Style and Technique
Wideman’s deft shifts in point of view convincingly dramatize the alienation of slaves from owners and of both groups from Ryan. However, whether the boy finally hears Damballah’s instructions and the murdered slave’s stories or merely has grown simpleminded is a question that the author resolves through other techniques.
First, Wideman suggests a soul-link between boy and man by describing their physical features and actions in related terms. Both Ryan and the child resemble tall, gangly, aquatic birds, specifically storks or cranes, for example. Similarly, just as the story opens with Ryan absently bathing and peering into the shallows, so the boy himself spends much of his day dreamily studying his image, “like his face reflected in the river,” in Mistress’s flatware. Thus, to the careful reader, this child’s communication with the dead old man is merely an extension of a bond that always existed between them.
Also, because of references to versions of the Greek Orion myths sprinkled throughout this story, Ryan comes across as not a pitiful slave but an extraordinarily gifted spirit. Three elements prominent in “Damballah”—eyes, water, and a bull—play key parts in the ancient tales as well. The Greek Orion, blinded by an angry king, regained his sight by looking directly into the rising sun. Interestingly, black Ryan watches the morning sun illuminate the river, and the boy is struck by the penetrating quality of the...
(The entire section is 532 words.)