Black clouds and racing shadows

Can we talk about race without becoming trapped by history? asks John Edgar Wideman. Robert Winder listens in; Fatheralong by John Edgar Wideman Picador, pounds 9.99

John Edgar Wideman is noted as a novelist - he has won two big prizes in America. But his new book is an essay-memoir about his own family, a ramble back in time from the author's own reasonably-heeled life in Massachusetts to his childhood in Pittsburgh and his roots in South Carolina. It is a work of quite a familiar sort - a writer recalls the childhood slaps around the head that got him started. But it is also a highly-charged reflection on the legacy of awkwardness that goes with growing up black in America. All black fathers, he suggests, look at their new-born sons with a wonder clouded by the certainty that they have doomed their children to a life on the margins. Wideman begins with a rhetorical blast against the racist culture in which he (and we) live. The mere presence of the word "race", he argues, is enough to nourish the ugly concept that individuals cannot transcend a group stereotype. "How can we talk about ourselves," he wonders, "without falling into the trap of race, without perpetuating the terms of a debate we can't win because the terms of the debate already contain ... a presumption of winner and loser?"

The reader - the white reader, at least - can do little but wince and nod. But this impressive opening casts a dark thematic shadow over the family documentary that follows. When the writer's father whacks him round the chops for being rude at the dinner table, it seems not a moment of intimate drama but a symptom of a centuries-old malaise; it even implies, by tracing his father's meanness to the wrongs heaped on his race, that white parents can't be every bit as violent and insensitive as this.

The best episode describes the trip he took with his father to dig up the family's origins in (where else?) Promised Land, SC. Wideman braces himself to be shocked by "arrogant white supremacy, bald, unflinching, murderous force". But he finds something quite different: "Pleasant manners, amenable sociability, folksy charm, public access everywhere for blacks and whites, a black sheriff on the courthouse steps in Abbeville, land for sale to anyone who has the dough." Wideman wrestles with his response, worrying that it is ungenerous to ignore this transformation in search of "ancient bloodstains on the floor". He even confesses to an irresistible flash of fury when he meets a friendly old historian who helps him climb his family tree. There are plenty of moments such as this. But more often the bitter tang of real experience is dampened by an artful, self-conscious style which gives priority to the weary, mournful voice of the author:

"An old man almost and I've started crying at the drop of a hat. Me. Who never cried. Sneaky, hot tears. Hat don't even have to drop, man. See a battered, crimped-up, stringy brim, tilted just over some old brother's knotty, scarred head. Just the sight of it perched there enough to make tears come. Embarrassing. Can't take myself no place, man. Liable to start crying like a baby." There is some vanity in this apparently humble confession, the way it promotes the author's own tearfulness ahead of the subject itself - in this case, a friend telling about the death of his father.

Wideman is telling stories that for a long time, for many bad reasons, weren't told. They are not spectacular stories. Nor do they reflect any great credit on the teller (at one point Wideman confesses to a penchant for strip joints, and is alarmed to detect in himself a voyeuristic enthusiasm for the white girls, and a patronising anger about the black ones). But they are all there is. And that's quite something.

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