Brothers and Keepers

by John Edgar Wideman

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

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The subject of a segment on the popular television program 60 Minutes, Brothers and Keepers was controversial for its criticisms of the national prison system, of racism, and of urban decay. In light of the continuing struggle for equal rights for people of color, the book has retained its relevance to issues of racism and penal reform.

A National Book Award nominee, Brothers and Keepers has been praised both for its analysis of social forces that oppress African Americans and for its sensitive probing of the relationship of two brothers. Wideman has also drawn acclaim for his skillful use of African American street argot and for his interweaving of autobiography and biography. Like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845), Brothers and Keepers is an African American captivity narrative; it is also an example of the broader corpus of American prison literature, ranging from Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” to The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and Etheridge Knight’s Poems from Prison (1968). Wideman’s book is also situated within the rich tradition of African American autobiography that extends from early slave narratives to twentieth century works such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) and Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power (1992).

In his first novel, A Glance Away (1967), and especially in the “Homewood Trilogy” (a series of novels consisting of 1981’s Hiding Place and Damballah and 1983’s Sent for You Yesterday) Wideman began to explore his central themes of the nature of time, familial history, and African American culture as exemplified by the people and places of the Homewood section of Pittsburgh where he grew up. Brothers and Keepers addresses these same subjects in the form of nonfiction. Wideman’s honesty and passion lend the work emotional power, while his technical skills and successful narrative experimentation make for a formal tour de force. Many critics agree that Wideman, whose work has been compared to that of William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, has developed a unique voice in American literature through his mixture of African American street dialect and traditional literary language.

While Wideman’s fiction has received considerable critical praise (Sent for You Yesterday, for example, won the 1984 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction), Brothers and Keepers brought him unprecedented popular recognition. In Brothers and Keepers, he writes of the subtle and overt forms of racism that African Americans face daily and asks that his readers consider their complicity in the fates of the disenfranchised such as Robby Wideman. Of his youth, Robby observes, “We wasn’t that bad off, but compared to what them little white kids had I always felt like I didn’t have nothing. . . . Couldn’t have what the white kids in Shadyside had, and I wasn’t allowed to look around the corner for something else.” Like Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), he is representative of those African Americans who have been taught to desire that which they are denied. Robby feels confined even as a child, not unlike the inmates of Western State Penitentiary with whom he will later serve his life sentence.

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Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)