Race in America has been compared to a moose on the dining room table: nobody wants to call attention to the carcass despite the fact that antlers are sticking in the potatoes, hooves drip onto people’s laps, and the smell keeps getting worse. Rather than acknowledge the obvious, people crane their necks around the rotting slab of flesh and ask those across the table to pass the salt.
John Edgar Wideman is a writer we’ve learned to trust when it comes to calling a moose a moose—that is, until Fatheralong. Ballyhooed as a meditation on “fathers and sons, race and society,” Wideman watchers had good reasons to expect the same personal candor and sensitive trenchant social analysis he brought to Brothers and Keepers, his 1984 account of a brother jailed on a murder charge. How could the same family circumstances and Pittsburgh ghetto that produced him—a University of Pennsylvania graduate and Rhodes scholar: well spoken, ambitious, successful—also give rise to a brother who becomes a street punk and then one more sad statistic in the justice system? What propelled one brother toward restraint and standard English while the other gave way to jive talk and increasingly dangerous hussies; and what does this all say about the distancing, and the debts, a black writer owes to the black community?
I remember thinking that Wideman had sold himself a bit too short— and his brother a bit too long—in Brothers and Keepers, that even love is not enough to justify the unswerving defense he mounted on behalf of why so many young black men go bad. At the same time, I was moved by the painful honesty seared onto every page. So, when I learned that Wideman’s own son was facing a murder charge, I wondered how the environmental arguments would play out when the situation seemed so radically altered. Unlike his brother, Wideman’s son Jake was hardly the product of poverty and the inner city’s meaner streets; he grew up in a successful academic’s home, and in Laramie, Wyoming to boot.
Long before Murray and Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve raised an already tense racial climate to new levels of accusation and hurt, Wideman must have ruminated about questions that can only crack the heart. Is racist America the sole reason why so many young black men murder, and are murdered—or are there other more complicated, more wrenching reasons? Given the sheer number of murderers in Wideman’s family circle—including a nephew—one is tempted to think that genetic factors must be playing a role, as they do in families with a history of alcoholics. Granted, predisposition is only that—a predisposition—but it cannot be entirely ignored. Nor can the lessons, admittedly less scientific, from the histories of families seemingly fated to doom: the house of Atreus, the Kennedy clan, and now, the Widemans.
What I have been pointing to is nothing more nor less than the moose on the Wideman family dinner table, and the ways that Fatheralong skillfully avoids mentioning it until the book’s last pages. It is one thing when Philadelphia Fire (1990) studiously avoids taking a position about MOVE and the conflagration that provided the novel’s title (postmodernist narrative will do that) or when Rueben (1987) wraps coded messages about his son Jake in the folds of fiction and quite another when a book of non-fiction purports to talk about fathers, sons, and race and virtually leaves his son—now serving a life sentence—out.
Fatheralong is the mistaken way a very young John Edgar Wideman heard the gospel song “Farther Along,” but it is also a talisman, a Rosetta stone, for the identity he still quests, and for the cold, distant father who remains an inexorable part of the equation:
Till I was grown I heard “fatheralong” and thought Fatheralong was God’s name in this hymn, the mysterious God who dwelled in Homewood A.M.E.Z.church, a God I’d meet up with some day and He’d understand and say Well done. Also, I thought of my father, Edgar Wideman, his doubleness, his two-personalities, a man who lived in our house, who in a way ruled it, yet also lived somewhere else, distant unknown.
Whatever the confusions, the song, Wideman argues, ultimately speaks the lessons “of resignation, learning to wait and trust and endure.” In Wideman’s case, father often seemed harsher, more remote than God; nor did the father-son relationship improve markedly during his adult-hood. Things closest to the heart continued to be postponed, to remain unsaid. One mistake, Wideman now admits, was treating his father “as if a father always required a capital F.” He then goes on to write this extraordinary passage:
As long as I carried a deity, a natural force in my mind, I woudn’t see the man on the seat beside me. Why had it been impossible all these years to believe in this man’s actual life, him with a suitcase in his hand, excited, anxious to get the hell away from the everyday tedium of growing old, alone and poor.
It took equal measures of courage and integrity to pen these lines; but these are precisely the benchmarks against which our best writers are judged.Fatheralong has more than its share of similar moments—when, for example, he visits with Wideman relatives at his grandfather’s home in Greenwood, South Carolina, or when he meets his father at the train station near his Massachusetts home on the occasion of his son Danny’s wedding. Family history, despite everything, exerts a palpable—and deeply poetic—force.
Families, in a word, sustain, just as music and stories do. Granted, each art form (and surely families are just as much a composition as are songs and folktales) is elusive, problematic, troubled, and troubling; but, taken together, they make us what we are. As Wideman puts it, in a passage about Art & Life worth quoting in its entirety:
Stories are onions. You peel one skin and another grins up at you. And peeling onions can make grown men cry. Which raises other questions. Why does one transparent skin on top of another transparent skin, layer after layer you can see through if each is held up to the light, why are they opaque when bound one on top of the other to form an onion or story? Like a sentence with seven clear simple words and you understand each word but the meaning of the sentence totally eludes you. You might suggest there is no light source at the core of the onion, nothing similar to a lamp that can be switched on so you can see from outside in. Or you might say an onion is the light and the truth, or at least as much truth and light as you’re ever going to receive on this earth, source and finished product all rounded into one and that’s the beauty of solid objects you can hold in your hand. Each skin, each layer a different story, connected to the particular, actual onion you once held whole in your hand as the onion is connected to stars, dinosaurs, bicycles, a loon’s cry, to the seed it sprouted from, the earth where the seed rotted and died and slept until it began dreaming of being an onion again, dreamed the steps it would have to climb, the skins it would have to shed and grow to let its light shine again in the world.
Wideman is, of course, describing the curious way that the memories of Fatheralong interconnect; but at the same time he is suggesting, how-ever unconsciously, how some stories remain stubbornly hidden beneath the layers. Thus far I have talked about the moose on the Wideman family dinner table as if it were restricted to Jake, the son both absent in fact and in story. But there is yet another moose on this table, for if Fatheralong ends with a poignant letter to that son (“I remember walking down towards the lake to be alone [on the day Wideman first heard that his son was missing and the boy sharing his room was dead] because I felt myself coming apart, the mask I’d been wearing, as much for myself as for the benefit of other people, was beginning to splinter. . . .I found myself on my knees, praying to a tree.”), it begins with an impassioned plea for a raceless America, one in which color no “pre-empts our right to situate our story where we choose.” Our power, Wideman argues, lies in the “capacity to imagine ourselves as other than what we are.” Race, in short, is yet another hard reality Wideman prefers to ignore by wishing it away. Meanwhile, the moose on the table continues to stink.
I am hardly the only Wideman watcher who figured that Fatheralong would turn out to be at least as much about Wideman the father as it is about Wideman the son—not, I hope, for prurient interests or hundreds of other wrong reasons, but because I felt he could lead me past newspaper platitudes (senseless, sad, and the all-purpose “tragic”) to a deeper understanding of the dark truths underlying much human behavior. I wondered, too, if he would play the race card, and if so, which one; or if he would offer up an explanation I cannot even imagine, but that a genuine writer can. Perhaps Wideman is simply not ready to write such a book, at least not yet. In that case, he should have written about something else because his meditation about fathers and sons, race and society, turns out to be yet another look past the moose on the table. All of us, black and white, have had far too many of those.