John Edgar Wideman is the author of dozens of books and stories and has in the last two decades claimed his rightful place among the most important contemporary American authors. Central to his legacy, the Homewood books, originally published as separate volumes, Damballah, Hiding Place, and Sent For You Yesterday, were collected under the title The Homewood Trilogy and published in 1985. ‘‘The Beginning of Homewood’’ has emerged as the most anthologized of all the stories in the volume.
‘‘The Beginning of Homewood’’ employs Wideman’s call and response narrative technique to blend the stories of his ancestor Sybela Owens, his elderly aunt May, and his own incarcerated brother, Robby. In the story, which he confesses has ‘‘something wrong with it,’’ he poses the question whether Sybela’s crime (of escaping slavery) can be weighed against Robby’s. Though Wideman never offers a resolution for this thorny problem, by juxtaposing these two images of freedom and bondage, he encourages readers to explore the complex and deeply ambiguous moral landscape that all of the characters inhabit.
The story opens as the narrator tries to explain how the story came into being. It began, he says, as a letter to his brother, which he ‘‘began writing on a Greek island two years ago, but never finished, never sent.’’ Addressing his absent brother, he then proceeds to tell ‘‘the story that came before the letter,’’ the story about his great-great-great-grandmother Sybela Owens and how she escaped slavery and settled in Pittsburgh in what is now known as Homewood.
At his grandfather’s funeral, the narrator had heard the elderly aunts talk of Sybela and the beginnings of Homewood. Through the intervening voices of his aunt May and Bess, the narrator relates the story of Sybela’s ‘‘escape, her five-hundredmile flight through hostile, dangerous territory.’’
Having been a slave on a plantation near Cumberland, Maryland, Sybela escaped one night with her two small children and Charlie Bell, the white man and son of the owner, who ‘‘stole’’ her when he learned that his father planned to sell her. The year was 1859; Sybela was around eighteen years old, and Charlie was the father of the children. Charlie and Sybela went on to have eighteen more children. Eventually, as Aunt May...
(The entire section is 576 words.)