The Phenotyping Point
Some Thoughts On John Edgar Wideman, Frantz Fanon, and Race in America
The crowd filing into this past January's 20th annual Enoch Pratt Free Library book lovers brunch at the Harbor East Marriott this winter morning had a come-to-meeting feel. They looked like good church folk--almost exclusively women--mostly older, upstanding librarians, patrons, and benefactors of the city public libraries. There was even a clutch of the Red Hat Society ladies standing out among the fine headgear on display. Not many white or young people at all coming out for this celebration of a civic institution--the public library, after all----and book loving.
Staff from the Power Plant Barnes and Noble set up early to hock Fanon, the latest novel of keynote speaker John Edgar Wideman. It's a powerful and strange mix of a book, and it makes for a strange mix, this group of proper folk and a book named for a patron saint of the black revolution, of whom Black Panthers founder Eldridge Cleaver said, "Every brother on the rooftops has read." Wideman's book is titled after and dedicated to Frantz Fanon, the author and psychiatrist from Martinique who fought the Nazis for the French; fought the French for the liberation of Algeria; wrote the essential books Black Skins, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth, among others, inspiring revolutionaries and oppressed people across the globe; and who is, for good and ill, noted for his advocacy of violence in the service of social change. Fanon died at 37 in Bethesda in 1961.
Fanon is not an easy book to read, filled as it is with Wideman's trademark postmodern, free-jazz narrative circumlocutions--it probably won't make it to Oprah's Book Club list. It begins its first of three parts with a letter from a narrator, who may or may not be Wideman, to Frantz Fanon that lets you know some ground rules: "Stipulating differences that matter between fact and fiction--between black and white male and female good and evil--imposes order in society. Keeps people on the same page. Reading from the same script. In the society I know best, mine, fact and fiction are absolutely divided, one set above the other to rule and pillage, or, worse, fact and fiction blend into a tangled, hypermediated mess, grounding being in a no-exit maze of consuming: people as a consuming medium, people consumed by the medium." Reader beware.
I had already bought my copy of Fanon on Amazon--the Ivy Bookshop was out of it--and was ready to consume Wideman's presentation, but Carla Hayden--former president of the American Library Association, Library Journal's first African-American librarian of the year, recipient of a phone call from John Ashcroft trying to check her on her vocal opposition to the Patriot Act, and current executive director of the Pratt Library--and the other members of the head table needed to speak first. Hayden let everybody know that the opening of the Southeast Anchor branch at Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street--the first new Pratt branch to open in 30 years--and the opening of the refurbished Roland Park branch were signs of the times: It's all good with the Enoch Pratt and reading in Baltimore. Unless, of course, you live in a neighborhood that lost a branch.
But this was the choir that was being preached to after all, the 20th anniversary book lovers brunch. No hating. Kai Jackson, anchorman manqué from WJZ-TV, in more strangeness, is the last to speak and introduces Wideman, enumerating Wideman's plaudits--including a Rhodes scholarship (the second African-American to receive it), Pen/Faulkner Award (the only writer ever to receive it twice), and the MacArthur "genius" grant, among others. Jackson appropriately places the author in the company of Richard Wright and Toni Morrison.
John Edgar Wideman at last rises to speak, and I push away the last of the hotel scrambled eggs anxious to hear an exegesis of the opening of the book that has a narrator, writing to Fanon, introduce a character, a writer who is writing about Fanon, named Thomas, who receives a package from UPS that may or may not contain a severed head. "No more dodging. No more reprieves. Get busy, Thomas. Innocent people are being slaughtered and mutilated daily. If not in your neighborhood, if not next door, the horror's much closer than you think. The head in a box somebody's crude way of announcing the fact to you. In your face, Thomas."
But Wideman doesn't explain that. Instead he opens his remarks broadly, generously, acknowledging the come-to-meeting vibe, the red hats, the racial inflection of the gathering, and the times: He mentions Barack Obama, South Carolina, and the election: "a moral report card on America . . . the issue is greater than the campaign." He mentions The Wire and the limits and limiting nature of racial representation still so omnipresent in today's America. He pauses briefly here in his opening and then rejoins, "I have a responsibility to shout from the rooftops that I am a human being and I decide what that means. This is my larger project."
He then introduces Fanon, the man, who for Wideman refused to see his humanity defined by race; who wanted to explore the question of humanity escaping the clutches of race, that was cleansed of race; who demanded a humanity that was not first and foremost a racial representation. "Race," Wideman says, "is a moral evil that we have within us."
Wideman then introduces Fanon, the novel, "my way of asserting humanity is language," he says matter of factly. He puts on his reading glasses and opens his book to read. He doesn't read from the book's second section that has a "fictional" Wideman in consultation with a "Jean-Luc Godard" about how to make a film--which even has a vision of Godard being a baby-daddy, impregnating his own mother--and how to represent Wideman's mother's life in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, the 'hood out of which Wideman came, or the impossibility of representing that life. That second section ends with a letter to Fanon:
He doesn't read from that section, doesn't provide an easy explanation to all of this. Instead Wideman reads a well-wrought passage empathetically imagining Fanon in the last year of his life, 1961, in Africa, "always pushing north toward Algeria's war of independence from France, following the North Star or whichever star shining in the firmament above this hemisphere in the fall 1961 directs pilgrims to the promise land, whichever star's luminosity and lustrosity beams hope, a beacon and a benediction."
Wideman's reading voice is measured, clear, without excess or dramatic inflection. The book lovers are lulled, attentive, polite. During the question and answer period that follows no one asks a single question about Fanon.
Nor are there any difficult or impolitic family questions directed at Wideman, either. No one asks about his son, who is serving life for murder. Nor is there a question about his brother--despite Wideman's brother Rob being a significant voice, a significant character in Fanon. Rob speaks from the maximum-security prison where he, too, is serving life without parole for murder. Wideman's devastating 1995 memoir, Brothers and Keepers, which painfully dissects his brother, himself, race, crime, and punishment, remains a singular and important part of American letters.
Rob is foil, muse, instigator, and provocateur throughout Fanon. He asks the question I have, that no doubt the book lovers considered but didn't voice. Why Fanon? Why the philosophical pyrotechnics and jazz improvisations about this now largely dismissed post-colonial thinker? "I was disappointed," Wideman writes in the novel,
when my brother asks the question. The answer's obvious isn't it. Given the facts of Fanon's life, my brother's life, my life . . . The world needs Fanon, not some tale about a dead head in a box . . . Why Fanon. C'mon, bro, I said to myself. Mize well ask, Why Me. Why you. Why these goddamn fucking stone-cold-ass walls.
Shit, man I said out loud, then answered him with something more like a fingerpop upside his shiny bald head than an explanation.
Fanon because no way out of this goddamn mess, I said to my brother, and Fanon found it.
Wideman doesn't end his presentation with Fanon. Instead he reads from a work in progress. It's three short stories--images, shards, really, more than stories. One in particular is breathtaking, seems aimed at the Baltimore crowd. He conjures a 15-year-old boy shot dead in some abandoned streetscape, an anonymous death in an unnamed ghetto. A woman watches the following day from a balcony, sitting in a wheelchair, looking over the street where the boy was killed. Two people approach, seeming to look for the spot where the death occurred. The woman watches as they approach the spot; they seem to become unsteady as they approach it. Above she can't hear them, only can see their bodies now swaying, gesticulating in a strange dance of grief.
The questions and self-congratulations from the brunch crowd come to an end. No one picks at the now congealing eggs. Some folks make their move to the wide hallway where books will be signed and you can shake John Edgar Wideman's hand.
This Baltimore brunch was an early stop on Wideman's book tour. He's since made the rounds of talk shows and bookstore readings, and in interviews he says part of his job is to reclaim Fanon for the present. Reviewers have had some time to digest the novel. Mostly the book has been damned with faint praise. On NPR's Fresh Air it was called "self-indulgent," "a parody of a postmodern novel," and "navel gazing." Wideman's hometown newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was representative of many reviews: "By drilling so far into his internal universe Wideman risks losing his audience."
Shortly after Wideman's appearance, the Enoch Pratt took down its display of his oeuvre in the New Fiction area at the Central branch--the space that was its failed attempt at a store. I had gone back to look up some reviews of his earlier work and had seen that the books were already gone.
As I exited the library to Cathedral Street, I watched the police shoo a group of men that had wandered over from Our Daily Bread. One of the grizzled guys refused to move at the cop's request, said he's going in to read, and pushed past, into the library.
In Black Skins, White Masks, Fanon concludes of himself "as a man, I undertake to face the possibility of annihilation in order that two or three truths may cast their eternal brilliance over the world." I try to understand Wideman's works as an extension of Fanon's struggle; he calls Fanon his Fanon Project, not just his novel. Both are not so much about race, but completely about a world, a reality, fractured, damaged, and ordered by race. I don't know if that is postmodern, but it is undeniably American.
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