Throughout his fictional and non-fictional writing, Wideman has shown a deep involvement with the problems of African Americans. Some parts of his work, in particular the meditation Fatheralong, deal almost exclusively with what it means to be Black in America. It is my aim to demonstrate how Wideman himself experiences this, and how this experience is represented in his writings. I will touch upon some aspects of African American history, as some elements in that history are necessary to understand some of the situations Wideman has lived through and has written about.
Wideman, since his childhood, has been confronted with issues of race. As a small boy, he knew that there was "something" about him which could cause problems in any interaction with white compatriots. If he was around white Americans he had to stay cautious. His first memories of seeing a basketball are intertwined with memories of anxiety, caused by the possibly explosive mix of his skin colour and the presence of whites:
In a vacant lot across from my grandmother"s house [...] these white guys who worked in a building up there, were shooting. [...] So I sneaked across the street up to where they were and stood around till they were kind of looking at me, and one of them threw me the ball. When he handed me the ball, if I had been a white kid, it would have been clear why: he was inviting me to shoot. But because I was an African American kid, I didn"t know what the hell that meant. I had to pay real close attention to that guy. I had to check his body English out, I had to see these other guys, and I was just a very young kid, under ten years old. I had to survey that entire situation. Were they going to put me in some kind of trick? Were they going to humiliate me? Was this a way of saying "yes, kid, come on and join the game"? What did it mean?(1)
Already at an early age, Wideman was confronted with economic deprivation, one of the most important consequences of being an African American. During the first ten years of his life(2), Wideman resided in Homewood, a predominantly black ghettoish community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This Homewood has left a profound impression on Wideman, and it is the setting in many of his writings. His attitude towards Homewood is ambiguous. On the one hand, he celebrates the "old" Homewood and its locals. On the other hand, he often takes the more recent and degenerated Homewood to epitomize a general decline in the overall situation of African Americans. When he was a young boy, however, several elements must have made it clear to him that Homewood "meant bad news." He heard his parents and family tell stories about crime, violence and other blatant symptoms of poverty. Moreover, his father was constantly working in an attempt to move up-scale(3), and his mother forbade him to venture into certain parts of the neighbourhood.
When his family had raised enough money, they moved to Shadyside, an upper-middle-class and predominantly white neighbourhood. Wideman remained living there until he went away to study in Philadelphia. Young Wideman soon must have distinguished between the extremities of white-rich-good and black-poor-bad. As his surroundings were so polarized, he decided that, if he was to have his way, he was going to belong to the first group. Unlike some of the ghetto kids around him (among which his own brother), he was willing and able to follow the long road to success. Young Wideman, a skilled basketball player, worked hard at Shadyside"s Peabody High School, and things seemed to turn out rather well for him.
Yet, Wideman was not white, and he was young in that difficult era preceding the liberating sixties, which were marked by the fruition of the Civil Rights Movement and the ascent of influential figures as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X(4). In the fifties, American society was very polarized when it came to racial issues. In the North, unofficial "de facto" segregation was common practice while the South had been able to maintain a situation of officially enforced "de iure" apartheid(5). In May 1954, with the highly influential Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case, Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled the separate-but-equal doctrine, itself a consequence of the Plessy versus Ferguson case from 1896, to be unjust. As a consequence, the "de iure" segregation in the South could no longer be sustained, and Blacks all over the US started fighting for their rights. The process thus started was not an easy one. The customs and beliefs of a nation do not change overnight, even if there is a law compelling that nation to do so.
Less than a hundred years earlier, African Americans were hardly considered human. Slavery partly originated from and partly strengthened "the sincere and passionate belief that somewhere between men and cattle, God created a tertium quid, and called it a Negro."(6) The abolition of slavery contained within the Thirteenth Amendment, together with other official rulings issued in the wake of the Civil War (1861-1865), brought about some improvements in the situation of African Americans.(7)
During the years of Reconstruction, roughly dated between 1865 and 1877, great efforts were made to rebuild the South, that had become a wasteland because of the Civil War. Many plantations had long been left untended by their "masters", who had fled their estates in fear of Northern troops. Others had been destroyed in battle, or were burnt down by the Union Troops as a form of summary justice. In March 1867, US congress passed the Reconstruction Act. This act furnished a set of rules opposing existing racial restrictions in the South. More importantly, it normalized and endowed more funds to the "Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands", in popular speech known as "the Freedmen"s Bureau". The Freedmen"s Bureau had been established in 1865 and remained operative until 1870. Taking the dictum "forty acres and a mule" as their starting point, it strove to redistribute former plantation grounds in parcelled lots ("forty acres") to the freed slaves. The Bureau also organized the transport of thousands of Northerners southwards, in an attempt to "set up schools, establish cooperatives, and train the newly freed slaves in the rituals of citizenship."(8) These combined efforts eventually led to the instigation of four thousand schools. Sadly enough, the enthusiastic initial endeavours were not followed up with.
Freedom had been for two centuries the unattainable goal of an entire people. W.E.B. Du Bois observed in 1903: "Few men ever worshipped Freedom with half such unquestioning faith as did the American Negro for two centuries."(9) Yet, after the first euphoria had vanished, African Americans found themselves lost. "In a few hours the great questions with which the Anglo-Saxon race had been grappling for centuries had been thrown upon these people to be solved."(10) Freedom eventually turned into disappointment as African Americans were forced to realize that, though they were US citizens, they were by no means to have equal rights as their white compatriots. It is revealing in this respect to note that many white Americans who had been actively engaged in the abolition of slavery never intended Blacks to have equal status as whites. The disillusionment among Blacks was such that "the last part of the nineteenth century and the first few years of the twentieth century became known in African American history as the "Decades of Disappointment.""(11)
Especially in the South, it was soon felt that the abolition of slavery did not necessarily bring about an improvement of the socio-economic situation of African Americans. There, after the withdrawal of Unionist troops in 1876, racial segregation had flared up and "become public policy by 1900"(12). The Freedman"s Bureau had given rise to indignation among many white Southerners, as "the nature of its other activities and the character of its personnel prejudiced the Bureau in favor of the black litigants, and led without doubt to much injustice and annoyance."(13) Therefore, after the Bureau had been dismantled in 1870, whites took back what they thought theirs with a vengeance. Laws, segregating almost every area of life, were issued. In addition to these so-called Jim Crow-laws(14), white vigilante groups, among which the Ku Klux Klan (founded in 1866), sprung up and inaugurated an era of terror and barbarism. The last sixteen years of the twentieth century saw 2500 lynchings, the victims of which were mainly Southern African Americans. These lynchings often were much harsher than a "mere" hanging. Torture and burning alive were common practices, "sometimes advertised in advance", attracting "large crowds of white men, women and children."(15) Moreover, the plantation system was far from extinct, as "postwar industrial expansion enabled it to be refigured as sharecropping and tenant farming."(16)
In the entire US, African Americans were kept from the ballot. The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) stipulated that "[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude."(17) In some states—Louisiana for example—African Americans "had enough voting strength to elect a governor."(18) Yet, the federal government never was at pains to enforce the implementation of the Fifteenth Amendment. Hence, several states and counties denied African Americans the right to vote. In their defense, they argued that the widespread illiteracy and poverty among African Americans made them unfit to vote.
Though the ideal of book-learning had seized many African Americans upon the abolition of slavery, education remained a particularly weak point. Any new schooling system in the South had to count with a considerable portion of 4 million freed slaves, who mostly lacked any form of previous education. The 4000 schools (often one-room shanties with one teacher) made possible by the Freedmen"s bureau were hardly sufficient to supply in this massive demand. Both young and old showed a keen desire to learn reading. Booker T. Washington observed: "In every part of the South, during the Reconstruction period, schools, both day and night, were filled to overflowing with people of all ages and conditions, some being as far along in age as sixty and seventy years."(19) Contradictorily, many young African Americans were not allowed by their parents either to study at all, or to pursue higher education by enrolling in one of the new "Negro-Colleges"(20), as it began to be clearly felt among Blacks that education did not prepare for reality, a reality in which few Blacks escaped a life of menial labour. Moreover, as W.E.B. Du Bois observed, there began to grow some resentment against (higher) education, for it allegedly spoiled youths and made them unhappy: ""John," she said, "does it make every one unhappy when they study and learn lots of things?" // He paused and smiled. "I am afraid it does," he said. // "And, John, are you glad you studied?" // "Yes," came the answer, slowly but positively."(21) For Du Bois, however, this unhappiness was a direct consequence of the fact that education incited a higher awareness of the injustices done to African Americans, and this awareness, though disheartening, was a necessary means of striving successfully towards a more humane society.
In addition to the fact that working-class Blacks ventured to doubt the necessity of education, there was discussion among influential African American intellectuals on which course education should take. Booker T. Washington, a compromise figure between America"s black and white populations, promoted a form of education for African Americans based on craftsmanship, basic literacy and religious devotion, with only minor excursions into the realms of "higher education". He spoke on the absurdity of African Americans pursuing book learning various times, especially since, in his eyes, many blacks were not familiar with some of the most basic practical aspects of life to begin with. He observed for instance: "While they could locate the Desert of Sahara or the capital of China on an artificial globe, I found out that the girls could not locate the proper places for the knives and forks on an actual dinner-table, or the places on which the bread and meat should be set."(22)
W.E.B. Du Bois, on the other hand, pleaded for the academic training of competent African Americans. Unlike Booker T. Washington, whom Du Bois criticized harshly(23), he deemed any progress of the United States impossible if the African American community was not to have part in the formation of higher culture:
The function of the Negro college, then, is clear: it must maintain the standards of popular education, it must seek the social regeneration of the Negro, and it must help in the solution of problems of race contact and cooperation. And finally, beyond all this, it must develop men. [...] Herein the longing of black men must have respect: the rich and bitter depth of their experience, the unknown treasures of their inner life, the strange rendings of nature they have seen, may give the world new points of view and make their loving, living, and doing precious to all human hearts. And to themselves in these the days that try their souls, the chance to soar in the dim blue air above the smoke is to their finer spirits boon and guerdon for what they lose on earth by being black.(24)
Although these discussions were taking place around the turn of the twentieth century, they remained stale matter. Literacy did increase in the nineteenth century, in part due to the issuing of compulsory school attendance laws in several states. These laws, however, were mainly an attempt to keep children "out of unhealthy tenement housing, off the streets, out of factories, and away from gangs."(25) In addition, some facets of the educational system stifled the rise of its level and discouraged college attendance. Around 1900, as "public school teaching was not considered a profession," teachers earned less than unskilled workers.(26) Hence, teaching was not an attractive profession, and very few higher educated Americans considered it as a career option. This, in turn, procured the fact that the level of education remained very low, its staff often consisting of men and women who had not completed more than high school themselves. This situation changed for the better after states enforced compulsory school attendance laws and issued minimum standards for teaching licenses.
In the first half of the twentieth century, stress came to rest on vocational training. The 1890 Morrill Act, for example, endowed lands to "Black public colleges that emphasized manual and industrial education."(27) In 1917 still, the federal government "offered financial support to any public secondary school that emphasized vocational education."(28) College remained exotic to many African Americans, as well as to many white Americans. "Even in 1940, less than two out of ten college-age people attended institutions of higher learning."(29) In addition, the persistent segregation of the schooling system meant that the largest funds and the best trained teachers usually went to white schools, with the logical detrimental effects for the level of education in black schools. Not until 1969, when the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of all public schools and made way for measures to enforce integration, was this education at two speeds put to an end. In the 1950s, the Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower (in office from 1953 to 1961), still had "publicly supported segregation."(30)
In this light, we are better able to understand why Wideman, at Peabody High during the 1950s, felt some form of gratitude. His parents worked hard for his education, and he was studying at a white school, a privilege a lot of his fellow African Americans were not granted. Moreover, he had the personal drive for success and the talents to thrive at Peabody. This is linked to the aforementioned fact that, according to Wideman, American society could be divided into two extremities: Homewood/black/poor versus Shadyside/white/rich: "Just two choices as far as I could tell: either/or. Rich or poor. White or black. Win or lose. I figured which side I wanted to be on when the Saints came marching in."(31)
Wideman decided to model his life after the Anglo-Saxon American example, while at the same time he chose to take on an attitude of modesty. He interiorized a personally composed set of rules with the aim of achieving as much as American society would allow a black to achieve. One of those unwritten rules concerned the laying down of his African American heritage. In 1985, Wideman articulated the feeling that his admittance into the white world of Shadyside and Peabody High was conditional: he had to actively repudiate the ethnic group he belonged to. He could enter only if he left his own world on the threshold: "When my family moved to Shadyside so I could attend "better" schools and we were one of only three or four black families in the neighborhood, I learned to laugh with the white guys when we hid in a stairwell outside Liberty School gym and passed around a "nigarette." I hated it when a buddy took a greedy, wet puff, "nigger-lipping" a butt before he passed it on to me. Speaking out, identifying myself with the group being slurred by these expressions, was impossible."(32)
Although "speaking out," leaving behind his African American heritage, was hard for Wideman, he knew at the same time the assimilation of the language and customs of the white population would be a powerful weapon in his personal battle against racial discrimination:
One day as we stared at the windowload of fanciful sweets, I said to Scott [Scott Payne, a classmate of Wideman at Peabody High] in my best stuck-up, siddity white folks" voice, "The prices here are exorbitant," emphasizing the final exotic word, precisely chopping it into four syllables, the orotund "or" deep in my throat the way I"d heard somebody somewhere say it. A nicely dressed white lady [...] heard me say "exorbitant" and did a wide-eyed double take. If I"d yelled an obscenity at her, she couldn"t have looked more shocked, outraged. She regarded her companion, another middle-aged, coifed-for-shopping matron, and the two of them wagged their heads in dismay. [...] Not until years later did I begin to guess at the nature of my offense. I'd stolen a piece of their language. Not only was it in my possession, I also had the nerve to flaunt it in a public place, in their righteous faces. To them a colored kid with a big word instead of a watermelon in his mouth wasn't even funny. I was peeking under their clothes, maybe even shouting that they, like the emperor, weren't wearing any.(33)
Wideman himself saw this duality as "a means to create sense in a world that insistently denied me."(34) Yet, it seemed he mainly cloaked himself in irreproachable humility, so as not to provoke anyone overtly. At Peabody High, this humility crystallized in a general avoiding of contact with his white classmates. Betsy Ward, a former classmate of Wideman, referred to this: "When class breaks came, John would seldom walk to the next class with the white students. Instead, he would go off to talk to the other Negroes in the corridor. Then just as the bell rang signaling the start of the next class, he'd slip into his seat".(35)
At the University of Pennsylvania, Wideman changed. He gradually estranged from his poor African American background while at the same time he simultaneously integrated in and identified himself with the academic life of his Ivy League college. In Philadelphia he underwent considerable psychological turmoil directly linked to his being a black American. These experiences and the abstractions Wideman eventually drew from them, form, to a large extent, the substance of his later literary work.
Although Wideman recently spoke on the insufficiency of the concept, one could say he experienced a bifurcation of personalities, corresponding to W. E. B. Du Bois" conception of a "double consciousness": "One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."(36) At the university, his demeanour of brilliant student, apt athlete and tall, handsome and courteous young man earned him the epithet "the amazing John Wideman". At home, he did his best to prove he was still "Spanky Wideman", ghetto boy, sly "hoopsman" and infatuating lady-killer, who had experienced some "brushes with the law."(37)
Wideman"s emotional progress, especially in relation to this dichotomy, can be illustrated by viewing the way the relation to his family in Pittsburgh evolved. The first weeks at Penn presented Wideman with distress, probably caused by the fact that he was one of about ten African Americans among "the seventeen hundred men and women who entered the University of Pennsylvania as freshmen in 1959"(38). Wideman missed the environment in which he grew up. In a 1998 interview, he said he thought about leaving college after being there for only five minutes. Six weeks later, a greenish freshman still, he wanted to leave Penn so badly he got on a bus to Pittsburgh, but he was pulled off by his basketball coach, Dick Harter. Wideman interpreted this as a way of telling him "that basketball needed me."(39) For Wideman, basketball was a safety zone: "[...] a sanctuary; I had no doubt I was wanted there, that I had a place there. There was no doubt I could hold my own there."(40) Hence, the decision to stay was easily made.
This anecdote not only demonstrates Wideman"s love of basketball, but also, in his attempt to flee the university, the ongoing inner turmoil during his freshman year. His first reaction to the idyllic life on campus seems to have been one of resistance. He contested the demand of relinquishing his core. That is also shown by Wideman"s excursions into the Philadelphia ghettos, where he went looking for the feel of home: "Darryl [an African American friend of Wideman at Penn] and I would ride buses across Philly searching for places like home. Like the corner of Frankstown and Bruston in Homewood. A pool room, barbershop, rib joint, record store strip with bloods in peacock colors strolling up and down and hanging out on the corner."(41)
Gradually though, he integrated himself into the predominantly white world of higher learning at Penn. By the end of his studies there he appeared to have found a more natural way of behaving around his white fellow students. His inner turmoil had turned into a form of self-confidence. Moreover, he claimed that he had hardly experienced any aberrant treatment solely on the basis of his skin color:
I've never been confronted with any problems as far as race prejudice goes. I can't say I'm completely unconscious of the problem, because, to me, being Negro is only a physical fact. Being Negro has actually provided me with some advantages. If I'm the only Negro in my discussion group, and they want to find out a few things, I automatically have a certain focus, and I might command the floor sooner than others, just because I'm different in a sense [...] I used to feel relaxed with Negroes, but now I feel the same with whites. [...] So, the problem is not my own problem, not something I feel like I have to cope with or resolve.(42)
This fairly optimistic view is especially remarkable seeing the fact that Wideman spoke these words in 1963. American society was still highly polarized. African Americans all over the country were confronted daily with overt signs of hostility and the Civil Rights Movement had only recently begun trying to change this situation. Wideman came to realize that he was still stamped as an African American when he saw the press releases on his being awarded with the Rhodes Scholarship. Although 32 scholarships had been granted each year to American students since 1904, and although Cecil J. Rhodes had "specifically directed that no candidate for a Scholarship should be qualified or disqualified on account of race or religious opinions,"(43) Wideman was only the second African American to be awarded with the scholarship. Alain Locke, author of the Harlem renaissance manifesto "The New Negro", had been the first to receive the scholarship in 1907. It stung Wideman that the attention in the press was directed to this fact rather than to the accomplishments that had earned him the scholarship. He was not presented as the excellent student and athlete he was, but was pictured as an African American, a black wonderboy who was able to gain the scholarship almost despite the fact of his being black. Wideman realized the college environment had deceived him:
The danger of the college experience is that it tends to make one forget. After playing ball, socializing, living with men as equals during four years, it is natural to project this ideal situation as the rule not the exception [...] When I was elected a Rhodes Scholar, I was forcefully reminded of some cold hard facts. All the news releases seemed directed to the fact that a Negro had won a Rhodes Scholarship. Not John Wideman, Penn student and basketball player, but John Wideman, Negro and representative of his race.(44)
Moreover, Wideman"s statement about him not having been confronted with problems as far as race prejudice goes was somewhat stout-hearted. One stronghold of white America he didn"t dare to publicly enter concerned girls. In high school, he was more aloof to the white girls in his class than to white boys. "Once when we were working on a play together", testifies his former class-mate Betsy Ward, "he said he wouldn't want to be seen on the street alone with a white girl. Another time when we accidentally met on the street, he said, 'Let"s go somewhere else to talk.""(45)
At the University of Pennsylvania, he went out of his way to conceal the fact that he was dating a white Virginian girl and law-student at Penn, Judith Ann Goldman, who was later to become his wife. Not until 1990 did Wideman admit that Judith had been his girlfriend all through college. In a 1963 interview for Life magazine, he even had his picture taken with African American Barbara Summers, and made it known she was his girlfriend. In the interview, Wideman spoke on this matter: "I've often wondered if things would've gone along the same way if I'd had a white girlfriend on campus. There is a fine line there, a line that is a kind of a threat, something that even in the most liberal circles is not talked about, and that is the idea of sex. The actual fact of a Negro-white relationship--an interracial or interreligious marriage--is always the last thing to go. Because then there is complete equality, and there is nothing that would separate the races anymore."(46)
Wideman"s observation is not destitute of a sense of reality. During the public debate on whether or not to abolish "de iure" segregation in the South, for example, the state Senator of Mississippi, Walter Givhan "claimed the real purpose of the NAACP's campaign to end school desegregation was "to open the bedroom doors of our white women to Negro men.""(47) Some white Americans were even willing to go further than to utter crude statements. In 1954, Emmett Till, a 14-year old African American boy from Chicago, was cruelly tortured, mutilated and killed because he winked at a white Mississippian"s spouse. In the subsequent mock-trial, the two alleged assassins were acquitted. The nationwide storm of social indignation that followed was fierce to such an extent that it is said to be one of the important catalysts of the ensuing processes towards social equalization of African and Anglo-Saxon Americans. Wideman had the same age as Emmett Till, and he has referred to this case and the wider issue of interracial marriage in his literary work.
In Fatheralong (1994), he describes how, as a kid, he never accepted his grandfather"s invitation to spend part of the summer in Greenwood, South Carolina, where Harry Wideman was born and raised:
I couldn"t imagine one good reason for traveling south in those days and plenty for staying put in Pittsburgh. Not that Pittsburgh summers were great, some of the longest days I"ve ever suffered through occurred during my childhood summers in Pittsburgh. No school, few friends, endless hours to fill, and no ideas or energy or help to fill them. On the other hand, I didn"t feature packing off to a place they lynched black boys like Emmett Till for whistling at white women, where you had to move off the sidewalk for crackers to pass, where everybody black was crusty black, and ate watermelon and talked funny.(48)
In Two Cities Emmett Till returns as a vision of the suffering of African Americans, with the underlying message that society always waits to act until the evil has been done. In Philadelphia Fire, Wideman enters into a postmodern dialogue with Shakespeare"s The Tempest and metaphorically links Caliban on the island to the African in America. In Caliban"s desire for Miranda is revealed more than one aspect of what African Americans had to cope with. Blacks were "run through the copy machine". Their identity was stolen, and never replaced with a new one. Civilized Blacks served as an example of the goodness and righteousness of the white colonizer, but they were never accepted as full members of that civilization. As soon as African Americans wanted to get involved in an amorous relationship with white women, doors were abruptly closed:
She offered the word. Caliban desired flesh. She descended upon him like the New England schoolmarms with their McGuffey"s Readers, the college kids with books and ballots. Caliban, witches" whelp that he was, had a better idea. Her need, his seed joined. An island full of Calibans. He didn"t wish to be run through her copy machine. Her print of goodness stamping out his shape, his gabble translated out of existence. No thanks, ma"am. But I will try some dat poontang. Some that ooh la la, oui, oui goodness next to your pee-pee. Which suggestion she couldn"t abide. Could not relexify into respectability. He asked, in short, for everything."(49)
In his historical novel The Cattle Killing (1996), set in 1793, Wideman brings a racially mixed couple to front, and he dwells shortly on the sheer impossibility of publicly appearing as a couple, as well as on the strange paradox of being a "free man of color" in eighteenth century United States:
White woman and black man setting up in a household together as precarious in this country then as it remains today. So she advertised herself as Mrs. Stubbs, an English gentlewoman, relic of Mr. George Stubbs, traveling with her husband"s trusted slave, Liam. [...] It"s in Mrs. Stubbs" name, as her servants, that we sell this timber. The price we will receive is double at least what would be paid to two free men of color. England, these United States, the Indies — wherever they enslave us, the odd arithmetic bleeds us. When by halves the worth of our labor is steadily diminished till it is of no value at all to us, then we who claim to be free are rendered as powerless as our brethren in chains. I call the whites" attitudes toward us madness. But if truth be told, there is policy in the madness. Policy. Evil, cunning arithmetic.(50)
Yet, although Wideman does show a sensitivity towards racial issues in his later works , at the time he studied at the University of Pennsylvania, he seems to have done anything in his power to mould an image of himself that was as close to "the man", the white American, as possible. A gradual repression of his background, foreshadowed slightly at Peabody High, but becoming significant only at the University of Pennsylvania, began setting up a mantrap for Wideman. In the autobiographical Brothers and Keepers, he alludes to the fact that, at the University of Pennsylvania (both as a student and a staff member) he willingly cut off ties with his family: "To succeed in the man"s world you must become like the man and the man sure didn"t claim no bunch of nigger relatives in Pittsburgh."(51)
Throughout this episode, his family was reduced to function as a perverted mirror in which he could scrutinize his progress: "One measure of my success was the distance I"d put between us. Coming home was a kind of bragging, like the suntans people bring back from Hawaii in the middle of winter. It"s sure fucked up around here, ain"t it? [...] I needed home to reassure myself of how far I"d come."(52) His parents went so far as to corroborate with him. In Brothers and Keepers, Wideman"s brother Robby relates how he was forced to clean his room when John was expected for a visit: ""John"s coming home this weekend. Clean up your room." Robby remembers being forced to get a haircut on the occasion of one of my visits. Honor thy brother. Get your hair cut, your room rid up, and put on clean clothes. He"ll be here with his family and I don"t want the house looking like a pigpen."(53)
Wideman"s yearning to escape the poor condition of his childhood surroundings thus drove him into the arms of flight. He undertook a "cultural emigration", which influenced even his view on writing as a beginning author. In 1986, looking back on the genesis of his authorship, he said in an interview:
I thought writing was something connected to Europe. I didn't want to be a good American writer, let alone a black writer. I wanted to be world class, man, and to be world class you had to be Thomas Mann and you had to be Marcel Proust and you had to walk along the Champs Elysees and you had to know about bullfights. Those were the kinds of things which were stirring around in my head. I wanted to go where the action was, and going to Europe was a very conscious attempt to become part of that tradition.(54)
His spiritual flight turned into physical separation, when he went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar in 1963, to Greece on his honeymoon in 1965 and to Laramie, Wyoming to teach in 1973. Yet, as I discussed earlier, three epiphanies changed Wideman"s outlook on life. Firstly, there was his reading into African American literature (later expanding to include Caribbean and African literature), which started in the late sixties. In 1973, there was the gathering of his family over his grandmother"s funeral. In 1975 finally, he had to cope with the imprisonment of his brother. These experiences and the accompanying feelings of regret crystallized in a new literary voice. The emphasis in Wideman"s literary output shifted from psychological analysis towards a socially concerned and often bitter exploration of the United States, especially its African American and its poorer parts.
In his 1994 autobiographical "meditation" Fatheralong, Wideman metaphorized his own sense of loss and the general malaise in African American society into a vision of sons seeking their lost fathers. Departing from the observation that each black man burdens his son at birth with the "stigma of race"(55), Wideman asks if the African American father is in a way guilty, stamped with indelible blemish, for not having been able to procure for his son, among other things, "full, unquestioned, unconditional citizenship"(56). This, according to Wideman, causes inner turmoil for the African American son. On the one hand, he is stuck with his second-rate citizenship. On the other hand, he has his father, who deserves both the respect any father deserves and the scorn for not having been able to prevent this branding with the stigma of race. The situation leads to the feeling that the father stands between an African American and unquestioned public life. It is therefore reasonable to conclude, as Wideman does, that the paradigm of race is effective in troubling father-son relationships. The word "father" throughout all this could be seen as an actual person —the biological father— but can just as well be taken to signify the very essence of race and maybe most importantly, the charged history African Americans have shared. Fatheralong is, in this respect, in part a quest for the baring of a "common ground", a sense of history all African Americans would share.
The alienation Wideman discerns between fathers and sons can take several shapes. The first way consists of running away from one"s father and orphaning oneself. Wideman directs the attention towards Richard Wright"s autobiography Black Boy, in which the latter describes his voyage from Mississippi to the North. Wideman explains this flight as the result of a process including both Wright"s father and the oppressive culture of the white South. Wright, in search of a real father, and in extension of an acceptable existence as an African American, comes to believe his own servile and uncultured father, a product of the white South, almost a specter. To find out what his father is really like, he leaves the oppressive milieu of the South that has smothered his father"s true nature. He goes North, and there initiates a new beginning. The circle of life has made yet another turn: "The black boy flees to the North, proclaims himself an orphan. As author, he steals the Promethean fire, assumes the role of father, creates a world and its inhabitants."(57)
In describing a second shape that running away from the black father can take, Wideman evokes his own life. He mentions a flight that is not as much physical as it is mental: the unknowable black father is replaced by a white one. According to that scenario, the son does not so much orphan himself as he gives himself up for adoption by a white father. This adoption is conditional, though. I have mentioned the fact that Wideman, in his youth, sometimes had the feeling he had to renege his ethnicity in order to be accepted into the white worlds he entered. Wideman paraphrases this in Fatheralong. He draws a bead on the term integration, which he sees as the institionalized form of this "adoption":
Integration can be interpreted as a scheme for legitimizing a form of conditional adoption. The black orphan, who"s never really allowed to forget he is an orphan, is permitted to apply for conditional membership in the white family. With emphasis on the conditional clause. Because the main condition is that all power to determine the kind and quality of inclusion rests in the hands of the adoptive white family.(58)
Integration is indeed too often viewed as a magic concept, holding within it the tantalizing possibility of a final compromise. What it really implies, however, is a form of one-way traffic: the weaker socio-economic classes are supposed to adapt to the customs and values of the leading classes. In other words, African Americans are expected to live their lives according to a blueprint that America"s white population furnishes. They are expected to be eagerly awaiting adaptation, and yet, they do not get anything out of it: they remain travelers in second class. It makes one think back to Europe"s colonial history, when brazen Europeans left for far-away continents to bring "savages" the "gift of civilization", while they were in fact seeking personal gain. The well known trope of the European colonizer, exploring new worlds with a bible in one hand and a sword in the other, comes into place. African American poets in the sixties tended to react against this matter-of-factness with which whites had thought themselves justified in civilizing the rest of the world throughout history. In the vogue of the New Black Poetry(59), Don L. Lee observes in his poem "The Primitive": "taken from the / shores of Mother Africa: / the savages they thought / we were— / they being the real savages. / to save us. (from what?) / our happiness, our love, each other? / their bible for / our land. (introduction to economics) / christianized us. / raped our minds with: / T.V. & straight hair, / [...] / used cars & used homes, / reefers & napalm, / european history & promises. / Those alien concepts / of whi-teness, / the being of what / is not."(60)
Moreover, Wideman has come to criticize one aspect in particular of the detrimental "fatherhood" of white Americans over their black compatriots. He has spoken on the fact that many African Americans, seeking to integrate themselves in Anglo-Saxon America and to adapt "white" values, were taken advantage of in a cruel way. Striving to earn an unabridged citizenship, a good many African Americans in the twentieth century paid due respect to American symbols of nationality. Wideman recalls how his father "made us stand when "The Star-Spangled Banner" played on the radio".(61) Young male blacks often were willing to go further out of their way to prove their loyalty to "Uncle Sam". Many among them entered the US Army to fight in the Second World War, the Korean War or the Vietnam War. Wideman has mused at the nefariousness of the US in this respect:
One way of visualizing African-American peoples" relationship to America, I think, is a story of unrequited love. We came here like all the other immigrants. We were fascinated by the land and wanted to make a home, to raise families. [...] But that love has never been fully answered or accepted. "Yes, it's nice that you love us. Go off and fight for us and do this for us." Then the old finger of admonition comes up and it's touch and go.(62)
Two Cities (1998) has, as one of its protagonists, Martin Mallory who is a World War II veteran. By means of a flash-back(63), an incident during Mallory"s stay as a soldier in Italy is recounted. Mallory is taken in tow by Gus, a fellow soldier, who has arranged a sexual encounter with Gina and Francesca, two Italian girls. During the night, shots are fired at the party of four. During flight, Gus is killed and Mallory is shot in the leg. The narrative never makes clear who was responsible for the attack, although Mallory implies that soldiers from his own platoon were after his life ("Somehow he hobbles back and crawls back to the road where his gang is working and his homeboys truck him to base and blame a sneaky fucking Nazi sniper. Neat enough lie to get everybody off the hook he tells John Africa."(64))
The narrative reveals the fact that blacks were stamped second-class just the same across the Atlantic, in that, for example, they were forced to do nothing but menial labour: "[...] digging fucking ditches in the hot sun. [...] They say we widening the road. For what. For who. You know why they got us out there digging holes. Don"t want niggers wit rifles in their hands."(65) Furthermore, through some implicit and explicit elements in the text, a gripping comparison is evoked between the mobilization of African Americans to war and slavery. For example, Mallory"s flight after being shot in the leg is associated with the flight of slaves affixed to a leg-lock: "When he rights himself he remembers runaway slaves he"d heard about and keeps to the water for painful miles, teeth chattering, wound a hot iron branding his leg"(66). The mention of "slaves" generates, within the reader, the interpretation of an entire gamma of other similarities. Not only does Mallory"s flight resemble that of a slave, just so do the circumstances of his labour remind those of slaves (they are used for "secondary" chores). The fact that many African Americans, as well as other Americans, were shipped across the Atlantic to die there is also food for thought.(67)
The turbulent sixties made some amends for centuries of exploitation and degradation. Yet, African Americans today, including Wideman, often have the feeling they were merely appeased with possibilities of financial gain while they were still kept from positions that could really make a difference. blacks were barred from the plain of decision-making. Wideman"s bitterness is particularly trenchant when he depicts an utterly sarcastic scene in Fatheralong, implying that the white American"s strongest impulse is his struggle to remain in power:
I remember an image. [...] A group of men, white men, bobbed along in a lifeboat stranded in the middle of the ocean. They are caricatures, really. Hog-sleek, middle-aged, sunburned CEO types. [...] They crowded each other in the tiny rubber raft, yet the raft had once contained tons of booty from a sinking ship they"d destroyed, pillaged and deserted. In order to survive in the lifeboat, the men had been forced to jettison their misbegotten hoard. They were arguing now about what should go next. The choice was either tossing out their women and children or giving up the illusion they were still in control. Everything else had been fed to the sharks. [...] It had been difficult to give up a lifetime of stolen goodies, it hurt, they suffered. The intoxication of playing God, the drug of power, the only item, besides their families, they couldn"t bring themselves to surrender, but something had to go to buy a little more time. They voted and decided the illusion of being in charge worth whatever it cost. Women and children overboard.
Plop. Plop. Plop. Not without regret, but the choice is clear. We"ll give you anything you want, everything we"ve denied you when you were our slaves. Here. Take this Volvo. Or this Mercedes. A house on the hill. A yacht. A European vacation. Stocks. Bonds. No, no. Not the old-fashioned kind. Here. These pieces of paper that let you sit on your behind and accumulate fabulous wealth. Take them. Take everything. Just let us alone while we play boss, king, master of the universe.(68)
From this denigrating view on white Americans, it is but a small step towards the next shape Wideman distinguishes in the search for the black father. The third possibility to go about that search is "killing the oppressive white one"(69). Wideman refers to Malcolm X, who indeed disseminated unyielding statements about the "white devils, whose blood lightened his complexion."(70) As a foremost leader of the Black Muslims, Malcolm X adhered to the Muslim"s Black Nationalist agenda, "in which African Americans would undertake their own economic, moral, social, religious, and political regeneration as a "nation within a nation" in America."(71). In his canonized speech "The Ballot or the Bullet", Malcolm X fiercely attacks white America, and he calls upon his "brothers and sisters" to set up businesses of their own. "Anytime you have to rely on your enemy for a job, you"re in bad shape. He is your enemy, you wouldn"t be in this country if some enemy hadn"t kidnapped you and brought you here."(72)
Finally, Wideman specifies an exception to the rule, stating that the life of African American sons can be metaphorized as a search for fathers. He sees youth gangs in the street as groupings of sons who deny the need for a father. They bond with nobody but each other in gang families. They "don"t need anyone telling them who they are or what to do because they manufacture and enforce their own rules, step into the vacuum and become their own fathers and mothers, creating a world where childhood has disappeared, where the idea of fathers and sons is anachronistic, redundant."(73)
In Wideman"s writing, especially in his two most straightforward explorations of urban decay, Philadelphia Fire (1992) and Two Cities (1998), a considerable amount of attention has been devoted to the theme of youth gangs. In Philadelphia Fire, the scary Kaliban Kiddie Korps terrorizes the city, spraying graffiti slogans on walls and buildings (most strikingly the threesome of nouns Money Power Things) and attacking defenseless homeless people. Two Cities contains one of the most shocking pieces of writing that Wideman has produced. At the end of the novel, the coffin of the deceased Mr. Mallory is desecrated. Mallory, placed on the bier in a Homewood funeral parlour, is thrown out onto the street when a gang of young thugs attacks the corpse of a former member of a rival gang, resting in the same funeral parlour. The vehemence of the teen ruffians in the assault on their dead rival is striking: "People say some spit and peed on the dead boy. Somebody said one dropped his baggy trousers and shit, but I didn"t believe that. Say the leader shot the boy some more. I did hear shots. Big, gaping holes in the casket like cardboard ripped up people say. Tearing up what was left of that poor child"s face. How could anybody be so mean. So full of hate and nastiness."(74)
Wideman has formulated some thoughts on the reasons why African American ghetto kids have taken to violence so blatantly. It is important, however, to look at Wideman"s understanding of the time-concept before I touch upon this matter.
In Wideman"s view, time is not a linear concept. He often refers to "Great Time", with which he seeks to indicate a circular relationship between all objects dependent on time. Wideman has not invented this concept himself. He refers to the indigenous traditions of certain African, Native American and Asian cultures. These traditions tend to consider time as a great sea. "Everything that has ever happened, all the people who have ever existed, simultaneously occupy this great sea. It fluctuates, and there are waves, and ripples, so, on a given day, you are as liable to bump into your great-great-great-great-grandmother, as you are to bump into your spouse."(75)
This concept lies at the basis of Wideman"s view on community. According to him, American males, and especially African American males, are to be divided into three ages: children, adults and elderly. These ages relate to each other in much the same way as all other things in Great Time: they influence each other mutually, the old influencing the young and the young feeding new ideas and fresh life into the old. Moreover, each African American carries within him those three ages. Internally and externally therefore, young, older and oldest are inextricably linked to each other. Problems arise when these three ages fail to influence each other in a healthy, nurturing way. Wideman argues that youth gangs have arisen and are in vigour nowadays because the connection between the ages is lost.
In Two Cities, the concept of the three ages serves as one of the main themes, knotting together the story"s thematical parts. Mr. Mallory represents the oldest age, and he stands opposite the youngest generations. In between are Robert and Kassima, between whom a love affair blooms. Mr. Mallory holds a key position. He "has to be the pivot that swings the whole set of male relationships in the community back to the community and back to the beginning so that the younger people learn from older people; younger people fertilize older people"s thinking: a circle."(76) Unfortunately, the circle has been severed. According to Wideman, the "facts of history and oppression and economic exploitation"(77) have discontinued direct contact between generations. The loss of this contact is ultimately responsible for the deterioration of African American communal life. As generations do not influence each other any longer, "people get lost, people get destroyed. And we keep repeating the same patterns over and over again; fathers aren"t speaking to sons, sons aren"t speaking to fathers, etcetera. That"s the pattern I"m trying to capture."(78)
As was mentioned in the biographical notes, Wideman"s first novel, A Glance Away, was met with the disapproval of leaders of the Black Arts Movement because they felt it both too much ingrained in the Western Cultural Aesthetic and too little concerned with African American issues. Larry Neal"s often quoted treatise on the Black Arts Movement (1968) indeed brings to front a nationalistic vision of African American art:
The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America, In order to perform this task, the Black Arts Movement proposes a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic. It proposes a separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology. The Black Arts and the Black Power concept both relate broadly to the Afro-American's desire for self-determination and nationhood. Both concepts are nationalistic. One is concerned with the relationship between art and politics; the other with the art of politics.(79)
By and large however, Wideman"s writing became infused with an often bitter social analysis of black America. This, as I have mentioned, is for a large part due to the trying decade in his life, marked by the life sentencing of his brother, the funeral of his grandmother and his reading of African American literature. Wideman has pointed out that, before the seventies, he hadn"t read any African American literature except for Ralph Ellison"s Invisible Man. This is noteworthy. Ellison"s conception of black literature closely connects to Wideman"s views at the time. To Ellison, art and experience are autonomous and unlinkable facets of existence. "Art is above and beyond the world of everyday experience, and the black artist has no obligation to engage directly in the liberation struggles of the black majority."(80) Rather, Ellison grafts his work on western models of artistic excellence, "dragging along his "kit bag" of black vernacular seasonings."(81)
Wideman initially followed this path, choosing as his topic the history of his own environment:
Another legacy from Mr. Ellison, the implicit challenge he poses—who will write our history?—has helped turn me around. The stance, the habit of looking long and hard, especially at those things—a face, a hand, a home—that matter, makes them matter more and more. I examine minutely the place I come from, repeat its stories, sing its songs, preserve its language and values, because they make me what I am and because if I don't, who will?(82)
The laying down of this history has made way for Wideman"s appraised style. In his writing, there is a continuous tension between the description and celebration of African American ways of living, customs and habits on the one hand (Wideman particularly excels in eulogizing the speech of African Americans) and an often bitter sketching of the numerous negative elements, viruses, endangering African American communities.
Wideman, in his endeavour to compose a general state of affairs of black America, often dwells on the negative forces bearing it down. One of the main forces is white supremacy and a general powerlessness against governing bodies. Brothers and Keepers is a presentation of these elements par excellence. In the memoir, Wideman searches for the reasons why his brother Robby committed a crime and was sentenced to life for it. Wideman tries to be as all-encompassing as he possibly can. It is not his aim to convince the reader of the innocence of his brother. He avoids portraying Robby as a victim who had no choice but to go and commit an armed robbery. What Wideman does try is showing the potentially explosive mix one gets when joining together some of Robby"s character flaws and the society as it is. That society has been severely shaken by the sixties. In that decade, seeds for future disappointment were sown.
The effects of the sixties, in my opinion, have been similar to those of the abolishment of slavery one century earlier. In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation turned the dream of freedom into a promising reality for four million slaves. Later however, that dream of freedom was rendered out of date by a new reality. Although African Americans found however free, they had nearly as little rights as when they were slaves. Moreover, they lacked the security of a fixed job and wages. This does not imply, however, that slavery had been a better epoch for African Americans. It is rather so, that seeing an age-old collective dream go to waste created a horrible disillusionment. The disillusionment in its turn was able to paralyze the African American community and saddle it up with a sense of "no future".
The 1950s and 1960s have functioned in a comparable way. Before the 1950s, the overall situation in which African Americans found themselves was not good at all. Wideman has furnished some samplings of the atmosphere in the Homewood 1920s and thirties throughout his work. Especially in his Homewood Trilogy, he depicted the often inclement living conditions of his grandparents. In Sent For You Yesterday, for example, he describes part of the humiliation his maternal grandfather John French had to go through every day to find some paid labour:
The first man this morning on the corner of Frankstown and Homewood where the white men drive up in their trucks with that little piece of work you might get if you"re lucky, if you"re early and smile and act like Jesus hisself behind the wheel of them pickups. Grin like the white man gon carry you to Great Glory but you knowing all along he gon take you to some piece of job and pay you half what he pay one his own kind.(83)
In Brothers and Keepers, Wideman evokes the humble living conditions of his paternal grandfather, Harry Wideman, shortly after emigrating from South Carolina to the coalmining city of Pittsburgh. "Like so many others, he boarded in an overcrowded boarding house, working hard by day, partying hard at night against the keen edge of exhaustion. When his head finally hit the pillow, he didn"t care that the sheets were still warm from the body of the man working nights who rented the bed ten hours a day while Harry pulled his shift at the mill."(84)
Nevertheless, John French seems to have accepted the situation as it was. In Brothers and Keepers, for example, Wideman recounts how his grandfather was forced to pick up egg rolls from the back kitchen door of a Chinese restaurant. The patron of the restaurant, his friend, would not serve black people in his establishment, for fear of provoking his white customers. Instead of fighting the absurdity of he situation, John French was at peace, taking the situation as it was without complaining. This resignedness on behalf of African Americans may have been caused in part by the 1930s depression and the Second World War. During those decades, the entire American population was suffering and any minority undertaking aimed at achieving more rights and privileges was destined to fail.
This goes to show that although African Americans were not free of rancour, they did not openly complain. In the 1950s, however, some important precedents demonstrated the potential effectivity of mass-action. A fast growing share of America"s black population became mobilized in a shared battle. Two events in particular seem to have been responsible for creating the basis on which black striving for civil rights came to be funded. The 1954 Brown versus Topeka Board of Education case furnished the United States with a first high ruling against segregation. In December 1955, the African American woman Rosa Parks refused to give up her place to a white person on a segregated "Jim Crow" bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Subsequently, the black community in that town, under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King started a boycott against the city"s bus-service. They did not yield until desegregation ensued.
In 1960, a formal black civil rights sit-in movement was inaugurated after a sit-in at a Woolworth"s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, had successfully drawn attention to the injustice of the store"s segregated lunch counter. The movement was heavily influenced by the doctrines of civil disobedience and passive resistance, as they were propagated by Martin Luther King. King himself had been inspired by the non-violent activism Gandhi had incited against the English oppression in India.
The changed socio-economic climate had also facilitated the rise of civil rights groups, which mostly consisted of young people. Especially university students caused a stir with their numerous actions aimed at enforcing desegregation at many Southern universities. In contrast, older African Americans often held more conciliatory views. For the young African Americans, the same held true as for other youngsters in the entire Western world. Their striving towards autonomization was made possible by the economic boom in the western world after the Second World War: "After the economic and military crises of the 1930s and of W.W. II, when any autonomization for youths was naturally out of the question, urban teenagers and twens in the more peaceful and prosperous postwar years soon developed habits of rebelling and setting up countercultures."(85)
The results of the civil rights actions were promising. In 1964 and 1968, Civil Rights Acts were instigated and in 1965, the Voting Rights Act gave black Americans an undeniable voice, regardless of previously prohibitory factors as illiteracy or income. John F. Kennedy had not abstained from using federal police officers to enforce desegregation rulings. By the mid-1960s, however, the situation became more grim. Integration remained exception. The US government grew more reluctant to enforce its own rulings. Black activists were harassed by whites, sometimes with fire-arms, and economic sanctions were imposed on black Americans who dared to protest racial abuse on the workfloor. Furthermore, the two most influential black leaders were killed. In 1965, Malcolm X was shot. Three years later, in 1968, the same fate struck Martin Luther King. As a result, the black civil rights movement shattered into several fractions, though it is fair to discern two general directions. On the one hand, there were groups who kept believing in Martin Luther King"s preachings of non-violence. On the other hand, there were bands of African Americans who felt more allegiance for the contentious discourse of Malcolm X, and who did not shun violence. The most notorious of the latter was undoubtedly the "Black Panther Party for Self-Defense"(86).
Wideman"s brother Robert clearly sympathized with the Panthers: "This was when Rap Brown and Stokely and Bobby Seale and them on TV. I identified with those cats. Malcolm and Eldridge and George Jackson. I read their books. They was Gods."(87) Another statement shows the dichotomy that existed between the several civil rights groups, who, although striving towards the same goal, had clearly defined where their loyalty lay. Reminiscing the time he was part of Together, a small-scale student organization at Homewood"s Westinghouse High School, he observes: "We was gon change things or die trying. We was known as bad. Serious business, you know. If something was coming down they always wanted us wit them. [...] We was so bad we was having a meeting once and one the brothers bust in. Hey youall. Did youall hear on the radio Martin Luther King got killed? One the older guys running the meeting look up and say, We don"t care nothing bout that ass-kissing nigger, we got important business to take care of."(88)
The disappointment, ensuing after the euphoria about the attained results had vanished, can be clearly discerned in Brothers and Keepers. It is as if Wideman tried to make an acceptable sketch of the tensions dominating black American communities in the sixties, as epitomized by Homewood. He describes the protest at Westinghouse High, directed at attaining desegregation in the lunchroom, instituting a black history course and getting rid of the principal, who was felt to be a racist. Robby fell into the role of spokesman, vocalizing the school"s discontent. The Board of Education quickly complied with all the demands. However, after an exalted evening of partying and after summer holidays, the students were confronted with the Board"s interpretation of their demands:
Business as usual when we got back in the fall. Hey, hold on? What"s this? Locks on the doors. Cops in the halls. Big cops with big guns. Hey, man; what"s going down? But it was too late. The party was over and they wasn"t about to give up nothing more. We had a black history class, but wasn"t nobody eligible to take it. Had a new principal, but nobody knew him. Nobody could get to him. And he didn"t know us. Didn"t know what we was about except we was trouble. Troublemakers; and he had something for that. Boot your ass in a minute. Give your name to the cops and you couldn"t get through the door cause everybody had to have an I.D. Yeah. That was a new one. Locks and I.D."s and cops. Wasn"t never our school. They made it worse instead of better. Had our chance, then they made sure we wouldn"t have no more chances.(89)
This disappointment went accompanied by an invasion of drugs. "Sixty-eight was when the dope came in real heavy too. I mean you could always get dope but in "68 seems like they flooded Homewood. Easy as buying a quart of milk."(90) Robby became heavily entangled with drugs. The armed robbery who would eventually commit was a direct consequence of a failed drug deal, in which he had lost a lot of money.
His descent into criminality, however, seems to have become irrevocable when his friend Garth died, due to a serious ailment that was faultily diagnosed at the hospital. In the eyes of the Homewood locals, Garth"s death was another blatant sign of "the man"s" malevolence: "The man said it wasn"t nothing. Sold him some aspirins and said he"d be alright in no time. The man killed Garth. Couldn"t kill him no deader with a .357 magnum slug, but ain"t no crime been committed. Just one those things. You know, everybody makes mistakes. And a dead nigger ain"t really such a big mistake when you think about it."(91) Garth"s death sealed Robby"s fate. It squashed the little ambitions he might have still had to wind up in the square world. This is corroborated by the turnabout Wideman"s mother underwent because of the same reason. She, although marked by her patience and steady belief in the inherent virtues of humankind, is not able to forgive "the man". She is conquered by bitterness: "She decided to stop letting things go by. No more benefit of the doubt. Doubt had been cruelly excised. She decided to train herself to be as wary, as unforgiving as she"d once been ready to live and let live."(92) Wideman catches her more often delivering acid criticism on the status quo in American society.
After the sixties, when overt rebellion had, to a large extent, been vanquished out of society, underprivileged African Americans began to project their hopes of social promotion on the "slick guy". One could hardly call this a new phenomenon. Throughout history, there has existed a keen interest to know about the lives of "mild" criminals. A very successful literary genre in the sixteenth century, the so-called picaresque novel, dealt with the adventures of scoundrels. Up to this day, broad layers of the world"s population have a pronounced taste for mediatized versions of crook"s lives, be it in movie-theatres, in books, magazines or on television. Rappers, singing about sex, crime and violence sell millions of albums. Moreover, not only do their lyrics eulogize the rough "ghetto-life". Some rappers have had notorious encounters with the law or the underworld. Rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg was accused with murder. Another rapper, Puff Daddy, was accused of illegal arms possession. Rapper Tupac Shakur, finally, was killed in a drive-by shooting.
In the ghetto, the gangster has an ambivalent status. He is both despised and admired by the population. He is despised because of his violation of moral principles. The admiration comes in because people project their unrequited desires of a better life on the "ghetto-superstar". Robby observes:
You remember what we were saying about young black men in the street-world life. And trying to understand why the "square world" becomes completely unattractive to them. It has to do with the fact that their world is the GHETTO and in that world all the glamour, all the praise and attention is given to the slick guy, the gangster especially, the ones that get over in the "life". And it"s because we can"t help but feel some satisfaction seeing a brother, a black man, get over on these people, on their system without playing by their rules. No matter how much we have incorporated these rules as our own, we know that they were forced on us by people who did not have our best interests at heart. So this hip guy, this gangster or player or whatever label you give these brothers that we like to shun because of the poison that they spread, we, black people, still look at them with some sense of pride and admiration, our children openly, us adults somewhere deep inside. We know they represent rebellion—what little is left in us.(93)
(2) Wideman was born in Washington D.C. on June 14, 1941, but his family moved (back) to Homewood before his first birthday.
(3) "He was my father and worked long and hard for us. We slept in the same house but at different hours. He was around or not around according to a schedule I couldn"t fathom but believed unfair." (Wideman, John Edgar. Fatheralong. (1994) London: Picador, 1996. 42.)
(4) It must be said that according to Wideman, the effects of the sixties on African Americans were all but positive. I will come back to this later.
(5) "De facto" segregation is "racial separation through informal means", whereas "de iure" segregation means "separation of the races by law." see: Mauk, David and John Oakland. American Civilization. London: Routledge, 1997 (second edition). 108.
(6) Du Bois, W(illiam) E(dward) B(urghardt). The Souls of Black Folk. In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997. 656.
(7) The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves to be free. In 1865, this Proclamation was formally made part of the US Constitution as the Thirteenth Amendment. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment furnished all former slaves with US citizenship and equal protection. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment granted freed male slaves voting rights. (see: Mauk, David and John Oakland. American Civilization. 107.)
(8) "Literature of the Reconstruction to the New Negro Renaissance: 1865—1919". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 463.
(9) Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls Of Black Folk. In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 616.
(10) Washington, Booker T(aliaferro). Up From Slavery. (1901). New York: Penguin Books, 1986. 21.
(11) "Literature of the Reconstruction to the New Negro Renaissance: 1865—1919". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 464.
(12) Mauk, David and John Oakland. American Civilization. 108.
(13) Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls Of Black Folk. In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 630.
(14) Named after a black character in the early 19th century plantation song "Jim Crow", the Jim Crow laws "legalized racial segregation in virtually every area of life." (see: "Literature of the Reconstruction to the New Negro Renaissance: 1865—1919". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 464; and: Oxford English Reference Dictionary)
(15) "Literature of the Reconstruction to the New Negro Renaissance: 1865—1919". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 466.
(16) ibidem. 462.
(17) Mauk, David and John Oakland. American Civilization. 419.
(18) "Literature of the Reconstruction to the New Negro Renaissance: 1865—1919". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 463.
(19) Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. 80.
(20) The colleges of Fisk, Morehouse, Howard, Atlanta, Talladega and Hampton for example were all founded between 1866 and 1868. see: "Literature of the Reconstruction to the New Negro Renaissance: 1865—1919". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 463.
(21) Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls Of Black Folk. In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 728.
(22) Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. 123.
(23) "Mr. Washington"s programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races." (see: Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls Of Black Folk. In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 638.)
(24) Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls Of Black Folk. In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 665.
(25) Mauk, David and John Oakland. American Civilization. 298.
(26) ibidem. 298.
(27) ibidem. 299.
(28) ibidem. 299.
(29) ibidem. 300.
(30) Mauk, David and John Oakland. American Civilization. 109.
(31) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. (1984) London: Picador, 1997. 27.
(32) Wideman, John Edgar. "The Language of Home". New York Times: January 13, 1985. http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/04/specials/wideman-language.html. n.p.
(33) Wideman, John Edgar. "The Language of Home". n.p.
(34) ibidem. n.p.
(36) Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls Of Black Folk. In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 615.
(37) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 67. One of these "brushes" is documented in Fatheralong (1994). Wideman describes how he fought Paul Vaughn, whom his father had also contended with years before. "Too drunk that night to know it was Paul Vaughn I was fighting, didn"t know till somebody told me next day after my father had bailed me out of jail." (Wideman, John Edgar. Fatheralong, page 125)
(38) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 29.
(39) Wideman, John Edgar. Interview. By Al Filreis and Lorene Cary. The Pennsylvania Gazette, July 2000. http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0700/prendergast.html. January 14, 2001. n.p.
(40) ibidem, n.p.
(41) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 32.
(42) quoted in: Janifer, Raymond E., Sr. "From Oxford to Homewood." n.p.
(44) quoted in: Janifer, Raymond E., Sr. "From Oxford to Homewood." n.p.
(45) Janifer, Raymond E., Sr. "From Oxford to Homewood." n.p.
(46) ibidem. n.p.
(47) Lythgoe, Dennis. "Emmett Till". Deseret News. February 26, 1997. http://members.aol.com/deverysa/page2.html. January 13, 2001. n.p.—The NAACP is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909 by, among others, W.E.B. Du Bois.
(48) Wideman, John Edgar. Fatheralong. 16.
(49) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. (1990) New York: Random House, 1991 (First Vintage Contemporaries Edition). 140.
(50) Wideman, John Edgar. The Cattle Killing. (1996) London: Picador, 1996. 112-113.
(51) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 27.
(52) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 27.
(53) ibidem. 88.
(54) quoted in: Janifer, Raymond E., Sr. "From Oxford to Homewood." n.p.
(55) Wideman, John Edgar. Fatheralong. 70.
(56) ibidem. 70.
(57) Wideman, John Edgar. Fatheralong. 74.
(58) ibidem. 74.
(59) New Black Poetry sought to combine oral forms such as sermons, popular music and mass speeches into a new mode of poetry. Black Poetry verse were free, conversational, jazzy and bluesy. They tended not to mire in subtle tropes and learned allusions, so as to be accessible to the widest possible audience, which was the more desired since the New Black Poetry often sought to establish a political agenda. (see: "The Black Arts Movement: 1960 - 1970". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 1791-1806.)
(60) "The Black Arts Movement: 1960 - 1970". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 1800.
(61) Wideman, John Edgar. Fatheralong. 35.
(62) Wideman, John Edgar. Interview. By Laura Miller. Salon Online Literary Arts Magazine: November, 1996. http://www.salonmag.com/nov96/interview961111.html. November 14, 2000. n.p.
(63) The 20-page account is intradiagetically embedded in the narrative structure, and it has no other links to the narrated present than "[...] he tells John Africa"( ) on its last page. see: Wideman, John Edgar. Two Cities. (1998) London: Picador, 2000. 197.
(64) ibidem. 197.
(65) ibidem. 180.
(66) ibidem. 196.
(67) In the eight months that US troops fought on European W.W. II fronts, some 110.000 of them were killed. (see: Mauk, David and John Oakland. American Civilization. 190)
(68) Wideman, John Edgar. Fatheralong. 164.
(69) ibidem. 75.
(70) ibidem. 75.
(71) The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, page 1793
(72) Malcolm X. "The Ballot or the Bullet". 1964. In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 92.
(73) Wideman, John Edgar. Fatheralong. 75-76.
(74) Wideman, John Edgar. Two Cities. 236.
(75) Wideman, John Edgar. Interview. Salon Online Literary Arts Magazine. n.p.
(79) Neal, Larry. "The Black Arts Movement". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. p. 1960.
(80) "The Black Arts Movement: 1960 - 1970". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. pp. 1803—1804.
(81) ibidem. p. 1804.
(82) Wideman, John Edgar. "The Language of Home". n.p.
(83) Wideman, John Edgar. Sent for You Yesterday. (1983) New York: Houghton Mifflin Company (Mariner Books Edition). 61.—For a more extensive discussion of the living conditions as Wideman depicted them, I refer to the third chapter of this dissertation.
(84) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 22.
(85) GUST. The Urban Condition. 74.
(86) "Founded in Oakland, California, in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panthers adopted a sober uniform of black leather jackets and stylish berets. They declared themselves revolutionaries and announced their intention to bring Black Power to black people by any means necessary. Constructing a party agenda from an eclectic range of sources such as the Black Muslim preachments of Malcolm X, the teachings of Mao Tse-tung, and the anticolonialist writings of West Indian Frantz Fanon, the Panthers openly displayed their dedication to a gospel of the gun." (see: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 1795.)
(87) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 114.—Rap Brown took the leadership of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in 1967 from Stokely Carmichael. He was made honorary member of the Black Panther Party in 1968. (see: http://www.afroam.org/history/Panthers/panther-lead.html); Stokely Carmichael, member of the SNCC, introduced the expression Black Power, during the 1966 March Against Fear. During a rest stop in Greenwood, Mississippi, Carmichael "leapt to the stage and gave a rousing speech in which he called not for love and forbearance, but for "Black Power." [...] the spirit motivating it was as clear as the fingers of a clenched fist. Young black America was fed up with sitting in. The time had arrived for militant, outgoing, radical activism and revolt." (see: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 1794.) Bobby Seale was one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party. (see: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 1794.); Eldridge Cleaver, an ex-convict, became leader of the Black Panther Party after both founding members, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, had been imprisoned. In 1968, he published the best-selling Soul on Ice, containing his views on society. In 1968 still, he announced his candidature for the presidency of the USA. (see: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 1795.)
(88) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 113.
(89) ibidem. 116-117.
(90) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 117; "the dope came in real heavy too": It has been suggested (e.g. in the movie Panther. Van Peebles, Mario (dir.). Gramercy Pictures. 1995) that the US government, in an attempt to counter the recruitment by aggressive civil rights groups and thus avoid further riots as they had happened Los Angeles, Cleveland and Detroit during the so-called "long hot summers" between "64 and "68, was responsible for the drastically increased availability of drugs in the latter half of the sixties.
(91) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 64.
(92) ibidem. 75.
(93) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 57.