Sherley Anne Williams was born in Bakersfield, California in 1944. The daughter of migrant farm workers, her family picked cotton and fruit in the San Joaquin Valley. When she was eight years old, her father died of tuberculosis and left the family destitute. While attending high school at Thomas Alva Edison High in Fresno, Williams realized she had a passion for language and writing. She graduated in 1962 and earned a Bachelor of Arts in English at California State University, Fresno in 1966. She later attended Fisk and Howard Universities, and was accepted at Brown University where she received her Master's degree in American Literature in 1972.
In 1973 Williams joined the University of California, San Diego as the first African-American woman hired in the Literature Department. She became a tenured professor in 1975 and would later serve as the chair of the department from 1977 to 1980. In addition to her 26-year teaching career at University of California, San Diego, Williams traveled to Ghana as a Senior Fulbright Lecturer in 1984 and had visiting professorships at the University of Southern California, Cornell University, Stanford University and Sweet Briar College. In 1987 Williams was named the Distinguished Professor of the Year by the UC San Diego Alumni Association.
Williams' many acclaimed writings include her first published work, a non-fiction book Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature (1972); her first collection of poetry, The Peacock Poems, published in 1975 which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award; her second collection, Some One Sweet Angel Chile, published in 1982 was adapted into an Emmy Award winning television performance. Her most celebrated work, Dessa Rose published in 1986, a historical novel about a female slave and the white plantation mistress who saves her from death, was a New York Times Notable Book and was also adapted into a screenplay. Her two children's books, Working Cotton (1992), based on her own childhood was a Caldecott Honor Book and won the Coretta Scott King Book Award, and Girls Together (1999), which was her last published book.
In addition to her published works, her full-length one-woman play, Letters from a New England Negro was performed at the National Black Theatre Festival in 1991 and the Chicago International Theatre Festival in 1992. Williams also served as the advisory editor for the Langston Hughes Review from 1982 to 1992, and Callaloo from 1984 to 1992.
In an interview with the publication Black Women Writers, Williams said, "Writing for me is really a process of saying, 'Here, read this.' It reinforces the fact that I'm in touch with somebody other than my own mind... I always wrote with the idea of being published not to just slip it away in a shoebox somewhere. I do believe that writing is about communication."
Sherley Anne Williams passed away July 6, 1999 and is survived by one son.
Poems - 16 in all
Sherley Anne Williams
I see my life
A Pavonine Truth
Say Hello to John
If he let us go now
Listen to the drum
The Peacock Song
Any Woman's Blues
This a Rap on Yo Do'
c/o Ambush c/o Mike
A Walk into the Soft Soft
Communion in a Small Room
For Ronald King Our Brother
Blues is Something to Think About
Lines between Seekonk and Fairhaven
This Is a Sad-Ass Poem for a Black Woman etc.