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L’écriture mémorielle contre la domination : une responsabilité narrative, linguistique et artistique

John Edgar Wideman’s Writing to Save a Life : Only Connect

Claude Julien
p. 145-170


L’histoire familiale et raciale sont la sève des 21 volumes de John Edgar Wideman. Le sous-titre de Fatheralong, Méditation sur les pères et les fils, la race et la société, fournit une clef ouvrant ces œuvres, les mémoires comme les fictions. Écrire pour Sauver une Vie part du souvenir du lynchage d’Emmett Till dont les coupables furent acquittés en 1955, puis s’attache à l’exécution de Louis Till, le père d’Emmett, soldat condamné pour viol et meurtre en 1945 lors d’un douteux procès en cour martiale, en Italie. Écrire pour Sauver une Vie rouvre les minutes du procès et offre une version vraisemblable comblant les vides de l’histoire officielle. Le livre trouve la paix en réaffirmant le besoin de contrer l’oppression raciale : il se ferme sur un conte afro-américain bien connu : les frêles abeilles sont prêtes à lutter contre la gourmandise de Frère Ours.

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Texte intégral

Run and tell somebody.
Run and tell.
Tell somebody.
[Vernon 2004, 123]

Run and tell who ?
Who I run and tell ?
[id. 165]

  • 1 The title will appear below as WSL. All references are to the 2016 Scribner edition, noted thus: [p (...)
  • 2 Borrowing the word “movement” from the musical field describes best the textual echoes, variations (...)

1Writing to Save a Life1 could be called an autobiography of a race concept because the racial past and present, invested in fact and fiction, crisscross the literary imagination. Narrative norms are subverted ; a black street voice plays with received syntactical rules ; chronology churns. WSL is a daring riff eschewing linearity in spite of its apparently neat division into the three movements2 it offers to the eye. The first part, “Louis Till”, sets the scenes of re-memory. The second, “The File”, offers a plausible reconstruction, both angry and fatalistic of the events leading Louis Till to the gallows. “Graves” is the final stage mulling over the past, revisiting family roots, weed-covered graves in out-of-the-way Promiseland ― a name that of course conjures up the nation’s burdens, memories of racial wounds. In this three-part mental journey, people, characters, the author’s voice, the author’s persona, victims and victimizers move from one section to another, leave the narrative flow only to return presented in another perspective.

2Wideman’s first novel, A Glance Away (1967) was soon followed by Hurry Home whose course takes Cecil from youthful hope, going abroad, to old age decrepitude back in New York. Much of Wideman’s fiction draws from his family background, a treasure trove in which literary re-creation and aliases preserve privacy. The family’s migration from South Carolina to Washington, DC, then on to Pittsburgh is personal history, lives battered by racial difference is the sap of the Homewood trilogy. Fatheralong, a memoir, draws from the same source as it sounds the warped link between black fathers and sons. The Island : Martinique looks at racism while visiting that Caribbean beach head of slavery. WSL, the subject of this essay, returns to the continent to reopen deep wounds.

3Like Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk ending with « Hear my cry, O God the Reader ; vouchsafe that my book fall not still-born into the world wilderness » [Du Bois 278], WSL speaks of racial grief, but much more radically : Du Bois’s hopes, or dreams, have been deferred over one century later. The urge to speak out is great. But who is willing to listen ? Who is willing to change ? What is there beyond the telling ? What does the author draw from the harrowing struggle between words and thought, between heart and head ? How does the book guide the reader through the American conundrum of race which bridges the author’s personal history and past national events ? As we follow the book’s three movements, our essay will trace the text’s enjambments from “History-time”, the black condition in the United States, to “story-time”, where History is rewritten from a black standpoint to open on another truth. Sequential analysis will show how the text’s itinerary, three sections one could compare to a canon built around recurring elements, thoughts and memories guides the reader through its moral and ethical experience.

  • 3 His given name in WSL is Rakhim. He was Robby in Brothers and Keepers and has a fiction counterpart (...)
  • 4 Wideman steps in to affirm his book’s purpose: “saving a son and brother… saving myself” [164].

4 Perhaps WSL could have been subtitled “Of Ghosts and Men”. The ghosts are fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, viciously lynched in 1955 in a rural Mississippi delta backwater where he visited his mother’s in-laws over the summer, and Louis Till, his father, a GI charged with rape and murder whom the US army hanged ten years earlier in Italy. Emmett and Louis are part of American History but, as black victims of racism, they also are (especially Emmett who was Wideman’s adolescent coeval) part of the author’s personal history. Emmett and his father are dead. The book’s purpose is to save lives : Wideman’s own, that of his second son incarcerated for murdering a summer camp roommate in Arizona and of his younger brother3 also serving a life sentence in Pittsburgh for participating in a robbery leading to the death of a petty crook peddling stolen television sets4.

  • 5 The text in the island plays upon the other meaning of the word “revenant” in French: ghost or spir (...)

5 Fictions and non-fictions form a consistent chain in Wideman’s corpus. Indeed, “Of Ghosts and Men” for a subtitle resonates with the beginning of The island whose introduction brings up Père Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre who called the island “le pays des revenants” (“the country of comers-back”) because every visitor entertained “… a most passionate desire to return thereunto” |Wideman 2003 xix]. Du Tertre was a man of his time. The comers-back he wrote about were of course white. Black slaves deported to the island did not get a chance to leave and return. Their lives were short. To Wideman, Du Tertre’s Eden must be qualified, even today. In Du Tertre’s day it was a gulag, hell for the ghosts of the enslaved Africans who haunt the ruined quarters of the Latouche plantation, a cemetery of sorts down the hill from the luxurious Balata floral garden. These ghosts, and others, eerie cries heard tearing the night (perhaps cattle or wild beasts), become a political metaphor irrigating the narration5. Another cemetery is visited in WSL. An official one this time. Other black remains, of possibly guilty men alongside unduly charged others, rest in that secluded space named “Plot E” where the US army re-buried their World War II dishonorable dead in 1949, soldiers accused of misconduct toward local people. In Plot E, “Eighty-three of the ninety-six graves hold colored remains” [185]. Statistics in Professor Alice Kaplan’s The Interpreter point out black troops on the European field were 8.5 % of the contingent [Kaplan 7], which suggests either a high proportion of misdemeanor among them, or relentless severity towards them. Plot E lies across the road from a World War I burying memorial in France. In a way, across a road is as good as across the tracks, Southern mode.

Louis Till

  • 6 The title of one of Wideman’s short stories collection quotes Chinua Achebe’s famous saying in Thin (...)

6 WSL begins with a toddler’s memories of riding on his maternal grandfather’s shoulders, a sanctuary. However, the sense of safety vanishes, never to return, on seeing the ugly face and crippled body of Clement who spends his life sweeping hair in the local barbershop and who, though unable to speak, keeps track of the numbers game. The same grandfather figure opened Wideman’s first novel, A Glance Away : a boisterous character, “high on dago red” [Wideman 1967 3] who flouts the maternity rules to come and see his first-born grandson. Two different representations of the same person turned into characters. Reading Wideman means finding one’s way between reality and fiction as texts meander from one to the other. Life and imagination are malleable. The freedom to create is an author’s privilege6. No truth or event is beyond flexibility and Wideman demands the right to step into his texts, to acknowledge the reconstructions which place the book in that creation interspace.

Stories and lies : reading a history book

7 The first part is a seemingly unassembled jig saw puzzle introducing all the players, a broad view of the events, memories (questionable or not), the administrative difficulty to obtain the court martial file, pending questions, horror and scathing comments on injustice — coupled with a sense of the inevitable.

  • 7 Louis Guilloux was critical of US army justice in his Ok, Joe. Guilloux, a resistant to Nazi occupa (...)

8 Wideman, so he writes, was researching Emmett Till’s lynching when he first learned of Louis Till’s existence through the silver ring Emmett’s corpse wore. An unsolicited book came to hand coincidentally : the galleys of The Interpreter, Alice Kaplan’s biography of Louis Guilloux7 whom the US army hired to translate for the court martial that judged US troops charged with misconduct in Brittany. Professor Kaplan’s own research led her to the WW I Oise-Aisne memorial where also rested Louis Till’s reintered remains who is described as the father of the youth lynched for “wolf-whistling” a white woman. Professor Kaplan’s words are a founding element concerning truth. Wideman writes an unsent letter to his guide in the cemetery to clarify that historical point. He feels he must “inform page 173, inform Alice Kaplan” [14] that wolf-whistling is a moot point. The unusual wording, the importance to inform paper, even a particular page in a book, underlines the frailty of truth. Professor Kaplan’s accepting as true a “fact” the killers’ defense team brought up in court shows a well-meaning person can take reported events at face value and repeat them, true or false, in conventional wisdom’s echo chamber.

9Carolyn Bryant reporting Emmett’s alleged out-of-line behavior under oath became in Timothy Tyson’s words in The Blood of Emmett Till “the mouthpiece of a monstrous lie” [Tyson 7]. The murderers’ acquittal told many that their action was within a white man’s right to make justice : truth encrusted in lies, local truth/falsehood told and retold until raised to the status of national truth. Carolyn Bryant’s belated confession underlines this point :

  • 8 Carolyn Bryant remains an unrepentant Southerner who calls dead Emmett that boy.

“I want to tell you… Honestly, I don’t remember. It was fifty years ago. You tell these stories so long that they seem true, but that point is not true.’ […] half a century later, Carolyn Bryant offered up another truth. […] ‘Nothing that boy8 did could ever justify what happened to him’” [Tyson 6-7].

  • 9 There are no names on the stones. At the top of the incline is a single white marble cross, as comp (...)
  • 10 Here is WSL’s first chronological crash or scrambling. The galleys of The Interpreter were received (...)

10Wideman visits Plot E vicariously as he is reading The Interpreter. A photograph of a “numbered9 white square stone” makes him “disappear, a ghost in the machine of a book, machine of [his] body” [14], and ask absent Alice Kaplan whether she felt “the life of each of us, no matter how we clutch it, is an unanchored thread that does not guide us out of the labyrinth” [15]. Expressing that existential lack of bearings follows other meandering questions : did she notice Till and Guilloux shared the same first name, or did the assonance between Guilloux and “guillotine” occur to her ? Such macabre rambling already plays with the blanks in the court martial transcript10, unanswered questions beyond stark officialdom. Did the army get local people to see justice done as was the case in Brittany according to The Interpreter ? Who pronounced the men dead when their pulses stopped beating ? Did Till and co-defendant Murray drop down the same trap, in turn ? Or, else, was there “one double scaffold, or two scaffolds, separate and equal” ? [18] — a bitter reminder conjuring up years of Supreme Court-sanctioned violence and wrongs, multiform year after year, decade after decade.

Oppression : History-time... in Italy

11 A visceral sense of oppression pervades the text and becomes most visible in the time jostling surrounding emotion-charged scenes such as the moment when Mamie Till eagerly listens for the train soon due in the Chicago station, but is already looking at her son’s martyred face in the still unopened casket. A similar chronological scramble occurs when the long expected court martial transcript comes to hand. It is reported opened and glanced through, though still in the mail one page later [88] as if sequencing time was pointless.

12 Time usually translates in most minds into change and measuring it as a means to keep track of an evolution. Racial time brings no change in WSL. It is hopelessly stable, capped under a leaden lid, under a sense of the inevitable governed by the powers that be. A probably fictional character, Mr. Wealthy, neatly dressed, a former GI outspoken about the Jim Crow army, brings Mamie Till some solace : that her husband may or may not have been guilty as charged, that whatever black men did they were treated like dirt, worked like slaves while official lies were the rule. Inevitability comes in the shadow of death. Louis Till says nothing to exculpate himself. Later, before confinement on death row, he flouts detention rules, sneaking out. When co-inmates warn him to be careful because the guards are instructed to shoot to kill, Till comes up with a fatalistic answer : “Can’t nobody hurt me. Dead man already […] a ghost already with a ghost wife, ghost son, ghost home in a ghost city” [63]. The text makes up Till’s suicidal thoughts, but who knows ? It is consistent, perfectly in line with his wish to defy segregation when he integrates an Argo ice cream parlor, just sitting in the booth with his frightened girl friend and staring at the owner. Wideman, reader of Mamie Till-Bradley’s account in Death of Innocence, then writer retelling the event, obviously supports Till’s daring. When closing the army file, he concludes “Nowhere to hide” [99]. One short sentence opening onto the long-standing hurt sung by the spiritual, and tying WSL to the second volume in the Homewood trilogy, Hiding Place, in which Tommy finally leaves Mother Bess, another victim of life, and finds the courage to come into the open, “…stake[s] his life on one more chance” [158]. That chance is denied him. Is there a briar patch for Brother Rabbit to be safe in ? Silence before his judges is Louis Till’s dignity. “Silence is Louis Till’s briar patch” [140] beneath n° 73 marker in Plot E.

13 Inevitability seeps from every pore of the text. Wideman’s mother would frequently say “Where there’s life, there’s hope”, which her husband would take up contributing the punch line of the joke about “a southern darky obsessed with coping him a taste of white pussy before he dies : ‘And for every tree there’s a rope’” [20].

14 The presence of the inescapable finds its way into grammar to underline that a black man is handy for a scapegoat, whatever he does :

During the next hour and a half, while salvos of artillery continued to flash and rumble and searchlights comb the darkness and sirens wail in response to the false alarm of an enemy raid, two Italian women are allegedly raped, another woman shot in the belly and killed. American soldiers encamped in the vicinity would be accused of the crimes, and two colored privates, Louis (NMI) Till and Fred A. McMurray were hanged, July 2, 1945, after a court martial found them guilty...” [87].

15The pointless wailing of the sirens falsely alerting people is part of the messy circumstances underlined by the repeated and coordinating the breathless first sentence ; while the modal would takes a short cut to the hanging, were.

Distorting mirrors : History-time across the board

16 Inevitability also filters through a game of mirrors inviting readers to connect situations and build bridges between the beings whom the relation turns into characters. Emmett’s nightly abduction in the fifties finds an echo in a TV news item heard while shaving : a group of young whites came to a Long Island black home demanding the son of the family be surrendered to them for his having insulted one of the boys’ sister. Unlike Emmett’s uncle, the father refused. Racist insults grew from bad to worse until the father took a pistol out and fired one single shot. The group hastily retreated to their car where a young man died on the way to hospital. The black father was charged with murder. The places are different and so are the times, but the Sumner racial code has lingered on. Whites still think they are entitled to taking justice in their own hands when the supposed offender is black. The text brings no modern, northern, consideration in (for instance that the father might have called the police for help), and offers a stark conclusion : the Sumner “scenario is sort of scrambled” [16] but the essence is the same, years apart.

17 The narration carries two parallel strands, one related to the Till family, the other to the Widemans. From page to page, the reader is drawn into continuous intimations that both strands are alternative versions of the same black story. Wideman candidly acknowledges his awareness of the correspondences and connections the text builds : “I assume the risk of allowing my fiction to enter other people’s true stories. And, to be fair, I let other people’s stories trespass the truth of mine” [34].

18 On the Till side, Louis is a violent man, brutal towards his pregnant wife, an amateur boxer always ready to use his fists and likes “the idea of a fast, clean knockout” [66]. On the Wideman side, the father, also an amateur boxer, spends a night in prison for assaulting Big Jim who, he thinks, is perverting his son ― and also uses his fists against his wife who, unlike Mamie Till, does not retaliate.

19 Louis Till and Rakhim are also paired. Hasty race-based justice led Rakhim to the penitentiary : like Louis, he made no plea. His case was different, of course. Rakhim’s father knew his son did not kill and unwisely advised him to make no plea. Did he believe in a color blind justice ?

  • 11 « … notions de personnes et notions de faits, singulières et historiques […] mais qui ont d’ailleur (...)

20 The link between Emmett and John is more tenuous, strictly based on age and race : two adolescents, males, born and raised in the north, not far removed from their southern roots, instructed in school and by daily life messages that they are undesirable, not fully American. As Wideman recalls, rather regrets, his not having accompanied his grandfather to Promiseland, it occurs to him that Emmett took his place and that, had he gone south, he might have been Emmett. That thought is not based on reason, but rooted in the “ramifications” Maurice Halbwachs describes in Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire. The social structures of memory are hinged on “...notions of persons and facts, singular and historical […] that take on all the characteristics of thoughts shared by all in a group, or even several11” [Halbwachs 177]. Thus, an irrational identification between the two lads based on racial consciousness filters into the text. Interviewed by Michael Silverblatt, Wideman calls that “psychic fragmentation” [TuSmith 121].

Pittsburgh : from story-time to the politics of History-time in Italy

21 The Pittsburgh section tempts the reader into a fruitful connection based on John’s adolescent discovery of sex with young and savvy Latreesha. Their one-time relationship is charged with a fearful sense of transgression : what if John’s grandmother snoring upstairs woke up, what of the tell-tale smell and the stain on the sofa’s plastic cover, even carefully wiped off with the tissue paper of Latreesha’s meticulously clean father ? So go adolescent memories before a question comes to mind sixty years later : “Did Emmett Till ever get a chance to make love” [79]. Such an unanswerable query leads readers to memories of the Sumner trial, Carolyn Bryant’s allegation Emmett took her by the waist and said words she said she dared not repeat in the courtroom ; and of Emmett’s rumored boast he had made love with a white woman whose photo he carried in his wallet. It turned out the photo was that of an actress ; but the boast, just the boast, was damnable in the nineteen fifties ― not only in the South.

  • 12 Malcolm X drew much criticism from people who thought he approved of President Kennedy’s assassinat (...)

22 The text extends the taboo to Louis in a sort of jocose jazzy variation : did the hanged man “sample the local bird” ? [20]. An unwritten crime in his case, not a mere transgression, no matter whether actual rape was involved or not. Taking hold of the slang word bird, the texts drifts into a free-flowing fantasy, a collage both witty and scathing where the origin of the famous Italian chicken breed, black music and national politics cohere. “Bird” probably meant Charlie Parker to Louis who had no interest in the Leghorn/Livorno chicken breed. Breed of course leads to race ; then on to Malcolm X who shared his last name with Disney’s Chicken Little. Last but not least, the Italian chickens coming home to roost12 might have “clucked disapproval” [21] of the climate of hate presiding over the court martial. The author steps into the text. “I attempt to smile” [21], he writes, and then engages on a debate over precedence : can it be figured out whether the egg was first, or the hen ? No answer can be forthcoming. Neither is there a way to fathom the bewildering white detestation of difference : that “automatic” hate Olympia Vernon denounces in a fake KKK anthem :

We are white men born unto the earth
And land, which is ours and belongs to us, as
Free and automatic white men.
All niggers must be obedient.
They are not part of the human thread,
But are animals and must be dragged from the
Blood of the nation.
The same thing goes for hypocrites [Vernon 2006 51].

23Beyond WSL’s chain of thoughts combining national History, a president’s assassination and black history, beyond Chicken Little’s constant fear the sky is due to fall on its head, there emerges the hope “some of us” will rise up “absolutely not satisfied by the prospect of remaining forever in the dark” [21]. The soldier bees rebuilding their hive at the end are part of the text’s consciousness at the output. And so are those who, like Louis Till in Argo, did rise up, only to be silenced.

The File

Black time and History

  • 13 See Lectures on the Philosophy of History: the lectures of 1825-1826.

24 Before plunging into WSL’s treatment of historical events, fact and fiction leaning on fact, it may be appropriate to recall Hegel’s thesis that Africans do not have a history13. The added circumstance of the middle passage, being torn from one’s roots to begin a new constrained life across the ocean lingers in the African-American collective memory. Malcolm X briefly argued in his autobiography that history was “a monopoly of the founders” [Malcolm X 277]. Henry Louis Gates enlarged upon black absence in US history, to him a mental deprivation confining people within a “time machine” in which “a slave was he or she who most literally stood out of time” [Gates 101]. Gates’s theorizing probably owes much to his scholarly frequentation of the monuments of African-American literature.

25 Such as Richard Wright. In Uncle Tom’s Children’s “Long Black Song”, a baby is given a clock without hands for a toy. It could be fixed, a white drummer says, eager to seduce the child’s mother :

“We ain’t got no money to be fixin’ no clocks”
“Haven’t you got any clock ?”
“But how do you keep time ?”
“We get along without time”
“Haven’t you ever had a clock ?”
She laughed and turned her face toward the silent field”
[Wright 130-131].

26Native Son strikes the same note : Bigger constantly forgets time in the Dalton home which Peggy runs by the clock, and he plans to buy a gold watch that would have been completely useless to him.

  • 14 Roger Rosenblatt’s Black Fiction (Harvard U.P., 1974) offers a thorough discussion of time in Invis (...)

27 Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man also wants to buy a watch and is eager to project himself into the future. Brother Jack raises a toast “to History and change” [Ellison 269]14, but nothing like that comes to the Invisible Man who is made to face memories of slavery, for instance the gift of a leg chain he cannot discard or the piggy bank he cannot throw away… least of all in a rabidly racist white lady’s trash can.

  • 15 Jean-Pierre Richard argues that Wideman’s concept of time’s disorderliness and immovability and his (...)
  • 16 The narrator of “Fever” is Bishop Richard Allen who founded the first black church in Philadelphia. (...)

28 Wideman is no stranger to the abolition or stagnation of time15. So the cover of the Picador edition of Fatheralong suggests. Whether the designer consulted the author or not, that cover represents a black adolescent’s face enclosed in a clock without hands. At the bottom of the page is a double box showing a shackled slave sitting next to a picture of clockworks. WSL’s time shuttle is a textual constituent. Like the chiasma in The Cattle Killing, “Backward to go forward. Forward to go back” [54], it flows from a non linear concept of history and time in which “Everything that has happened, all the people who have existed, simultaneously occupy this great sea” [Wideman 1996* 2] ; and possibly may be ascribed, as suggested in “Fever”, to the Middle Passage. “Fever”, a story in the eponymous collection offers a meditation on history that could well be among Wideman’s most conscious literary explorations of the middle passage, time spent “curled in the black hold of [a] ship” [Wideman 1990 130], a toy in the hands of the ocean whose waters erase time, drown the beginning and the end in their flow and ebb. “We have bred the affliction within our breasts. […] We are our ancestors and our children, neighbors and strangers to ourselves16” [id. 132].

29 Wrights’, Ellison’s and Wideman’s concurring visions of a timeless static world are a recurring feature in African-American literature, almost a water mark on paper. Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the founders of ironic protest fiction, sounds that theme in The Sport of the Gods (1902). A false charge of theft drives the Hamiltons from their golden post-slavery employment as gate keepers. Their employer’s mansuetude allows the family to remove to New York. When their innocence is proven, the “gods” reinstate the old couple in their lodge. Is going back to square one due justice ? There had been no break for them in the north where they lost their nice children to Harlem’s devils, gambling and dancing. Protest in The Sport of the Gods called for reading between the lines. Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Underground Railroad (2016) is more direct with that improbable steam engine and ramshackle carriage running down an improbable tunnel that leads nowhere ; or when snake-bit Mabel gives up her effort to run away :

When her mouth went minty and her leg tingled, she knew. She made it another mile. She had dropped her sack along the way, lost her course in the black water. She could have made it farther—working Randall land had made her strong, strong in body if nothing else—but she stumbled onto a bed of soft moss and it felt right. She said, Here, and the swamp swallowed her up [Whitehead 295].


30 During a conversation with Ishmael Reed reported in Bonnie TuSmith’s Conversations with John Edgar Wideman, Wideman brought up Richard Wright’s opinion black and white Americans “are engaged in a struggle over the nature of reality” [TuSmith 127]. A writer’s task and opportunity grows from there. Interviewed by Kay Bonetti, Wideman spoke of being inspired by his Aunt May’s recollections of the family’s moving to Pittsburgh to write the Homewood stories which he sees as “...a way of healing […] of dealing with my own sense of loss” [TuSmith 48]. Writing means both emancipation from and communication with the past, leads to personal reconstruction.

  • 17 Great time, a concept inherited from West African ontology [TuSmith 123] and the Australian Aborige (...)

31 “Casa Grande”, a brief story in all stories are true suggests as much. “Casa Grande” starts with a fantasy of a flight to Jupiter Wideman’s second son wrote as a child. The prison’s proximity to the Hohokan ruins in Arizona makes the text swerve to the gap between the vanished Native American civilization and today’s visitors whose condescending belief that “they are better than others […] rises and becomes dry rain” [Wideman 1992 21]. That T. S. Eliot-like oxymoron falls on the arid plain where the son’s story―being called an ignorant Earthling intruder by a superior invisible Jupiterian provoked his parents disbelieving laughter―recedes from “Great-Time to Little-time” [id.]. Little-time is the time of oppression living black in white America. It is called “History-time” in this essay. Great-time is the time of story writing : “a sense of community and unity and being which can’t be touched by oppression, slavery” as Wideman said to Michael Silverblatt. [TuSmith 124]. Writing one’s own version of History in WSL, denouncing a racist sentence, is Great-time, story-time17.

Reading the army file

  • 18 That Senator is unnamed, a way for the text to make readers probe their minds. Stephen J. Whitfield (...)

32 Perusing the army documents, collating dates and signatures reveals that on October 14, 1955 (just after the Sumner proceedings) Till’s confidential file was declassified and leaked to the press following the request of “redneck Senator” who later “proudly admitted his role in an interview18” [97]. The archive of Louis Till’s court martial sentencing was tampered with to “sabotage” [95] an effort to indict Milan and Bryant, this time for kidnapping Emmett. Abduction had been admitted in court, but the Grand Jury refused to charge them. In effect, the father’s sins were revisited upon the son from the first to the second, and last, generation.

33 Lacunal and disorderly, the court martial file lies at the heart of WSL : a documented charge against racial hatred that establishes a most likely fiction of the prejudiced mindset that railroaded Louis Till to the gallows. The Jim Crow army received President Roosevelt’s support when he signed a recommendation not to “intermingle colored and enlisted white personnel in the same regimental organizations” [83]. A note posted on a barracks door in a Texas camp followed that persuasion : “All men are cautioned to treat [colored soldiers] with respect but not to cultivate friendship with them” [83]. Grim irony sets the tone. Few black troops were selected for active duty at the outset. Louis Till was a “lucky” [84] exception, assigned to combat forces as soon as he enlisted.


34 Fact easily glides into a fiction that turns official History on its back. On the plane to France to visit Louis Till’s tomb in Plot E, Wideman comes across an issue of The Smithsonian Magazine dealing with pre Civil War Fort Sumter : a Confederate delegation were rowed across the bay to negotiate the evacuation of the federal garrison. So far, so good. The Smithsonian is a paper repository of History for the general public. WSL ironically appropriates the episode, crushing History to smithereens. The delegates are being rowed to the fort, the property of South Carolina, by a crew of six slaves, also southern property, on a mission that will bring the Confederacy to destruction. Wideman is a stowaway in the WSL version of the event and Louis Till is among the rowers. His strokes are not quite in synch.

  • 19 Calling in George Washington’s figure is an important historical digression inviting readers to fil (...)

35He is a rebel : his thoughts are on the master’s mistress dancing her way back from the big house to the quarters before dawn. Not only does the author read Till’s thoughts. He also sees a tall figure standing in the prow. Could it be George Washington crossing the Delaware ? No. This is John Brown delivering his last words before hanging predicting only blood could punish the crimes of this guilty land. The chain of associations continues. The passage ends with Louis Till’s secret thoughts with the noose around his neck. Anger ? Loss ? Repentance ? With history in mind, the reader can cooperate and fill a huge blank in. John Brown was incorrect. The blood shed during the Civil War was not enough19.


36 From that sardonic opening, the text proceeds meticulously to build a case for Louis and his co-defendant by raising questions that failed to arise in court. Orders from on high were for the army to affirm its respectability. Black soldiers, always eager for sex with white women according to the American racist mindset, were ideal suspects. The discrepant file does not make judicial sense. The plaintiffs did not formally identify their rapists. Testimonies were incoherent. How many assailants were there ? Three, or four ? Why sentence two men ? What of the man with a British accent who was reported in the vicinity ? Did the women consent ? Army supplies, sugar, cigarettes, money for wine (why not for sex ?) must have been welcome after years of deprivation. An Italian who resided in New York for twelve years first testified for the defendants claiming he had not heard black accents on the spot. That was his June statement. He reversed himself in October. He had become an employee of the army in the meantime and was now able to see through a closed door in the dark. A third defendant, James Thomas, Jr., who was also involved in a sugar theft charged Till and McMurray to the hilt to exculpate himself. Why did Till say nothing at all ? Did he really believe it was no use and that only official truth mattered and would prevail ? How can one live under the reign of a justice based on the color of one’s skin ? Literature is the saving branch to clutch at by rewriting the story away from insufferable hurt. In Fatheralong, when news of the Arizona tragedy reaches the parents in Maine, the father confesses as an author, “I couldn’t deal with the pain in her voice, so I made up another story […] to make sense of the enormity of what happens and doesn’t happen, the glimmers of it we paste together trying to make peace” [Wideman 1995 191].


  • 20 See T. Tyson, 124. Sheriff Strider insisted the body was found in his county. He was powerful, a we (...)

37 In WSL’s context of a The Tempest-like-make-believe kingdom, the army file, a “hodge-podge of this and that” [97] “writes fiction” [113]. Wideman’s text offers another story, writes a letter attributed to an officer who argues that exculpating Thomas will help condemn the other two accused soldiers : “Everybody’s aware we have a war to finish up. You read Ike’s memo, didn’t you ? Why waste a minute on these animals” [121]. That letter is a bitter fabrication. An angry fiction, but one most likely to have been in some white minds in the Metato camp : “I was not there. I’m not Louis Till. Not Mamie Till. I’m guilty of imagining pictures, sounds, words. Mine. I make them up. They could or could not be the way. It happened. Truth” [119]. The hardly coordinated, breathless syntax of the above quotation signifies on the contents of the file. The court martial’s proposed story mixes fact and fiction into a lie rampant racism makes fairly believable. A Sumner, Miss., court declared murderers innocent while everyone knew they were guilty as charged. Leflore County Sheriff George Smith may have been the only local person ready to stand on the side of due process. His courage served no purpose : he did not have jurisdiction20. All “lies are equal” [113]. WSL offers a possibility to pass judgment on what official History presents as the truth.


38 “Graves” for a title invites readers to take a plunge into the past and its influence on current life. Words also mean through their music. “Graves” sounds like grief and sows gravity on the coming text. Indeed, WSL’s last part is a thoughtful and grim-faced racial clearing house which concentrates on the existential significance visiting Emmett’s and his father’s histories produced. The scathing treatment of politics and History, of racism at work in a court martial, in the first two parts gives way to concentrating on self, meditating on the pains of life, one’s failings, regrets.

  • 21 « Je reste troublé par l’inquiétant spectacle que donnent le trop de mémoire ici, le trop d’oubli a (...)

39 “Graves” encourages readers to assess WSL’s statement on race with respect to Paul Ricœur’s preoccupation with remembrance in La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli : “...I remain engrossed in the disquieting display of excessive memory here, insistent forgetfulness there […] Seeking a fair amount of memory is in this respect one of my avowed civic pursuits”21 [Ricœur i].

  • 22 Jacques Le Goff quotes Pierre Nora in Histoire et Mémoire: “Ce qui reste du passé dans le vécu des (...)
  • 23 See William C. Dowling: Ricoeur on Time and Narrative, Univ. of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, India (...)

40 The question is not here for readers to evaluate memory in WSL, whether race is too present or not present enough. Literary and historical works enclose worlds-in-themselves that coexist with the flow of mental time. Individuals remembering who they are and what happened to them can also ask themselves what remembrance means. How do memories affect, or serve, the person one is ? What is memory ? In what way does it differ from imagination, fantasizing as WSL does when filling the blanks in the court martial minutes ? Or when recreating Louis’s militant integration of an Argo ice cream parlor after reading Mamie Till-Mobley’s Death of Innocence. Louis Till, a person and a character, becomes part of Wideman’s collective memory ; impersonates the need to affirm one’s dignity, the need to resist inevitably connected to his own memories of the civil rights campaign, student sit-ins and other such non violent confrontations… as well as the brutal response of local bigots allied to complicit police forces. The past is not dead and we inhabit it as social beings. WSL reconstructs this living quality, the essence of any writing22. Paul Ricœur calls this “narrated time (“le temps raconté”) because human beings always understand their cultures in terms of stories23.

41 “Graves” is the section where the author places himself on the stand as a social and historical being, a person who feels the need to go on with his life. The need to connect the nation’s past with his own recollections is the crucial question posed at the outset : to make sense of the “conundrum of race” [21].

42 When Wideman visits Plot E vicariously with Prof. Kaplan’s book in hand, words and heart are under control. Later, thinking of Till’s 1949 reinterment, the words are thrown together into dismembered sentences. “A skeleton wearing rags of flesh. Heap of dust, hair, teeth. Trash bag of ashes. Remains. What remained” [186]. The uncoordinated wording mirrors an imagined disorderly and disrespectful reinterment process, a second killing, the body chopped to fit into a container, not a casket, a contained which is buried standing upright. The apex, or nadir, of disrespect, “hole number 73, one of ninety-six four-by-four holes more appropriate in size for burying large dogs than men” |187]. Is there a way to extirpate oneself from this nightmare, a way to envisage the future differently after telling ?

  • 24 Readers must here recall Milam’s and Bryant’s lawyers, as well as sheriff Strider argued the body f (...)

43 The graves are not only Louis’s and Emmett’s who was exhumed for a DNA test to make sure the body really was his indeed24, Emmett Till whose first glass-topped, so-all-the-world-could-see casket, was found in a rusty shed. There also are the family graves in Promiseland which John declined to visit in the company of his grandfather. An upcoming young man had other things to do. Regret, perhaps guilt transpires from the text. Sporting an African boubou in Homewood was a college student’s skin-deep militancy while real identity questions his father might have liked to discuss were left unspoken.

44 To go back to the beginning of this essay, “Graves” is haunted by many a ghost : the palpable presence of previous visitors in Antoine’s Brittany cottage, the “ghostly voices that had settled like dust on the Till file’s yellow pages...” [141] ; the memory of a son’s cowardly silence when his mother was being beaten, of a paternal grandfather who changed his name to Harry because Hannibal sounded like cannibal, a maternal grandmother grieving her son, shot by a Japanese sniper when war had been declared over a few weeks before : a bullet pregnant with hatred, systematic uncontrolled detestation of difference in many ways similar to that of the school children who spot and stone a jellyfish stranded on the sand. Fear and loathing in their eyes, their bravery escalates against the now harmless dying creature into “a frenzy of destruction” [159].

45 Ezra Pound was one of Till’s fellow prisoners in the Metato camp, as a brief passage in the Pisan Cantos attests. The fascistic poet was imprisoned for betraying his country. He was spared. He survived. So did James Thomas, Jr., whose testimony sealed Till’s and McMurray’s death sentences. To leave no stone unturned, Wideman undertook a trip south of the Mason-Dixon line to seek Thomas, if still alive, or, if not, information about him. He stopped in Promiseland on his way and changed his mind. Till’s not challenging Thomas’s testimony induced the decision to desist and let Uncle Tom/Thomas rest in peace. Letting the past be the past awakes the urge to go back to Paris, then New York to his wife rather than return to Plot E with Antoine. Delving into the past, collecting fragments coated in darkness, chasing “words to represent life” [137] has led to the belief that living in the present, working for live prisoners and to save one’s own life was best. “Who will open the file. Read the words. What will they make of me, us, after I’m silenced like you, Louis Till” [177].

46 The wisdom of making peace with self emerges strongly in the last part but does not come all of a sudden. Memories of his father’s words, now an old man in a retirement home sows the notion. Speaking in his street voice rather than his polite waiter’s, the old man argues that

… losing something, not the worst thing in the world. Losing something means you had something to lose. Means some fool get up in your face and say, you ain’t nothing, nigger, you can frown at the fool or smile or smack the fool upside the head if he persists in his foolishness. Pay him no mind my father said cause you got the memory of the good thing and nothing nobody says till the day you die can take that away” [53-54].

47Starting from the shock of Emmett’s disfigured face on Jet’s cover page, “a thing so big”, in Zora Neale Hurston’s words in Tell My Horse, “that time and distance cannot shrink it” [Hurston 245], the project to resurrect Louis Till and denounce racism and injustice leads to paradoxically serious self-derision, the author’s representing himself as a chocolate Don Quixote riding his hobby horse. The mills to fight are not fantasy. Still, while forgetting is impossible, there is no possible future in Plot E.

48 Reading other material available on the plane to France brought the traveler back fifty years when a lady gave him a statuette of Saint Martin de Porres, in the very station where Mamie Till waited for the train from Mississippi. Saint Martin was the bastard son of a Spanish noble man and a Panamanian slave who spent his life in a monastery, a servant sweeping floors, as Clement did in the Homewood barbershop. The statuette was long lost and forgotten, but the memory of the gift returned. The old lady’s present was political. A mellowed partisan of the Black Panthers, her gift was meant to steer a nice young man into a life of subservience, of submission to rather than revolt against the white world.

  • 25 One may here recall Wideman’s The Lynchers (1973). The four embittered accomplices’ scheme to lynch (...)

49 A black man buffeted by life cannot forget. His heartaches as a brother and a father cannot be purged. Neither can the harshness of racism life has imprinted on his mind. But speaking out, building his own “true” version of the events restores dignity. Wideman’s achievements as a basketball athlete, a student who received a Rhodes scholarship, an academic and a writer do not surface in WSL. Neither are Daniel, his older son, and Jamila, his daughter, both successful, given any room. Are such omissions what Ricœur would call “excess memory”, a lopsided representation ? The point must be raised but this essay is not the place where to pass this kind of moral judgment. WSL’s severe assessment of American racism is not vengeful. Grief finally predominates. Not anger25.

  • 26 In italics in Spencer’s text. The Voice at the Back Door, her novel describing the complexity of ra (...)

50 Writing on the Till case and omitting novelist Elizabeth Spencer would have been inexcusable because her memoir, Landscapes of the Heart, adopts the same frame of mind while attesting to the depth of racism in 1955 Mississippi. Indeed, Spencer’s autobiography honestly reports her mother’s sense of hurt justice after the Sumner verdict, as well as her arguing fourteen-year old Emmett was grown enough to know he should not have been looking at a white woman, let alone take her by the waist, as was alleged. Spencer’s father, though a fair-minded person, was on the contrary unmoved by the court’s decision, “...reacted to the crime the way a stone wall might if hit by a BB gun. He refused to discuss it or to hear any discussion of it. He said that ‘we had to keep things in hand’” [Spencer 289]. He all but banished his daughter with a cash gift of $ 2,000. The novelist understood what everybody’s attitude told her : “You don’t belong here anymore”26. She left for New York and never returned to her native state.

51 No such escape is offered as WSL ends. The text plunges into black folk tales for strength. Grave number 73 has become Louis Till’s briar patch, in some way similar to Brother Rabbit’s refuge from hostility. This is where the author tells him a story of racial solace. Brother Bear’s greedy raid on the hive has angered the bees. Kamikazes have flown into its mouth, and (why not ?) deeper down its “throat and stomach and liver and lungs”[193]. When the pain makes Brother Bear vomit its dinner, some of the undigested still-alive bees go back to work to rebuild the hive. They are still mad and ready to fight when Brother Bear returns. Life must go on. WSL also is a memoir advising resilience.

Rounding up

52 During a phone call interview Mamie Till-Bradley was persuaded to listen on, unrepentant Rob Bryant complained Emmett Till had “ruined [his] life” before adding “Emmett Till is dead, I don’t see why he can’t just stay dead” [Till-Bradley 261].

53 WSL on the contrary tells us Emmett cannot stay dead and neither can his father whose hanging smacks of legal lynching.

  • 27 Bombing homes and Sunday schools has gone out of style. But the ideology remains. Timothy Tyson rep (...)

54 “DOING TIME” serves for a title to the third part of Brothers and Keepers. In WSL, “doing time” translates into “being black”. Time’s stasis, ebb and flow, configures the text because racial history, racial time, are the book’s life line. Could it be argued that Wideman’s fascination with time meets Deleuze’s appreciation, “l’instance qui empêche le tout” (“the ruler that bars totality”) ? [Deleuze 176]. As written in Fatheralong,“time spent in the trap of race” (xxi) is the prison where blackness used to be shackled, is now confined in today’s America where, so we read in “Casa Grande”, the rain is dry27. One cannot approach Wideman’s association of time and blackness as if his views were isolated. Ralph Ellison’s linking time and invisibility is close and perhaps connects with Wideman’s oxymoron “invisible views” in Two Cities [Wideman 1998 91]. An existential element is clearly at work. Ellison and Wideman start from the same observation :

On the basis of observable features ―lips, nose, color, hair and, paradoxically, even in the absence of those signs if we know the “race” of the parents― a new born’s destiny is assigned [Wideman 1995 68].

Our task is that of making ourselves individuals. […] Why waste time creating a conscience for something that doesn’t exist? For, you see, blood and skin do not think! [Ellison 286].

55 WSL’s central part builds a case for Louis Till’s defense, rewrites history, argues the court martial did not envisage the possibility he may have committed, as poet Ezra Pound is made to say, “jes a slight misdemeanor” not a “federal crime” [147].

56 The first part is a teeming ferment of facts and individuals in which the past and the present coexist, where truth, untruth and (not unlikely) fiction surface in turns. The world is indifferent to either. The Chicago station where Mamie Till expects her son’s body is also a transit space for the luxury surrounding the lives of Willie Mae Ford and her children.

57 The last part is the most intimate and movingly personal. The stay in Brittany to while time away until a projected return to Plot E ... that does not happen seems to take the text along a round-about way. In fact, this is the place for self-seeking, for evaluating oneself as a social and historical being. The labyrinthine mirrors in the Homewood barbershop where the lad hid from Clement’s ugly face and lost his bearings, the text’s game of deforming mirrors, Mamie Till/mother, Louis Till/father, Louis Till/Rakhim (both ideal suspects), Emmett/John… lingers on but is also suspended in Brittany. One cannot shed one’s own history. So, a new version of the pageant unfolds : childhood, adolescence, young adulthood declining a trip to family roots, spending time with a now dead mother, conversing with stones, solitude among doves cooing around the cottage, sea-gulls squawking over the beach, ghosts, seaweed that looks like hair on the barbershop floor and the senseless violence of children in their school uniforms connect into an epiphany : telling dead Louis Till in his briar patch, “one bubble eye half-open listening over there” [192] the folk story of the resilient bees. Can eyes hear ? Could Emmett’s eye gouged from its socket hear ? Can ears see ?

58 Black American time is pieces, multiple, unconnected. Recalling T.S. Eliot’s “fragments shored against my ruin” [Eliot 79] suggests that WSL, which Wideman describes as “a plan that evolved as it invented itself step by step, me in tow” [135], attempts to find a way out of America’s racial wasteland. Is there, through and beyond literature’s blurring fact, fiction and myth, a means to soothe racial memories ? Such is WSL’s insistent question.

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DELEUZE, Gilles. Proust et les signes. 1964. Paris : P.U.F., 1971.

DU BOIS, William E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York : Signet, 1969.

ELIOT, T.S. Collected Poems. London : Faber and Faber, 1963.

ELLISON, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. London : Penguin Books, 1968.

FRANKLIN, John Hope and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. 1947. From Slavery to Freedom. New York : Knopf, 1988.

GATES, Henry Louis. 1987. Figures in Black. Words, Signs and the Racial Self. New York : Oxford University Press, 1989.

HALBWACHS, Maurice. 1925. Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire. Paris : Albin Michel, 1994.

HURSTON, Zora Neale. 1938. Tell My Horse. New York : Harper & Row, 1990.

KAPLAN, Alice. The Interpreter. Chicago : the University of Chicago Press, 2005.

LE GOFF, Jacques. 1977. Histoire et Mémoire. Paris : Gallimard, 1988.

MALCOLM X (with the assistance of Alex Haley). 1963. The Autobiography. New York : Penguin, 1965.

RICHARD, Jean-Pierre. Du Négrier au Bateau Ivre : Rythmes du Temps dans l’œuvre de John Edgar Wideman. Unpublished dissertation. Université de Paris VII, 1998.

RICŒUR, Paul. La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli. Paris : Seuil, 2000.

SPENCER, Elizabeth. Landscapes of the Heart. 1998. Louisiana : Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

TUSMITH, Bonnie. Conversations with John Edgar Wideman. Jackson : Univ. of Mississippi Press, 1998.

TYSON, Timothy, B. The Blood of Emmett Till. New York : Simon & Schuster, 2017.

VERNON, Olympia. Logic. New York : Grove Press, 2004.

VERNON, Olympia. A Killing in this Town. New York : Grove Press, 2006.

WIDEMAN, John Edgar. A Glance Away. New York : Harcourt, Brace &World, 1967.

WIDEMAN, John Edgar. Hurry Home. New York : Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970.

WIDEMAN, John Edgar. Hiding Place. 1981. London : Flamingo, 1984.

WIDEMAN, John Edgar. Reuben. 1987. London : Penguin, 1988.

WIDEMAN, John Edgar. Fever. Twelve Stories. 1989. London : Penguin, 1990.

WIDEMAN, John Edgar. all stories are true. 1992. New York : Vintage Contemporaries, 1993.

WIDEMAN, John Edgar. Fatheralong. 1994. London : Picador, 1995.

WIDEMAN, John Edgar. The Cattle Killing. New York : Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

WIDEMAN, John Edgar*. “An interview of John Edgar Wideman by Laura Miller”. In Salon Magazine n° 39, 11-15 Nov. 1996.

WIDEMAN, John Edgar. Two Cities. New York : Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

WIDEMAN, John Edgar. The Island : Martinique. Washington, D.C. : The National Geographic Society, 2003.

WIDEMAN, John Edgar. Writing to Save a Life. The Louis Till File. New York : Scribner, 2016.

WHITEHEAD, Colson. The Underground Railroad. London : Fleet, 2016.

WRIGHT, Richard. Uncle Tom’s Children. 1936. New York : Harper Perennial, 1993.

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1 The title will appear below as WSL. All references are to the 2016 Scribner edition, noted thus: [page number].

2 Borrowing the word “movement” from the musical field describes best the textual echoes, variations or inflections. The movements sort of contain one another, call and respond reciprocally.

3 His given name in WSL is Rakhim. He was Robby in Brothers and Keepers and has a fiction counterpart, Tommy, in Hiding Place. But, of course, neither Rakhim nor Robby nor Tommy are persons. They are characters, creations.

4 Wideman steps in to affirm his book’s purpose: “saving a son and brother… saving myself” [164].

5 The text in the island plays upon the other meaning of the word “revenant” in French: ghost or spirit.

6 The title of one of Wideman’s short stories collection quotes Chinua Achebe’s famous saying in Things Fall Apart that “All stories are true”. The original edition plays with Achebe’s African wisdom: the title is written ALL STORIES ARE TRUE, without capitals but using black and gray letters. An attentive reader will of course read “liar”. Are writers liars or mediators? What is fact? What is fiction if writing is lying? Who can say whether memories of Emmett’s body in a glass-lidded coffin do, or do not, underlie the description of Bubba in his casket? “Voices are a river you step in once and again never the same Bubba here you are dead boy dead dead nigger with spooky Boris Karloff powder caked on your face…” [Wideman, 1992, 64] So begins “everybody knew bubba riff”, a thoroughly unpunctuated story. Bubba is universal blackboy, a victim with some powdered whiteness imposed upon him. Can the ways of creation be fathomed? In Wideman’s words, “Writing is, after all, an enterprise of the imagination. … It’s a very subjective and internal process and the rewards and benefits act themselves out in a realm that most people can’t understand. What actually happens when you write fiction is still extremely mysterious” [TuSmith 60].

7 Louis Guilloux was critical of US army justice in his Ok, Joe. Guilloux, a resistant to Nazi occupation, a journalist and also a novelist, took a long time to publish his WW II memories. Rankling memories seem to have been hard to pen. Ok, Joe only came out in 1975.

8 Carolyn Bryant remains an unrepentant Southerner who calls dead Emmett that boy.

9 There are no names on the stones. At the top of the incline is a single white marble cross, as compared with individual white marble crosses on each tomb in the WW I memorial.

10 Here is WSL’s first chronological crash or scrambling. The galleys of The Interpreter were received before Wideman requested the transcript from the army archives.

11 « … notions de personnes et notions de faits, singulières et historiques […] mais qui ont d’ailleurs toutes les caractères de pensées communes à tout un groupe, et même plusieurs ». All translations from the French in the essay are my own.

12 Malcolm X drew much criticism from people who thought he approved of President Kennedy’s assassination. He explained he had meant to say that such an event stemmed from rampant American violence.

13 See Lectures on the Philosophy of History: the lectures of 1825-1826.

14 Roger Rosenblatt’s Black Fiction (Harvard U.P., 1974) offers a thorough discussion of time in Invisible Man. See p. 184-193.

15 Jean-Pierre Richard argues that Wideman’s concept of time’s disorderliness and immovability and history’s lack of a teleology join Gilles Deleuze’s “fleuve de style proustien” (“the Proustian river of time”): “A work that has Time for an object, or rather for a subject […] carries fragments that no longer belong together, pieces that do not fit into the same puzzle, that do not belong in a preexisting whole, that do not stem from a unity, even though lost. Maybe that’s what time is: the ultimate existence of component parts of different sizes and shapes that won’t allow you to fit them together, that do not develop in synch and that the river of style does not sweep along at the same speed.” (« Une œuvre qui a pour objet, ou plutôt pour sujet, le Temps […] traîne avec elle des fragments qui ne peuvent plus se recoller, des morceaux qui n’entrent pas dans le même puzzle, qui n’appartiennent pas à une réalité préalable, qui n’émanent pas d’une unité même perdue. Peut-être est-ce cela le temps : l’existence ultime de parties de tailles et de formes différentes qui ne se laissent pas adapter, qui ne se développent pas au même rythme, et que le fleuve du style n’entraîne pas à la même vitesse » [Deleuze 121-122].

16 The narrator of “Fever” is Bishop Richard Allen who founded the first black church in Philadelphia. The story’s background is the city’s 1793 plague epidemic. Black residents volunteered to help afflicted people. Still, many whites blamed the epidemic on the black population. See: Powell, J. H. Bring out Your Dead. The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793. 1949. Time Books 1965.

17 Great time, a concept inherited from West African ontology [TuSmith 123] and the Australian Aborigene’s Dreamtime cohere in Wideman’s philosophy. Dreamtime is continuity. It connects the living to their ancestors rather than parceling time, a Western tradition. At the outset of Reuben, the fragmented time of the slavers is subverted by another time that announces Reuben’s final escape toward the “black Land of Spirits.” [Wideman 1988 204] When WSL conjures Wideman’s family past up, Emmett’s and Louis Till’s fates, the text becomes the locus where “everything happens at once, everything connects, where the function of dream is story and the function of story to create the world.” [Wideman 1995 21] Great Time appeared as an expression in the preface of the Homewood volumes reprinted as a trilogy. Furthermore, Richard recalls Wideman mentioned “Great Time” five times during an April 6, 1993, interview: “We’re on that plain of Great Time and it’s a traditional concept. Many peoples believe in it, practice it. It comes out of West African tradition; Native American people have a sense of this Great Time. It’s the West that has fractured time, has kind of tamed it and made it linear: beginning, middle and end. Made such a great distinction between what is dead and what is alive...” [Richard 16].

18 That Senator is unnamed, a way for the text to make readers probe their minds. Stephen J. Whitfield names Senator Eastland in his book, A Death in the Delta. The Story of Emmett Till. 1988. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press 1991, p. 117. James Eastland was an outspoken supporter of segregation. His long tenure of office gave him considerable clout in the Judiciary Committee.

19 Calling in George Washington’s figure is an important historical digression inviting readers to fill unspoken textual reminders in. Washington whose immense wealth was based on the sweat of slaves, his own and his wife’s, had private reservations about the institution’s future. He was ambivalent as a public man, supporting the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act but also the Northwest Ordinance which banned the extension of slavery west of the Ohio River. He favored the manumission of slaves enrolled in the Continental army, but required a New York friend’s help to retrieve some of his own runaways “whom he suspected to be in that vicinity” [Franklin 75]. He emancipated and provided for his own slaves in his will. Martha, his widow, quickly acted in compliance but did not emancipate the slaves she herself inherited from her first husband Daniel Parke Custis. At her death in 1802, her slaves became the property of her first husband’s descendants.

20 See T. Tyson, 124. Sheriff Strider insisted the body was found in his county. He was powerful, a wealthy man much revered in the area.

21 « Je reste troublé par l’inquiétant spectacle que donnent le trop de mémoire ici, le trop d’oubli ailleurs […] L’idée d’une politique de la juste mémoire est à cet égard un de mes thèmes civiques avoués ».

22 Jacques Le Goff quotes Pierre Nora in Histoire et Mémoire: “Ce qui reste du passé dans le vécu des groupes, ou ce qu’ils font du passé” (“What is left of the past in a group’s experience, or how this group uses the past”) [Le Goff, 170].

23 See William C. Dowling: Ricoeur on Time and Narrative, Univ. of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2011, p 69-84.

24 Readers must here recall Milam’s and Bryant’s lawyers, as well as sheriff Strider argued the body fished from the river may not be Emmett’s, that he was not dead, in hiding somewhere hosted by the NAACP.

25 One may here recall Wideman’s The Lynchers (1973). The four embittered accomplices’ scheme to lynch an obnoxious policeman peters out. Violent retaliation is not a way of life.

26 In italics in Spencer’s text. The Voice at the Back Door, her novel describing the complexity of racial relations was published in 1956.

27 Bombing homes and Sunday schools has gone out of style. But the ideology remains. Timothy Tyson reports a recent event in The Blood of Emmett Till: a gunman killed nine people attending a prayer meeting in Charleston, SC, saying: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country” (214).

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Claude Julien, « John Edgar Wideman’s Writing to Save a Life : Only Connect », Babel, 40 | 2019, 145-170.

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Claude Julien, « John Edgar Wideman’s Writing to Save a Life : Only Connect », Babel [En ligne], 40 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2020, consulté le 04 juillet 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Claude Julien

Professeur honoraire - Université de Tours

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