In Retrospect: Afaa Michael Weaver on John Edgar Wideman’s “Brothers and Keepers”

by Jane Ciabattari | Jan-14-2009


The following essay by National Book Critics Circle member Afaa M. Weaver on John Edgar Wideman’s “Brothers and Keepers,” a finalist for the 1984 NBCC Award in Nonfiction, is part of the NBCC’s “In Retrospect” series on Critical Mass, in which critics and writers revisit NBCC award winners and finalists from previous years.

In an afternoon when I was longing for the past, I picked out a film from my collection of videos that had been sitting in the closet for some time. The film is a biographical account of The Temptations, the group that emerged from the urban core that I also know as home, black and poor working class communities.  In their case it was Detroit, and in mine it was Baltimore.  As I watched the film, I thought of John Edgar Wideman’s remarkable memoir, which begins with his Sunday afternoon ritual of listening to this same music.The film is sad in places, the story of rising and falling trajectories, of the all too human challenges that wait for any of us, no matter the race, but which can seem singular in a peculiar way for black folks.  I imagine the music is for Wideman what it is for me, a way of touching the spirit’s fire.

In Baltimore, Milton Avenue is far from what it was in the late fifties before the riots, and just after the riots. In 1968, the year of my high school graduation, it was one of many ribbons of fire wrapping around black communities in the hot spring of Dr. King’s assassination and later in the summer.  The corners of these ribbons of fire were where we stood on Saturday nights, pretending to be The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Delfonics, or any of the groups that sang their way onto the covers of LP’s, the radios, and the televisions in the small houses of the urban poor.  It was the time also that many of us went off to mostly white colleges and universities, some of us wooed because of test scores that seemed exemplary for black folk inside these ribbons of fire.  Some of us did well in these places, and others of us were called back to the places we knew best or some tangent to home.  There were a few like John Edgar Wideman, who not only did well but won awards that took them higher, such as his Rhodes scholarship. ...more

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