By Eric Boyd
For the Pittsburgh Current
In his 1984 classic book, Brothers and Keepers, John Edgar Wideman explores the paths he and his younger brother Robert took, questioning how he became a respected author as Robert went to prison for his part in a botched robbery. Wideman doesn’t give an inch. Every angle of his life is surveyed; every stone in his philosophy is overturned. This is a writer of incredible power attempting to reconcile his own notions of Blackness, manhood, and family while also making sense of some of America’s most senseless institutions (primarily those of racism and the prison system.) Wideman’s ideas are nuanced and refined, but it feels as though we’re reading his thoughts as they evolve organically. Refusing even a standard book form, Brothers and Keepers employs everything from conversations—both real and imagined—to interviews, letters, and poems.
In this latest edition of the book, there is a new afterword written by John Edgar’s brother, Robert Wideman, who was released from prison in 2019, after more than 40 years in. There is a familiar honesty in his interrogation of the self— a moment of self-reflection turns into a thorough examination. Robert Wideman explores notions of spirituality that are at odds with logic. He leans into a variation of Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox, insisting that two people can never meet if they continually split the difference between them by half. To cover half the distance, you must cover half of that half, and then half of that half. It goes on forever. Because it cannot reasonably end, it can never reasonably begin. With this, he tries to understand how we can ever reach the other side of tragedy, hope, or redemption when it’s so easy to break every instance of bitterness and grief down into infinite moments of hurt.
Throughout the book and new afterword, I found myself, as a formerly incarcerated writer, recognizing these kinds of unrelenting thought patterns. As a white man, I cannot pretend to understand many things that John and Robert have gone through and continue to go through in America. But I can say that when you’re inside, every idea can become like that paradox. You split a thought in half ad infinitum because what the fuck else is there to do? There’s no reason not to turn over every concept that floats through your brain — it’s either that or having to focus on the flavor of the cheese whiz you just plopped into your sardine and ramen chi chi. It’s that or listen to the screams all around you. In jail it’s easy for your mind to become an endless spider web. Parallel, intersecting, and divergent ideas all coalesce into digestible forms because the alternative is to go mad.
We see this time and again throughout Brothers and Keepers. In the course of only a few pages, John Edgar Wideman examines the power of language and the ways it is lacking: the origins of the word jail, the impossibility of making prisoners invisible from society, and the unstoppable force of time itself. He considers every possible way that the inmates might view his children when they visit. Do they see them as sexual objects, or as their own lost family members? Ultimately he concludes that he’s probably attaching his own biases to strangers; however, the inmates may view others is understandable given the context and also none of his business. It is a noble resignation.
How can two Black men with the same upbringing end up so differently? How can the prison system provide so little to inmates when it’s been proven that the more programs a prison has, the fewer inmates return? This was something I was especially drawn to, as I remember being forced to help dismantle the Allegheny County Jail’s library in 2010 when they discovered the only thing they had to provide the inmates was a legal encyclopedia, which came in the form of Ipads on every pod. Half of them were broken. It is the kind of situation that leaves you up at night, staring at the ceiling. It feels safe to assume both Wideman brothers have spent many nights this way.
Robert Wideman’s new afterword generously answers John’s most burning concern, his exploration of “the nature of the difference” between them. Pondering if math and science always add up—in a way addressing John’s tireless pursuit of understanding throughout the book—Robert says it is faith that gets us through to the other side of the paradox. The nature of the difference matters less than the fact that we can overcome it.
Throughout these pages, Wideman takes everything and leaves nothing, but his clean, sharp prose keeps everything accessible, even when it feels almost impenetrably personal. You know in your bones everything he says in Brothers and Keepers is right. You know that all of it’s true. There are no easy answers here.
Eric Boyd is a winner of a PEN Prison Writing Award. He is currently working on a novel.