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Regards croisés sur les Afro-Américains

Claude Julien

Fiction corner

“The Father-Son Paradigm as Microcosm of Diaspora: Theme, Style, and Structure in John Edgar Wideman’s Fiction”

Jacqueline Berben-Masi

Texte intégral

  • 1 See Wideman, 1984, 1994 and 1999. I am indebted to Michel Feith, who first called my attention to (...)

1The parameters of the present study include the whole of John Wideman’s works. First, from haunting allusions to the scattering of formerly united African communities taken into slavery, we encounter reliving the Middle Passage in Hurry Home and again in The Cattle Killing. Of particular interest, there is the inescapable identification between the Jewish and African holocausts, linked to Diaspora, “lest we forget” in Hurry Home and Sent for you Yesterday. Next, the destruction of family bonds tears apart parent and child, siblings, and ultimately, through anonymity and invisibility, the black man himself. Reuben brings us an example of fragmentation and dispersion of the African male body. Omnipresent ghosts of the past appear in things scattered by nature in Hurry Home, Fatheralong, and Brothers and Keepers, or those “Certain passionate African spirits” who “are so strong and willful they refuse to die” and “roam the earth, bodiless, seeking a new home” through the “serial inhabitation of mortal bodies” (Wideman, 1996, 15). Initially, the latter multiply the effects of Diaspora by again casting adrift black souls, but they gradually devour the lives of their host victims, thus condemning them to a state of limbo, another Diaspora, cut off from the community of “saints.” Prison, too, is an agent of Diaspora that separates families, walling off those elements mainstream society cannot otherwise control and effectively exiling them from their communities.1 Lastly, Wideman’s increasingly disjunctive style projects readers into a Diaspora of the imagination, one that demands reconstruction of the stories to fill in the missing figures. While “All Stories Are True,” the full tale is elusive because of the kaleidoscopic reconfigurations of the tantalizing shards of information provided, an apt image of Diaspora.

2Thematically, in Wideman, the black Diaspora leaves its imprint of historic tragedy first in the dispersion of peoples and families; then, in the twinning motif that inevitably ends in severance and the feeling of inconsolable loss; and, lastly and most traumatically, in the destruction of the male bonding between fathers and sons that he seems to accuse not only as the root cause of present-day black Diaspora but also the rent in the racial and social fabric of the nation that it causes. Several Wideman characters seek to halt the process. Hence the heroic quest, a universal myth, underpins both Hurry Home and Fatheralong by renewing the son’s peregrinations in search of the father, who, once rediscovered, will confer his blessings, powers, and kingdom upon the man-child he recognizes as his offspring (Campbell, 1949). The father found legitimizes the child and resolves the issue of identity, one that Ralph Ellison has singled out as the African-American obsession of the XXth century. By contrast, Diaspora effaces the trail; it blurs the evidence; it frustrates the need to identify one’s roots; it cuts off communication and destroys community.

3Wideman’s entire opus has been qualified as a Middle Passage, symbolizing that journey between the African homeland and the land of bondage, even if its scope encompasses the psychological transition of the loss of innocence in a racist society. He does not discount the endless, nefarious effects of the Middle Passage which denatured the lives of those who survived it, but also their descendants, to the last generation. The prefatory chapter, “Common Ground” in Fatheralong states outright and all in capital letters: “WE ARE IN THE MIDST OF A SECOND MIDDLE PASSAGE” (Wideman, 1994, xxii). The significance of the theme to the writer casts Diaspora into a central position. Diaspora, the catastrophe which preceded and followed that Middle Passage, from capture and deportation to the auction block, then in the migration from rural South to urban North, and ultimately in the devastation and desertion of black neighborhoods and communities.

4At the heart of its disastrous consequences is the sabotage of the male bonding between fathers and sons, thus forming a vicious circle, which, in turn, accelerates the process of Diaspora. Instead of a celebration of approaching maturity as a rite of passage that complements the severing of the psychological umbilical cord, the social separation of the young man from the mother’s domain and entrance into the men’s circle, an atmosphere of mourning surrounds the physical or psychological sundering of the paternal-filial link. That cleavage of male bonds precipitates a never-ending quest for the lost ascendant/descendant, as Wideman’s father-son characters nurse an open moral wound. Estrangement shapes the father-son paradigm. Critic Yves-Charles Grandjeat sees the father-son conflict as Wideman’s overriding obsession: the anguished question writes itself between the lines:

Car il faut le dire avec force, la première question autour de laquelle gravite avec angoisse son écriture, c’est celle-ci: comment être père ? Comment peut-on être père, être un père digne de ce nom quand on est Noir aux Etats-Unis aujourd’hui ? (Grandjeat, 2000, 69.)

5In free English translation, “How to be a father? How can one be a father? A father worthy of the name, when one is black in today’s USA?” Whereas Grandjeat’s rhetorical question defies resolution, it suggests active soul-searching and proselytizing. If Wideman’s texts resemble South Africa’s post-apartheid “truth commissions,” the goal is healing, after wiping the slate clean. Wideman treats the father-son conflict as a literary truth commission. The telling is necessarily painful: the individual father’s desertion of his family and the collective emasculation of the black man are intertwined themes, at times juxtaposed, as in A Glance Away when recovering drug addict, Eddie, suffers from recurring nightmares of lynching, with its inevitable castration (Wideman, 1967, 24) His north to south itinerary to the mythic and ironic " home " from which his forebears came revisits Jean Toomer’s Kabnis in Cane. Kabnis and Eddie undertake their heroic journeys conscious of the real dangers for a northern black in the white south where the threat of lynching destabilizes and isolates them.

6Forty years after A Glance Away, Fatheralong renews the quest tale along a similar itinerary. Here, the author brandishes his political engagement by addressing a Jeremiad to all Americans in general, but to blacks in particular:

This country, as it presently functions, stands between black fathers and sons, impeding communication, frustrating development, killing or destroying the bodies and minds of young men, short-circuiting the natural process of growth, maturity, the cycle of the generations.... Unless enough of us transform ourselves, subdue our selfishness and shortsightedness and thereby change the direction the country is going, the prospects for young black men, all young people, won’t improve. Young people understand their peril, are voting with their feet. They’re long gone. Live and die elsewhere. (Wideman, 1994, 66-67)

7In Wideman’s creative universe, fathers forsake their sons and sons betray their fathers as if under the spell of some ancient curse that will ultimately lead to total isolation, moral and/or bodily death, and ultimately, the disappearance of the race. In evidence thereof, note that in A Glance Away, Eddie never speaks of his father, absent at his birth, but of his grandfather, Daddy Gene, present. Childless Cecil in Hurry Home mentions only Uncle Otis who named him and counsels him; he mourns his miscarried son, fantasizes about impregnating Estrella, the Spanish prostitute, yearns for procreation, for fatherhood. After his therapeutic, imaginary reliving of the Middle Passage, refurbishing his self-image by association with the black kings as “El Moro.” Cecil appears reconciled. In stark contrast, there is little sympathy lost on Webb, the white father of a black son he has never met, another “Johnny-come-lately dad” who seeks his image in replacement figures, of whom Cecil is the freshest recruit. Might the blatantly artificial kinship between Webb and Cecil be emblematic of the lack of mutual knowledge that separates fathers from sons in Wideman’s universe? Cajoled by the mother, John the son and Edgar the father in “Across the Wide Missouri,” dutifully observe the ritual that brings the two of them tantalizingly close to the symbiosis the child craves, yet the desired rapprochement does not occur. Edgar in Brothers and Keepers tries to get adolescent Robby back under control before the youth’s rebelliousness can carry him beyond the father’s reach, but Robby challenges his father to a fight, thereby refusing due respect and externalizing the abyss between them. Both are losers in this encounter. Edgar’s frustration and anxiety over the incident are the price he pays as the inevitable fallout of their failed rapport. Beyond the violence and humiliation in the father’s loss of authority over his son, the removal of the latter from under the father’s roof leads to the youth’s disappearance, to his becoming invisible by dissolving into a series of other worlds. Like a cancerous cell division, Diaspora exponentially accelerates the malignancy. Robby rejects not only his father as a man, but also Edgar’s mediocre economic situation in favor of pursuing “get-rich-quick” dreams and schemes that backfire; his penalty is an ironic step backward into servitude, like his slave forebears. In prison, Robby’s very essence and existence are in constant jeopardy. He has become a number, perhaps even a commodity now that prison management is open to public bids, but his humanity is of equal unimportance to his keepers as to the slave masters. Worse, he is cut off from his own whose access to him is severely restricted. Fatheralong discloses that Edgar has never visited Robby in prison, as if not witnessing the fact personally could belie its truth. Even gentle, old Mr. Mallory in Two Cities had abandoned his wife and children to fight World War II, but never returned for reasons too emotionally complex for rational explanation.

8If indeed it is virtually impossible to be a black father in white America, one fit for the role, to whom can the child turn? The adage, “the child is father to the man” makes a different chord vibrate for Wideman. Preacher Richard Allen undertakes dual responsibility in “Fever” when he espouses the African notion that time is circular rather than linear and extrapolates the notion to procreation as well: “We are our ancestors and our children” (Wideman, 1989, 132) suggests far more than the commonplace that our childhood experience is formative in determining the adults we become. Yet again, Preacher Allen’s entreaty, “Pray for me, child. For my unborn parents I carry in this orphan’s potbelly.” (Ibid, 156), seems nonsensical or arcane. Reset into the context of Diaspora, the line loses it ambiguity: “unborn parents” because of Wideman’s notion of Great Time wherein past, present, and future are one, but also because Diaspora has turned the world topsy-turvy.

9Fortunately, an African tradition transplanted to American soil is perpetuated when the black community as a whole is entrusted with nurturing the many “orphans” and outsiders. Grandfathers and uncles, surrogate fathers, guides and mentors are left to perform a quasi-patriarchal role. The simple-minded child/man Clement in Hiding Place trusts in Big Bob, the Barber. Albino Brother Tate of Sent for You Yesterday is an adopted child. By his example and teachings, Ryan, the rebellious old slave who was stolen from Africa as a child and who venerates Damballah, the serpent Father and god, the archetypal African father figure, makes a disciple and spiritual son of his anonymous young observer. Both seem content to accept that Damballah’s only fatherly gift is the blessing he can bestow, a meager inheritance in a very material society. Having deserted his own wife and children in Philadelphia Fire, Cudjoe, across the miles and the waters, “adopts” the orphan rebel, Simba, escaped or rather risen, like the Phoenix from the ashes of the MOVE firebombing. Thus does Cudjoe —perhaps the same character kidnapped as a boy by Waddell, another irresponsible and unscrupulous father— develop a new consciousness and vocation that culminates in his mission to find Simba. Cudjoe’s spontaneous paternal instinct toward the child signal his transcendence; only now is he psychologically ready to assume fatherly responsibilities. In contrast to these surrogates, the official generator is a mystery man clad in an emotional cuirass, a fortress of “invisible walls” in Wideman’s words, that protects his heart from the loss he intuitively knows he must endure, and makes of his silence the eye of the hurricane, the only “space” where communication occurs.

  • 2 At Geneviève Fabre’s October 2000 Diaspora conference in Paris, choreographer-dancer Dean Moss per (...)

10Hence, there are means to fight back. Fatheralong chronicles a belated attempt to reconnect: John and his father, Edgar, set out to reclaim their respective fathers and grandfathers and those who preceded them. Their “success” however is mitigated: the pioneer fathers and grandfathers are dead and gone, their bodies often consigned to unmarked graves; the “middle generations” have abandoned the epicenter of the ancestor’s town, leaving as testimony of their passage the dilapidated farm homes they once occupied; the sons and grandsons are often in prison, effectively " removed " from this world. Although differently structured, the quests in Fatheralong and Hurry Home for identity and reconciliation pursue an ideal meaningful, male relationship based on mutual respect, complicity, trust, comradeship, companionship, and counseling. Its absence brings negative images, the sense of humiliation and failure.2

11Fatheralong seeks out the missing partners and the emblems of their manhood, the key to regaining the lost kingdom. This work is both celebration and mourning, for if one tantalizing piece of the puzzle is found, the picture is incomplete. Missed opportunities, faulty connections seem to be the family hallmark. The measure of the compromise can be taken with Edgar’s ironic return to the low-income housing units for the elderly that are one more symbol of Diaspora, the social separation of the parents from the mature child’s domain, a banishment into the desert. This isolation makes him miss his grandson’s wedding ceremony, a rare occasion for which his family has assembled. His only compensation being to watch the video they had made. He is present, but nonetheless a non-participant in the events, just as if he had gone to the cinema —or if he were a ghost. Despite his finally getting to embrace his assembled progeny, he can never recover the essential moment of union and reunion.

12The final pages of Fatheralong move the debate to a more spiritual plane; the external journey is duplicated by an internal voyage deep into the soul of John as father of Jake. As in Brothers and Keepers, the work is structured around a double helix: as the father’s fortunes rise, the son’s descend, and vice-versa (Berben-Masi, 1985, 21-32). Thus John’s prayer beneath the vault of nature’s temple allows him to vent his anguish, but not to undo the evil or to obtain a miracle. His keening for his lost son in prison, an institution that paradoxically encloses yet disperses populations, reopens the Diaspora wound. For Diaspora in the African-American experience is not just the events that sent its children scattering over the earth; it is an ongoing, omnipresent, and malevolent process carried out by economic and political forces that perpetuate physical separation via social, emotional, educational, and cultural factors, as Wideman repeatedly denounces.

  • 3 See the special report, “Redefining Race in America” in Newsweek, September 18, 2000.
  • 4 The successful black career women interviewed in Newsweek (cited above) admit it is hard to find a (...)

13The dissipated inheritance left by Diaspora may have created Utopian expectations alien to any normal filiations, all the more so in a vulgar American culture that undermines respect and leads to family breakdown.3 The conflict that surfaces in much of his writing eventually leads to emasculation through denial of the place grown man and man child should naturally expect to hold. Are the sons greater victims than the fathers, as Grandjeat asserts? Are the fathers bad husbands justly put on trial by the wives they had demoralized by their “unhinged” macho behavior (Grandjeat, 2000, 61)? Is Wideman indeed writing from a feminist position that excoriates all fathers, as Grandjeat insinuates, in counterattack to Mbalia’s screed? Of course, these judgments may be deliberately provocative. Can one ascertain who is the greater victim, father or son? Is not the father, astride both roles, prey to continuing a pattern of disruptive behavior he has witnessed and seen others engage in? How is a man to follow the straight and narrow path of “proper conduct” when the folk culture adulates the baad man, the street hustler, the womanizer, the hard drinker, the armed fighter? (Hoschild, 1995, 191-192, 210-211.) And when mainstream society seems to impose a “Numerus clausus” or quota upon the minorities it will admit into its fold?4 In the last section of Fatheralong, John’s aporia, his inability to bypass conventional banalities whenever his son Jake calls home from prison, leaves the poet father inarticulate before the emotional intensity. The silence over the phone is echoed by another: John’s paternal prayers seemingly rise to a deaf heaven or to yet another absent Father image. As do Cecil’s for Simon and Brother’s for Junebug when they pray for their dead sons, proffering them posthumous advice about life, trying to maintain the momentum and so the illusion of a live dialogue and an intact link.

14Thus, the father-son rift incapacitates and casts into limbo its victims. It can upset carefully made plans, as in the Lynchers when Thomas Wilkerson’s father, “Sweetman,” ruins the first encounter with the son’s fiancée, then throws away his own freedom and future in a drunken bout that ends in a fatal combat. The elder Wilkerson’s self-image is obviously predicated upon that of the hard-drinking, tough-fighting ghetto hero; but the fates leave him humbled rather than glorified for his exploits. Even worse, for his son, Sweetman’s debacle is instrumental in compromising both marital plans and the daring plot central to the novel. Two black victims are sacrificed in the place of the original white “transgressor.”

  • 5 “Twenty-Five Years Later: the Black Family”. Interview recorded by National Public Radio, 1985.

15Mature black men like Robert Jones in Two Cities acknowledge their responsibility, their guilt, even a sense of having served as accomplice to the wheel of violence that cuts down gang members and innocent, nine-year-old bystanders. Whether this burden that, according to Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint,5 affects half the black population of the U.S., be the inescapable heritage of centuries of Diaspora and the remnants of the institution of slavery that intentionally destroyed community and familial relationships or whether, as Wideman accuses, it be the dominant American values that privilege property over persons, the fallout from the racism that continues to afflict mainstream American society, ever in need of a scapegoat, ignorant of our own, home-grown have-nots, insensitive to, perhaps even scornful of non-Western cultural traditions, there is no denying the ravages done and still to come, unless the recommendations made in the Fatheralong passage quoted above are taken to heart and black men converse.

  • 6 That John, not Dan, wrote the letter, although the son indeed did find documentary proof of the ex (...)

16So pervasive is the theme that it penetrates the author’s artistic conscience to the point he does not claim full paternity for the stories he writes, sharing the honors with one or more tellers, often female relatives, but at least once with a son. Thus, the fictional letter penned by John but signed in the text by Dan Wideman that clotures The Cattle Killing again puts another voice, another authority into the tale.6 All critics point to Wideman’s disjunctive style and structure, some with admiration for his versatility, others with resentment for the extra effort required of the reader. From A Glance A way to Two Cities, three separate story lines intertwine. The fragmented and dislocated narrative voices that relate in an anonymous chorus the equally refracted tales corroborate the main narrator’s authenticity even as they diminish his narrative presence and weight. At times, John resists surrendering control of the word, as he confesses in Fatheralong when he recalls how he behaved like a peevish child while Edgar gleaned essential information by palavering with Littleman: in the old relative, John had not discerned the helpful guide who would empower them on their quest; bored and impatient with his elders, he had not been initiated to the rituals of the private language of personal experience that the two older men engage in, full of allusions hermetic outside of their context. He was not ready to listen, the principal criteria to be worthy of receiving the gift of telling, as Liam explains to the anonymous narrator character in The Cattle Killing (Wideman, 1996, 131). Yet, as John comes to realize, Littleman is providing essential help, without which their search would have come to naught. The anecdote that characterizes John underscores the communications gap between generations even for those aware of the problem.

17If the curse of Diaspora is prophesied for God’s Chosen People in Deuteronomy: “The Lord make thee to fall down before thy enemies, one way mayst thou go against them, and flee seven ways, and be scattered throughout all the kingdoms of the earth” (Deut. 28:25), the first wave of its realization dates back to the ninth century B. C. E. Note, however, that the term itself was quickly adopted by Christ’s apostles for those Christians living outside of what was then Palestine. Though Diaspora is the Greek for “dispersion”, suggesting Mediterranean origins for the concept, its application to the African-American experience in no way misappropriates a significant part of Jewish history. Certainly not in Wideman’s universe. The protagonist of Sent For You Yesterday shares in the Jewish suffering in the episode that evokes Jews being deported in freight cars to the death camps. Thus does the defining experience of the Hebrews fleeing before various conquerors, most notably the ancient Babylonian exile, renew itself in the Jewish deportees being “ferried to Hades” under a modern barbaric regime, with three centuries of African Diaspora between.

  • 7 The letters between Colombus and his father are all prefaced by the Hebrew letters, BH or “bes/het (...)

18Significantly, Wideman had already begun to universalize the suffering of the scattered, decimated Jewish tribes by making an implicit parallel in Hurry Home, which directly confronts the Middle Passage and offsets it with the Moors, victorious over the southern Iberian peninsula. That selfsame defining experience was the fate of African peoples carried off to bondage in the Americas or of Jews. Ultimately, the Moors dispossessed of their holdings in Europe and sent into exile repeats Hebrew history and anticipates the Jewish eviction from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century. This was the conquest of Spain by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, the same queen who financed Columbus’ fleet. In the context of Diaspora, Columbus himself is an ironic agent. To begin with, his voyage coincides with the decree that resulted in the “ethnic cleansing” of Spain. In discovering the route to America, Columbus inadvertently mapped the oceans for the slave ships to ply during the Middle Passage. His dreams of a Utopian society based on peace and cooperation between peoples as he claimed the newfound land led instead to setting the stage for the major African Diaspora. To complete the circle, in Orthodox Jewish circles, historic evidence is cited that Columbus himself was the scion of a Genoese Jewish family; some maintain that his grand adventure was largely motivated by the desire to find the ten lost tribes of ancient Israel.7 Thus, a connection between Diasporas past and future, in the old world and the new, can be intuited in Columbus’s exploit. Hurry Home does not mention Columbus; the sacred American symbol of the statue of Liberty in New York harbor is mocked as the lady with the ice cream cone; Cecil’s journey undercuts the founding myths of mainstream America: departure, not arrival, spells liberation.

19A recurring leitmotif in Hurry Home is directly bound to the themes of Diaspora and lost identity: the multiple references to the black kings who conquered, then ruled and developed Granada. Their reign was the antithesis of Diaspora: a united black kingdom, the remnants of whose flourishing culture leave us breathless in admiration centuries later. Their technical achievement of making the dry desert of their part of Spain blossom by channeling water from the mountains anticipates the modern miracle of Israel where agriculture has dominated a hostile nature through irrigation —and through the reversal of the process of Diaspora, a reclaiming of a heritage. The black king in the painting Cecil returns to contemplate over and over, “The Adoration of the Magi”, reasserts this same dignity and power. The dark figure, richly clothed, is on an equal footing with his fellow kings or wise men. Law student Cecil, ridiculed and harassed as “the Magistrate” by the youth gangs in his home neighborhood in transition, seems empowered by association with the black kings when nicknamed, “el Moro” in Spain. He thinks of himself and his adventures in the third person, in his new —albeit ephemeral— heroic identity. And thanks to his experience, he can resist and overcome the centrifugal pull of Diaspora by returning to his wife, Esther. The ressentiment, as Frederic Nietzsche named the phenomenon of a structure of negativity typical of both impoverished black Americans and lawyer protagonists, seems to have abated, thanks to the moral inheritance and self-esteem realized in identity partially recovered. (Weisberg, 1984, 1-2)

20With Reuben, Wideman seems to be engaging in Afro centrism as a palliative to the evils of Diaspora. To briefly recall, Afro centrism is the belief in an African Family of Man, one originally homogeneous people with dignifying Egyptian roots. The theory credits these black Egyptians as the true originators of the philosophy and values later copied and espoused first by the Greeks, then by the entire Western world (Shipler, 1997, 191-204). The title character exemplifies that Egyptian connection, for Reuben brings both the Diaspora theme and the Egyptian myth/heritage to the fore in the allusions to and comparisons with Osiris. By implication, Reuben’s twin participates as victim in the reenactment of the slaying and dismembering of Osiris, the adulterous procreator of Anubis, rival to his impotent twin brother, Seth, who ordered the murder, dismemberment, and scattering of Osiris’ body. Wideman leaves to his reader’s culture and imagination the task of drawing the parallels between the myth, the novel, the real and symbolic missing brothers that together constitute a lament for a lost civilization, lost because of the disbanding of its members, their diffusion and hence dissolution in the sea of white America, their loss of definition, self-respect, and identity.

  • 8 See Kennedy, 1997, for the history and analysis of the use of the law in America to safeguard whit (...)

21Naturally, the theme conjures up the “how” as well as the “what” in Wideman’s writing. The very shape and structure of the novel reflect this shattering of lineage, leaving a collection of potent spirit packages, prenda, a pundle, a paquet congo, assembled by Reuben as part sorcerer, part lawyer, another black king and wise man (Thompson, 1984). These eclectic mixtures of elements —minkisi— capture a flash of the spirit —a link perhaps with a ghost, a helpful soul. Reuben’s amulets and incantations are the indispensable black complement to the hermetic jargon of the white man’s law and its often unequal application to black Americans.8 As a self-taught jurist, Reuben’s legal practice is restricted: he must collaborate with a member of the bar to validate his efforts. Reuben is an unrecognized son of his chosen profession, a non-member of the official body. His vocation enables him to help others, but without a law degree, he can never be joined to the body of the bar. The parallel with the twin carries over to Reuben’s relationship with his “colleagues” —he is the cut-off member, in both senses. Like Osiris, the pieces of whose reassembled body remain short of a key element: his penis, male identity, gets sacrificed. Reuben’s love story with Flora is interrupted before coitus can take place. His masculinity is mocked by the student lawyers from the fraternity house where Reuben, like Cecil, is the janitor. His life is nearly snuffed out in the fire set by the frat brats and Flora is burnt to death, a lost love never to be replaced, another emasculation.

22Returning from the symbolic to the stylistic and structural, in Reuben, critics variously see the compositional fragmentation, repetition, riffing, and rhythms as imitations of different musical genres. Thus, Reuben has been analyzed as an appropriation of a blues style that some black musicians define as black life itself, others as the laughter that keeps you from crying. The novel’s structure could also be a jazz form, totally unpredictable, a shower of small packages of magic, spontaneously yet deftly assembled, each capable of exploding into a new theme or shooting off into a totally different direction (Casmier, 1998). Scat singing and glossolalia, for example, explode lyrics and score into fragments. The music and poetry are there, drawing us into the song, but forever leaving us readers with the sensation that we have overlooked something, that a few bars have been left unscored, incapable of being captured on the printed page or irt between the lines, inviting us to improvise on the theme, or to respect the silences. They are like those absent members of the African American Family of Man, a dream, an obsession repeated in the form as well as in the content. In the multiplicity of voices that has become John Wideman’s trademark, voices whose testimony must be pieced together, speak the souls of the dispersed Africans. These voices vying for the opportunity to make their stories heard represent their conscience and consciousness, the ghosts of Diaspora forever haunting the core of Wideman’s creative universe wherein he attempts to catch that “flash of their spirit” as the trace of their existence and refusal to vanish from the Earth.


Works cited

Berben-Masi, Jacqueline, 1985. « Blanc sur noir: langue neutre et parler noir dans l’écriture afro-américaine. » Texte & Antitexte. Nice University: Cahiers de Narratologie, I, 21-32.

Campbell, Joseph, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon.

Casmier, Stephen, 1998. « L’Esthétique du jazz dans l’œuvre de John Edgar Wideman ». Unpublished dissertation, Nice University, France.

Grandjeat, Yves-Charles, 2000. John Edgar Wideman. Paris: Belin.

Hoschild, Jennifer L., 1995. Race, Class, and the Soul of the Nation: Facing up to the American Dream. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.

Kennedy, Randall, 1997. Race, Crime, and the Law. New York: Pantheon.

Mbalia, Dorothea Drummond, 1995. John Edgar Wideman, Reclaiming the African Personality. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna UP.

Shipler, David K., 1997. A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America. New York: Knopf.

Thompson, Robert F., 1984. Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy. New York: Vintage.

Weisberg, Richard H., 1984. The Failure of the Word: The Protagonist as Lawyer in Modern Fiction. New Haven, CN.: Yale UP.

Wideman, John Edgar, 1967. A Glance Away. Chatham, N. J.: The ChathamBookseller.

----, 1970. Hurry Home. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

----, 1973. The Lynchers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

----, 1981a. Sent for You Yesterday. New York: Avon.

----, 1981b. Hiding Place. New York: Avon.

----, 1981c. Damballah. New York: Avon.

----, 1984. Brothers and Keepers. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

----, 1989. Fever: Twelve Stories. New York: Henry Holt.

----, 1987. Reuben. New York: Henry Holt.

----, 1990. Philadelphia Fire. New York: Henry Holt.

----, 1994. Fatheralong. New York: Pantheon.

----, 1996. The Cattle Killing. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin.

----, 1998. Two Cities. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin.

----, 1999. “Doing Time, Marking Place.” In Michael Jacobson-Hardy. Behind the Razor Wire, Portrait of a Contemporary American Prison System. New York: New York UP, 13-17.


1 See Wideman, 1984, 1994 and 1999. I am indebted to Michel Feith, who first called my attention to imprisonment as a form of Diaspora during discussion at the Callaloo symposium for European contributors to the special issue on Wideman criticism in the spring of 2000 (22.3).

2 At Geneviève Fabre’s October 2000 Diaspora conference in Paris, choreographer-dancer Dean Moss performed “Tale Telling Telling”. Making chalk diagrams on the floor, he sketched out, danced, and related the destruction wrought by generational abandonment. The space he drew was a semiotic square, starting with the man’s home circle, the creation of new circles with children, abandonment and the multiple paths pursued in search of the father’s father, ending most often in a failed quest, missing the absent brother, seeking out risk, pain, and fear to overcome them and survive, to achieve that new definition of black manhood for himself, and to communicate it to others. So, too, does Wideman. Confronting the father-son obsessions, Moss portrays the grown child’s need to link with his parents’ original joy in coupling; thus, he backtracks along the trail of their exodus in search of his roots.

3 See the special report, “Redefining Race in America” in Newsweek, September 18, 2000.

4 The successful black career women interviewed in Newsweek (cited above) admit it is hard to find a man in their demographics. “Black men... have to find a way to survive in a patriarchal society that never intends for them to be able to play it out.... They have to redefine manhood for themselves. And they’ve got to start that conversation with themselves”. (63) See also Hochschild’s tables in chapters 2-5, 7, 11, and the appendices.

5 “Twenty-Five Years Later: the Black Family”. Interview recorded by National Public Radio, 1985.

6 That John, not Dan, wrote the letter, although the son indeed did find documentary proof of the existence and saga of the historical person upon whom John’s protagonist is based, was a personal communication Wideman.

7 The letters between Colombus and his father are all prefaced by the Hebrew letters, BH or “bes/het” (Bahruch Hashem, “Blessed be the name [of God]) just as devout Catholics head their missives with “JMJ” for “Jesus, Mary and Joseph”.

8 See Kennedy, 1997, for the history and analysis of the use of the law in America to safeguard white control over black citizens.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2003

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