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.


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.

One response to “Black History Month: John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Books of 2009 « Jeff Kelly Lowenstein’s Blog

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