In his essay “Our Time,” John Edgar Wideman attempts to capture the complexity of the circumstances surrounding his brother Robby’s life before and during the years he’s in prison. Consider carefully all the forces at work in Robby’s life, both from your own and John Wideman’s perspective, the latter of which includes Garth’s (unnecessary?) death, life in Homewood and Garfield, family birth order, bad luck, personal responsibility, economic exploitation, and addiction, and then offer an insight of your own into the causes of Robby’s imprisonment. If you think personal responsibility is the only consideration, then discuss why these other matters that John Wideman introduces are irrelevant. If you think these other matters had a significant impact on Robby (as Robby’s mother certainly does), to what extent has his life been shaped by them, and to what extent should they be considered when assessing a punishment for Robby for the crime he committed?
Wideman is a Pittsburgh born writer (as you’ll read in the notes) with international acclaim. In “Our Time,” an excerpt from his book Brothers and Keepers, Wideman is writing from several different points of view about his brother, Robby. Since you don’t have the context of the whole book for this reading, let me offer you a bit of information.
At the time of the writing of this piece, Robby is serving a life sentence in Western Penitentiary (now closed, of course), for his participation in a crime during which a man was killed. Robby and his friends were running a scam where they were going to pretend to sell a man a truckload of tvs; once the truck pulled up and the man presented the money, they’d throw open the back door of the truck, and one of Robby’s accomplices would be standing there with a gun.They’d take the money and drive off. The plan worked until they opened the truck, the man saw Robby’s friend standing with a gun, and ran away. The friend with the gun shot the man. The law in Pennsylvania stated that if a suspect is involved in a felony during which someone dies, they can be tried for first degree murder without the opportunity for parole. This is what happened to Robby.
As you read the piece, note how Wideman continutally switches narrative “voices.” At times he writes from Robby’s perpsective in the third person; at times he writes from Robby’s perspective in the first person (towards the end of the article). He also writes from his perspective, from his mother’s perpspective, and, even, from Homewood’s perspective. What does this add to the reading? How doe sit help you understand or extend your sympathy for those you encounter here?
As you read the piece, you’ll see Wideman offering some fairly radical perspectives on how the Homewood community, and black people in generaly, have been driven into despair. Consider these perspectives in the context of the other people you read about here. To what extent do you find yourself convinced by Wideman? To what extent do you think he may be mistaken? Is there a middle ground where you find the truth lies?
Finally, don’t forget about the Berger essay as you read Wideman. Remember Berger’s closing comment: “A people or a class cut which is off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history”. How might this apply to the people of Homewood?