In a probate-office storage vault in Abbeville, South Carolina, an elderly white ex-history professor is showing a black writer from Massachusetts, whose slave ancestors lived in the Abbeville region, itemized documents relating to the sale and possession of slaves. The black writer is grateful for the historian’s generous assistance (though the historian has never met the writer before, he has volunteered to spend several days with him), and so it comes as a considerable shock to the writer that, as he gazes down at the back of the historian’s head, he feels an “ice-cold wave of anger [at him],…at the back of his thin, freckled bald skull,” and an impulse to do injury.
It was Professor Lomax’s skull I had envisioned shattering, spilling all its learning, its intimate knowledge of these deeds that transferred in the same “livestock” column as cows, horses, and mules, the bodies of my ancestors from one white owner to another. Hadn’t the historian’s career been one more mode of appropriation and exploitation of my father’s bones…. Didn’t mastery of Abbeville’s history, the power and privilege to tell my father’s story, follow from the original sin of slavery that stole, then silenced, my father’s voice.
…I knew in that moment my anger flashed we had not severed ourselves from a version of history that had made the lives of my black father and this white man so separate, so distant, yet so intimately intertwined.
This isn’t fiction, as we might wish, but a vividly delineated scene from John Edgar Wideman’s painfully candid memoir of 1994, which records the author’s search for a point of connection between himself and his emotionally remote, elusive father. (“The first rule of my father’s world is that you stand alone. Alone, alone, alone…. My mother’s first rule was love. She refused to believe she was alone.”) Fatheralong is a sustained brooding upon the mysteries of identity and kinship; the title itself reflects Wideman’s childhood mistaking of words in a hymn, “Farther along we’ll know more about you…,” for “Fatheralong.” Though the memoir includes in its penultimate chapter a celebratory rite of passage, a wedding attended by both black and white family members (Wideman is married to a white woman), its predominant tone is one of rage just barely contained by the purity of its honed language. Addressed to Wideman’s incarcerated son, who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a camp roommate when he was a young adolescent—information only alluded to in the memoir—it takes as its departure point Wideman’s melancholy realization, as he gazes at his newborn son in a hospital, of “the chill of the cloud passing…between you and your boy. The cloud of race.”
Seen in this way, the documents shown to Wideman by Professor Lomax, who means only to be helpful, and who may well have perceived his own generosity as …