Last Updated September 5, 2023.
A key theme of The Cattle Killing by John Edgar Wideman is the cyclical nature of history and how the events of one era are recapitulated in the next. The title of the work recalls the execution by the Xhosa peoples in South Africa of their cattle herds, in the belief that killing the cattle would drive out the white invaders who threatened their way of life. For Wideman, this legend has parallels with the mutually destructive violence between black youths in Philadelphia: the desperate but misguided efforts of people oppressed by their society to destroy the metaphorical cattle, who turn out to be themselves. The polyphonic narrative that the author adopts, alternating between the narratives of Isaiah and the unnamed former preacher of the nineteenth century, highlight the parallels in human suffering, as well as the helplessness of the observer in the face of this suffering. The author’s appeal to traditional tales from history—to the trials of the Xhosa people but also, in his use of the name "Isaiah" for his protagonist, to the prophet who gave hope to the Jewish people during their exile—imply a reliance on African and Judeo-Christian traditions. Such stories serve, for Wideman, as foundation stones of history, reference points which can be looked to in order to provide stability in the chaos of human society.
Speaking and storytelling:
Wideman’s belief in storytelling as a powerful means of healing is evidenced by the preacher’s turning to it as a means of healing Kathryn. The capacity to speak and to express oneself proves an avenue for liberation more than once during the novel. For example, it is the ability to speak and to express his past that begins to liberate Liam from the long silence he has undergone. Similarly, Kathryn’s ability to express herself as a scribe for MRS Thrush enables her to challenge white culture in a powerful way and to voice her own story in a way she would not usually have been permitted to do. Conversely, her “disappearance” into the lake (or, in the flashback, scene into a crowd of “more African people than I had ever seen”) implies her “true death.” In his 1994 autobiography, Wideman presents the idea that a people’s traditions truly die, or truly disappear, when they are submerged in forgetfulness.
MRS Thrush symbolizes what is, for Wideman, the problematic nature of the white liberal feminine ideal espoused by the early republic. While she is well-meaning in her support for black people and offers them the joint blessings of Religion and education, her physical blindness is metaphorical of her blindness to the situation of the children she is trying to educate. Despite her professions of care for these children, it seems significant that she maintains the physical separation essential to segregation, allowing Kathryn to be her hands as well as her eyes. The fire that ultimately destroys the orphanage (though it is started by one of the orphans) is significant because of its similarity to the fire started by overt racists that destroyed the house of Liam and his partner. For Wideman, though it is perhaps masked by good will, white liberal intent stems from the same destructive attitudes pertaining to race. The ultimate hypocrisy of the white ideal is indicated when MRS Thrush discovers that her husband, who as a doctor and public figure embodies the best of white culture, has in fact engaged in the most hideous sin that culture can conceive of: Miscegenation.