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Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society.

One of the consistent themes in the writings of John Edgar Wideman has been the status and condition of African American men. He has explored the subject in terms of their relationships to women, to each other, to the black community, and to the dominant white society. He has sought to identify the African American male's sources of frustration, violence, and self-destruction, as well as possibilities for survival and success, through novels, short fictions, personal essays, and historical narratives. Fatheralong, which he labels "a meditation," uses his relationship with his father as the basis for reflections on black men in contemporary American society.

Wideman begins, however, not with the personal story, but with a social-philosophical discussion of "race" in an introductory chapter ironically entitled "Common Ground." The irony is in the separation that "race" creates both between blacks and whites and within black life. "Race" appears within quotes precisely because, for Wideman, "race" is not a description of reality, but a naming of reality for purposes of manipulation. "Race" serves as the means by which white privilege and black deprivation are justified as part of the "natural order." It also becomes the means by which African Americans are maneuvered into intragroup antagonism and violence. The attempt in Fatheralong is to avoid the "race" trap by reinventing ways to tell the stories of the self, the family, and the group known as African Americans. These stories must acknowledge the harsh historical reality that "race" has created, without accepting that "race" defines the human beings whose narratives these are. The place Wideman begins is with his own family story.

The story is a bittersweet one of separation, misunderstanding, and alienation. What Wideman primarily recalls about his childhood is his father's absence. He was a man who worked multiple jobs to support his family, but seemed to have few emotional ties to them. The title of the book is a wordplay indicating this situation. As a child, Wideman thought that the hymn "Farther Along" was "Fatheralong," a reference to a spiritual father distant and yet interested. This sense he also tied to his own present yet absent father, whom he refers to as a "familiar stranger." The son grew up in a world of women, where love and physical and emotional contact were important. What he remembers about his father is his aloneness, his proud isolation and self-reliance. Yet these qualities inhibit what Wideman sees as essential to African American community and identity: the passing down of the father's stories to his sons.

The difference that "race" plays in what otherwise might be understood as a more general lack of connection between generations lies in the meaning of being black and male in America:

Ideas of manhood, true and transforming, grow out of private, personal exchanges between fathers and sons. Yet for generations of black men in America this privacy, this privilege has been systematically breached in a most shameful and public way.... Arrayed against the possibility of conversation between fathers and sons is the country they inhabit, everywhere proclaiming the inadequacy of black fathers, their lack of manhood in almost every sense the term's understood here in America. (64-65)

Thus, Edgar Wideman's distance not merely from John but also the entire family is part of a larger history of emasculation. The father must exaggerate his self-reliance and emotional independence in order to claim his manhood and his human dignity. His stories can only be ones of humiliation or excessive self-assertion. Both types parody American manhood, and neither offers an affirming narrative for the son's development. Thus, each generation must create its own meaning without the benefit of tradition.

Wideman extends this interpretation beyond the immediate relationship of himself and his father through his tale of a quest for family history. He and his father journey to South Carolina, to the black town of Promised Land. Wideman plays out some of the possibilities for the name, suggesting, for example, that Promised Land is not to be found on any map. It is both an historical and a mythic place. The search for ancestral fathers becomes a search for identity and for a meaningful history:

History is not something given, a fixed, chronological, linear outline with blank spots waiting to be filled with newly unearthed facts. It's the activity over time of all the minds comprising it, the sum of these parts that produces a greater ecological whole. (101)

It is this notion of history that makes for self, community, and group identity: "Conscious articulation of common goals, common stakes in a common struggle to survive is one means of acknowledging and also building upon the past, asserting a sense of belongingness to something greater than ourselves" (102).

What Promised Land provides is a complex narrative that suggests some elements of such a history, but also a sense of all the stories that have been lost. Moreover, the material that did reveal itself suggested the master narrative of "race" in all its coercive yet banal reality; the documents and stories show the everydayness, the systemization of the evil of slavery, the harshness of segregation, and the false promise of integration. Even the apparent racial harmony of 1992 South Carolina has to be understood in the context of the often unconscious privilege that whites have and exercise as a result of a history of exploitation and violence.

Near the end of Father along, Wideman begins to address his son, who is in prison for life in Arizona for the killing of a young friend. What is clear in the episodes in this section is the difficulty of communicating with the son despite the love for him in the family. But underlying this narrative is the fundamental evasion of Fatheralong. Wideman does not come to terms with his own position as father. He does not apply to himself the kind of analysis that he does to his own father or to black men in general. He does not suggest how he might or might not have been caught in the "race trap" with his own son. He does not indicate the stories that he did or did not tell to his own children. He chooses not to speculate on how his silence or telling, his absence or presence might have affected the son's tendency to violence. In this way, he becomes the blank space at the center of his own narrative. He is finally his own Fatheralong.

Reviewed by Keith Byerman Indiana State University
COPYRIGHT 1996 African American Review
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Byeman, Keith
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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