The entire range of Wideman"s literary production reveals a thorough disquietude with the harmful effects of the contemporary urban landscape on weaker socio-economic layers of society. In a series of musings on the topic, which, as far as content is concerned, span almost the entire twentieth century, Wideman deals with some aspects of urban decay. The most important of those aspects are the physical deterioration of certain neighbourhoods, the economic forces behind the remodelling of cities, the loss of a communal sense and the reinforcement of the idea of hopelessness within individuals.
In Sent For You Yesterday, Wideman evokes the evolution of Homewood between the 1920s and the 1970s. Homewood, and by extension Pittsburgh, grew considerably in the first decades of the century, due to massive migration from the South(1). Many Southern African Americans, as well as European immigrants fresh from Ellis Island(2) ("Dagos and Hunkies and Polacks"(3)) chose to settle in Pittsburgh then, "drawn [...] by steel mills and coal mines, by the smoke and heat and dangerous work that meant any strong-backed, stubborn young man, even a black one, could earn pocketfuls of money"(4). The expansion of Pittsburgh in the beginning of the century is symptomatic for the era. Several factors lay at the roots of the first Great Migration of Southern African Americans to the North. In 1914, the so-called Southern depression, caused in part by a series of natural disasters, drastically reduced the income of farmers, in some cases to as little as seventy-five cents a day. Additionally, segregation and racial discrimination, poverty and downright violence made the South a region dreaded by many Blacks. The North, by contrast, offered many promises. The First World War compelled the military to accept more troops, and, at the same time, the massive enlisting of white Northerners had left many positions in the large industries and the railroads vacant.
Homewood then consisted of several streets which all constituted in themselves a (multicoloured) community. "The life in Cassina Way was a world apart from Homewood and Homewood a world apart from Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh was the North, a world apart from the South, and all those people crowded in Cassina Way carried the seeds of these worlds inside their skins, black, brown, and gold and ivory skin which was the first world setting them apart."(5) The mention of the "world setting them apart" refers to the dramatic material of the novel in which they appear, Sent For You Yesterday. Race was indeed an issue in the fast expanding bee-hive community. Part of the tension in the novel derives from the return of Albert Wilkes (a friend of Wideman"s maternal grandfather John French) to Homewood after seven years of reticent retreat. Wilkes had fled after killing a white man in self-defence: "a white man coming after Wilkes cause Wilkes been messing with the white man"s white woman."(6)
Furthermore, class distinctions constituted a second "world setting apart" the sundry population groups. Wideman points out that Cassina Way and its paralleling street, Tioga, were different communities altogether: "You knew the people across the alley but you seldom went around the block to Tioga, to the little green front porches that made living on Tioga a step up from living on Cassina."(7) This situation is the more striking since two families often lived in one, partitioned, wooden house: "Two families still occupied each unit so the people in front lived on Tioga Street and the people in back lived on Cassina Way. You could live in the same house with people and not know their names [...]"(8)
However, among the residents of Homewood, there existed a strong sense of community. Wideman muses at the era when his mother was growing up in the "Old Homewood": "Her relations with people in that close-knit, homogeneous community were based on trust, mutual respect, common spiritual and material concerns. Face-to-face contact, shared language and values, a large fund of communal experience rendered individual lives extremely visible in Homewood. Both a person"s self-identity ("You know who you are") and accountability ("Other people know who you are") were firmly established."(9)
People knew each other"s faces. Most of the residents were part-time gossip-mongers; they "walked down Cassina to get to Homewood Avenue and the stores. What they knew about each other was enough to keep them knee deep in gossip."(10) On Sundays, they met in the Homewood African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church. Moreover, people met in shops and on the street. In the latter case, an important American phenomenon has to be reckoned with. Stoops, defined by the OED as "a porch or small veranda or set of steps in front of a house", fostered interaction between locals of one neighbourhood. Due to the social climate between 1900 and 1940, a vast majority of American women were not on the job market(11). Spending each day alone at home, women chose to perform some handiwork out on the stoop to overcome isolation. Hence, the stoop became a locus of social interaction among housewives who found themselves in the same situation. Children likewise picked up on the stoop, though mainly for play, often because they were not allowed to go out of their parent"s sight (especially after the advent of the car, which made city streets a rather inhospitable play-ground). Wideman recognizes the importance of stoops in community-building. At one point in Philadelphia Fire, a few African American men, chatting after a game of basketball in the local Clark Park, wind up discussing the city"s initiative to rebuild the block of houses that was destroyed during the bombing of the MOVE-headquarters. When one of them claims obligingly that the "[n]ew houses they building up on Osage spozed to be pretty nice," he elicits the reply: "No stoops, man. How you spozed to have a neighbourhood with no stoops?"(12)
The decade of the 1920s was marked by heedless optimism. Many large cities in the North saw the rise of Black cultural, artistic and humanitarian movements wholeheartedly asserting the fact that the "Negro" had an important role to play in society, if the US was going to be a "City on a Hill that the eyes of all people are upon"(13). The New Negro movement of the Harlem Renaissance, spiritually fathered by Alain Locke, is arguably the most important in this respect. It incited an unprecedented production of black literature, both in quantity and in quality. The movement attracted numerous young and older African American authors to New York City"s Harlem district, where they united around magazines (among which Crisis, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, Opportunity, Messenger and Negro World). They drew on the British and American Romantics, and, to a lesser extent, on Edgar Arlington Robinson and Carl Sandburg, dismissing the radical modernism as set forth by, among others, James Joyce. The Harlem Renaissance, moreover, was also important in that it did not remain a solely African American endeavour. The plays which are now viewed to be the starting point of the movement, Three Plays for a Negro Theatre (1917), were written by the white American Ridgely Torrence. He received praise for choosing to depict Blacks as full persons subject to inner perturbation and desires, instead of harking back to the more ornamental roles of servant or minstrel, traditionally assigned to blacks on stage. A few white Americans were part of the Harlem Renaissance. White novelist and critic Carl Van Vechten firmly stood amidst African American literary greats. His interracial parties caused quite a buzz in the contemporary New York social scene. He helped launch some African American authors, among whom Langston Hughes, who was to become one of the most highly respected and now frequently anthologized poets of the movement.(14)
However, the influence of the Harlem Renaissance on the black masses, who, as Langston Hughes observed, "did not know that the Harlem Renaissance was going on,"(15) remained very limited. Though it might not have had an enormous impact on contemporary black masses, the Harlem Renaissance did join together and shape young African American artists who are still highly respected.
The 1920s were marked in many ways by jazz. Jazz music originated in the Southern US. New Orleans is generally regarded as the cradle of jazz music. Jazz originally blended West African rhythms, elements from ragtime, brass bands, spirituals, blues and work-songs(16). It quickly spread nationwide, enthralling both black and white Americans, to the extent that the decade of the 1920s was coined the Jazz Age. Pittsburgh followed in this wave. Wylie Avenue in the Hill District became a jazz mecca where Duke Ellington (considered to be one of the best jazz musicians of all times) played, as well as Billy Strayhorn and Earl Hines, both of the latter Pittsburgh natives.(17) Wideman, sketching the social climate of Pittsburgh in the 1920s, observed: "Black music, blues and jazz, came to town in places like the Pythian Temple, the Ritz, the Savoy, the Showboat. In the bars on the North Side, Homewood, and the Hill you could get whatever you thought you wanted. Gambling, women, a good pork chop."(18)
The optimism of the Roaring Twenties abruptly ended in October 1929, with the Wall Street crash. The twenties had indisputably provided many Americans with an unprecedentedly high standard of living. Low taxes had fostered an increased consumption, which in turn stimulated the economy. Nevertheless, there was a backside to all this. A great many people suffered from the economic instability of the time. Factories and farms were troubled with over-production, the US overprotected its businesses against foreign competition through tariff barriers and financial speculation sky-rocketed.(19) The combination of these factors led to the catastrophic Wall Street crash of October 1929. Many banks were forced to close down and a great many people (financial speculators as well as employees and blue-collar workers without any relation to the financial world except for a savings account in one or other bank) lost all of their money. Many businesses faced bankruptcy. In an attempt to recover money lost in the crash, industries and other great employers laid off thousands of people. Foreign investors lost faith in the economic power of the US and withdrew their money. The government, in its turn, had to call on loans granted to several European countries. One large Austrian bank, as well as many other European financial institutions and businesses, collapsed in the process, giving rise to massive unemployment in Europe as well. In America, unemployment soared particularly high (at its peak, 13.7 million Americans were out of work) and dragged social unrest and crime in its wake. In Harlem, for example, which had been a thriving multi-racial and cultural center in the 1920s, severe riots broke out in 1935.
The Depression changed Wideman"s Homewood as well. To begin with, the substantial influx of immigrants from the South between 1910 and 1930 had not been an improvement all the way. Some of the habits of the new residents went against the grain of the older ones. Wideman"s grandmother for example "hated the fat, buzzing flies. Flies in Cassina Way had never been bad till all those people from the deep South started arriving with their dirty boxes and bags and spitting in the street and throwing garbage where people have to walk."(20)
A new spirit took possession of the Homewood locals and started the downfall of the community. Greed became an important, if not the most important player. During slavery and the first decades after its abolishment, there had been a significant solidarity among African Americans, who, in the light of a shared oppression, had nobody to turn to but each other. The organization of their living space enhanced this community-building. Slaves lived in small, poorly built wooden cabins, which they frequented only to eat and sleep. Their life lay outdoors, on the plantation fields, where they worked side by side from dawn till dusk, six days a week. This aspect of community life is reflected in the foremost eighteenth and nineteenth century black cultural form: the so-called Negro Spiritual. The songs, originating on the workfield, relied heavily, for their proper execution, on the combined efforts of the group of slaves as a whole: "these songs employ the call/response patterns of West and Central Africa. [...] The single voice of the chorus would be answered by a group of singers, usually the entire group gathered together."(21)
For decades after the abolishment of slavery in the South, blacks tended to remain clustered together in groupings of dilapidated wooden shacks, partly because they lacked the financial means to build or buy a solid and sufficiently big house, and in part because living together armed them against the hostility white Southerners bore towards them. This form of living extended the communal way of living that had been common during slavery days. It worked against the 18th-century bourgeois life, as outlined by Richard Sennett. Bourgeois life then "strictly divided between a public and private life, which kept each other in a careful balance."(22) Slavery and post-slavery life can be claimed to have known no such distinction. The lives of African Americans took place entirely in the public sphere. There was neither time nor place to engage in a private life. Booker T. Washington, for example, observed about his childhood in slavery: "I cannot remember a single instance during my childhood or early boyhood when our entire family sat down to the table together, and God's blessing was asked, and the family ate a meal in a civilized manner."(23)
African Americans brought along this heritage upon first moving into the cities of the North. Moreover, the living patterns they had maintained in the South were again enforced by the fact that traditionally, "immigrants of the same ethnic (and socioeconomic) background will [...] stick together in certain neighbourhoods, appropriating their own collective spaces and setting up networks of material and spiritual support."(24) The "Old Homewood", with its patchwork assembly of small ethnic communities, varying from street to street, may be viewed in this way.
The longer African Americans remained in the city, the more they were subject to the typically urban process of individualization, in that "the public domain began to cede to a new private domain of intimacy, personality, and authenticity."(25) Individualization is inextricably linked to "the rise of industrial capitalism"(26). In general, the beginning of the process is placed in the 19th century. African Americans, however, did not take part in the rise of capitalism until the beginning of the twentieth century. The northward migration, mentioned before, made way for "the black middle class and even a small but wealthy social elite [to grow] in number and influence."(27) The process of individualization began to influence African Americans only from the 1920s onwards. The culture of hedonism that spread during the turbulent Jazz Age was instrumental in this respect. It appears that the Great Depression only consolidated this trend, in that it highlighted the elements of selfishness present in individualism, as everyone at the head of a family faced a daily struggle to maintain their household.
An additional reason why African Americans were particularly susceptible to processes of individualization lies in the fact that Blacks, "having endured decades of disappointment, were generally less interested in integration than in their physical safety and economic security."(28) During slavery, there had been a collective belief that the institutionalized cruelty could only be overcome by a struggle in which all African Americans would partake. However, few Blacks remained who had personally experienced slavery. Already before 1900, older black leaders had chided their successors for being too much preoccupied with trying to fulfill the American Dream. Where blacks formerly strove to advance as a people, they were now consumed by their personal struggle towards individual improvement.
Wideman"s maternal grandfather John French vocalizes his resentment at the trend towards individualization in "Daddy Garbage", a short story in Damballah. When Daddy Garbage, the dog of Homewood"s ice-vendor Lemuel Strayhorn, chances upon a dead baby in a garbage can, Strayhorn fetches John French. Together, they muse at the atrocity of the act, and at the same time, they fathom the change Homewood is going through:
"Something is happening to people. I mean times was bad down home, too. Didn"t get cold like this, but the cracker could just about break your neck with his foot always on it. I mean I remember my daddy come home with half a pail of guts one Christmas Eve after he work all day killing hogs for the white man. Half a pail of guts is all he had and six of us pickaninnies and my mama and grandmama to feed. Crackers was mean as spit, but they didn"t drive people to do what they do here in this city. Down home you knew people. And you knew your enemies. Getting so you can"t trust a soul you see out here in the street. White, black, don"t make no difference. Homewood changing ... people changing."
"I ain"t got nothing. Never will. But I lives good in the summertime and always finds a way to get through winter. Gets me a woman when I needs one."
"You crazy alright, but you ain"t evil crazy like people getting. You got your cart and that dog and this place to sleep. And you ain"t going to hurt nobody to get more. That"s what I mean. People do anything to get more than they got."
"Niggers been fighting and fussing since they been on earth."
"Everybody gon fight. I done fought half the niggers in Homewood, myself. Fighting is different. Long as two men stand up and beat on each other ain"t nobody else"s business. Fighting ain"t gon hurt nobody. Even if it kill a nigger every now and then."(29)
John French" words signal an additional shift in the indigenous African American way of living. He moved from down south to Pittsburgh. Wideman himself will later move to Philadelphia. The geographical mobility grandfather and grandson display is a symptom of the rise of geographical mobility, which is a consequence of the growing importance of social mobility (defined as "the cutting of existing ties and the establishment of alternative ones"(30)). Social mobility is often seen as a token of financial prosperity. Americans, when they are economically thriving, tend to move into "better" city districts, and thus symbolize their rise on the socio-economic ladder. The same holds true for recent immigrants in poorer city districts, where the desire to achieve socio-economic success and leave the "ghetto" might very well be stronger: "[t]hese relatively homogeneous neighborhoods are only transitional phenomena that do not survive beyond one or two generations. As immigrants accommodate to their new cultural environment, they will seek to move up the social ladder and out of their poor housing."(31)
The element of geographical and social mobility is firmly entrenched in both Wideman"s life and work. Either of Wideman"s grandfathers immigrated into Homewood, Pittsburgh, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Harry Wideman, his paternal grandfather, came up from Greenwood, South Carolina, in 1906; John French, his mother"s father, from Culpepper, Virginia. Their offspring, Wideman"s parents, moved out of Homewood. In 1940 already, they moved to Washington D.C., where Edgar Wideman took a printing job for the government. John Wideman himself was born there. Not one year later, though, the young family of three moved back to Homewood, where they stayed on some nine more years. Subsequently they moved to Shadyside, a well-to-do, white suburban section of Pittsburgh with "one street, half of a street, where there were a few black families, four or five."(32) Although African Americans wanted to partake in the rise on the social ladder, they kept living close together, thus enacting indigenous African American ways of living. In the 1950s it was still largely a consequence of the intolerance towards blacks. Wideman himself went on from Shadyside to live in cities like Philadelphia, Oxford (UK), Iowa City, Laramie (Wyoming) and Amherst (Massachusetts).
Geographical mobility is an often recurring element in Wideman"s work. Many of his characters are presented either as leaving, having left or returning to their original place of living. Wideman adds an extra dimension to this theme in his insistence on broken families and divorce. Divorce, and by extension, the reconfigurability of family units, is a consequence of growing individualization since "the more individualized and independent family members become, the more pressure is also put on their mutual relationships. [...] Familial ties have become more tenuous and families more subject to realignment (the rise of "serial" marriages and relationships)."(33)
Reconfigurable family units and divorce are not new to African Americans. During slavery, African Americans were obliged to take emotional ties lightly, as their white masters could decide upon selling them any given day. Much depended upon the goodwill of the slave-holder and on how far he was willing to go in letting humanity prevail over a system "designed to prevent Africans and their descendants from building a new identity except in accordance with the dictates of their oppressors. Instead of an individual, slavery devised what Patterson calls "a social nonperson," a being that by legal definition could have no family, no personal honor, no community, no past, and no future."(34) An anonymous 1857 slave narrative delivers testimony of this situation:
I knew that what is called the marriage tie is usually of little obligation amongst slaves; and that free negroes, being no better taught, if as well, were probably not more virtuous. And how can the slave be expected to observe the marriage vows? In most cases they make none -- plight no troth -- have a sort of understanding that their agreement shall continue until one or both choose to form some other tie. And even if wishing to continue faithful unto death, they know their master deems their vows null and void, if he choose to separate them; and he often does thus without scruple, by selling one or both.(35)
Wideman, in his own life, saw the divorce of his parents when he was well in his twenties. In Brothers and Keepers, as well as in the short story "Tommy"(36), Wideman frequently mentions the fact that his brother left his wife and son. In Sent For You Yesterday, Wideman"s uncle Carl is one of three protagonists. He lives, unmarried, with his lover Lucy Tate. Brother Tate, Lucy"s adoptive brother and Carl"s boyhood friend, lives with them, thus being the third of the "three musketeers"(37). Cudjoe, the protagonist of Philadelphia FIre, has left his wife and children. In Two Cities, either of the two male protagonists, Robert Jones and Martin Mallory, have left their families. Mallory explains: "No choice. Believed I had to leave if I wanted a life. Stole myself. Like a runaway slave. Stole myself and the price was leaving my family behind, my people behind."(38)
The prominent recurrence of divorce, interpreted as a form of flight, has to be viewed in the light of Wideman"s life. As a student and a young scholar, he was convinced that the only way of achieving a reasonable measure of social respect lay in denying his origin. In his works since the 1980s, he has implicitly shown remorse over that initial rejection. This is made clear in several ways. The material which he started to use in his novels shows his desire to recapture that which he had first deemed unworthy for the high-brow writings he was aiming at. In some of his novels, he has staged himself in a hypercritical way, so as to make clear that he has lost ties with his family. In this respect, Hiding Place furnishes a remarkable example. Tommy (who can be identified as Wideman"s brother) is wanted for murder. He has fled. During his absence, his family assembles in Homewood to await news. In the "Bucket of Blood", a local Homewood pub, the encounter between Carl (supposedly Wideman"s maternal uncle Carl) and John (Wideman himself) is presented. Wideman contrasts the stiff and cocky mannerism of John with the natural (and implicitly: better) behaviour of the locals:
Clement watches Carl watch a man come in the door. Tall man in a suit ducked in the door and looked around real careful like maybe he in the wrong place, like maybe he subject to turn around and split somebody yell Boo real loud. But he lets the door swing shut behind him and tips in and sits beside Carl.
Violet. This my nephew, John. This Tommy"s brother from out of town.
And the tall dude how-do-you-dos and pleased-to-meet-you or some such off the wall do like that and Violet plays it back perfect like she been saying such stuff all her life. [...]
Tall dude act like he ain"t with Carl now. Sitting up straightbacked. Peeling at that label. Budweiser, please is what he ordered. And Violet bringing him a beer and a glass just as nice. He don"t say Rock or Bud or Iron like somebody got good sense. He have to go and say Budweiser, please like Violet supposed to set something different on the bar nobody else ain"t drinking.(39)
A third element that reveals Wideman"s remorse is the use, in several of his novels, of escape as a leitmotif. Throughout Philadelphia Fire, for instance, escape evokes such notions as cowardice, search for lost times and the desire to avoid mental suffocation(40). In Hurry Home (1970), Cecil Otis Braithwaite, much like Wideman at the time he wrote the novel, suffers "the angst of spiritual ambiguity. [...] He is at once aware of his heritage and scornful of those who have not escaped ethnocentric bondage -- simultaneously an "uppity nigger" and a victim of white injustice."(41)
Someone had stripped Homewood bare, mounted it, and ridden it till it collapsed and lay dying, sprawled beneath the rider, who still spurred it and bounced up and down and screamed, Giddyup.(42)
During the latter half of the 1940s and during the 1950s, the overall socio-economic condition of African Americans improved slightly. With World War II coming to an end, a period of unprecedented economic boom dawned upon the United States. The US, as one of few allied nations, had come out of the war virtually unharmed. In addition, its industries were prospered. This was partly due to the successful efforts at stabilizing macroeconomic factors contained in Roosevelt"s New Deal. As Europe was in tatters and rags, the US was extremely well placed to be the driving force behind the restoration of the Old Continent. There were of course plenty of self-evident humanitarian grounds, as well as ethnic ties, to justify an operation that would eventually cost taxpayers 15 billion dollars, spread over a period of three years. More important for the government were probably economic interests: "Assisting Europe could absorb surpluses that threatened to cause an economic recession in the US, and a revitalized Europe would provide markets for American goods."(43) The operation, formalized as the Marshall Plan, ran from 1948 up to 1951, and enthroned the United States as the world"s foremost economic, political and military power.
Homewood, in the wake of the Second World War, was able to catch a scattering of the national profits. In Sent For You Yesterday, Wideman"s uncle Carl contrasts the war- and postwar years with the narrated present, 1975: "Good times. Homewood was jumping. Lots of war work, so people had a little change in they pockets. Homewood different then. Hadn"t turned ugly the way it is now. I mean now you take your life in your hands just walking down the street after dark. It was different in those days. No dope. No hoodlums prowling around looking for a throat to cut."(44)
Sadly enough, it became clear that a marginal community of African Americans should not expect more than a nominal portion of the nation"s profits. Some men in Wideman"s family had been drafted to war. His mother"s uncle Eugene had been killed by a sniper on a Japanese beach, some days after the surrender of Japan. His death haunts Hiding Place as a penetrating symbol of injustice. Eugene"s mother Bess contemplates: "To not have any when you wanted one so bad and then to squeeze out only one and then to lose that one on a beach six thousand miles from home when there wasn"t even a war anymore, none of that seemed right, seemed possible. But that was her story. She was Bess and her story had happened to her."(45)
Others, such as Wideman"s father and his uncle Carl returned from the war and were granted a veteran"s allowance, as stipulated by the GI Bill of Rights, which provides medical, educational and housing benefits for veterans of war. At first, this allowance seemed to facilitate access to higher education, but society, rebuffing the efforts of blacks, soon proved it was not ready for educated African Americans. In Sent For You Yesterday, Wideman"s uncle Carl relates how he was pestered out of his art classes, although he was one of the best students:
You"re good. We all know that. Best student we have but you"re wasting your time here. Can"t earn a living with what you"re learning here. Said he was telling me for my own good. Companies don"t hire colored artists. He didn"t say nigger artists but that was what he meant. He asked me to name a famous artist of my race. Name one artist or one painting by a black dude. Shit. Course I couldn"t name one. Didn"t even know the names of white dudes who was making it. When he was done speaking his piece he stood up and patted my shoulder real buddy-buddy like we just robbed Fort Knox and had the gold salted away and nobody but us knew where it was.(46)
Uncle Carl had to resort to the corner outside the "Bucket of Blood", where African Americans still crowded in the hopes of being offered a "little piece of job". He took up the place his father, John French, had occupied throughout the 1920s and "30s. He had to expose himself to the condescending stance of the whites. His description calls up images of slave-auctions, both in the display of power of the "man" (and his use of "boy", the traditional word to address a black in slavery and post-slavery times, especially in the South), and in the behaviour of the African Americans:
But you got no choice. You got to sit and wait for one them ragtag pickups to sidle along the curb. Then Beep Beep. The white man sits there looking you up and down like he"s God Almighty. When times real bad, niggers scrambling and pushing one another so he can see em good. Man say jump and you jump. Hey you in the overalls. Step out here where I can see you, boy.(47)
Wideman situates the arrival of drugs in that era. His depiction of the several factors which nipped the ambitions of his uncle in the bud makes the latter"s plunge into drugs understandable, if not acceptable: "Seems like a long time ago but I"m only talking about twenty years ago, the good old fifties in the good old U.S. of A. Your uncle did what the rest the jive niggers did. Let himself be pushed down. Started sticking myself with needles. Put the world in a jug and held the stopper in my hand."(48) Moreover, uncle Carl does not admit to regretting his immersion in drugs, "[c]apse it was better than being nothing. World was a hurting trick and being high was being out the world. Nothing wrong with that. If you find a way out the trick bag, you a fool not to take it."(49)
Meanwhile, Wideman and his family were living in Shadyside, away from the deteriorating streets of Homewood. Around 1963, however, when Wideman was graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, his family was forced to retrace their steps to Homewood. Due to a decrease in his parents income, and a rise in the cost of living in suburban Shadyside, they had to subdue to a reversal of the paradigm of moving to a better neighbourhood as a token of social upgrading. The lion"s share of their worries related to Bobby, the youngest of the Wideman household, on whom they feared the poor socio-economic environment of Homewood might have a pernicious effect. In Brothers and Keepers, Bobby divulges how he overheard his mother and sisters talking about their move to Homewood: "The biggest they was worried about was me. How would it be for me being in Homewood and going to Westinghouse? I could tell they was scared. Especially Mom. [...] Homewood scared her. Not so much the place but how I"d act if I got out there in the middle of it. She already knew I was wild, hard to handle. There"d be too much mess for me to get into in Homewood. She could see trouble coming."(50)
And trouble did come. Bobby went on to lead a pupil"s revolt at Westinghouse High School, got deeply mixed up with heroin, was accomplice in an armed robbery in which a man was killed and was sent to jail for life. His fall epitomizes the deterioration of Homewood. Two main features of twentieth century America lie at the roots of the described cataclysm Al developments. For one thing, a series of urban crises emerging in the 1960s and growing in number and strength in the 1970s and early 80s, invigorated the growth of urban ghettos. Ethnic minorities, finding themselves trapped in such ghettos and devoid of any hopes for recovery, often resorted to drastic measures to vent their anxieties. In addition, the growing autonomization of youths and the rise of their subcultures is accountable for the tempestuous climate of the sixties.
The middle-class withdrawal from inner city to suburbia that began in the 1950s eventually fomented the creation of largely autonomous satellite communities. These communities, claiming their financial independence from the neighboring cities, cashed in taxes from their moneyed residents. Hence, as inner cities became the dwelling place solely of the lower-middle-classes, the blue-collar workers and the unemployed, and as they did not receive any income from their satellites, cities withered away in the urban crises of the 1970s and early 80s.
In Brothers and Keepers, Wideman sharply analyses the changes Homewood underwent as a consequence of this evolution. According to his Wideman, the slow trickle that removed necessary funds out of Homewood was hardly noticed at first by the residents, although there were subtle signs. The waning of the A & P, the local grocery store, is one example,: "Nobody mopped filth from the floors. Nobody bothered to restock empty shelves. Fewer and fewer white faces among the shoppers. A plate-glass display window gets broken and stays broken. When they finally close the store, they paste the going-out-of-business notice over the jagged, taped crack."(51)
Instead, it was as if Homewood residents woke up one morning to find themselves trapped. "Double trapped. Triple Trapped."(52) Wideman draws out the entanglement of Homewood using net as a metaphor:
[...] they didn"t notice the net settling over their community until it was already firmly in place. Even though the strands of the net—racial discrimination, economic exploitation, white hate and fear—had existed time out of mind, what people didn"t notice or chose not to notice was that the net was being drawn tighter, that ruthless people outside the community had the power to choke the life out of Homewood, and as soon as it served their interests would do just that. During the final stages, as the net closed like a fist around Homewood, my mother couldn"t pretend it wasn"t there. But instead of setting her free, the truth trapped her in a cage as tangible as the iron bars of Robby"s cell.(53)
The deterioration of neighbourhoods into ghettos (defined as "instances of involuntary sequestration that are the structural results of wider socio-economic and ideological processes"(54)), and the accompanying rise of an urban "underclass", "a term coined in the 1980s to designate those people suffering from an intense deprivation that is almost self-perpetuating,"(55) preluded an extended period of social turbulence.
It is revealing to see how an important and authoritative leader as Malcolm X used his view on this evolution in his discourse, as early as 1964. As one of the main proponents of the Black Nationalistic ideas, he believed that African Americans should try to attain financial and moral independence from whites. Therefore, it was capital both to set up proper stores catering to fellow blacks, and not to spend money in any store owned by a white man: "The man who"s controlling the stores in our community is a man who doesn"t look like we do. He"s a man who doesn"t even live in the community. So you and I, even when we try and spend our money in the block where we live, we"re spending it with a man who when the sun goes down takes that basket full of money in another part of the town."(56) In the same "Ballot or Bullet"-speech, he expands the concept of captivity: "[...] soon as you move out of the black community into their community it"s mixed for a period of time, but they"re gone and you"re right there by yourself again."(57) Farther in his muscular speech, he claims "Negroes have listened to the trickery and the lies and the false promises of the white man for too long. [...] all of this has built up frustrations in the black community that makes the black community throughout America today more explosive than all the atomic bombs the Russians can ever invent."(58)
Violence did ensue. In some cities (notably in Los Angeles, Cleveland and Detroit), riots spread over such a vast part of the area, that the riots became known as "city fires". These riots were also coined as the "long hot summers", and celebrated in a song by Jimi Hendrix. In Wideman"s Homewood, tension was mounting to unknown heights. Robby"s high school-revolt which I referred to in the second chapter, was in a way still a civilized confrontation between disgruntled people and the authorities. In Brothers and Keepers, Bobby admits that he was often involved in more direct encounters with the police. The police had severely stepped up both its presence and its aggressivity in Homewood, in an attempt to answer the growing social unrest and violence. Of course, their more overt presence and onerous nosiness in turn caused the youths to alter their attitude towards the police. The circumference of a particularly vicious circle had been put down. In an astounding testimony, Bobby sketches the attitude of the police in the summer of "68, the summer that saw the friction between youngsters and police at its peak. At the same time, he calls attention to the fact that the situation might have gotten out of hand, as some of his "brothers" toted fire arms:
It was a crazy summer. The summer of "68. We fought the cops in the streets. I mean sure nuff punch-out fighting in them Wild West movies and do. Shit. Everybody in Homewood up on Homewood Avenue duking with the cups. Even the little weeny kids was there, standing back throwing the rocks. We fought that whole summer. [...] All you need to be doing was walking down the avenue and here they come. Screeching the brakes. Pull up behind you and three or four cops come busting out the squad car ready to rumble. Me and some the fellas just minding our business walking down Homewood and this squad car pulls up. Hey, you. Hold it. Stop where you are, like he"s talking to some silly kids or something. All up in my face. What you doing here, like I ain"t got no right to be on Homewood Avenue, and I been walking on Homewood Avenue all my life an ain"t no jive police gon get on my case just cause I"m walking down the avenue. Fuck you, pig. Ain"t none your goddamn business, pig. Well, you know it"s on then. [...]
Seems like we was fighting cops every day. Funny thing was, it was just fighting. Wasn"t no shooting or nothing like that. Somebody musta put word out from Downtown. [...] Cause you know if it was left to the cops they would have blowed us away. Somebody said don"t shoot and we figured that out so it was stone rock "n" roll and punch-up time.
Sometimes I think the cops dug it too. You know like it was exercise or something. [...] Just be minding your business and here they come piling out the car ready to go ten rounds. [...] We had some guys up on the rooves. Brothers was gon waste the motherfuckers from up there when they go riding down the street but shit, wasn"t no sense bringing guns into it long as they wasn"t shooting at us. Brothers didn"t play in those days. We was organized. Cops jump somebody and in two minutes half of Homewood out there on them cops" ass. [...](59)
By and by, the federal and local governments understood that violence begot more violence. Inspired by Democratic president Lyndon B. Johnson"s (in office between 1963 and 1969) "War on Poverty" campaign, "federal funds were poured into hastily conceived "renewal" projects."(60) These renewal projects consisted of relocating residents of ramshackle houses and neighbourhoods into quickly erected apartment buildings. These buildings became known among African Americans as "the projects". The forced demolition of blocks of houses in dilapidated neighbourhoods provided municipal authorities with sites on which to construct these buildings.
The project buildings, if one peers closely into Wideman"s descriptions throughout his writing, seem devoid of every quality. Firstly, they have overthrown the remainder of the sense of community that African Americans still might have had. The architecture of the buildings is in a large part accountable for that. Instead of having a proper house checking into the street, with the social safe-haven of the stoop in between, people now lived in a small apartment, giving on to a barren corridor or a case of stairs. The primary reaction to this inhospitable environment is one of haste. People rush into their building, go up to their allotted "compartment" and slam the door shut behind them. As people no longer linger on their porch, or take time to greet someone on the street, no occasional encounters, invaluable in the building of a community, have a chance to take place. In Sent For You Yesterday, Wideman clarifies one of the implications of the lack of community in those edifices. People no longer care for their next-door neighbour: "Miss Pollard will die in a fire in the single room she rented on Braddock Avenue. Not a bad fire, everyone else got out of the apartment building. Smoke mostly. Enough smoke to suffocate her as she slept because nobody remembered she was up there on the third floor. She had to move to Braddock Avenue when the city tore down her side of Cassina."(61)
In addition to the fact that any aspirations at leading a life in harmony with neighbours are firmly unrooted by the nature of project edifices, inhabitants of those buildings are not even granted the possibility to ensconce themselves in a nice, private habitat. Wideman is particularly inexorable in his depiction of the various ways in which project apartments do not allow their occupants to feel at home. A lethal combination of uniformity, lilliputian measurements and imperfect insulation make project edifices an abode to be dreaded. In Brothers and Keepers, he descries the uniformity and lack of coziness of the places: "It was typical project apartment. [...] Small, shabby, featureless. Not a place to live. No matter what you did to it, how clean you kept it or what kind of furniture you loaded it with, the walls and ceilings were not meant to be home for anybody. A place you passed through."(62) The same holds true in Two Cities:
A blue room. Project babyblue like the other wannabe bright and cheery project colors, pink, green, yellow, colors you can see through, paint slapped on in a hurry by somebody never coming back. Everything the same skimpy washed-out blue. Walls, ceilings, doors. A room once you put in a double bed hardly any space left for furniture. [...] If you punched the wall behind her bed, your fist wind up in somebody else"s bedroom. Bet you could smell food like he used to cooking in the ass end of the house butting the ass end of this one. No side windows even though 7215 the last one of the row. One sooty square of glass upstairs and down in the airshaft between houses.(63)
Furthermore, the urban renewal projects created desolate and inhospitable open space. The mixture of new apartment blocks, bulldozed fields of demolition and batches of decrepit houses create an atmosphere of wasteland: "The most polite way to describe this scene of post-apocalypse ruin is to call it a neighbourhood in transition."(64) Moreover, new housing projects arise with a pace not to be kept up with. The nature of these neighbourhoods conspires with the interior of project apartments to give the zones a temporary quality, devoid of any coziness. All attempts at making one feel at home are deftly nipped in the bud. The "projects" echo that what Peter Rowe has coined "the middle landscape", though be it without the persistent presence of malls and office blocks: "The most disconcerting physical characteristic of the middle landscape, is the desolate and inhospitable space left between many buildings and building complexes. [...] Many buildings have a temporary quality, suggesting that they might be here today and gone tomorrow. The surrounding landscape is pervaded by parking lots that offer little definition of their primary function, let alone an inviting environment. Entirely absent are characteristics of traditional city streets that graciously provide for public life."(65)
In Fatheralong, Wideman amply discusses the Leroy Irvis Towers, "a state-subsidized high-rise for the elderly in the Hill district,"(66) where his father resides. The edifice, erected firmly in the middle of nowhere, signals an important consequence of the creation of desolate urban emptiness: there is little or no social control on abandoned streets with blocks of condominiums, having nothing but "portholes" for windows, and empty parcels with demolition debris equally apportioned. Instead, these streets constitute an exquisite action turf for scoundrels and hoodlums. The terror of empty and undefined space outside isolated project buildings is especially strong for the elderly. Because of their age and diminished bodily strength, they are perfect victims for mugging and wanton violence, and they are helpless if anything should happen to them in the barren emptiness outside their fortress:
Supreme in the middle of nowhere, the Irvis Towers was clearly as much trial as salvation for its old and infirm residents. Where was the closest store for milk or bread, let alone a mall? Shopping for daily necessities an expedition. Long, steep distances in every direction, difficult to manage in any season, impossible in ice or snow, implacably dangerous for weak hearts and lungs, gimpy legs. Treacherous in the summer heat, nightmarish after dark, a windswept barrenness where you could fall and lie for hours, overnight, unnoticed, except by scavengers who"d rob and strip you, who for sport or evil might set you on fire. Junkies and hoodlums swarmed like bees to honey on the streets around the building the days social-security checks came in. How was a seventy-six-year-old woman supposed to brave this gauntlet of thieves, the changing seasons with their rotating perils. My tough, independent grandfather Harry Wideman wasn"t easy to scare, but even he wasn"t exempt from the terror. He had described to me the fear tenants experienced each time an elevator door slid open. You never knew what horror might be waiting to trap you, seize you.(67)
The future of Homewood, and of poor black neighbourhoods in general, does not seem to be a very auspicious one. Wideman expects a general reflux to the city. He foresees a massive purchase of low-priced grounds in former working-class neighbourhoods by realtors, after the "wall-to-wall blackness"(68) has purged itself. When the last black has left his former community, brokers "repackage it, promote it Southern California style. Advertise it as prime real estate.(69)
The phenomenon has been documented in urban sociology under the header of "gentrification", or "the residential rehabilitation of working-class neighbourhoods"(70). Gentrification is in fact a side-effect of the suburbanization process, "since suburbanization resulted in a devalorization of the inner-city housing stock, it created the very possibility of revalorization."(71) Whether or not gentrification had any positive effects on the city has been amply discussed. While some claim that gentrification has been of substantial value in revitalizing city centers, others, and Wideman clearly belongs to this second front, "point to the concomitant displacement of lower-income residents and small-scale business."(72) Thus, crime and homelessness were not solved, but relocated to other parts of the city. Neil Smith introduced the term "revanchist city" in this respect, by which he refers to the fact that cities have come to depend on "a greed-inspired attack by politicians and realtors against a mix of local minorities, lower classes, and homeless persons."(73)
In Fatheralong, Wideman is at pains to sketch up the net result of the several changes traditional African American neighbourhoods have been subjected to. In describing the ruinous effects of Pittsburgh"s efforts in urban renewal, the so-called Pittsburgh Renaissance, which started in the "flush post-war"(74) fifties and was an attempt at cleaning up some neighbourhoods in decay, he reaches an acrid conclusion. According to Wideman, the Renaissance was ultimately planned and executed by a few rich men who wanted nothing but get richer. The tangible result, however, is a general spread of the poor living conditions of the formerly well contained "urban underclass". With a firm portion of cynism (for example, in that "equal opportunity" is reduced to the equal chance of killing a person), Wideman observes:
[...] the disease of urban blight that once had been concentrated in a few of the worst places on the Hill and North Side now decentralized, rampant in nearly every black community of the inner city and suburbs. Each area bleeding. Each with its gang turf and drug turf, its chaos of broken homes, broken schools, broken spirits, broken promises, its equal opportunity to participate in the daily shoot-em-ups as young men annihilate themselves in wars whose only purpose seems to be saving their true enemies the trouble of finishing them off. Finishing the destruction of black lives started with the master plan of urban recycling, redistribution of space was conceived.(75)
(1) "The years 1916-1930 marked the largest migration of African-Americans to Pittsburgh." see: Galloway, Ed and Miriam Meislik. "An Overview of Pittsburgh History: From the "Forks of the Ohio" to the "Steel City" and Beyond". 1999. http://pittsburgh.about.com/. December 16, 2000. n.p.
(2) "From 1892 until 1943 [Ellis Island] served as an entry point for immigrants to the US, and later (until 1954) as a detention centre for people awaiting deportation. [...] The island is named after Samuel Ellis, a Manhattan merchant who owned it in the 1770s." see: The Oxford English Reference Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 (second edition).
(3) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. (1984) London: Picador, 1997. 22. — A Dago is offensive slang denoting a foreigner, especially a Spaniard, a Portuguese, or an Italian. In the same offensive way, a Hunkie is used to signify a person of Hungarian origin and a Polack a person of Polish origin (see: The Oxford English Reference Dictionary).
(4) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 22.
(5) Wideman, John Edgar. Sent For You Yesterday. New York: Houghton Miffin Company, 1983 (Mariner Books Edition). 21. — Cassina Way is the Homewood street where Wideman"s mother was born and raised, and where Wideman himself would live several years during his childhood. The name frequently returns in both his fictional and non-fictional work.
(6) ibidem. 51.
(7) ibidem. 20.
(8) ibidem. 20.
(9) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 73.
(10) Wideman, John Edgar. Sent For You Yesterday. 20.
(11) In 1940, only 15 percent of the American women were employed. By 1970, the situation had changed to the extent that nearly half of the American women had a job. (see: Mauk, David and John Oakland. American Civilization. London: Routledge. 1997 (second edition). 92.)
(12) Wideman, John Edgar. Philadelphia Fire. (1990) New York: Random House, 1991 (First Vintage Contemporaries Edition). 42.
(13) Mauk, David and John Oakland. American Civilization. 184.
(14) see: "Harlem Renaissance: 1919-1940". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. 929-937.
(15) "Harlem Renaissance: 1919-1940" In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 934.
(16) see: The Oxford English Reference Dictionary
(17) see: Galloway, Ed and Miriam Meislik. "An Overview of Pittsburgh History". n.p.
(18) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 23.
(19) see: Mauk, David and John Oakland. American Civilization. 239.
(20) Wideman, John Edgar. Sent For You Yesterday. 35.
(21) "The Vernacular Tradition". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literatury. 6.
(22) GUST. The Urban Condition: Space, Community and Self in the Contemporary Urban Metropolis. Rotterdam: O1O Publishers, 1999. 60.
(23) Washington, Booker T(aliaferro). Up From Slavery. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. 9.
(24) GUST. The Urban Condition. 62.
(25) ibidem. 62.
(26) ibidem. 60.
(27) "Literature of the Reconstruction to the New Negro Renaissance: 1865—1919". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 466.
(28) "Literature of the Reconstruction to the New Negro Renaissance: 1865—1919". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 466.
(29) Wideman, John Edgar. Damballah. (1981) In: The Homewood Books. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. 29-30.
(30) GUST. The Urban Condition. 61-62.
(31) ibidem. 62.
(32) 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.
(33) GUST. The Urban Condition. 63.
(34) "The Literature of Slavery and Freedom: 1746—1865". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 130.
(35) Anonymous. A Slave"s Story. Putnam's Monthly Magazine. New York, Volume 9, 1857. 614-620. see: Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library, http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/modeng/modeng0.browse.html. November 3, 2000. n.p.
(36) The short story "Tommy", about the crime of a Homewood local, appeared both as a short story in Damballah (1981) and, slightly modified, as a chapter in Hiding Place (1981). There are reasonable grounds to consider Tommy to be a slightly fictionalized version of Wideman"s brother Bobby.
(37) Wideman, John Edgar. Sent For You Yesterday. 152.
(38) Wideman, John Edgar. Two Cities. (1998) London: Picador, 2000. 107.
(39) Wideman, John Edgar. Hiding Place. (1981). In: The Homewood Books. 270.
(40) For an extended analysis of the connotations attached to the notion of escape in Philadelphia Fire, I refer to the case-study in part four.
(41) Goodman, Joseph. "Cecil Could Run -- But He Couldn"t Hide". New York Times, April 19, 1970. http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/04/specials/wideman-home.html. October 27, 2000.
(42) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 40.
(43) Mauk, David and John Oakland. American Civilization. 195.
(44) Wideman, John Edgar. Sent For You Yesterday. 119.
(45) Wideman, John Edgar. Hiding Place. In: The Homewood Books. 214.
(46) Wideman, John Edgar. Sent For You Yesterday. 150.
(47) ibidem. 151-152.
(48) ibidem. 152.
(49) ibidem. 153.
(50) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 85.
(51) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 75.
(52) Malcolm X. "The Ballot or the Bullet". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 92.
(53) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 74-75.
(54) GUST. The Urban Condition. 79.
(55) ibidem. 79.
(56) Malcolm X. "The Ballot or the Bullet". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 91-92.
(57) ibidem. 91.
(58) ibidem. 94.
(59) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 111-113.
(60) "The Black Arts Movement: 1960 - 1970". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 1795.
(61) Wideman, John Edgar. Sent For You Yesterday. 22.
(62) Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. 62.
(63) Wideman, John Edgar. Two Cities. 38.
(64) Wideman, John Edgar. Fatheralong. 22.
(65) quoted in: GUST. The Urban Condition. 41.
(66) Wideman, John Edgar. Fatheralong. 21.
(67) Wideman, John Edgar. Fatheralong. 25-26.
(68) ibidem. 28.
(69) ibidem. 28 - 29.
(70) GUST. The Urban Condition. 101.
(71) ibidem. 101.
(72) ibidem. 102.
(73) ibidem. 102.
(74) Wideman, John Edgar. Fatheralong. 27.
(75) ibidem. 27.