I love it when a book sends me Googling like mad. Once introduced, I had to look up Zebina Eastman, W. W. Danenhower and Opie Read because I had no idea who they were. Chicago writers, OK, but what had they done? And when did Carl Sandburg refer to the past as merely a "a bucket full of ashes?" All this only three pages into the introduction. I knew I was in for a treat.
Prairie Voices: A Literary History of Chicago from the Frontier to 1893 was written by Dr. Kenny J. Williams and hers was the first name I researched. When I read a book I like to know who is talking to me. To my chagrin, I found very little information about this accomplished scholar.
Kenny Jackson Williams was born in Kentucky in 1927. Her family eventually settled in Chicago where her father, Joseph Harrison Jackson, well-known to civil rights historians, served as minister of the Olivet Baptist church for 50 years. He would later hold the position of President of the Baptist Convention from 1941 to 1990 and was considered by some to, at one time, have been "more influential than [Martin Luther] King" and "America's champion of Negro rights." Dr. King and Dr. Jackson disagreed frequently, it seems.(see The Chicago Tribune, June 18, 1967, "The "Rev. Joseph Jackson: Chicago's Paradoxical Pastor")
Kenny's father believed in education; "a Mississippi farm boy, he had to teach himself arithmetic, spelling and reading while leading cows to pasture or doing other chores (Time Magazine)." One of the articles I read mentioned that Rev. Jackson always made a point of enrolling in school no matter where he was, and he passed on that love of learning to his daughter.
Kenny received her Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1959, where she had been greeted by surprise that she was both female (the “Kenny” was after “Kentucky,” where she’d been born) and black. Her first advisor said to her, “I’ve never taught colored before. How should I teach you?” Kenny replied, “Why not teach me the way you would teach anyone else?” Her advisor answered, “That's a wonderful idea.” It is typical of everything about Kenny that she ended the narrative, “Within a semester, we were fast friends.” ("In Memoriam: Dr. Kenny J. Williams" by Alan Charles Kors)
In later years, Dr. Williams was selected to received the MidAmerica Award from the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature (1986), was on the Executive Board of the American Literature Association, and in 1991 was appointed to the National Council on the Humanities by President George H. W. Bush.
Of all her accomplishments, however, I believe my favorite was the one she received in 1976. Kenny, while a professor at Northeastern University, was named the first Scholar In Residence for the Writing in Chicago Program, 1975-1976. At the time it was a new three-year program, sponsored by the Chicago Public Library, dedicated to studying Chicago's cultural and literary heritage. The article states, "Dr. Williams is nationally recognized as a leading authority on Chicago..."(Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1976)
So, you can imagine my disappointment! Here was one of the foremost authorities on Chicago literary history - my favorite topic - and I couldn't even find a decent picture of her - just the grainy photo from the 1976 Tribune. I was even more saddened to discover that the majority of her books are out of print. I have ordered several already and, if you share my interest, you can easily find clean, used copies. Sigh...
Dr. Williams passed away in 2003, but I, for one, am finding her to be a great teacher.
Books by Dr. Kenny L. Williams:
Chicago's Public Wits: A Chapter in the American Comic Spirit (1983 Louisiana State University Press)
A Storyteller and a City: Sherwood Anderson's Chicago(1988 Northern IL University Press)
Prairie voices: a literary history of Chicago from the frontier to 1893 (1980 Townsend Press)
They Also Spoke: An essay on Negro Literature in America, 1787-1930, (1970 Townsend Press)
Sources and recommended reading:
"Joseph H. Jackson: The Meaning of the Cross," Time Magazine, April 6, 1970
"PARTICIPATING IN THE STRUGGLE OF AMERICA" Annual Address By Joseph Jackson, September 10, 1964, National Baptist Convention