Among contemporary American writers, few are as significant to our thinking about social justice as John Edgar Wideman is. Wideman’s books argue that in order to achieve democracy and social justice for all, we must learn to see ourselves anew, reimagining ourselves thus freeing ourselves from the economic, racial and gender categories that marginalize many of us from gaining the full benefits of American citizenship. Wideman’s most recent book, Briefs: Stories From the Palm of the Mind, is a collection of 102 microfictions. Though these short shorts repeat many themes and subjects of earlier fictional works and essay collections, Briefs is alive with newness. It’s a Widemanian expression machine, an echoing novel of ideas that’s been exploded and then rearranged as a Romare Bearden-like collage.
Though evoked stories like “Installation” and “Glass Eye,” “Now You See It,” a one-sentence, cascade about blank space on the page, best represents the author’s idea about literary visuality and imagination. The blank space houses “everything the writer does not know, cannot know.” As we read, the typographical caesura expands, drawing in
the whole world, including the writer’s dream dreamed up to fashion a story, to fashion a space within the story for you, your dreams…nothing survives the space, no words, no page, no safe passage the writer promised through roaring silence that closes like the sea over heads of creatures who cannot swim, the story gone before the writer’s next word.
If one tries reading Briefs too quickly, these stories will envelope you in sound and image, but then ebb away, leaving almost no memory. Instead, follow Wideman’s rhythmic structures piece by piece, flowing into his blank spaces, seeing and dreaming differently.
This instruction is especially significant for grasping Wideman’s conception social justice embedded deeply into this collection. His artistry flows from James Baldwin’s theory that African American artists must bear witness to American life writ large in order to expose the forces undergirding the color line’s maintenance. Adopting the concept from Christian theology, Baldwin adapted “witnessing” as his aesthetic motivation. Witnessing for truth, Baldwin’s writing reveals the fears and interests supporting claims that racial identity denotes an individual’s character. Relying on these racial markers, Americans assure themselves that democracy is functioning well “by making racial injustice appear inevitable or natural.” Baldwin’s literary “witnessing” gives “public voice to stories—especially stories about the lives of black Americans—that belie the myths of American democracy.”
Wideman demonstrates his Baldwinian inheritance in “Witness,” Briefs’s second piece. Though true throughout collection, “Witness” sounds especially like an oral storytelling and demands to be read out loud. Told in the first person voice of a wheelchair-bound observer, the story is about watching a young man’s murder, the policing of the crime scene, and subsequently, the young man’s family mourning his death at the scene. Wideman positions readers as witnesses too, guiding us to imagine the dead boy’s parents and baby sister arriving “at the spot the boy died,” where they “commence to swaying, bowing, hugging, waving their arms about,” and “look like they grief dancing, like the sidewalk too cold or too hot they had to jump around not to burn up.”
Flannery O’Connor’s description of the realist literary artist is an apt one for Wideman’s aesthetic: “[For] this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted…his way will much more obviously be the way to distortion.” Wideman’s distortions begin by launching story in medias res, apropos of nothing: “Sitting here one night six floors up on my little balcony when I heard shots and saw them boys running.” The opening sentence, with its attention-capturing once-upon-a-time oral cadence, might offer a linguistic marker of blackness, but there’s no specific evidence for this. As well, Wideman doesn’t use any racial markers...