Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

John Edgar Wideman admits that “Tommy,” like all the linked tales of Damballah (1981), arose from his desire to tell a story whose “theme was to be the urge for freedom, the resolve of the runaway to live free or die.” Though Tommy and his peers are not literal slaves, like his great-great-great-grandmother who escaped North, in many ways their struggles are no easier than hers and yield few long-term successes.

As Tommy walks through Homewood at the beginning of the story, he complains to himself that he has “no ride of his own so he’s still walking.” However, this statement belies the fact that he has tried to thwart the area’s encroaching listlessness. He once was lead singer of the Commodores, a group so popular that it drew throngs of listeners to its Sunday jam sessions. A recording deal fell through, however, thanks to a seedy agent, and the group was dissolved.

Tommy’s near success has been repeated in many ways by other men from Homewood’s row houses and projects. Some have traded apparent impossibilities for the tangible, quick fruition of a junkie’s nod. Others have relented unwillingly, their bodies blown asunder in the rice paddies of Vietnam. All have been suppressed by forces outside the community: In lieu of slavers seizing unsuspecting tribes, twentieth century whites use drugs, wars, and legal loopholes to entrap black men.

Tommy admires his brother, once an outstanding basketball...

(The entire section is 535 words.)