Family and Community in Wideman’s Homewood

Family and Community in Wideman’s Homewood
Family and Community in Wideman’s Homewood
by Julie Lorenzen
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As a student taking contemporary fiction, I have learned to look for themes, motifs or general connections in a single novel. That experience has helped me to realize that several authors we have discussed in class have written about where they grew up. For example, Stuart Dybek wrote about Chicago in Coast of Chicago, Paule Marshall wrote about Brooklyn in Brown girl, Brownstones and John Edgar Wideman wrote about Homewood, a black ghetto in Pittsburgh, in Sent for You Yesterday and in Doc’s Story and Presents, the two short stories that appeared in Doubletakes.  As a white woman who came from a small village in Ohio where no one (in my family or town) avertly expressed their ethnic (mostly German and English) background, I found it interesting that each author came from families with a strong ethnic identity. Stuart Dybek’s family was Polish, Paule Marshall’s family was Barbadian and John Edgar Wideman’s was African American. The communities represented by each author reflected their individual ethnic identity (although Stuart Dybek’s community was ethnically mixed).

For the remainder of this paper, I will discuss the importance of Homewood to Wideman, how he represented it as a community and how three of his main characters within that community, Brother, Lucy and Carl, seemed to come together to form a family. Since both communities and families are institutions studied by sociologists, I will use a sociological perspective to discuss how Wideman represented the ‘family’ of Brother, Lucy and Carl and the community of Homewood in his book Sent for You Yesterday.

I found it fascinating that even though it was apparent in Sent for You Yesterday that John Edgar Weidman identified strongly with his African American heritage, by the time he graduated from college, he learned to suppress various aspects of his culture in order to succeed as an African American in a predominantly white world. For example, he replaced the black dialect of his youth with Standard English and learned not to wear his “tie below the belt” like they did in Homewood. In his article From Oxford to Homewood: The Long Journey Home of an African American Scholar, Raymond Janifer wrote: 

 [Wideman] never allowed his outward behavior, speech, or dress to project his membership in the traditional African-American ethnic culture. Matriculating at the University of Pennsylvania while he was still learning to master the art of suppressing his ethnicity he also began to develop the tragic realization of how difficult a task it would be to suppress his emotional attachment to the traditional African-American ethnic culture of Homewood which had nurtured him. (4)

Janifer also noted that “although [Wideman] put Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on his application his psychic address had been in the predominantly African-american ghetto called Homewood.” (4) In the 1970s, Wideman took an eight -year hiatus to examine the traditions and culture of Homewood and relearn what Raymond E. Janifer, called the “Black English Vernacular.” The result of that hiatus was the Homewood Trilogy which also included included Damballah  (1981) and Hiding Place  (1981).  Janifer wrote “In his series of interconnected stories about the Homewood, Pennsylvania ghetto where he grew up, Wideman’s African American characters speaking primarily in the Black English Vernacular regularly utilize their folklore and traditions as a dominating and sustaining force.” (1) 

Near the end of the book, from pages 195 –207, Wideman had Carl making dinner for Lucy and Doot, Carl’s nephew, in Lucy’s house while Lucy shared the African-American tradition of telling stories by describing to Doot what Homewood used to be like. Lucy’s  thoughts on Homewood are well represented  in the following paragraph where she is speaking to Doot about their communtiy: 

“Couldn’t do nothing but stare all moony-eyed at you and wonder if you’d be different. Looked for something different in your eyes. Looked for the old folks in there. […] Brother didn’t even have skin, but he stopped people’s eyes. He was solid, real, like all a them. They made Homewood. Walking around, doing the things they had to do. Homewood wasn’t bricks and boards. Homewood was them singing and living and getting where they needed to get. They made these streets. That’s why Homewood was real once. Cause they were real. And we gave it all up. […]  Nothing left to give the ones we supposed to be saving Homewood for. Nothing but empty hands and sad stories.” (198) 

The above passage is brilliant because it describes Brother and the other people who made Homewood a community. Here, Lucy shared what she felt about Homewood in the past and present and also passed what is known as an “oral tradition” to Doot by telling him the history of Homewood. 

It was clear to me that John Edgar Wideman felt a strong connection to Homewood even though his family moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in Pittsburgh when he was eight or nine years old so that he could attend a better school.  However, according to a source on Blackboard’s External Links, “both of his parents’families had deep roots in [Homewood which was] founded by Wideman’s great-grandmother Sylbela Owens, who was a slave, and her owner’s son Charlie Bell.  In his article, The Language From Home, which was about writing about Homewood, Wideman wrote “I examine minutely the place I come from, repeat its stories, sing its songs, preserve its language and values, because they make me what I am and because if I don’t, who will?” (1)

Wideman’s “roots” can be felt in his novel when he used the dialect of his town, wrote about the music that could be heard in the streets and described places such as Cassina Way as “rows of wooden shanties built to hold the flood of black migrants up from the South.” (20) Further, Wideman gave Cassina Way character by calling it “a narrow, cobbled alley teeming with life.” (20) Homewood might have been a poor neighborhood, but Wideman was able to represent it with rich details colorful characters like Samantha, a beautiful woman who had a lot of kids, who described herself as an “educated Negro.” (133)

Out of all the characters in the book, Brother, the albino African American, stood out the most. There were many interesting aspects of the ghost-like character that didn’t speak, sang scat and had dreams of trains. However, aspect of Brother that most reminds me of the term community was his name. According to The Student Sociologist’s Handbook, “most communities use the nomenclature of the family; for example the various liberation movements—black, gay, lesbian, female—use the terms sister or brother with one another in their attempts to become communities.”  (11) It is possible that Wideman named “Brother” the way he did because he wanted Brother to be a symbol of the community. 

Before I discuss how Brother, Lucy and Carl came together as a family, I will provide a definition of community and explain how Wideman’s representation of Homewood as a community matches that definition.  According to the authors of a website put up by Murray State, community is “a group of people who share a common sense of identity and interact with one another on a sustained basis.” 

Brother, Carl, and Lucy shared a common sense of identity because they were all African Americans who lived in the same neighborhood. They also spent a lot of time together. However, the only place in the book where the three characters are shown spending time together was on page 90 at the Elks Club where Brother mysteriously demonstrated that he could play the piano. However, on the same page Wideman indicated that the three spent quite a bit of time together as a group. He wrote, “The three of them, Lucy, Brother and Carl, were out that night. Nineteen forty-one because the war had just begun. The three musketeers drinking and smoking a little reefer […]” Wideman indicated that the three spent a lot of time together by calling Brother, Lucy and Carl “the three musketeers”, a reference that is often used to describe a group of three people who spend a lot of time together.

It is also evident that the three different pairs of Brother and Carl, Brother and Lucy, and Lucy and Carl all interacted at regular intervals. I will describe in the next few paragraphs how the interactions between these pairs made the three characters seem like family. I viewed Brother, Carl, and Lucy as being a family that formed as a result of being part of the same community. When viewing the three from the sociological definition of family, the two of the three pairs do not seem to fit. According to the Murray State website, family is defined in this way:

Family: A group of individuals related to one another by blood ties, marriage or adoption. Members of families form an economic unit, the adult members of which are responsible for the upbringing of children. All societies involve some form of family, although the form the family takes is widely variable.  In modern industrial societies the main family form is the nuclear family, although a variety of extended family relationships are also found. 

If foster families could be added to the above definition then Lucy and Brother would fit because Mr. and Mrs. Tate took them both into their home.  (I don’t believe the Tates ever formally adopted Brother and Lucy.) The Tates formed an economic unit, and Mr. and Mrs.Tate provided the house and the financial support (although taking in Lucy and Brother most likely qualified the Tates for government support.) However, it is unclear how responsible the elder Tates were in bringing up Lucy and Brother. On page 79 Wideman wrote, “Never could quite figure out who’s keeping who over [at the Tate home]. They take care the old lady and she takes care of them. Since Tate died the three them been together and they gets along.” However, Lucy appeared to be more of a mother figure than Mrs. Tate. 

When Lucy and Brother were first introduced to the reader, I thought that Lucy was Brother’s mother because she was described as pushing him up and down the street in a baby buggy. Later it is revealed that Brother is actually older than Lucy. However, throughout the book Lucy assumes the role, a social psychological term, of mother while taking care of “Brother Tate.” In my earlier response to Sent for You Yesterday I wrote:

“Lucy made sure that [brother’s] skin was well protected with a hat and protected his fragile reputation by concealing the frilly hat with the hood of the buggy. She helped to make sure Brother was clean and assumed the full domestic responsibilities of the Tate household when Mrs. Tate became mentally incapacitated after Albert Wilkes was shot to death by policemen while playing the piano in their home.

Although Brother and Lucy fit into the above-mentioned definition of family, it is harder to use the definition to support the idea that Carl was part of Brother and Lucy’s family. One could use the definition to argue that Carl wasn’t part of their family—especially when examining Carl’s relationship with Brother and Lucy respectively. Although Carl and Brother seemed like brothers because of how much time they spent together, they weren’t blood-related and they didn’t live in the same household. 

I thought of Brother, Lucy and Carl as a family not in terms of reproduction and socialization as much as unit of social acceptance, respect and caring—aspects that one most often relies on family to provide. According to Sociology: A Very Short Introduction  by Steve Bruce, “in the 1950s sociologists such as Talcott Parsons argued that the primary role of the family was to provide warmth and comfort and companionship.”  (91)

Brother, who was an Albino, seemed to find warmth and comfort in the French’s kitchen and sought out Carl’s companionship by appearing on his doorstop early in the morning. Brother was probably identified with Carl’s family more than with most of his neighbors because the French family had lighter skin than most others in the neighborhood. Being lighter skinned probably made the French family less disposed to be prejudiced against Brother than others whose skin was darker. Even though Brother, being a mythic-like character, stood out, it was hard to think about Brother without thinking of Carl because they spent so much time together. On page 37, Carl’s mother, Freeda, noted that “she’d seen them together a million times.” 

Robert A. Nisbet was another sociologist whose views supported my idea that Brother, Lucy and Carl could be considered a family. According to Pauline Bart and Linda Frankel, Nisbet viewed community as being similar to family. “That is, it ‘encompasses all forms of relationship which are characterized by a high degree of personal intimacy, emotional depth, moral commitment, social cohesion, and continuity in time. Community is a fusion of feeling and thought, of tradition and commitment, of membership and volition.’” (11) 

When put into the context above, Freeda, Carl’s mother, definitely saw Brother as part of the family as revealed on pages 36-39. In an act of intimacy, she would pat his head and as far as continuity in time, Freeda, noted that she could not remember a time in Homewood without Brother, and she was accustomed to seeing Brother out on the step in the mornings when she went out early with her cup of coffee.  When Freeda was not upset when she found him eating cornflakes in her kitchen at 3 a.m. in the morning, it reflected a degree of social cohesion. It was ok with her that he was there because he always seemed to be in her kitchen. On page 36 she noted how Brother looked a lot like her son. “Carl and Brother like two peas in a pod. They walked and listened alike. Her son handsome and Brother pug ugly but they looked alike. Both of their narrow shoulders to get the mannish John French weight into their steps. Both had those potbellies and bony arms. […] Neither one looked colored.” (36-37) 

When she noted much the two boys looked a like, it seemed like she was recognizing that the two were like blood-related brothers, who often share similar physical traits. On page 37, Freeda seems to acknowledge Brother as part of her family by thinking “Brother almost like one of her own children.” I couldn’t find a place in the book where either Brother or Carl acknowledged each other as brothers, but because Freeda, Carl’s mother, acknowledged Brother as being “one of her own,” I had the impression that the two boys were like brothers.

Lucy and Carl’s relationship was more difficult to analyze. They seemed to have an occasional sexual relationship and cared deeply for one another, but they didn’t marry and they didn’t live together. Although neither character seemed romantically involved with someone else, it was unclear on whether they were girlfriend or boyfriend or just good friends with the occasional benefit of sex.

Most sociological definitions refer to family include both socialization and reproduction. According to Bruce, the family “remains the primary unit of reproduction and socialization and, for most of us, it remains a source of great satisfaction and psychic stability.” (88) Lucy and Carl did not reproduce, but the sexual experience they received from each other can be viewed as a type of socialization and a source of satisfaction. Also, the sexual encounters between the two characters always seemed to serve the purpose of providing a “physic stability” (in reference to the earlier quote by Bruce) because the first three experiences occurred after Albert Wilkes was killed in Lucy’s home, after Carl injured himself in the garden, and after Carl came home from World War II.

If Carl had married Lucy then he would have been Lucy’s husband and Brother’s brother-in-law.  The three characters then would have been clearly considered by our society as family. 

Lucy indicated fear (of what exactly I am unsure) as being the reason she didn’t marry Carl. Perhaps it is because she basically became the head of her family at the age of thirteen (when Albert Wilkes died) and really never was able to observe Mr. and Mrs. Tate in order to realize what the benefits of marriage were. 

Fear is most likely the main reason Carl and Lucy didn’t marry, but there are sociological perspectives why Lucy and Carl didn’t wed. Families are changing in today’s society. Divorce is more prevalent and more people are living alone.  According to a study published in The Encyclopedia of Sociology, “collectively Americans are spending smaller proportions of their lives in families of any description than they did in the past.” (927).  Further Steve Bruce wrote:

The development of contraceptive technology broke the link between sexual fulfillment and reproduction. Increasing individual affluence (and, for those who did not personally prosper, the creation of a welfare state) made it much easier for people not to band together in small units pooling resources and made it easier for us to dissolve those units when we no longer liked them. (90) 

I feel the above quote at least in part explains why families have changed. It is likely that Carl and Lucy didn’t use any form of birth control during their first and second encounters because they were teenagers and the encounters were not planned. However, it is possible that Lucy went on birth control when she became more mature—after Carl came home from World War II. Also, Lucy inherited the Tate home and most likely some inheritance, making it possible for her to live on her own. Certainly, the situation of Carl and Lucy never marrying is not uncommon. 

In conclusion, in Sent for you Yesterday John Edgar Wideman wrote about Homewood, Pennsylvania, an African-American community where he spent his first few years of life. Although Wideman spent most of life outside of Homewood and learned to suppress his ”roots” in college, it was evident that he felt a strong connection with Homewood. He provided a representation of a poor, but lively community that was filled with rich details and strong characters like Samantha. Although the character of Brother stood out the most because of all his odd attributes which included being a ghost-like albino, it was hard to think of him without thinking of Lucy, who was also taken into the Tate home, and Carl, Brother’s good friend and Lucy’s lover. Although Carl was not a part of Brother and Lucy’s family by sociological definitions, the three formed a family within their community by having comforting and socially cohesive relationships with one another. 

i  Grace Paley and Alice Munro also wrote about where they are from in The Collected Stories and Selected Stories, respectively
ii  I noted that the quotation could be attributed to Canby, page 88, but not the article it came from.



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