Last Updated September 5, 2023.
John Edgar Wideman is a celebrated author whose works often explore the complexities of race relations in America. There are a number of different characters depicted in his novel The Cattle Killing. In this response, I will focus on outlining a few of the important characters in this creative, experimental work of fiction. I will also provide some quotes from the author that provide insight into his approach to characterization in The Cattle Killing.
While more than one character performs the role of narrator in The Cattle Killing, the primary narrator is a preacher of mixed black and white heritage. This preacher is a free man prone to experiencing mysterious visions during seizures. He is driven to travel to Philadelphia in 1793 due to these visions. He travels during a time in which the yellow fever epidemic is raging in America.
Some of the ghostly presences the preacher witnesses include a black female servant and a deceased white child. But the preacher is also haunted by memories of people killed in horrific acts of racist violence. These people include a group of black religious people and an interracial couple. As the novel progresses, the preacher loses touch with the Christian faith he has dedicated himself to representing.
In an interview with Laura Miller for Salon (1996) Wideman noted how the preacher is motivated by a desire for a particular type of love that, by its nature, will always be unrequited:
"My preacher in the book thinks he's chasing a flesh-and-blood woman. But what attracts him is the spirit that is contained in that particular envelope of body . . . . He will never be able to capture—through the flesh, or the pursuit of the flesh of a particular person—everything that a spirit contains. Therefore it might be true that all love is doomed to be unrequited or unfulfilled . . . That's what keeps you coming back, in a way."
The African Xhosa Tribe
The cattle killing of the book's title is a reference to the actions of the African Xhosa tribe. Acting under the influence of a false prophecy, these characters are depicted as killing their cattle, as they believe this will free them from the colonizing presence of white people and prevent them falling victim to enslavement. Tragically, as the herd was the tribe's only significant material resource, this act of violence (and faith) fails to save them from harm.
In his interview with Laura Miller for Salon (1996), Wideman identified the depiction of the cattle killing in the novel as central to the message he hoped to communicate about the place of African Americans in both historical and contemporary American society:
"If I could boil the book down to a sentence or two, choose one thing that I want you to come away with, it is that if you believe the lies of your enemies, this is a sure path of self-destruction . . . . That's ultimately the biggest danger for African-American people, that myth of integration that's been sold to both whites and blacks . . . . It's really just a political accommodation that's asking a minority—in this case African Americans—to kill their cattle, to give up what's distinctive."