Book Covers 1. John Edgar Wideman and “They Got Us On A Rack”
In 1984 John Edgar Wideman published Brothers and Keepers, a bestseller memoir and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for best book of non-fiction that year. The book explores how he became an award winning novelist, while his brother wound up serving a life sentence convicted of murder. I was working at the Midnight Special
Cover of the first (Avon) edition of Sent For You Yesterday
Bookstore in Santa Monica. I didn’t read Brothers and Keepers, but I did pick up his novel, published the year before, the third of what is called his “Homewood Books.” Wideman is known for his experimental writing techniques, and perhaps that is what drew me into Sent For You Yesterday. The use of language, its color and rhythm and musicality. But what really hit me hard was this passage, early on, when John French waits on a street corner in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, early on a chilly, damp morning, to be picked up for day labor. I wrote this four years ago about my daughter Courtney, her kids, and Diana and me, how we experience the life we lead mirrors what Wideman wrote many years ago:
How do you write about a life lived intensely, from crisis to crisis. Persistent, determined, bright, Courtney struggled as a single parent with three kids, still struggles. Mostly employed, but never employed enough to get out of debt, pay rent, buy enough food, afford health care. Mirroring the irregularity of her precarious existence, Courtney shows the heights of creativity necessary to pick her way through the mine-field of poverty, falling into the depths of depression when circumstances gang up around her and block her way. We’ve been lucky enough to be in a position to help when the depths were deepest; after all part of the joys of family is to alleviate the pain of those close to us. But the other part that we have had to come to grips with is that we are living the life of a new section of society that is being born. Yes even us, the old ones, Diana and I.
John Edgar Wideman wrote about it in a novel called Sent For You Yesterday. This is an image which has stayed with me for more than 30 years
“They used to put people on wheels and pull them apart. Pull the arms and legs out of the sockets just like a kid do a bug. Boiling people in oil and slamming their heads in a helmet full of spikes, and horses tearing men into four pieces and that wheel with ropes and pulleys stretch a man inch by inch to death. The rack, Albert said . . . They got us on a rack, John French. They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected where its supposed to be. Ain’t even gon recognize our ownselves in the mirror.”
Courtney has her own image, a personal one, that comes from the character in the Lil Abner comic strip. Joe Btfsplk, the world’s worst jinx, the well-meaning character who walks around with a rain cloud over his head. Ever since I wrote [my poem to Courtney when she turned 21] “Twenty-one Is,” we’ve been coming to grips with how one’s personal luck fits in the context of the relations of society. The dialectic of taking responsibility for what is in your power to control, but not accepting guilt for what cards class society deals you.
That’s what John French is trying to negotiate that early morning when he waits on the corner to get a day-labor job as a paper hanger, feeling all the joints in his body aching, and trying to explain that to himself. It’s the social relations that force him into the back breaking work. And it’s the social relations that force Courtney into having to move every year or two, to struggle to get adequate care and counseling
Cover art for this edition is by Romare Bearden
for the kids, to get food stamps when out of work, to avoid on pain of starvation and eviction, going to apply for welfare . It’s the social relations that bring Diana and me to look at our social security to figure out if we have enough to pay rent this month, or pay the medicare premium.
“They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected to where it’s supposed to be.” This image split my brain 30 years ago. How is it that such an image that is so horrible is at the same time so beautiful? It is a Goya painting in words. It fascinates. Your eyes keep returning to it. Your fingers want to touch the blood to see if it is fresh, if it is real. But it is real, because it captures the essence of what I am feeling each time I pay rent, each time Courtney loses a job. And each time I dream of diamonds out of broken glass, pearls growing around sand grains.
A pandemic makes you look at things differently. Everything, even the rack they’ve got us on. Wideman wrote about that too, first in a collection of his short stories. I wrote this four years ago:
In the spring of 1989 John Edgar Wideman read from his short story collection, Fever, at Guild Books. He read from the last story, the title story, held me spellbound. He told us that it would be part of a new novel he was writing, and the fever was a famous plague year in Philadelphia. I have this underlined in my copy of the book: “To explain the fever we need no boatloads of refugees, ragged and wracked with killing fevers, bringing death to our shores. We have bred the affliction within our breasts. . . Fever grows in the secret places of our hearts, planted there when one of us decided to sell one of us to another. The drum must pound ten thousand thousand years to drive that evil away.” It’s an allegorical fever that riddled Philadelphia as the 18th century drew to a close; but one that still stalks our streets.
The novel Wideman was referring to came out a few years later, entitled The Cattle Killing. The plague fever was smallpox. Black Philadelphians in the late 18th century were both accused of being the origin of the disease and being immune to it, and thus were charged with caring for the ill. Unlike today’s plague of COVID 19, the smallpox is spread by a mosquito. There is no person to person way to spread the illness. Like the Philadelphia plague, rumors spread early that Blacks were immune to the disease; however, today’s plague strikes hardest among the poorest, most congested populations, especially Black and Latinx. That underlined passage rings truer even than it did when I first read it.
By 1990, when he published his Philadelphia Fire I was a certifiable John Edgar Wideman groupie. His autograph in my copy reads “You’re a warrior in a good fight. Stay strong.” If the fight he was talking about was spreading new ideas, then Philadelphia Fire is the novel of a warrior in that good fight. My copy of the book is heavily annotated and underlined. The inside boards of the cover are filled with page numbers — references to themes and concepts that struck me as I was reading. Here’s what I wrote about the book a few years ago:
The novel is in three parts, each of which has a distinct musical style to the language. The middle section, also, is an autobiographical riff on when the author taught Shakespeare to Black students in the parks in the summer, and the particular play is The Tempest. Who Caliban really is plays an important part of this section and in some way inhabits the rest of the novel.
[After Wideman’s reading at Columbia College] I joined a few Columbia faculty and grad students at dinner with Wideman. One student asked a question about Shakespeare and about Wideman’s use of language, which reminded me of the question asked at Guild. Why Shakespeare in a novel of Black Philadelphia? The answers to both questions broke the boundaries that separates one genre from another and stretched the complaints about cultural appropriation. English, Wideman pointed out, is his language and he has the obligation to make the most of all his heritage, whether it is the language of the streets or the language of the Bard. It’s all his, and his responsibility to stretch that to its limits. I still find Philadelphia Fire the most exciting of John Edgar Wideman’s work because of this use of Shakespeare [and how rap interpenetrates that section] and because of the rhythmic cadences that mark each section – and because of the way his own biography sneaks into places of the novel, not just the teaching segment, but also basketball and his relationship with some of the political forces in Philadelphia. One of the most artful political novels I’ve read.
The fire in Philadelphia that this novel remembers is not the historical Philadelphia of The Cattle Killing. It is contemporary Philadelphia, just five years from the date of publication, the five year anniversary of when the city fathers dropped a bomb of C4 explosives on the roof of a row house on Osage Avenue, setting a fire that killed 11 of the 13 people living inside and burned an entire neighborhood to the ground. The residents of the building belonged to a group variously described as radical, anarchist, Black, environmentalist, back to nature activists. May 10, 2020 was the 35th anniversary of an event that is little known outside Philadelphia, but continues to be traumatic in the city. ‘We have bred the affliction within our breasts,” Wideman said in The Cattle Killing. You can see it even deeper in this story. A Guardian article brings some of the history up to date. Some MOVE activists who had been arrested and imprisoned before the attack on Osage Avenue remained incarcerated for over 40 years. Ramona Africa, the only adult to escape the holocaust alive, was imprisoned. Five children were incinerated in the blast and the ensuing fire. One child escaped, running naked through a wall of fire into an alley and away. Or so the story of the novel goes.
Iconic photo of Birdie Africa, taken by Michael Mally of the Philadelphia Inquirer as the van took the boy to the hospital.
In a sense, the main character of the novel could be the child that got away. The novelist himself is a main character as well, under the name of Cudjoe (the historical antecedent of this name stems from a leader of the Maroons, enslaved West Africans who escaped into the hills of Jamaica and for more than a century resisted British colonization). Interviewing a woman who had been a MOVE member, Cudjoe searches for the child who escaped. The name the woman gives him is Simbha Muntu, or “Lion Man.” In real life he was known as Birdie Africa, 13 years old when he got away. The mystery of his getting away is more important than the history, which is recounted in this Philadelphia Inquirer article. A police officer took the boy to a nearby van, which then took him to a hospital, where he stayed while his burns were being treated. His father, Andino Ward, not a member of the MOVE group, reclaimed his son and renamed him Michael Moses Ward. Birdie/Michael died in 2013 on a cruise ship in the Caribbean at 41 years old.
What is it that survived from the wreckage on Osage Avenue? How did it come about? What are people thinking? How does it reconcile with the author’s very comfortable life? Or with his past life in this very city of Philadelphia? How can we escape our past,
Rhodes scholar and basketball star John Edgar Wideman on the cover of Look magazine
how do we beat the drums to recover our humanity? Wideman poses no answers to questions. Cudjoe has a dream. He’s at Clark Park near Osage Avenue. “I’m also a witness, upright, floating, somehow staring down at the basketball court, screaming because a boy is lynched from the rim. A kid hanging there with his neck broken and drawers droopy and caked with shit and piss. It’s me and every black boy I’ve ever seen running up and own playing ball . . .” Wideman was an All Ivy League team basketball player and leading scorer and captain of his University of Pennsylvania basketball team. Could the kid hanging there have been Simbha?
A howl ends the book: “A mob howling [Cudjoe’s] name. Screaming for blood. Words come to him, cool him, stop him in his tracks. He’d known them all his life. Never again. Never again. He turns to face whatever it is rumbling across the stones of Independence Square.”
Romare Bearden’s work explodes from the cover of Sent For You Yesterday (see illustration above). In 2018, Wideman published a collection of short stories, American Histories. I wrote this (you can read the whole essay in this blog) about the lens through which to read American Histories last year: “You can discover the key to American Histories, the profoundly dialectical collection of what purports to be short stories by master craftsman John Wideman, on page 206. ‘Well, Basquiat asks, how does the artist resolve this dilemma, Maestro? This perpetual losing battle, this shifting back and forth, this absence, gap, this oblivion between a reality the senses seize and a reality the imagination seizes.’” Basquiat, the young and brash artist, interrogates the old master
John Edgar Wideman
Bearden in an imagined conversation. They lived a few blocks from each other in Harlem and, as far as anyone knows, never met. That conflict, though, between what is real and what is imagined pulses through American Histories and through all his work; more politically stated, that conflict between what exists and what is possible. I can’t read American Histories without being haunted by the picture of every boy lynched from the rim of the basketball hoop; by the plague that needs no importation of refugees to spread its contagion; by the rack tearing us apart.
“They got us on a rack, John French. They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected where its supposed to be.” That’s still how I experience the world. If there is anything the current plague has shown us, it is that this statement is real. They don’t care about us. It remains for us, those whom the system has discarded, mutilated, wiped out of history — it remains for us to imagine and to build what is possible. “The drum must pound ten thousand thousand years to drive that evil away.” We need to find that howl. We need to pound that drum. We haven’t got 10,000 years.