IN A RECENT INTERVIEW on 60 Minutes, John Wideman talked about his reason for writing Brothers & Keepers: 'The same system that allowed me to achieve, to squeeze through as a validation of the system, is the one that caused many of my brother's problems. This book is a plea to give my brother another chance."
Unlike Robby, John Wideman's own life we marked by honors and accolades. At the University of Pennsylvania, John received a four-year Benjamin Franklin scholarship. Years later Wideman admits the irony in his attempt to be self-made man: "I wanted to be Horatio Alger, there seemed to be no limits ... being Black, you had to pretend. I knew I wasn't Horatio Alger and the world wasn't my oyster."
But in 1963, Wideman wore a different mask for the media. He commented on James Meredith's integrating the University of Mississippi: "I probably could not have done what he did ... I feel passive about it. I can support fully any movement that will effect legislation and make it meaningful ... and I say 'Go to it!' but leave me here. My major concern is something else. Whether that's good or bad, that's the way it is."
Yet today, John Wideman writes about the inhumanly of the prison system and he racism and poverty in America. Like Roger Wilkins, whose autobiography explored what it meant to be a "blue-chip Black" Wideman has come a long way. Professionally, he has attained the success he hoped for. He is a professor of English at the University of Wyoming. His novel Sent For You Yesterday won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1984. Together with two other novels, Damballah and Hiding Place, his novels have recently been reissued as the Homewood Trilogy.
Wideman is no longer the Ivy League Black collegian who couldn't be bothered with society's problems. "Any Black person who's been successful must look back and ask, 'Is the price of my success another's failure" Lock beyond the individuals, the one or two success, and ask yourself hard questions about the ones who idn't make it. Wideman does not have simple answers, but he does answer the question of "who is my brother's keeper."