John A. Williams’s "Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light"

Over the summer John A. Williams passed away. Last week, I picked up his novel Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969), a work that resonates some 45 years after its initial publication because of the topics it tackles. Taking place in 1973, the narrative focuses. mainly on Eugene Browning, and African American middle-aged male who works for the Institute for Racial Justice (IRJ). At the beginning of the novel, we see Browning, a former political science professor, in his New York home with his wife and two daughters. The opening appears mundane; the narrator talks about the struggles between Eugene and his wife, Val, and the ongoing confrontations between Val and their daughter Nora. Amidst all of this, Eugene turns on the radio, about four pages in. The president gave a graduation speech, a charter flight to Europe broke down, the weather would be in the high 90’s, and “[h]igh school students were to demonstrate at the school where three days ago a white cop had shot and killed a Negro student” (4). Presented in this manner, the shooting appears to be another element of the news, nothing that will push the narrative forward; however, the shooting provides the main thrust of the novel.

Eugene’s desire to retaliate to the continued oppression causes him to contact the Mafia to assassinate the police officer. What ensues is a novel that explores the issues surrounding race in America immediately following the Civil Rights Movement and a novel that examines the varying forms of oppression that work to not only keep African Americans in subjugation but others as well. For me, this aspect becomes apparent with the introductions of the Don (Sicilian) and the assassin Itzhak Hod (Israeli). Both exists as immigrants to America and struggle to find a place.In Sicily, the Don grew up without much money or provisions, so him and his brother took to a life of crime to support their mother. The land would not provide any crops, and an education did not open up any opportunities. Thinking about his education, the Don reminisces that “[b]ooks were for the rich whom one saw only fleetingly being pulled about in the carriages, mostly to get papers so they could read news of the war. And books were also for the priests, so they could learn how to steal from the poor” (29). Instead of acting as a liberatory tool, books served to maintain control and oppression. This commentary on books and education runs counter to Eugene who received a doctorate and towed the line as a political science professor. However, that path did not lead him anywhere.

Along with the discussion of books, another contrast appears early on between Eugene and the Don. When we first see Eugene, he looks out of the window to see “the Harlem rooftops,” and “[t]he view as a gray, black, and brown checkerboard of roofs, broken now and again by sleek looking high-risers and soot-streaked buildings” (3). Eugene’s view encompasses a daunting cityscape that causes him to feel dejected and worn down. The Don’s view, however, provides him with a pleasant image of the city that conjures up memories of home in Sicily. From his apartment, “The Don looked down at the restful green expanse of Central Park, its trees and walks and roads and meadows, its Reservoir, its ponds” (25). In contrast to Eugene’s view, the Don glances out over a pastoral scene in the midst of an urban environment, one meant to uplift not tear down. Again, for all of his work to become a symbol of respectability, Eugene gets subjugated to second class citizenry while the Don, procuring his wealth and position through illegal means, rises to the top of the ladder.

Within the discussions of the Don and Eugene, Williams explores how the Don’s path to respectability was easier than Eugene’s because of his skin color. Even though people rejected him initially, the Don could assimilate because of his phenotype whereas Eugene encountered more roadblocks. Along with skin color, Williams comments on the capitalistic underpinnings that help to maintain the society and the subjugation of groups of individuals. Eugene reflects on the idea that driver’s licenses are only issued to help keep Detroit and big oil in business. As he tours the Hoover Dam, he ponders to himself about why people can’t work to get along:

Here, he thought, was tremendous proof that if men wished to do a thing they could do it, regardless of the cost in men or material. They could litearlly build a lake in the desert, throw up billions of tons of steel and concrete to keep it there and create electricity, but they couldn’t build any kind of bond between men and make it stick. (66)    

Eugene, the Don, and Itzhak all know about the capitalistic girders that support the system and keep some people higher than others. They all struggle to navigate these areas, working to carve a place for themselves in the world. For some, like the Don, fitting into the puzzle becomes semi-easy because of his skin color. For other, like Eugene, it becomes difficult.

There is so much more to talk about with this novel. For example, there needs to be a discussion about the novel’s focus of an African American teen dying at the hands of a police office. The thoughts here are just preliminary. If you have not read an John A. Williams yet, make sure you check him out. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below. For a review of the novel, see this 1969 review from The Harvard Crimson. To see some of the covers of the book and a typescript of the first page, visit the John A. Williams page at the University of Rochester Library.

Williams, John A. Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light. New York: Pocket Books, 1970. Print.

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