Uncured of Myself: John Edgar Wideman's American Historiesby David Varno
In one of Wideman’s new short stories, a black man tells us what it feels like to binge-watch Downton Abbey while enduring treatments for a disease that could be terminal. “My beautiful, scared wife and scared, colored me,” they simultaneously count down the days of the treatment and do what they can to make each night count, crossing off dates on the calendar while trying to hold onto the present. This layering of pleasure and dread is rendered sharply when the narrator fantasizes that he and his wife have a television audience like the Downton characters, an audience that would confirm their existence and help keep him alive. The fantasy is soon spoiled, however, when he remembers that there are many types of shows, and that things don’t go well for everyone captured on camera. “Please don’t tell me he’s gone. Please officer, don’t tell me that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir…Please don’t tell me my boyfriend is gone.” So reads the transcript of the video taken by Diamond Reynolds immediately after her boyfriend Philando Castile was shot by the police.
The stories collected in Wideman’s latest book, American Histories, are often heavy with bitterness, and his characters explore anger that can sometimes make them inarticulate. The source for these emotions, however, is made very clear: they are a response to the enduring presence of slavery in America, which Wideman outlines in an open letter to the president that prefaces the book. “What should be done, Mr. President. Our nation is deeply unsafe. I feel threatened and vulnerable. What can I do. Or you. Do we need another Harper’s Ferry.”
Wideman follows up on these questions (questions that never appear with a question mark, perhaps because they feel futile, perhaps because they are facts) with a story called “JB & FD” that chronicles John Brown’s radicalization and imagines a discussion between Brown and Frederick Douglass over the merits of Brown’s violent uprising. With fictional inventions, Wideman challenges readers to allow their knowledge to be corrupted and to consider the unknown, such as Douglass’s reasons for abstaining from battle, the complexities beneath Brown’s militant fervor, and one’s own place in their legacy. Was John Brown a radical lunatic? Does that matter if he was also right? Was Douglass a coward, or did he make the more valuable impact in the long run? What did my white ancestors think?
All of the stories feature a contemporary protagonist who often seems very close to the author. In each case, he is a writer sifting through personal and political histories, and there is enough biographical common ground within the stories (along with references to Wideman’s own history covered in books such as the memoir Brothers and Keepers) to allow for the assumption that this one character inhabits all of them. Assuming this is the case, it’s interesting to note that he is flexible and malleable, and able to channel many voices, from Brown and Douglass to Nat Turner and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Still, Wideman has a singular hold, and his point of view can sometimes be alienating. Not because of his feelings and position on race, but because of his often creaky approach with women.
In the second story he describes a waitress with “coffee-au-lait colored skin” as a “tasty appetizer.” In other stories, women are sexualized at greater length, but in a similarly casual tone and with no clear purpose beyond the fact that the women’s power is reduced, and it begs the question of whether Wideman has any interest in reaching readers who would prefer not to see women rendered so flatly.
Many would probably dismiss the book by the time they reached “tasty appetizer” on page 28, perhaps even throw it into the trash, as the contrarian critic Katie Roiphe recounted about someone she knew who had just read a sex scene by Philip Roth. As for me, I rolled my eyes and read on, in part because I’m interested in these types of failures, the literary version of honking a horn at women, perpetrated by men who are “out of ideas,” as Jerry Seinfeld says about them in his stand-up. There is a sad, lonely desperation attached to these moments in the book, and the desperation of Wideman’s protagonist seems to be fueled by the anger and bitterness that come from a lifetime under the white power structure.
Most of the time, Wideman finds ways to balance the anger and bitterness with grace, as the protagonist wrestles with a desire to erase the self that is shaped by white-dominated society and discover the true, unknown self within. In “Shape the World Is In,” the narrator confesses that whenever he reads or writes a fictional work, he hopes that “the world will be different at the point the story ends,” though ultimately he recognizes that “the different world I long to inhabit is the one inhabiting me…where I’m stuck forever.” In “Writing Teacher,” which contains another unnecessary compulsion to sexualize a woman, there is also something interesting at play, as a professor struggles to help a young white student whose story is an attempt to overturn racial inequality. The student’s story is flawed because she’s failed to acknowledge her own relationship to the material. Here again Wideman channels Harper’s Ferry in a fantasy of revolt, as he imagines suggesting that the student have the black single mother she created for her story attack a racist clerk: “Let [her] do something drastic and violent… Risk letting her do what you would never do… Break free, break bad.”
At the center of the book is the epic “Williamsburg Bridge,” in which a man ventures over the protective fencing to the outer limits of the bridge along a steel rail above the East River, driven by the certainty that he is ready to end his life. Along the way he recounts memories of walking the bridge as a young man and hearing Sonny Rollins practicing the saxophone up next to the subway tracks in the years before he recorded the 1962 album The Bridge. The narrator asks the reader to consider how much time “you believe you possess,” and asks that you, I, “spare a stranger the chump change of a moment or two.” He had no trouble holding my attention in this story, from the staggering descriptions of the bridge to the turbulent visions of police coming for him as he flies off toward the whitespace of the water, the surface of the blackness that would absorb him.
The Williamsburg is the grittiest of the East River bridges, and the longest, and unlike the ornate Manhattan or the iconic Brooklyn, it exudes a raw power. Its beauty can only be grasped by knowing it well, by walking or biking it endlessly and noticing, as Wideman does, how the “faded red crossties overhead could be rungs of a giant ladder that once upon a time had slanted up into the sky but now lies flat.” He goes further, with a detail that briefly reminded me of riding under Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Central Park “Gates” back in 2005: “Rungs separated by gaps of sky that seem to open wider as I walk beneath them, though if I lower my eyes and gaze ahead into the distance…the walkway’s a tunnel, solid walls and ceiling converge, no gaps, no exit, a mauvish gray cul-de-sac.”
Wideman’s focus is not on the bridge, though, but the water, the absolute edge for the man readying himself for suicide. The water’s whitespace becomes a metaphor for the space of writing (the narrator fills it with black ink), and it is also a metaphor for the all-encompassing whiteness of American empire, a recurring theme in the book. In “Maps and Ledgers,” a black man tells us that he has built his own empire within the larger empire, which is “ruled by and run for the benefit of a group to which I [do] not belong.” When the man on the bridge looks down the river, he remembers the Twin Towers as the “biggest bullies on the block,” and in the Statue of Liberty he sees the defiant, fist-raised pose struck by Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Cantos in Mexico City. When people walk by with cell phones, he imagines them encased in transparent phone booths, which remind him of Emmett Till’s glass coffin.
The story filled me with ghostlike traces of Rollins’s tenor sax, but the narrator’s fevered agitation made me crave Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” It’s an uncomfortable story to read, to be alone with a man staring at the edge, cold and naked but for his underwear, but there was momentary relief, before I put on Public Enemy, with Wideman’s insight that there’s “always someone’s turn at the edge…Aren’t you grateful it’s me not you today. I’m your proxy.”
Greater than relief, however, is the unease at recognizing once again the persistent difference in privilege when it comes to race. In 2018 I can afford to play Public Enemy as loud as I want, safe in the knowledge that no one will shoot me for it. I could imagine myself captured on camera, captivating an audience with my own show, as Wideman’s character does while watching Downton Abbey, without the fantasy crushed by remembering the Castille shooting, or any number of others. In “New Start,” the Downton characters confront the narrator in a way that wouldn’t happen in my own imagination: “Stop, please. Allow us to do our jobs…. Why would you wish to see us as we see you, dead on an empty screen.” As a white man, my body does not face the same exposure as a black person’s, but the combination of knowing the video Wideman speaks of and reading his stories makes me feel a pulse of vulnerability, the burn of bullets, the coldness of shock, and the abject frustration with a faceless power that would keep me all night for interrogation, “like a criminal,” as Diamond Reynolds said about her experience the night after the shooting.
David Varno's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.