John Edgar Wideman Our Time Essay

In Mary Louise Pratt’s essay, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” we are introduced to the idea of contact zones, autoethnography, and new ways of looking at common ideas. I wanted to see some examples of what she was really talking about. After reading John Edgar Wideman’s “Our Time” we can see that Pratt’s ideas and terms are accurate because they can be applied to this reading as well as others. “Our Time” is an autoethnography because it uses diffeerent points of view, not just oneself, to give information about someone’s upbringing and cultural growth. In Pratt’s essay, she often referred to the term autoethnography.

These emerge from contact zones. Autoethnographies are used as a method to oppose the views of oneself that everyone else sees. For example, if there are people in your neighborhood that have a label on your home and family, you might go back and tell them how your life actually is. Mary Louise Pratt goes on to tell us that a contact zone is a place where people from different cultures and communities come together. Here, these different people share ideas and interact with each other. It is almost a type of hybridization. Multiple cultures or societies come together, and mash. They can join together, or exchange some values, or be overrun by one another. Within these contact zones, people are able to see the way others see them and interpret them. From there, they would be able to see themselves through different eyes, and from a different perspective. In relation, autoethnographic texts are “texts in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them” (Pratt 487). They are not texts written to

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explain how the writer sees themselves, but how they are seen by others. This is to maximize the credibility, and that there isn’t too much bias. Writers put together these texts from others’ understandings and viewpoints of them, as well as interpretation of others. Similarly, Pratt also refers to the term transculturation frequently in her essay. The definition of transculturation is when values or ways of life and habits from the dominant culture are passed down to smaller subordinate cultures. From there, those cultures choose what materials they would like to use as well as trying to persuade the dominant culture to use some of their ideas.

In Pratt’s essay, she uses Guaman Poma’s New Chronicle to back up her claims. She refers to the reading as an autoethnographic text. This text “involve[s] a selective collaboration with appropriation of idioms of the metropolis or the conqueror” (Pratt 488). In the New Chronicle, Poma’s story is written in two languages, Spanish and Quechua which is an Incan language. Spanish is considered the dominant language, or culture, whereas the Incan language is considered to be the subordinate language and culture. Poma writes his story from the Incan point of view where he attempts to rewrite history through their eyes rather than the Spanish. Transculturation is represented because he uses the main ideas from the dominant culture, such as Adam and Eve, and then in turn incorporates the Incan culture while pushing some of their ideas back on the dominant culture. This is where you see two cultures interact, and form very different cultures from their original state, but more similar to each other. On the same note, Poma writes the story based on representation others’ have made of them, and by incorporating both cultures, the story can be considered an autoethnographic text. Similarly, Wideman’s text can also be considered an autoethnographic text.

We see both of these terms represented in Wideman’s “Our Time,” as well as the ideas from Poma’s story. Wideman does a great job of incorporating different idioms to represent

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himself, as well as his brother Robby, in order to paint an accurate picture of the community and culture in which they are each a part of. For example, in the preface, the terms “ghetto” and “gangster” are used to describe their black community of Homewood— which can be referred to as indigenous idioms. Indigenous idioms are the common way of speaking within ones’ own community. A quick example of this would be how some stated refer to soda as soda, or pop, or coke, while they are all referring to the same thing. In the text, the community of Homewood is considered to be the subordinate culture. This culture stems from the dominant culture of Pittsburgh showing how the story can be considered an autoethnographic text. This is because Wideman is using the autoethnography to sort of push back against the typical Pittsburgh culture, and show people how it actually is. John and Robby’s family moved from the dominant culture to Homewood. With them they brought ideas from both communities together creating a contact zone. Due to them growing up in a white community, Robby became intrigued with the black community from a very young age. This is because he grew up surrounded by whites who would never tell him about it. As he says in the text, “I decided I’d find out what it was all about.

Didn’t care if it killed me, I was going to find out” (Wideman 678). This helps us see why Robby immersed himself in the culture of Homewood, while also getting in touch with Robby’s voice in the text. Because of Robby’s fascination, he gets sucked down a path of crime, which eventually leads to jail. On the other hand, Wideman finds himself more immersed in the dominant culture. He goes through a series of very fortunate events, leading him to becoming a successful, established writer. Both brothers grow up in similar communities but found themselves going down very separate paths, showing the diversity within the contact zone. Wideman’s goal in this story is to try and figure out why Robby and himself turned out so differently. Therefore, he wants to go through specific events in order to figure this out. He

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writes “Our Time” in a way that most readers are not used to. Instead of writing a basic story of his brother’s life, he instead incorporates himself into it, as well as his thought processes throughout. Because he writes his story based on his brother, parts of this reading can be considered ethnography. Ethnography can be defined as a text that is based on someone other than the writer, just as Wideman writes about Robby. Wideman’s goal is persuade us to find value is his project. Readers also mix his ideas with theirs, in which they develop their own ideas based on Widman’s story, as well as give feedback. This gives a sense of transculturation, because just listening to Wideman’s points allow us to adopt some of his culture. Wideman explains to us the different ways he thought about starting the story as well as certain habits he must overcome in order to make his project successful. He ends up starting off with a story explaining the death of his brothers’ friend, Garth who died of a disease because he did not receive proper treatment, due to being black. This can be considered a contact zone because the dominant culture represents themselves as the superiors in this situation, showing the diversity of the contact zone. Not only does this paint a picture of the world they live in, but also gives us some back round on reasons why Robby ended up living a life of crime that eventually lead him to jail. Garth’s death shook Robby and his community. They knew he had been treated unfairly and because of that they had hatred towards the dominant culture.

This could be a reason why Robby chose to rebel against it, and dive into the Homewood community and culture— which showed him the life of crime. Garth’s death is one of the many instances in which we see the community that the brothers lived and grew up in. Wideman writes this section using Robby’s point of view as a way to try and understand why Robby ended up like he did, which is an example of ethnography. For instance, Wideman shows Robby’s point of view when he describes Garth. Explaining that he “looked bad. Real Bad. Inchabod Crane anyway, but now he

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was a skeleton” (Wideman 658). Here, Robby is providing us with a description of what Garth looks like, but Wideman is writing it, making it ethnography since it is not from Garth’s person. Along with that, Wideman shares with us another moment in time which he considered starting the story from. His other way was with the day Robby was born. Robby’s birthday was surrounded by times of death and sadness. It was almost as if it was completely overshadowed by it, almost as if there was a low gloomy storm cloud above it. Wideman shows us the effect it had on his brother by saying that “Robby cried a lot on his birthdays” (Wideman 684). This instance could have a lot to do with the way Robby ended up in jail. He was never truly celebrated on his special day; instead it contained tears and depression. Wideman uses this as an example of the factors that lead to his life of crime. He uses his own view of Robby to portray autoethnography. He writes it so that we see the way others view Robby in this situation, as well as they way Robby feels viewed, and then puts it into his words. I wondered why he switches points of view mid story. But then I realized that the whole reason he included Robby in his story was to counter ideas about Robby, whether they be his own, or other people in town. By switching to Robby’s voice, it gives a different insight. One that Is from Robby, and this helps strengthen the autoethnographic element by opposing whatever claims and judgments that Wideman or even the reader may have, and shows us how things actually are.

Throughout the story we see examples of what we can call Indigenous texts, where Wideman is trying to connect to what Robby is saying. In order to connect with Robby in the way that he wants, Wideman realizes that he has to overcome some of his habits. The biggest habit he had to overcome was “listening to [himself] listen to him” (Wideman 672). He had the tendency to hear Robby in his words rather than really listen to Robby’s point of view, which is important in order to create and autoethnographic text. Therefore, when putting material together

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he had to focus on breaking this habit. He had to see Robby through Robby’s eyes in order to make his project successful, which he did. Another habit Wideman had to overcome was to avoid having his story sound poetic and fictional. He wanted us to truly hear Robby’s voice and get an accurate idea of his community, and to do that; he had to drop some of the fancy words and phases so it didn’t overshadow the true point of his project. A third habit he had to overcome was the feeling of guilt about success and luck he has received throughout his life. He questions multiple times in the text why they turned out so differently. He feels guilty that his brother ended up in jail and he turned into such a successful writer. In conclusion, Wideman shows his side of the story along with his brothers, creating a piece of writing that differs from what we may consider to be usual, or conventional writing. Wideman steps out of the norm by describing his process of writing throughout the story. By doing this, along with providing different perspectives, he was able to create an autoethnographic text while also incorporating ethnography. Also, by giving us a glimpse of different cultures and communities that they grew up in, Wideman was able to create transculturation as well as show us the contact zones that come up within the story.

All of these ideas lead back to Pratt’s ideas of contact zones, as well as Guaman Poma’s New Chronicle, providing us with instances to portray Pratt’s significance as well as Wideman’s. Wideman’s goal was to show us the ways in which he and his brother turned out so differently, and I think he succeeded. He was able to verify Pratt’s idea of contact zones and show us his personal experience of the diversity within them. Also, he was able to help us understand the background behind Robby’s life of crime and accurately show why they ended up on different paths. This is what made Wideman’s project successful.

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Works Cited
Wideman, John. “Our Time.” Ways of reading. 9th ed. Editor David Bartholomae & Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin, 2011. 655-694. Print
Pratt, Mary. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Ways of reading. 9th ed. Editor David Bartholomae & Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin, 2011. 655-694. Print

John Edgar Wideman’s avowed artistic end is the creation of characters whose rich inner lives testify to a “sense of themselves as spiritual beings” that challenges the deterministic simplicities often dominant in literary depictions of the African American sensibility. Like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin before him, Wideman insistently links naturalistic detail to an existential quest for meaning and integrity that is complicated by the peculiar difficulties of sustaining one’s humanity under the degradations of racism. While the material consequences of racist injustice are ever-present in his stories, Wideman makes clear that his most pressing concern is the threat posed to the souls of its victims. In turn, he suggests that the renewal of contemporary African American society, increasingly ravaged by hopelessness and self-destructiveness, lies in a self-conscious recovery of, and healing through, the cultural identity he so rigorously documents in his evocation of Homewood. Thus in Wideman’s fiction the struggle of individual souls in an absurd and dehumanizing world does not unfold in a completely existential void; his characters move within a community whose past vitality derived from history, traditions, language, and relationships linking generations back beyond the darkness of slavery. The imaginative architecture that unifies the Homewood Trilogy employs interpenetrating plot lines, family trees, and community legends to make clear that Wideman’s real subject is the communal survival once made possible by its citizens’ heroic decency against great odds.


Damballah, the collection of twelve short stories that begins the trilogy, announces Wideman’s intentions aesthetically as well as thematically. The fuguelike polyphony of voices achieved by bringing together separate narratives drawn from a wide spectrum of Homewood personalities and historical moments captures not only the community’s diversity but also the power of oral culture in all of its forms—speech, music, storytelling—to nourish and sustain it in the midst of unrelenting racial hostility. In “The Chinaman,” a narrative “I” identified elsewhere as John (and quite evidently an autobiographical presence) explains that the funeral of his maternal grandmother, Freeda, had reconnected him with old family legends that he had years earlier set aside as unworthy of serious literary treatment. Listening months later to his own mother describe Freeda’s death and thereby complete a story he had been unable to finish alone, he concludes, “The shape of the story is the shape of my mother’s voice.” Wideman’s narrator repeatedly explains that this text is a collaborative project in which narratives culled from the collective memory of his family are woven together through the mediating agency of his own consciousness to reveal a design that affirms the faith in human possibility now leaching away in the ruins that were once Homewood.

Wideman’s preoccupation with the crisis of black men in modern America—a crisis vividly depicted in his own estrangement from his origins and his brother Rob’s criminality and imprisonment—explains the placement of his maternal grandfather, John French, at the center of these stories. French’s defiant courage, loyalty, quick wit, tough-minded devotion to his family, and acute survival instincts make him a model of masculine virtue for a new generation desperately in need of his example. He stands in seemingly obvious contrast to his equally talented but blighted grandson Tommy Lawson, the narrator’s drug-addicted brother, whose crimes destroy his future and who is the counterbalancing focus of the last third of the collection. Yet, French lives on in Tommy’s rebellious energy and probing mind, making the youth’s current circumstances all the more tragic.

Wideman also records the voices of the strong women who have sustained the community throughout the crises surrounding their men and whose emotional anguish reflects the complex emotional dynamic between black men and women in Wideman’s fiction. Freeda Hollinger French, the text’s matriarch, proves herself capable of swift, violent intervention to safeguard her child or her husband in “Lizabeth: The Caterpillar Story.” Lizabeth French Lawson actually gives birth to the narrator in “Daddy Garbage,” within a story line juxtaposed to the grim discovery of another infant’s frozen corpse and the moral imperative of the two old men who find it and insist upon a decent burial. As the future is denied to one child and extended to another, one perceives a subtle echo of the divergent paths Lizabeth’s own sons will pursue in later years.

Wideman’s sensitivity to the orality of African American culture leads him to seek linguistic approximations for the music and talk-story patterns at the heart of African American imaginative expression. His prose resonates with the jazz rhythms of African American vernacular and often quotes directly from the musical yoking of human misery and triumph in what is called the blues. In “The Songs of Reba Love Jackson,” a successful Gospel singer admits that her artistry expresses emotional nuances beyond the power of language alone: “Couldn’t speak about some things. She could only sing them. Put her stories in the songs she had heard all her life so the songs became her stories.” In the closing piece of the volume, “The Beginning of Homewood,” the narrator creates a wall of sound from the voices he has unloosed in the preceding stories; writing to his brother Tommy in prison, he acknowledges that his real task as a writer has been to hear and synthesize those...

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