(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

After learning of the 1985 police attack on the Philadelphia headquarters of John Africa’s MOVE organization, an attack that destroyed fifty-three houses and killed eleven people, Cudjoe, a once-promising black novelist, leaves the Greek island where he has been living since his divorce and returns to Philadelphia. There he hopes to find some explanation for this seemingly senseless tragedy, and then, like Wideman, to write about it. First he must locate Simba, the child who escaped the fire at the MOVE compound. Simba, orphaned as a result of the fire, stands for all the novel’s lost children, including Cudjoe’s biracial children now living with their mother; Wideman’s imprisoned son, who along with Wideman figures prominently in the second of the novel’s three parts; the inner-city youths whom Cudjoe taught before abandoning them in order to pursue his own higher education; and finally the younger Cudjoe, who sought to escape both his identity and his responsibility as an African American.

At the sparsely attended funeral service for the eleven victims of the fire, “White college kids riff and scat an elegy for four voices.” Philadelphia Fire is itself an elegy for multiple voices written by an author who, although not himself white, has, like Cudjoe, gained entrance to the white world and enjoyed the “Power Money Things” coveted by Kaliban’s Kiddie Korps (KKK), the youths whom Cudjoe had taught earlier in his life and who now communicate through graffiti and violence. The novel mourns the eleven direct victims of the fire along with the child Simba, living but lost, for all practical purposes one of the KKK; Wideman’s son; Cudjoe’s...

(The entire section is 690 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Philadelphia Fire, the work for which Wideman won an unprecedented second PEN/Faulkner Award, seethes with its author’s indignation over fifty years of unabated neglect and outright hostility toward African American inner-city communities by political elites and average citizens alike. Yet neglect alone does not explain the central event commemorated in the novel: the city government’s 1985 firebombing of a West Philadelphia working-class neighborhood to eradicate a group calling itself MOVE, which had become a profound embarrassment to the administration of its first black mayor, Wilson Goode. The conflagration that resulted from this police action killed eleven people, five of them children; it also burned fifty-three homes to the ground and rendered 262 members of the larger community homeless.

Having spent much of his own young manhood in “the City of Brotherly Love,” Wideman clearly took personally the failure of African American leaders to recognize the desperate need for hope and connection that had driven persons such as his fictional Margaret Jones—a hardworking single mother of two—into the realm of “the King,” James Brown, the charismatic MOVE leader whose antiestablishment stance and lifestyle voiced a challenge to the injustice with which so many of his followers had been raised: “He be preaching what Jesus preached except it’s King saying the words. Bible words only they issuing from King’s big lips. And you know he means them and you understand them better cause he says them black, black like him, black like you. . . .”

Wideman does not make the MOVE compound itself the focal point of his narrative, however. His protagonist, a middle-aged African American expatriate named Cudjoe, offers another variation on the Widemanesque artist-intellectual estranged from his community but brought jarringly back to reclaim it in the wake of catastrophe: in this case, after watching Philadelphia’s globally televised apocalypse from the other side of the world. Specifically, Cudjoe has been drawn back to the United States by the tale of...

(The entire section is 856 words.)