Brothers and Keepers, an autobiographical account of the relationship between novelist John Wideman and his brother Robby, who is serving a life sentence without parole for murder, is a fascinating book both for its reconsideration of central patterns of Afro-American cultural expression and for what its reception reveals concerning the position of black writers in the literary mainstream. Combining normally distinct autobiographical modes—the fugitive slave narrative, the passing narrative, the revolutionary autobiography, the celebration of family roots—Wideman makes an important contribution to the autobiographical genre, one which to some extent shapes the entire Afro-American literary tradition. In some ways, however, the reception of both book and author demands equally close attention. Reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review and named as one of the Review’s outstanding books of 1984, Brothers and Keepers catapulted Wideman to sudden prominence; he has since contributed a front-page essay to The New York Times Book Review and a long article to Sports Illustrated, been featured on 60 Minutes, written cover blurbs for books such as Russell Banks’s Continental Drift, and been included in several published surveys of literary figures. Clearly, Wideman deserves this recognition. Equally clearly, it derives only tangentially from the quality of Brothers and Keepers. Most important, the response seems to have almost nothing to do with the realities John Wideman places uncompromisingly at the center of his book: the realities of life for Robby Wideman, inside or outside of prison.
This seems particularly ironic, for Brothers and Keepers draws much of its power precisely from John Wideman’s intensive questioning of his comparatively limited previous success. Reared in Pittsburgh’s Homewood ghetto, John Wideman moved on first to the University of Pennsylvania on a basketball scholarship and later to a career as novelist and faculty member at the overwhelmingly white University of Wyoming. Counterpointing his experiences with those of his younger brother, who, despite a real if unpolished intellectual talent gravitated toward a street life centered on drugs and crime, John meditates at length on the price of his own success, which involved a degree of subtle and indirect denial of connection with his racial and familial history. Never simplistic or romantic about the brutalities of Afro-American street life and careful not to deny the benefits of his own contact with Euro-American culture, Wideman nevertheless expresses uncompromisingly his anger over the forces separating his culture from Robby’s. Against this background, the literary establishment’s recognition of Wideman—who has published six previous works of fiction of which only the 1984 P.E.N. Faulkner Award-winning Sent for You Yesterday received more than passing attention—raises serious questions. Critical acclaim focusing on Wideman’s subject matter seems doubly ironic. First, the situation of young black men such as Robby in the urban ghettos and prisons of the United States hardly developed overnight; Afro-American writing from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods (1902), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and Ann Petry’s The Street (1946) through Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) stresses the aimlessness and despair of street life. Second, Robby’s story had previously been presented in slightly fictionalized form in the novel Hiding Place (1981) and in “Tommy” and “Solitary” in Wideman’s short-story cycle Damballah (1981). Clearly, a deep concern on the part of critics for Robby’s experience cannot account fully for the success of John’s work.
Two alternative explanations for Wideman’s success—one literary, the other political—deserve consideration. The political explanation concerns a deeply rooted pattern of treatment of Afro-American writers. Dating back to William Dean Howells’ sponsorship of Dunbar in the 1890’s, the Euro-American literary establishment has typically recognized individual Afro-American writers as “official spokesmen.” Wright, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, and, most recently, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker have all attained substantial recognition for relatively brief periods. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such recognition, its transitory quality suggests that the white critics and editors conferring it have little real understanding of the works or authors’ literary importance. More serious, elevation of an official writer frequently serves to justify or mask the continuing failure of the mainstream to...
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