(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

With Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society John Edgar Wideman takes his place—with James Baldwin and, before him, Richard Wright—as an African American novelist and short-story writer who is raising a persistent and eloquent voice in the debate on race in America. The six essays collected here not only tell several poignant personal stories but also raise questions in a voice that will be hard for any sensitive reader, white or black, not to hear.

The five essays that make up the short memoir proper are prefaced by “Common Ground,” an essay that defines the terms and assumptions of the whole collection. Here Wideman makes his most important statements about race and society in America. The “common ground” that African Americans share as “survivors,” Wideman notes, includes “a continent, a gene pool, a history” but also “the higher ground, spiritual and material, we strive to gain.” What stands in the way of black progress is the “paradigm of race—a vision of humankind and society based on the premise that not all people are created equal and some are born with the right to exploit others.” Race not only reduces the complexity of black cultural history and “preempts our right to situate our story where we choose” but also confuses and cripples people of any color.

So race ain’t it. Huh-uh. The common ground is elsewhere: the bonds we struggle to sever, discover, invent, sustain, celebrate. If we pay attention, we hear many stories of black people trying to work out ways of living on the earth. Taken together the voices sing out a chorus of achievement.

One antidote to the distorting “paradigm of race” is thus this book itself. The stories Wideman tells here can help African Americans in their struggle to “reinvent” themselves by giving them “a glimpse of common ground where fathers and sons, mothers and daughters can sit down and talk, learn to talk and listen together again.” Wideman is attempting to “replace the paradigm of race,” to understand what human beings might be without it. Thus he proposes to write about “fathers, color, roots, time, language.”

The memoir itself is less theoretical and more personal, but bears out the ideas about race and racism that Wideman has outlined in this preface. In essence, the five essays of Fatheralong—“Promised Land,” “Fatheralong,” “Littleman,” “Picking Up My Father at the Springfield Station,” and “Father Stories”—describe trips that Wideman takes with his father: short ones, as when his father drives him to the Pittsburgh airport after a family visit; longer ones, as when the two fly to South Carolina to find their Wideman roots; and celebratory journeys, as when the whole family converges on Amherst for the wedding of one of Wideman’s sons.

Put in socioeconomic terms, the book is thus about places and about the history of African Americans’ getting to them: to America as slaves in the distant past, to the crossroads town of Promised Land, South Carolina, as survivors during Reconstruction, to Pittsburgh as black migrants in the beginning of the twentieth century looking for better work, and back to South Carolina as adults trying to understand something of “the miracle and disgrace” of this complex history. The book is thus a personal course on reading history and geography. As Wideman writes about the crucial trip south with his father, “Perhaps Promised Land is one of the maps I’ve returned to South Carolina with my father to learn to read. Or draw, even as we search.”

The trips described in Fatheralong are not only geographical and historical; they are emotional and psychological as well. They describe Wideman’s attempt to understand his father, their common roots, and thus himself, and finally his relationship to his own sons. (Fatheralong, appropriately, is dedicated both to Wideman’s father and to his sons.) The book is a personal memoir of fathers and sons, a geography of growing up black in the United States, and thus a story about living in the richest country in the world but not sharing that wealth.

Edgar Lawson Wideman left his family when his children were still in various stages of growing up. The author does not give all the...

(The entire section is 1766 words.)