John Edgar Wideman’s avowed artistic end is the creation of characters whose rich inner lives testify to a “sense of themselves as spiritual beings” that challenges the deterministic simplicities often dominant in literary depictions of the African American sensibility. Like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin before him, Wideman insistently links naturalistic detail to an existential quest for meaning and integrity that is complicated by the peculiar difficulties of sustaining one’s humanity under the degradations of racism. While the material consequences of racist injustice are ever-present in his stories, Wideman makes clear that his most pressing concern is the threat posed to the souls of its victims. In turn, he suggests that the renewal of contemporary African American society, increasingly ravaged by hopelessness and self-destructiveness, lies in a self-conscious recovery of, and healing through, the cultural identity he so rigorously documents in his evocation of Homewood. Thus in Wideman’s fiction the struggle of individual souls in an absurd and dehumanizing world does not unfold in a completely existential void; his characters move within a community whose past vitality derived from history, traditions, language, and relationships linking generations back beyond the darkness of slavery. The imaginative architecture that unifies the Homewood Trilogy employs interpenetrating plot lines, family trees, and community legends to make clear that Wideman’s real subject is the communal survival once made possible by its citizens’ heroic decency against great odds.
Damballah, the collection of twelve short stories that begins the trilogy, announces Wideman’s intentions aesthetically as well as thematically. The fuguelike polyphony of voices achieved by bringing together separate narratives drawn from a wide spectrum of Homewood personalities and historical moments captures not only the community’s diversity but also the power of oral culture in all of its forms—speech, music, storytelling—to nourish and sustain it in the midst of unrelenting racial hostility. In “The Chinaman,” a narrative “I” identified elsewhere as John (and quite evidently an autobiographical presence) explains that the funeral of his maternal grandmother, Freeda, had reconnected him with old family legends that he had years earlier set aside as unworthy of serious literary treatment. Listening months later to his own mother describe Freeda’s death and thereby complete a story he had been unable to finish alone, he concludes, “The shape of the story is the shape of my mother’s voice.” Wideman’s narrator repeatedly explains that this text is a collaborative project in which narratives culled from the collective memory of his family are woven together through the mediating agency of his own consciousness to reveal a design that affirms the faith in human possibility now leaching away in the ruins that were once Homewood.
Wideman’s preoccupation with the crisis of black men in modern America—a crisis vividly depicted in his own estrangement from his origins and his brother Rob’s criminality and imprisonment—explains the placement of his maternal grandfather, John French, at the center of these stories. French’s defiant courage, loyalty, quick wit, tough-minded devotion to his family, and acute survival instincts make him a model of masculine virtue for a new generation desperately in need of his example. He stands in seemingly obvious contrast to his equally talented but blighted grandson Tommy Lawson, the narrator’s drug-addicted brother, whose crimes destroy his future and who is the counterbalancing focus of the last third of the collection. Yet, French lives on in Tommy’s rebellious energy and probing mind, making the youth’s current circumstances all the more tragic.
Wideman also records the voices of the strong women who have sustained the community throughout the crises surrounding their men and whose emotional anguish reflects the complex emotional dynamic between black men and women in Wideman’s fiction. Freeda Hollinger French, the text’s matriarch, proves herself capable of swift, violent intervention to safeguard her child or her husband in “Lizabeth: The Caterpillar Story.” Lizabeth French Lawson actually gives birth to the narrator in “Daddy Garbage,” within a story line juxtaposed to the grim discovery of another infant’s frozen corpse and the moral imperative of the two old men who find it and insist upon a decent burial. As the future is denied to one child and extended to another, one perceives a subtle echo of the divergent paths Lizabeth’s own sons will pursue in later years.
Wideman’s sensitivity to the orality of African American culture leads him to seek linguistic approximations for the music and talk-story patterns at the heart of African American imaginative expression. His prose resonates with the jazz rhythms of African American vernacular and often quotes directly from the musical yoking of human misery and triumph in what is called the blues. In “The Songs of Reba Love Jackson,” a successful Gospel singer admits that her artistry expresses emotional nuances beyond the power of language alone: “Couldn’t speak about some things. She could only sing them. Put her stories in the songs she had heard all her life so the songs became her stories.” In the closing piece of the volume, “The Beginning of Homewood,” the narrator creates a wall of sound from the voices he has unloosed in the preceding stories; writing to his brother Tommy in prison, he acknowledges that his real task as a writer has been to hear and synthesize those...
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