Re-reading Wideman’s “Writing to Save a Life” in an era of racist violence
By RA Washington
These days, I keep coming back to the same sentence: “This text will not become the Emmett Till fiction I believed I was working on.” It’s from Writing to Save a Life, by the Pittsburgh writer John Edgar Wideman, published in 2016. A novelist wrestling with an idea for a novel, only to realize that the truth, and its utter invisibility, is ultimately stranger than fiction. For the facts outstrip the artful retelling. Wideman has always sliced his way through genre, etching nuance and troubling what we have come to regard as form. His work has always been a challenge to this country’s monolithic brush, its brutal erasure of the Black body, of the individual memory that now has been stitched into a collective memory.
We live in a time when the Black body mourns, when our eyes have seen so many images, beginning with the horrific and brave political gesture of Mamie Till’s unveiling of her son’s brutalized face, in the pages of Jet Magazine, for the world to see, and ending—but of course not really ending—with eight minutes of a police officer’s knee on the neck of George Floyd. We proclaim “martyr,” for this is all one can do, in the habitual pattern of Black murder.
The horror is always present and yet America has become so desensitized, so bombarded with how brutal it is for us with Black skin that it takes these clarifying shock moments, often documented in the most brutal of mediums, for the country to look around and deal with its addiction to “whiteness”.
Writing to Save a Life is about Blackness, about racist terror, about sons and fathers and grandfathers. It is also about Emmett Till and his father, Louis Till. You see, ten years before Emmett Till was murdered, Louis, a soldier during the second World War, was executed in Italy by the U.S. Army for committing rape and murder. While the entire world knows of Emmett’s lynching, very few know of Louis’s own death by hanging.
This text will not become the Emmett Till fiction I believed I was working on.
Wideman’s work has always exhibited a blurring of genre, often moving from searing polemics, to flights of fiction in the same sentence. His moral compass is matched only by his technical brilliance. He begins Writing To Save A Life by reminiscing about his own maternal grandfather, John French, and a moment with Wideman as a young boy, riding on his grandfather’s broad shoulders listening to the stories, rhymes and silences of his mother’s father as they walked the streets of Homewood, Pennsylvania.
I have never forgotten how peaceful the world looked from up there. How one day while I rode on my grandfather’s shoulders, my hands, knees careful not to tip his wide brimmed brown hat, we passed Clement, a smallish man who swept out Henderson’s Barbershop…
In this story, Wideman describes his grandfather calling out to Clement, who is also Black and the man, not sure who called his name, turned, his face at a pitch of agony and sorrow that the young Wideman never forgot. He—Wideman—connects this bit of veiled nostalgia to an event nine years later, when, at fourteen, he sees the Till photographs in Jet, and the images sear into every fiber, sinew of his being.
This book, then, is partly about Black grief, and how ghosts swirl among the caskets, among song. The personal memory acts as the jump off toward an investigation into how memory plays its cruel hand, and how sons are often visited by their father’s scars in the tiny cuts that make up Black manhood. How this country ties the noose of monolith around Black necks and releases the galley door.
They say Emmett bad Mama, say that’s why he’s dead. Bad like his bad daddy, like father like son they said and I need someone to talk to, someone to hold my hand.
For just when you begin to understand Wideman’s veiled metaphor of Black manhood through his search for Louis Till, he peels back the brutality of Till’s marriage to Mamie and digs into the old festering secret, the cuts and scrapes baked into this country’s patriarchy. These marriages are no different than the white marriages, the brown marriages that are plagued with society’s unrelenting misogyny. And as Wideman unfolds the story of Private Louis Till, his military record, and how it was used against the young dead Till, something else becomes clear: this is not just a writer wrestling with the awful villainy of race in America, but a writer wrestling with his own father’s violent legacy, of his own legacy as a son.
In his sustained examination of Black grief, of these generational patterns of terror and tumult, of how Black manhood far too often sits in the crux between patriarchal violence and our communities, Wideman joins Baldwin and Morrison in the rare air of the “novelist as moral compass.” It’s fitting that while this book received wide critical acclaim when it was published (it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), it seems to be vanquished from our popular memory even in the midst of tumult over the continued state-sanctioned violence of law enforcement, and the palpable fascist deluge of the past year, made all the more real by the MAGA-led assault on the capital.
Our current reckoning is the unshakable evidence of this country’s four-century dancing villainy, which is the sinew of Wideman’s work. As he paints the similarities between his own father and Emmett Till’s—against the backdrop of the haunting injustice of both father and son, the fleeting detail of old man Clement, or the speculation of the official records—the chilling and awesome effect of his writing really hits you. You imagine Wideman, a boy of fourteen, starting to resemble his mother’s father, the grandfather on whose shoulder we ride into this stirring investigation of personal-as-political memory and its contrary nature. You see his eyes at the first sight of Emmett’s mutilated head in the slick glossy of Jet. You begin to see the tether of the terror for us, in these Black bodies. Finally, you see the tiny escapes. You see how your Black manhood can sit in monolith, like centurions to white American patriarchy, even as it ties you to a cotton gin fan and shoots you in the head. ■
RA Washington is a writer and community worker living on Cleveland’s west side.
Cover image of John Edgar Wideman. Photo by Ulf Andersen/ Getty Images.
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