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.)