Remembering the Past in Contemporary African American Fiction

By Keith Byerman | Go to book overview
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Chapter Ten

John Edgar Wideman's Homewood Narratives

In Fatheralong (1994), his “meditation on fathers and sons, race and society,” John Edgar Wideman argues that a crucial feature of black life in contemporary America is the inability of black fathers to serve as models of masculinity for their sons. Each generation, he says, must construct its own version of manhood and thus must always fail. He places the blame squarely on a racist society that consistently subverts the development of strong, responsible, positive self– and group images. Through academic and media representations, as well as public policy, black men are infantilized, criminalized, and bestialized, as they have been throughout American history. The result is that male children feel compelled to father themselves if they are to be men.

While Wideman's expository statement of this view has come only recently, his fiction has been dramatizing the problematics of patrimony virtually from the beginning. The theme becomes especially clear when he turns to family history in his Homewood narratives. The raison d'etre of this postmodern saga1 may be said to be the quest for the Black Father who can serve as model and, by extension, for the Law of the Father that can provide the principles of black manhood.

The issue is more complex than simply constructing an appropriate image of fatherhood and showing its relevance. Wideman is intensely aware of the ironies and ambiguities of history and its snarled connections to the present. He moves between the potentially useful stories of the past and the difference between past and present, a difference that raises doubt about such usefulness. He also operates in the matrix of family, with suggestions about the value of matrilineal structures. Working back through the mothers reveals a tradition of endurance, but it also problematizes the role of fathers. Wideman shapes his fiction within a classic master narrative: his male figures engage the world,


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