Tag Archives: Hoop Roots

Black History Month: John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers

John Edgar Wideman and his brother Robby tell their stories in Brothers and Keepers.

John Edgar Wideman and his brother Robby tell their stories in Brothers and Keepers.

A drug deal goes bad. 

Shots are fired. 

One life ends  and others are permanently changed.

Unfortunately, these events happen all too often.

In the mid 70s, John Edgar Wideman’s brother Robby was involved in such an incident.

Brothers and Keepers, a beautiful, searing and haunting book, is the result.

The book opens with Wideman in Laramie, Wyoming, thousands of miles from his childhood home in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, getting the news about the murder from his mother on the telephone.  Shortly after, Wideman is visited by his brother Robby and his two partners, all of whom are on the lam. 

The three fugitives spend a night at Wideman’s house before continuing their flight from justice, which ends just days after the stop in Wyoming.

The news, of course, is shattering. 

Nearly a decade older than his brother, Wideman both feels guilt at not having been able to steer Robby in a diffferent direction, but also feels his years of ambivalently creating a wall between his original neighborhood and his adult life of teaching, marrying a white woman, writing and parenting crumble.

Brothers and Keepers is a collaboration between Robby and Wideman in the fullest sense. 

After an initial section in which Wideman describes the crime, Robby’s flight from justice and the process of bringing his family to visit his brother, Robby’s voice enters the work and alternates with his brother.

A gripping work results.

I wrote recently about Hoop Roots, Wideman’s paean to basketball and the Homewood neighborhood, a book that I liked, but did not love.

Brothers and Keepers got me from the opening sentence and furthered its grip on my attention and emotion throughout the work.

The visiting section is filled with tenderness toward his daughter Jamila, who was born prematurely, fought desperately for her life, and with whom Wideman feels a special bond.  The description of Robby’s final conflict with his parents, which begins with Robby’s defying his ban on phone use, but ends with him wielding a pair of scissors toward his father and screaming that he will kill him if he continues toward him, is both enthralling and drenched with pain.  So, too, is Wideman’s description of his mother’s unending love for her son, which she tries to reconcile with what she sees as the justice system’s denial of Robby’s humanity.

As powerful as these sections are, though, and they are beautifully rendered, with varying sentence length and lots of telling physical detail, the book’s deepest power comes from Wideman and Robby’s interactions, Wideman’s reflections on their choices and paths, and his explication of the bone-deep love between brothers.

In addition to being intensely personal, Brothers and Keepers is very explicitly about race.  At different points, Wideman alludes to Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s We Wear The Mask and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  Robby’s action and joining Wideman for a night at his house, in addition to putting the elder brother in legal jeopardy, shatters the distance Wideman has constructed between his home and his adult life, and forces him to consider the costs of both. 

Succeeding in the largely white world that began when he attended the University of Pennsylvania has meant, to some degree, an erosion of who Wideman was and where he came from. Yet, for him, staying in Homewood would have meant that he could have continued down the same path on which Robby ended.

Robby emerges as a poignant figure, too. 

His vernacular talk, gathered during four years of visits, takes the reader into his world and shows his gradually emerging sense of responsibility, his spiritual journey through Islam, and his efforts to maintain his sanity and hope.  Wideman shows exquisitely the contradictory nature of Robby’s life: he is most alone when with other people, the qualities that led him to participate in the murder are the ones that allow him to fight for and retain his dignity.

Through Robby’s words and Wideman’s reflections, we come to understand how Robby’s life and choices are similar to those faced by Wideman, figures in Greek stories, and, indeed, all of us. 

As the book progresses, too, Wideman faces his own limitations, his own poor choices-he acknowledges having been caught cheating on his wife and urges Robby to tell his woman the truth-and comes to a greater acceptance of the path he has forged.  This compassion ultimately extends toward Robby and other family members. 

Deeply moving in its own right, Brothers and Keepers becomes even more so when one reflects at the explosion of incarceration that has occuurred in the 25 years since its publication.  Toward the end of the book, Wideman notes that the number of people who are incarcerated was about 500,000 and growing and that the United States’ rate of incarceration was exceeded only by that of South Africa and the then-Soviet Union.

The rate is now the world’s highest. 

The total is greater than 2 million. 

And our nation’s prisons are populated disproportionately by black men.

On a more personal note, one of Wideman’s son’s Jacob, was later convicted of murder after a fellow camper was found stabbed to death.

This later knowledge only suffuses Brothers and Keepers with an additional layer of pain, irony, guilt, remorse, and, somehow, hope in the possibility of redemption. 

Brothers and Keepers ends with Robby’s valedictory speech, given at a prison graduation, containing a plea for meaningful rehabilitation, ending on a note of gratitude, and followed by a letter to his brother.  In the letter, Robby recounts the legal setbacks he has experienced, but ends with the affirmation,

“Be cool, bro.

I SHALL ALWAYS PRAY.”

The combination of prayer and connection blended with the injunction from a younger brother to his oldest sibling to keep the faith, is a fitting end to this remarkable book.

Black History Month: NBA All Star Weekend and John Edgar Wideman’s Hoop Roots

John Edgar Wideman shares his love for the game in Hoop Roots.

John Edgar Wideman shares his love for the game in Hoop Roots.

In addition to being Valentine’s Day, yesterday was Day Two of NBA All-Star Weekend in Phoenix.

It’s already been eventful, and the actual game hasn’t yet happened.

Highlights have included Kevin Durant going off for a 46-7-4 stat line in leading the sophomores to victory in the annual rookies-sophomores game and a razor-thin dunk contest in which 5’9″  Nate Robinson narrowly edged Dwight “Superman” Howard after using the seven-foot Howard as a prop in the final round.

There has also been a tip of the hat to history, as the game H-O-R-S-E has been added back to the weekend after a 16-year hiatus.  This being the new millennium, the game is actually spelled G-E-I-C-O, but the game remains the same. 

John Edgar Wideman has been playing basketball for just about 60 years now.  The decorated novelist, short story writer, and essayist writes about race, his life, and his bone-deep love for the game in Hoop Roots: Basketball, Race and Love.

Wideman writes from the very beginning that he needed basketball, because as a poor black boy growing up in the rough Homewood section of Pittsburgh, he needed to “single myself out.” 

Basketball became that way.   

Wideman was hooked from the first shot he hit and has played the game with love and passion since.

The prelude to the first chapter reads:

“We went to the playground court to find our missing fathers.  We didn’t find them but we found a game and the game served as a daddy of sorts.  We formed families of men and boys, male clans ruled and disciplined by the game’s demands, its hard, distant, implacable gaze, its rare, maybe loving embrace of us: the game taught us to respect it and respect ourselves and other players. Playing the game provided sanctuary, refuge from a hostile world, and also toughened us by instructing us in styles for coping with that world.”

This excerpt, which goes on to talk about the boys leaving the men behind, introduces many of the book’s major themes: the love of the game and the lessons learned on the court; the forging of  male identity in the absence of fathers; life beyond the veil that W.E.B. DuBois described in The Souls of Black Folk; and the game’s impact on the players.

The book is about far more than Wideman’s recounting of his gradually emerging  prowess-he became an All-Ivy League forward at the University of Pennsylvania and the reader can feel him swell with pride when college coach Jack McCloskey  tells Wideman that he was the best rebounder on any team McCloskey had ever been associated with in his years in the game.

The book is rich and multi-layered, combining an imagined trip by the Harlem Globetrotters to Illinois, where the only black resident was lynched, reflections of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and the development of minstrely, a painful recounting of Homewood native Maurice Stokes’ paralyzing injury, and Wideman’s enduring passion for the game.

Hoop Roots is intensely personal, too. 

Wideman writes about the distintegration of his 30-year marriage and contains a chapter in which he and his former wife Judy have a dialogue about their lives.  Wideman also has a section in which he nearly receives fellatio from a female student who has just graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and shows up to his office dressed like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.

These titillating revelations aside, Hoop Roots also has lots of rhythmic and varied writing.  Wideman moves between staccato, verbless sentences as well as longer riffs that evoke a trumpeter’s jazz solo. 

Wideman’s final sentence is an example of the latter.

He writes, “The time our bare feet in the ring sout on southern plantations, tapped on the boards of Catherine Street wharf in New York City after we’d sold our oysters, and figured out more money was to be made, more space liberated by the mesmerizing charms of our flying feet, the tune drummed in just yesterday by the dribbler’s measured patting of the basketball as he jooks, spins, scoots over the asphalt on the court in the Village, over the coourt in Westinghouse Park, the park reappearing right on theim now after we’ve played at losing it, Freed, on time because it’s okay to go there now, it’s time to rename it, reclaim it, to let the thought of it materialize again, every detail clear, ready, and shining as we hump down the track or down Finance, Freed, to catch a run.”

In the end, the marriage ends, but the love for the game endures.  And so, with the fusion of time and music and soul, with the knowledge that balling means leaving the women behind, with the memories of his Homewood roots, in New York city on “one morning soon”, with other men, Wideman goes to play again.

Challenging?  Certainly.  Uplifting? Not necessarily.

Worth the time? Definitely. 

 The All-Star game begins  tonight at 8:00 p.m., but for anyone looking for something to do before it starts, I recommend picking up Hoop Roots and spending a few hours with it before LeBron, Kobe,  D-Wade and company show the world what they have for them tonight. 

Their skills may be greater than Wideman’s teammates, but I doubt they love the game more.