A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society
John Edgar Wideman
Six discursive, stirring autobiographical essays wrestle with the social definitions foisted on the author as a black man and situate him within his own personal experiences and the collective history of his kin. Grief, hope, and contemplation fill these pages as Wideman (Philadelphia Fire, 1990, etc.) unburdens his heart on the subjects of manhood, racial prejudice, fatherhood, and family heritage. Deceptively short and readable, these are not simple essays. Each is structured around the same two-part process: identifying the ways in which the "paradigm of race" destroys African-American pride, love, communication, and history, creating distance between fathers and sons; then addressing the ways this distance ought to be overcome. "Because we don't talk or can't talk father to son, son to father, each generation approaches the task of becoming men as if no work has been accomplished before," writes Wideman. "Imagine how different we might be if we really listened to our fathers' stories." His own parents were divorced, and he describes his relationship with his father as by turns estranged, distant, painful, and loving. The best piece by far is the title essay, which incorporates his finest thoughts on subjects discussed in the other five and achieves a clarity they sometimes lack. In it, Wideman explains that as a boy wanting to be closer to his dad he always heard the church hymn phrase "farther along we'll know more about you" as "father along." Among the highlights is a description of a pilgrimage he and his father made to South Carolina to search for family roots. In his prose, Wideman displays an uncanny gift for conjuring up a potent single image: "My mother's open arms. My father's arms crossed on his chest." This book will frustrate readers, however, as Wideman fails to do more than allude to his own son, who killed a teenage camp mate. Earnest, artful, hopeful, angry, and proud, Wideman's lovely book contains the seeds of promise for a world where black children have a rich wellspring of history to draw from, and where there's "enough love for everybody."