Brothers and Keepers

by John Edgar Wideman

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Masterplots II: African American Literature Brothers and Keepers Analysis

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Addressing his brother, John Edgar Wideman states, “The usual notion of time, of one thing happening first and opening the way for another and another, becomes useless pretty quickly when I try to isolate the shape of your life from the rest of us, when I try to retrace your steps and discover precisely where and when you started to go bad.” While the older Wideman may not be able to pinpoint the beginning of Robby’s demise, Brothers and Keepers does illuminate the underlying causes, personal and social, that led to his incarceration. Above all else, the book illustrates that the reasons for the vast difference in the fates of the two brothers are anything but simple. Wideman never excuses his brother of personal responsibility for his actions, but he nevertheless emphasizes the key role played by historical and social factors far beyond his brother’s control.

Prison serves as a metaphor in Brothers and Keepers for the conditions under which inhabitants of the African American ghetto live. According to his brother, the course of Robby’s life was largely predetermined by societal forces that subverted his opportunity for success. Wideman writes that “Robby’s chance for a normal life was as illusory as most citizens’ chances to be elected to office or run a corporation.” Time spent in the prison system further corrupts the individual, he argues, as inmates receive an education in crime rather than the skills necessary to become productive members of society.

Throughout Brothers and Keepers, Wideman, like the author and sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois before him, portrays the struggles of African Americans who feel divided by ties to their ancestral heritage and the exigencies of living in a dominant white society. John’s own experience as a son of the African American neighborhood of Homewood who goes on to gain acceptance in the predominantly white world of academia serves as a prime illustration of such difficulties. The cost of assimilation was rejection of his heritage. As Wideman writes, “I was running away from Pittsburgh, from poverty, from blackness.” Brothers and Keepers is, in large part, Wideman’s attempt to reclaim that heritage, to acknowledge his connection to Homewood and to his brother. He honors that commitment in the form of the book, too, as he gives voice to Robby, recounting his dialogue in his own vernacular; the result is a kind of play on Standard English, akin to a good jazz solo in its improvisational and musical qualities.

In an essay entitled “The Black Writer and the Magic of the Word,” Wideman states, “My goal has always been to write as well as anybody has ever written, but I am sure now that for a long time I didn’t know what really counted as legitimate subject matter, legitimate language, for such an enterprise.” He turns to his familial and racial heritage for that subject matter and language in Brothers and Keepers. The work is infused with an affection and respect for African American artistic and cultural forms, particularly popular music and storytelling, both written and oral. Wideman stresses the importance of stories and storytelling to understanding one’s self and one’s history throughout his work. In Brothers and Keepers, he puts that belief into practice, examining his own past and that of his kin and recording his story, and their stories, for generations to follow.

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