The Homewood Trilogy collects in a single volume works originally published individually but conceptualized as interdependent fictions about the specific African American community in Pittsburgh where Wideman was raised. Originally published in the early 1980’s, they resulted from Wideman’s rediscovery, while attending his grandmother’s 1973 funeral, of his childhood community’s richly evocative history. To keep faith with his source material, he initially chose to issue these three volumes as Avon paperbacks rather than in hardcover to improve their accessibility to the black reading public he hoped to reach. The third volume in that series brought Wideman his first PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Each volume draws from the family lore surrounding Wideman’s maternal grandfather John French and his descendants, including two brothers who mirror the author and his youngest brother Rob. The trilogy resulted from Wideman’s discovery that the stories of Homewood’s inhabitants offered him an untapped reservoir of literary raw material. By recovering those stories, he sought to demonstrate “that Black life for all its material impoverishment continues to produce the full range of human personalities, emotions, aspirations.” Moreover, Wideman uses racial experience to challenge delimiting racial categories: “Homewood is an idea. . . . [It] mirror[s] the characters’ inner lives, their sense of themselves as spiritual beings in a realm that rises above racial stereotypes and socioeconomic statistics.”
Recalling Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, the trilogy opens with an elaborate family tree mapping the relationships that provide the work’s imaginative spine. The texts it spawns also become metafictions, absorbing into themselves the many oral forms which have kept the past alive while drawing attention to the writer’s self-conscious difficulties in bending them to his aesthetic design.
The twelve short stories of Damballah demonstrate the human diversity of Homewood’s landscape. Its title derives from African myth: Damballah, the “good serpent of the sky,” proves a benevolent paternal deity whose detachment and wisdom shape the cosmos into a transcendent family. The title story involves an African-born slave named Orion whose spiritual strength rests upon native religious beliefs which he communicates to a slave boy through the repetition of Damballah’s name. When Orion is brutally executed after being falsely accused of sexual misconduct, the child returns his severed head to the natural world he had so revered.
In “The Beginning of Homewood,” the collection’s final tale, Wideman expands the historical context of the present by tracing his maternal ancestry to an escaped slave, Sybela Owens, and her master/lover, whose flight north brought them to Bruston Hill, the symbolic umbilicus of Homewood. Juxtaposed time frames abound in the volume, and Sybela’s tale appears within a contemporary meditation written to “Tommy,” the narrator’s brother, now in prison for murder. His situation raises the same issues of freedom, escape, and spiritual survival addressed in the slave’s story and prompts Wideman to metafictional musings on the act of writing and its relationship to lived events.
Those two tales frame ten other stories of black men and women struggling to maintain or recover an authentic existence in the face of unrelenting danger or disappointment. Among them are John French, the hard-drinking, tough-minded patriarch whose emotional presence dominates the twentieth century history of the French/Lawson clan; Freeda Hollinger French, his wife, whose violent act to save John’s life resonates through the text and expresses the complex emotional dynamic that Wideman maps between black men and women; Lizabeth French Lawson, the narrator’s mother and another heroic embodiment of the integrity and strength of black women facing crushing familial pressures; Reba Love...
(The entire section is 1630 words.)