By Michael Bennett
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
John Edgar Wideman and I attended the same elementary school, fifty years apart. I didn’t hear his name or know his work until I left Pittsburgh for college. When I read his books, I read about neighborhoods I’d never stepped foot in as a child—Black communities rich with history but also plagued with desolation and poverty.
Wideman’s trilogy, The Homewood Books, is a collection of neighborhood stories. All three books—Damballah, Hiding Place, and Sent For You Yesterday—have their own distinct form, but like any neighborhood, the characters and conflicts resurface again and again, often through folk tales told from bar stools and corner stoops. A father finds a dead baby in the alleyway behind his house; an old woman at the top of the hill predicts the lottery; a fugitive returns home after years on the run for killing a white policeman. Wideman’s characters live through their vernacular, their storytelling, and the dynamic histories which feel too real to be imagined. They are the folklores of a people, inseparable from their place.
The history of a single alleyway, Cassina Way, acts as a center point for all three books. In Sent for You Yesterday, Wideman writes:
“Rows of wooden shanties built to hold the flood of black migrants up from the South. … a narrow, cobbled alley teeming with life, like a wooden-walled ship in the middle of the city … And the city around them which defined and delimited, which threatened but also buoyed and ferried them to whatever unknown destination, this city which trapped and saved them, for better or worse …”
This is the paradox of being Black in Pittsburgh — defined and delimited, courted and confined. Generational trauma, false opportunity, and cold displacement haunt his writing; the stories are surrounded with loss, and more loss, and nothing to gain.
Wideman’s prose transcends any singular plot or perspective. When Albert Wilkes returns to Homewood to face his inevitable execution at the hands of the police, Wideman narrates for the neighborhood, “course everybody knew it was the cops who shot Wilkes, but what counted wasn’t the murdering puppets in uniforms so much as it was the ones who pulled their strings.” He exposes the larger power structures at work, “those ones whose lily-white hands held Homewood like a lemon and squeezed pennies out drop by drop and every drop bitter as tears …”
Today, Pittsburgh has some of the largest economic divides between Black and white residents in the country which are not getting better, but worse. A recent report warned that Black youth in Pittsburgh, and Black girls in particular, are ten times more likely to be arrested and enter the juvenile justice system than their white counterparts — a rate much higher than the national average.
I learned this firsthand, when I began teaching a group of juveniles incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail. The teenagers in my class were being charged as adults for crimes that could send them to prison for anywhere from 10 to 60 years. Nearly all were Black. And while some of them may have been guilty of their alleged crimes, which brought pain to other families and communities, there is no question that all of them were victims first—victims of growing up in a city where Black people, more specifically Black youth, are over-policed and undernourished.
In 2017, I found out that Wideman was returning to Pittsburgh and was planning to visit my class at the jail. We read excerpts from several of Wideman’s books. In Hiding Place, we followed Tommy, a young Black man on the run from police, roaming the streets of Homewood. Tommy is the fictional embodiment of Wideman’s brother Robbie, who spent months running from police after he was an accomplice to a failed heist that left one man dead, and spent 40 years in prison before he was pardoned in 2019.
In fiction, Tommy is never caught or sent to prison. He finds safe haven behind the house of the old woman at the top of Bruston Hill who offers him food in exchange for yard work and his company. The students could easily identify — they all knew what it was like to run from police, scared for their lives. Some of them had close ties to Homewood and recognized the street names; the characters were reminiscent of people they knew growing up.
We read passages in class, then wrote creative responses. I wasn’t surprised to hear that many of the students at the jail had experienced more loss and hardship than most adults. They wrote of visiting their friends’ graves, of running from police, of long summers going hungry. They wrote about the power of guns, and how they never felt safe leaving the porch without one strapped to their waist.
When Wideman visited our class, he filled the room with wisdom and encouragement. Instead of reading his own work, he shared the stage with our students. Each took a turn reading creative pieces; it also served as a practice run for a formal reading with all the other creative writing classes at the jail. This practice session just so happened to include coaching from one of the most preeminent writers in the country.
His main piece of advice was to speak up. He told them to be proud of their words and to know their own self-worth. He discussed the discipline and reward of time management, and always listening, reading, and working toward your goals. He urged them, and all of us, to push back against anyone and anything that wants to make them, as individuals, irrelevant.
The students were curious about his childhood and his brother, and about how much of his writing was based on real events. They asked him what street he grew up on, and if he knew any of their relatives. Wideman told them that coming back to Pittsburgh was always a bittersweet experience. He spoke of the neglect of his neighborhood and walking around and seeing empty space once filled with life. He reminded us of the life that remains in Homewood and there are many stories which still need to be told.
Michael Bennett (he/him) is a writer and educator born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. He holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University, and teaches young writers at Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts High School and the Allegheny County Jail.