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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 586


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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...

(The entire section contains 586 words.)

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