Writer, editor, mentor, researcher, and family historian, Dera Williams is the author of a collection of childhood memories, In My Backyard: Stories of Growing Up in Oakland. Born in Arkansas to college-educated parents, Dera was two years old in 1953 when her family left the segregated South during what is known as the Great Migration to join her father in California. She calls herself a “Cali girl,” an Oaklander specifically, but she is “proud of her Southern roots as she heeds the voices of her ancestors’ stories.”
She has researched her family’s heritage, tracing four generations of family connections: her mother’s paternal side was of mixed-race; her mother’s surname was Rowland, a prominent name in Union County Arkansas; her great-great-grandmother lived in “the home of James Rowland in Arkansas,” and Dera surmises that “she was brought to Arkansas as his slave.”
Retired from the Africana Center at Merritt College in Oakland, she now works with the African-American studies instructors “to incorporate family research as part of the history of the U.S. and the role African Americans had in that history.”
To pursue this family research, Dera recommends:
- The newly indexed Freedom Bureau Records.
- Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree by Tony Burroughs. Burroughs is considered the “father of black genealogy.”
- Afrigeneas, a website “devoted to African American genealogy.”
- The interactive guide African American Genealogy
- African American Genealogical Society of Northern California
- The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Read the review of this invaluable book about The Great Migration to find out more.
Who are the influential authors and books that have guided her in her life and deeply affected her?
- James Baldwin, who mesmerized her when she was a teenager.
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a breakthrough book that empowered her to pursue writing.
- Anne Rice, The Feast of All Saints, another kind of black history—the story of the Gens de Couleur (people of color) of Louisiana.
Read Dera’s writing in this recommended list of books in which her articles have appeared.
- “Of Sweet Tea and Quilts” from Our Black Mothers, Brave, Bold and Beautiful, about her mother and grandmother who have Alzheimer’s disease.
- “Quilting a Legacy” from the A Cup of Comfort for Women series. This piece is about the quilt her grandmother in Arkansas started when the first signs of Alzheimer’s appeared, and that her mother in Oakland finished.
- “In the Company of Women”(Epigraph) from Life’s Spices from Seasoned Sistahs: A Collection of Stories from Mature Women of Color, a two-page introduction.
- “Song for a Pretty Girl” and “Searching for Mama” included in the short story anthology Mother Wit: Stories of Mothers and Daughters, authored with Angelia Menchan.
- “Back to Harlem” from the anthology Where is My Tiara, a story about time-traveling back to the Harlem Renaissance.
- “Dear Michelle” in the anthology Go Tell Michelle by SUNY Press, written when the Obamas were new to the White House
Read Dera Williams’ complete interview with bookscover2cover to find out more about her writing, research, and work as program director at the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop.