1995.
In the Land of My Daughters, 2005.


One Day in the Life (videodrama and soundtrack),2002.
The Kings and Queens of Black Consciousness (video documentary), 2002.
Love and War (poetry reading published on CD), 2001.



African American Review, Spring, 2001.


“Chicken Bones: A Journal,” (April 13, 2004).
“El Muhajir,” Biography Resource (April 16, 2004).
“Marvin X,” Biography Resource (April 16, 2004).
“Marvin X Calls for General Strike on Reparations,” (April 13, 2004).
—Chris Routledge
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Routledge, Chris. "Marvin X 1944–.Contemporary Black Biography. 17 Dec. 2012 a href="">>.

Marvin X
(b. 1944)


(b. 1944), poet, playwright, essayist, director, and lecturer.
Marvin Ellis Jackmon was born on 29 May 1944 in Fowler, California. He attended high school in Fresno and received a BA and MA inEnglish from San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University). The mid-1960s were formative years for Jackmon. He became involved in theater, founded his own press, published several plays and volumes of poetry, and became increasingly alienated because of racism and the Vietnam War. Under the influence of Elijah Muhammad, he became a Black Muslim and has published since then under the names El Muhajir and Marvin X. He has also used the name Nazzam al Fitnah Muhajir.
Marvin X and Ed Bullins founded the Black Arts/West Theatre in San Francisco in 1966, and several of his plays were staged during that period in San Francisco, Oakland, New York, and by local companies across the United States. His one-act play Flowers for the Trashman was staged in San Francisco in 1965 and was included in the anthology Black Fire (1968); a musical version, Take Care of Business, was produced in 1971. The play presents the confrontation between two cellmates in a jail—one a young African American college student, the other a middle-aged white man. Another one-act play, The Black Bird, a Black Muslim allegory in which a young man offers lessons in life awareness to two small girls, appeared in 1969 and was included in New Plays from the Black Theatre that year. Several other plays, including The Trial, Resurrection of the Dead, and In the Name of Love, have been successfully staged, and Marvin X has remained an important advocate of African American theater.
In 1967, Marvin X was convicted, during the Vietnam War, for refusing induction and fled to Canada; eventually he was arrested in Honduras, was returned to the United States, and was sentenced to five months in prison. In his statement on being sentenced—later reprinted in Black Scholar (1971) and also in Clyde Taylor's anthology, Vietnam and Black America (1973)—he argues 
Any judge, any jury, is guilty of insanity that would have the nerve to judge and convict and imprison a black man because he did not appear in a courtroom on a charge of refusing to commit crimes against humanity, crimes against his own brothers and sisters, the peace-loving people of Vietnam.
Marvin X founded El Kitab Sudan publishing house in 1967; several of his books of poetry and proverbs have been published there. Much of Marvin X's poetry is militant in its anger at American racism and injustice. For example, in “Did You Vote Nigger?” he uses rough dialect and directs his irony at African Americans who believe in the government but are actually its pawns. Many of the proverbs in The Son of Man (1969) express alienation from white America. However, many of Marvin X's proverbs and poems express more concern with what African Americans can do positively for themselves, without being paralyzed by hatred. He insists that the answer is to concentrate on establishing a racial identity and to “understand that art is celebration of Allah.” The poems in Fly to Allah, Black Man Listen (1969), and other volumes from his El Kitab Sudan press are characterized by their intensity and their message of racial unity under a spiritual banner. His archives were acquired by the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. He just completed a
three month national book tour, promoting his Wisdom of Plato Negro, parables/fables, Black Bird Press, Berkeley, 2012.

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