Fatheralong

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.)

Form and Content

The five essays that constitute Fatheralong are prefaced by “Common Ground,” an introductory essay that defines the terms and assumptions about race and society John Edgar Wideman will use throughout the remainder of his memoir. The common ground that African Americans share as survivors of slavery, Wideman argues, covers a continent, a gene pool, and a history, but African Americans also share the higher ground, both physical and spiritual, that they aspire to reach. What often stands in the way of African American progress, however, is the notion of race itself—the idea that not all people are created equal and that some are born with the right to exploit others. Race not only reduces the complexity of African American cultural history but also confuses and cripples people of any color. If people listen, however, Wideman insists that they can also hear stories of African Americans trying to work out ways to transcend race, such as the stories told in Fatheralong. One antidote to the distorting notion of race, then, is the book itself. The stories here may help African Americans, Wideman hopes, in their struggle to reinvent themselves by giving them a better understanding of what they share as human beings.

The memoir itself is less theoretical and much more personal. In essence, the five essays of Fatheralong that follow “Common Ground”—“Promised Land,” “Fatheralong,” “Littleman,” “Picking Up My Father at the Springfield Station,” and “Father Stories”—describe trips that Wideman takes with his father. Some trips are short, as when his father drives him to the Pittsburgh airport after a family visit; some are longer, as when the two men fly to South...

(The entire section is 706 words.)

Fatheralong

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The five essays that make up this short memoir are prefaced by “Common Ground,” which defines the assumptions of the whole collection, and in which Wideman makes his most important statements about race and society in America. Among its many scars, the “paradigm of race” denies black diversity and transforms color into a sign of class, culture, and inferiority.” The antidotes to these distortions are the stories Wideman tells here which 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.”

In essence, the five essays of FATHERALONG describe trips Wideman takes with his father; put in socioeconomic terms, the book is 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, S.C., as survivors during Reconstruction; to Pittsburgh as black migrants in the beginning of this century looking for better work; and finally back to South Carolina as adults trying to understand something of “the miracle and disgrace” of this complex history. The trips are also psychological, for they describe Wideman’s attempt to understand his father, their common roots, and thus himself, and his relationship to his own sons.

In many ways, Wideman may remind readers of other...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Berben-Masi, Jacqueline. “Prodigal and Prodigy: Fathers and Sons in Wideman’s Work.” Callaloo: A Journal of African-American and African Arts and Letters 22, no. 3 (Summer, 1999): 677-84. Draws on French theorists Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault and finds the parable of the prodigal son in Wideman’s text. Part of an issue of Callaloo devoted to the European response to Wideman’s work.

Byerman, Keith. “Reviews.” African American Review 30, no. 2 (Summer, 1996): 292-93. Good overview of Fatheralong; finds that Wideman has compounded the problem he discusses by not fully addressing...

(The entire section is 250 words.)