Brothers and Keepers Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

John Edgar Wideman

Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

The subject of a segment on the popular television program 60 Minutes, Brothers and Keepers was controversial for its criticisms of the national prison system, of racism, and of urban decay. In light of the continuing struggle for equal rights for people of color, the book has retained its relevance to issues of racism and penal reform.

A National Book Award nominee, Brothers and Keepers has been praised both for its analysis of social forces that oppress African Americans and for its sensitive probing of the relationship of two brothers. Wideman has also drawn acclaim for his skillful use of African American street argot and for his interweaving of autobiography and biography. Like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845), Brothers and Keepers is an African American captivity narrative; it is also an example of the broader corpus of American prison literature, ranging from Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” to The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and Etheridge Knight’s Poems from Prison (1968). Wideman’s book is also situated within the rich tradition of African American autobiography that extends from early slave narratives to twentieth century works such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) and Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power (1992).

In his first novel, A Glance Away (1967), and...

(The entire section is 532 words.)