Damballah, 1981

(Great Characters in Literature)

John Lawson

John Lawson, who sometimes appears in the stories in the persona of Doot Lawson. Lawson is the grandson of John French and brother of Tommy Lawson. He returns to Homewood after teaching in Wyoming and learns many of its stories. Losing his individuation as he connects past with present and turns sadness into song, John is the “blues mind” who posits Homewood within a collectivity of ancestry and tradition. Finding a voice to tell his brother’s tale, John begins Damballah as an alien from his culture. Through stories and memory, he acquires the role of witness from Sybela Owens, the escaped slave at the root of the Lawson family tree, and Aunt May. He learns to listen and discovers himself occupying the place of griot.

John French

John French, the capricious grandfather of the narrator. French is a big, loud, gambling man who loves his family and friends. With Lionel Strayhorn and Albert Wilkes, French engages in rough camaraderie that gives him an undeviating moral sense of ritual that belies his poverty. He scavenges a large RCA Victrola and collects blues records. His records are destroyed by Carl French (his son), Lucy Tate, and their junkie friends during a drug frenzy. After his death, his family members scatter.

Hiding Place, 1981

(Great Characters in Literature)

Bess Simpkins

Bess Simpkins, the granddaughter of Sybela Owens and Charlie Bell. She lives as a hermit in the remains of the family home on top of Bruston Hill, in a figurative and literal past. Having lost an only son in World War II, Mother Bess sustains a self-indulgent presence by not listening to the accidents of the past. Tommy’s dream summons familial transcendence, and Mother Bess flees Bruston Hill to tell the truth about Lizabeth’s boy.

Tommy Lawson

Tommy Lawson, the narrator’s fugitive brother and the great-great-nephew of Mother Bess. Even though he dwells in the selfish center of himself, Tommy has a gift for talk and song. He flees the police, who seek to arrest him for a murder he did not commit. Hiding out at Mother Bess’s house, Tommy is intent on denying the significance of the past. With Mother Bess as chronicler, he learns that his existence depended on May saving his mother’s life. Born dead, Lizabeth (Tommy’s mother) was brought to life when she was plunged into a snowbank. After dreaming about walking on a beach with his son when life was good, Tommy learns the meaning of listening and how the present is contingent on the past.


Clement, a slow-witted orphan who runs errands at Big Bob’s barbershop and who makes deliveries at Bruston Hill. Like Mother Bess and Tommy, Clement is alienated, frustrated, and separated from the center of family and community. He becomes involved with Mother Bess and Tommy and watches their connection strengthen.

Sent for You Yesterday, 1983

(Great Characters in Literature)

John Lawson

John Lawson, who learns how to listen. John and Brother Tate are linked by stories and music. He dances to Jimmy Rushing’s “Sent for You Yesterday, and Here You Come Today” in the imagined presence of his artistic forebears, Brother Tate and Albert Wilkes. In the dance are all the voices that Lucy earlier heard in Wilkes’s playing. The narrator affirms truth by learning to dance.

Albert Wilkes

Albert Wilkes, who returns to Homewood seven years after becoming a fugitive from charges of murder after killing a white policeman. Despite John French’s cautions, Wilkes walks around Homewood undisguised. Refusing to conceive of himself as a victim, Wilkes returns to piano playing and to the white woman with whom he had an affair; she was the policeman’s wife. Lucy and Brother Tate are listening to his music when the police break down the door and kill him at the piano.

Brother Tate

Brother Tate, a silent, scat-singing, African American albino susceptible to Wilkes’s piano playing. After informing on Wilkes, Brother Tate is present when the police kill the piano player. Seven years later, Brother has a complicated dream in which he is Wilkes, returning to Homewood. Brother plays the piano for only five years. He stops both playing and talking after the death of his albino son, Junebug. As a historic continuance, Brother becomes a sort of remote maternal presence for the narrator and a substitute for Junebug. Brother Tate, Carl French (the narrator’s uncle), and Lucy turn to drugs after claiming that “being a junkie was better than being nothing.”

Lucy Tate

Lucy Tate, the common-law wife of Carl. She is a witness to Wilkes’s “brilliant music” and his murder. Like the unnamed boy in Damballah, Lucy is able to testify to Wilkes’s music, a music that expresses the inexpressible. She tells Doot many of the Homewood stories he learns.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Homewood. Long-established black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The three volumes brought together to form The Homewood Trilogy are set in, or circle around, this black section of Pittsburgh. As John Edgar Wideman writes in his preface to the volume, the trilogy offers an investigation from many angles, “not so much of a physical location, Homewood . . . but of a culture, a way of seeing and being seen. Homewood is an idea, a reflection of how its inhabitants act and think.”

The three volumes of The Homewood Trilogy—two novels and a collection of a dozen stories—depict the life and history of one black neighborhood, a district that has all the strengths and dangers of any inner city. It is a neighborhood of houses and yards, of gathering places (the barber shop, for example, or bars like the Brass Rail and the Velvet Slipper), and of other institutions like the Elks Club, the Homewood African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the A&P supermarket on Homewood Avenue. It is the home of John French and his wife Freeda in the 1920’s, of their daughter Lizabeth and her husband Edgar Lawson twenty years later, and their grandsons John and Tommy Lawson forty years later. Cassina Way is the street on which these generations live, and where John French dies after a heart attack (wedged between bathtub and toilet). It is a neighborhood in which crime is common, drugs are taking over...

(The entire section is 545 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bennion, John. “The Shape of Memory in John Edgar Wideman’s Sent for You Yesterday.” Black American Literature Forum 20 (Spring/Summer, 1986): 143-150. Observes that the nontraditional form of this concluding volume in the Homewood trilogy involves “a structuring of reality which balances past and present, consciousness and subconsciousness, memory and actuality, life and death.”

Berben, Jacqueline. “Beyond Discourse: The Unspoken Versus Words in the Fiction of John Edgar Wideman.” Callaloo 8 (Fall, 1985): 525-534. Looks at the differences between the deliberately misleading dialogue in Hiding Place and the truer expressions of feeling in the characters’ nonverbal communications, dreams, and fantasies. An excellent analysis of Wideman’s technique.

Birkerts, Sven. “The Art of Memory.” The New Republic 207 (July 13, 1992): 42-49. Argues that Wideman, on the basis of his short fiction and The Homewood Trilogy, is the preeminent male African American writer of his generation. Praises his skill in moving through time and in and out of memory, in order to chronicle the history of a family, a place, and a people.

Coleman, James W. Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. A major...

(The entire section is 422 words.)