Brothers and Keepers

by John Edgar Wideman

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

John muses that:

prison is an experience of death by inches, minutes, hours, days.

This quote speaks to Robert's and to so many other prisoners' experiences of being stripped of much of what makes life worth living. To deny someone freedom of movement and autonomy, especially in the context of a life sentence, can certainly be compared to a death sentence drawn out over a period of years. To be imprisoned is to face the reality that much of a person's life no longer belongs to them. No living being deserves to be in a cage, John asserts, and this quote absolutely emphasizes the brutal reality of how incarcerating someone strips that person of the ability to truly live.

John considers how he can not escape the brutal reality of his brother's imprisonment by stating,

I could never run fast enough or far enough. Robby was inside me.

This statement is part of John's consideration of how racism has so deeply affected Robby. Even though John was able to escape that racism in ways that Robby wasn't, he will never truly be free as long as his brother, and his figurative brothers, continue to be locked up due to a racist, oppressive system. John could try to escape this reality by separating himself along social and class lines from his incarcerated brother, but he knows that he can never truly escape the reality of an oppressive system.

Time's all you got in here.

This quote speaks to the ways in which prison strips incarcerated people of much of what it means to truly live one's life. In prison, existence is boiled down to simply that: existing. When autonomy and the ability to full pursue one's desires and passions are taken away, life becomes a sort of waiting-to-die game. Robert does choose to participate in pursuing an associate's degree at some point, which means that he is able to find ways to more meaningfully spend time in prison. However, this education is still not truly his in that he can not use his associate's degree in the ways that people who are not incarcerated are able to. Even the pursuit of an education is stripped down to a way to kill time.

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