Academic journal article MELUS

Brothers and Keepers and the Tradition of the Slave Narrative

Academic journal article MELUS

Brothers and Keepers and the Tradition of the Slave Narrative

Article excerpt

Beneath the riveting and empowering stories of successful flights to freedom told in the slave narratives that are foundational for the African American literary tradition are often discouraging stories of the silencing and effacement of their slave protagonists, under the well-intentioned guiding hands of ghost writers, editors, and supporters. In John Sekora's phrase, the narratives often turn out to be carefully wrapped in "white envelopes." John Edgar Wideman's first nonfiction book, Brothers and Keepers, shares many of the themes established by the founding genre of the African American literary tradition, the slave narrative--above all, its twin concerns with liberty and literacy. But while Brothers and Keepers deeply and variously parallels the thematic emphases of the slave narratives, Wideman, whether or not in direct response, in effect revises some of that genre's most salient conventions and its formative assumptions about black authorship, validation, voice, and narrative structure. (1) He does so by revising the compositional practices by which the slave narratives were most often constructed, practices which tended to muffle the protagonists' individual voices through the use of stylistic and structural features imposed by their sponsors' beliefs about African Americans and about the white readers' expectations, and their all-encompassing commitment to the abolitionist cause. The changes Wideman rings on the genre's conventions allow him to give a larger portion of narrative and compositional control to his book's second protagonist, his otherwise largely disenfranchised brother Robert. Considering Brothers and Keepers in relation to the slave narratives thus suggestively deepens its resonances while illuminating both the contemporary and the earlier works. His essay on Charles Chesnutt reveals Wideman's particular interest in the oral qualities of the African American narrative tradition. However, I will concentrate here on the relationship between Brothers and Keepers and the written life stories of slaves. Writing itself is a central issue for both Wideman and the slaves, and the written narratives explicitly foreground issues of emphasis, structure, verification, truthfulness, and collaboration that may only be inferable from the oral records, but that Wideman engages passionately and creatively throughout his book.

Brothers and Keepers is the story of two brothers from the Homewood section of Pittsburgh. John, a Rhodes Scholar and novelist, was, when he wrote it, an English professor at the University of Wyoming. Robert, younger by about ten years, having tried, largely unsuccessfully, to establish himself on the street as a major drug dealer, had served several years of a life sentence for murder, the result of a holdup that went out of control. The book incorporates both brothers' perspectives and voices, as it tries to answer the questions compelled by their different lives, and to reconnect them to each other. In this effort, the book both uses strategies and devices familiar to readers of slave narratives, and addresses, directly or obliquely, the questions those conventional practices raise.

Brothers and Keepers echoes and modifies several major characteristics of the written narratives of slaves: the presence of an editor, sponsor, or ghostwriter mediating between the narrator/protagonist and the audience, and the tendency to explain the process of writing or recording the story; the concern with truthfulness, and the incorporation of various forms of documentation and validation to guarantee it; the consequent presence of diverse genres of discourse; the presence of multiple voices (if only as a result of generic diversity, and notwithstanding the general paucity of genuinely oral elements); the incorporation of others' stories, so that the individual's story becomes representative; an explicit moral purposefulness, especially but not only in those narratives that predate the abolition of slavery; (2) and the themes of flight and literacy, of entrapment (both internal and by an external, dehumanizing system), of masking, of the lonely search for home, of the significance of names, of the need to establish a sense of self apart from others' expectations, and of the importance of family and family history. …

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