(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Brothers and Keepers demonstrates Wideman’s complex personal, sociological, and artistic response to his brother Rob’s life sentence for murder in 1978. In it he sees writ large the pathological interplay of white exploitation, racist neglect, and internal despair that have intensified, rather than lessened, in America’s cities since the 1960’s. Like the narrator of The Homewood Trilogy, Wideman presents himself with a bittersweet awareness that, in contrast to Rob, his lifelong efforts to straddle black and white cultural expectations have made him an incongruous figure in both worlds. The book opens in 1976 with the writer in the doubly white world of a snowy late winter in Laramie, Wyoming, where he teaches at the university, waiting intuitively for word from his fugitive younger brother even as he also deals with the aftermath of his infant daughter Jamila’s traumatic birth.

In facing Rob when he does arrive, and in their subsequent meetings in jail over the years, Wideman recognizes that their polarized circumstances provocatively express the duality of the African American’s psychological legacy in the United States. Ironically, each has pursued a path he has equated with the American Dream of material success and personal self-definition: John in the “safe” and deracinated terms of career and family championed by white society, Rob along more dangerous lines that challenge racist obstacles through illegal channels promising the glamor of the outlaw. Both men, despite their very different choices, now find themselves fumbling to recover what they sacrificed in pursuit of America’s elusive seduction of “making it.” Wideman also contextualizes his personal and familial anguish within a layered analysis of the American penal system that renders imprisonment a political, cultural, and...

(The entire section is 752 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Brothers and Keepers, John Edgar Wideman’s most popular novel, is a psychologically realistic portrait of two brothers. Although they grow up in the same environment, Homewood, these brothers travel diverse paths. Wideman is a black star pulsing brilliantly in a white universe; his brother, Robby, sinks into a life of crime and drug addiction. Robby’s path leads to his serving a life sentence without parole for taking part in a robbery in which a man was killed. Brothers and Keepers is a novel of tragic dimensions, grave despair, and spiritual survival.

This novel had to be written as much for Wideman as for Robby. It is a homecoming for Wideman—a return to the community of brotherhood, concern, and understanding. In part 1, “Visits,” readers learn that although Wideman never sees his color as an obstacle to his own success, he views Robby as a black victim of society’s ills: “A brother behind bars, my own flesh and blood, raised in the same house by the same mother and father; a brother confined in prison has to be a mistake, a malfunctioning of the system.”

In the second part of the novel, “Our Time,” Wideman describes his growth and maturation while he spends time with his brother on visits to the prison. Wideman is seen as searching for his own identity while he searches for reasons for Robby’s fall from grace. Learning that he needs as much help as Robby does, Wideman gains respect for Robby’s intelligence. Wideman also learns the truth about the foiled robbery attempt.

In the final section, “Doing Time,” a spirituality operates to bring harmony to the two brothers. Especially moving is Robby’s graduation speech as he receives his associate degree, and his promise to Wideman that he will “forever pray.” From a sociological point of view, it is interesting that prison can rehabilitate someone like Robby and motivate him to work on his education. It is an equally moving experience to see Wideman connect with his own identity and return to his roots. Wideman learns that he cannot escape genetics or the ghetto. Until Robby is free, Wideman is not free.