WIDEMAN, John Edgar (b. 1944). Brothers and Keepers. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984. 8°. Original cloth-backed boards, stamped in gilt; dust jacket.
FIRST EDITION. “Proud of this book – it’s also source of some of my greatest disappointments – most profound failures,” Wideman tells us in his first, extensive note on the front flyleaf. “Wrote it in my early forties and here I sit in my early seventies.” His brother, sadly, remains incarcerated, serving a life sentence without parole for murder. Not surprisingly, Wideman’s book evoked strong responses from prisoners. “Many letters from inmates, strangers who have written to say B got it right. That they bear witness to my testimony… Many, many people have introduced themselves to me by saying, ‘I have a brother…I have a sister…’ and then share their stories of imprisoned siblings, not a matter of misery loves company, but affirmation of truth they/I have shared. Truth of separation, loss, neverending struggle to restore, repair…”
The problem of incarceration—especially of the black and poor has only grown worse, Wideman notes, in the 30 years since his book appeared. “Prisons” have become “dysfunctional old people’s homes as population ages.” The pernicious idea of race—not just racism, but race itself, the false notion of separate, hierarchical categories of human beings—is the root of this problem: “B with its title says ‘no’ to race,” Wideman writes. It connects humankind, connects us, you and me, on a different level. At least that was my effort all those years ago as I began to try to make sense of why my brother was in prison, why the crime of race imprisons us all.” A long, moving note on the rear flyleaf ruminates on the passage of time, and the parallel time of Rob’s incarceration and the birth of John’s daughter Jamila.