Brothers and Keepers

by John Edgar Wideman

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Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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In many ways, Brothers and Keepers is unique among autobiographical statements by black leaders, political figures, and writers since the beginning of the 1960’s. It is similar to other autobiographical statements by black writers in its indictment of the racist system that works to destroy the lives of black people, in this case the life of Wideman’s brother Robby, who live in bleak, crime-ridden neighborhoods. It is different from these works, however, in clearly showing that black individuals, in this case Wideman himself, can leave the community and achieve success in what is supposed to be the American Way. On one hand, the system looks closed and oppressive, but on the other, it seems to hold the promise of success to those blacks who focus themselves and venture out of their ethnic enclaves into the larger white world. Like many other works by black writers, Brothers and Keepers charges the white American system, but its main target is not really the system.

What distinguishes Brothers and Keepers is its insistence that talented, successful black people act responsibly toward family and community after they have achieved success. Unlike other such works of the mid-twentieth century, it does not put its greatest emphasis on the ravages of black poverty and white racism. It is a candid account of the thoughts of a black person who overcame poverty and racism and succeeded brilliantly in a white world. Brothers and Keepers shows that people such as Wideman must stay in contact with family and community and must continue to play a responsible role with other black people. The book certainly does not exonerate the system, but it asserts that one must first and foremost confront the self. Furthermore, it says that one must find a responsible way to reach across the chasm between the black and white worlds.

Brothers and Keepers complements Wideman’s fictional works that preceded it. Since he published his first novel in 1967, Wideman has been moving toward fictional forms and approaches that incorporate what he has learned from his formal training in Western universities and what he has been learning from his studies of black culture. Wideman’s continuing aim has been to make his fiction more substantive, more meaningful, by giving it a much stronger black voice. This black voice is a reflection of his knowledge of black culture and his commitment to the black community. As a black writer, Wideman does have a commitment to the community, and he demonstrates this clearly in the works preceding Brothers and Keepers. Brothers and Keepers complements the fictional works because it is a nonfictional analysis of and statement about Wideman’s concomitant development as a writer of fiction and as a person.

Brothers and Keepers clarifies and further develops the relationship between Wideman and his brother that emerges fictionally in Hiding Place (1981) and Damballah (1981). Robby is largely the same character as Tommy who appears in these works of fiction along with his brother, who is a writer and professor like Wideman.

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Masterplots II: African American Literature Brothers and Keepers Analysis


Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)