Memory Haunts

Friday, Oct 16, 2020

John Edgar Wideman on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, 1963.

John Edgar Wideman on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, 1963. Photo: Jim Hansen for Look magazine. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

"These ruins. This Black Camelot and its cracked Liberty Bell burn, lit by the same match that ignited two blocks of Osage Avenue."

- John Edgar Wideman, Philadelphia Fire

Neighbors were warned to clear out of the area before nearly five hundred police officers arrived at the house, 6221 Osage Avenue, on May 13, 1985. Electricity and water were shut off. The police speaker boomed. Tear gas was lobbed, gunfire returned, a melee of back and forth. Then the home was bombed. A conflagration erupted and spread wildly. Eleven residents died; sixty-five homes were destroyed. It was an unprecedented tragedy in the city of Philadelphia.

This is the event that John Edgar Wideman takes on in Philadelphia Fire, first published in 1990. As a writer, Wideman is inextricably connected to Pittsburgh, his home city. But this is a Philadelphia book, set in the city where Wideman attended college and later taught. In its pages, the geography of Philadelphia streets and the political fabric that was laid upon them is precise and exacting. In a sense, Philadelphia Fire is not just a map of the city but of the nation and our collective condition.

The first part of the book is a fictionalized account of the historic event. Cudjoe, a writer, is threading together the story of May 13, 1985, when the city of Philadelphia bombed the home of members of the MOVE political organization. MOVE, not an acronym but an imperative, as in “on the move,” is a Black liberation organization first founded in 1972. From the outset, they were distinguished among numerous peer organizations for their environmentalism, cooperative living, and strong advocacy of animal rights. Based in Philadelphia, MOVE raised the ire of the city establishment and many members of the surrounding community for their vociferous political announcements and unconventional domestic habits. They’d had prior run-ins with the notorious police chief Frank Rizzo. Still, the retaliation against MOVE by the city leadership sent shock waves through the surrounding community for decades to come.

Though fictionalized, the realpolitik of the city pulses on every page of Philadelphia Fire. The rise of a Black political machine in the city, capstoned by the first African American mayor, is set against the residual presence of a radical Black political organization in Ronald Reagan’s America. Desire, patriarchy, and poverty swirl around the cast of Black men and boys as Cudjoe looks for a child survivor who cannot be found. The lost child and the theme of lost childhood echo through the entire work.

The second part of Philadelphia Fire is a step back. Wideman allows us to see the ways in which his and Cudjoe’s biographical details overlap. Cudjoe is a fictionalized version of the author at work, returning to the city of his college years, where he first escaped Pittsburgh and then later served as a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania. Wideman intersperses details from his own life, as is characteristic of his writing. The ever-present grief of his brother’s and son’s incarcerations, and the interstitial space of the Black creative intellectual, both a member of the elite and speaker of the dispossessed, are cogently and powerfully rendered. Though Philadelphia Fire is more grammatically conventional than some of his other books, Wideman is as inventive and architecturally sophisticated here as always. He moves in and out of moments of fictionalization and commentary in a manner that makes the novel as much a lesson in craft as a work of art. How does one tell a story that is important because it deals with matters of life and death? The question is asked and answered.

For Wideman, interior anguish is both separate from and intrinsically connected to the depths of American racism. There are personal matters: dusk on a basketball court, the difficulties of marriage, the aging body and raging yearnings. And there are social ones: What happened to the sixties? What happened in the eighties? What was coming in the nineties? Each confronted decade comes with a riffing soundtrack. The sixties are punctuated with an animated James Brown, a country boy like Mayor Wilson Goode, navigating the urban terrain of Black Philadelphia. The eighties are sign-posted with the classic Aretha Franklin song “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” turned from a ditty of lover’s play to a tale of political power; and the nineties with the pastiche of hip-hop, fragments of a broken past glued back together in order to hold something. Wideman has a gentle hand with his citations, leaving it to the reader to unearth how masterfully layered the text is. And underneath it all, Wideman consistently reminds us that this is also the city that the most important Black intellectual of the twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois, depicted in The Philadelphia Negro, a landscape for escape from the brutal South (made plain by his artful reference to Robert Hayden’s classic runaway poem, “Runagate Runagate”) and place of captivity in the ghettos of the cruel North.

Fate teases even further back as Wideman intersperses the story of a teacher who attempts to stage Shakespeare’s The Tempest with actors who are Black children in West Philadelphia. This Elizabethan comedy about colonialism is both an ironic and cutting example of the persistence of dispossession and displacement in Philadelphia but also across the globe when it comes to the people who Du Bois described as living “behind the veil.”

In the intervening years since the publication of Philadelphia Fire, its relevance has heightened. Documentaries and scholarly works have been produced that detail and depict the tragedy of the bombing. Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and former member of the Black Panther Party who sympathetically covered the MOVE organization, was convicted of killing a police officer in 1981 and has remained incarcerated since. Jamal has become an internationally known political figure and remains associated with MOVE. The profound irregularities in his trial have also served as a symbol of both the racial injustices endemic to mass incarceration and the targeting of Black radical organizers in the seventies. Between 2018 and 2020, six members of MOVE, Debbie, Janine, Janet, Eddie, Delbert, and Chuck, all bearing the last name Africa like the organization’s founder, John Africa, were released from prison after forty-plus years, time they served for convictions related to a 1977 shoot-out that left a police officer dead. Others, Merle and Phil Africa, died while in prison.

Philadelphia Fire’s opening is particularly prescient. Wideman starts on a Greek isle, where his fictional alter ego, Cudjoe, is an apprentice to history and literature in the form of a man named Zivanias. In retrospect, we know that Birdie Africa, the child who ran from the flames, his body covered in burns, and only one of two survivors of the bombing, was found dead onboard a Caribbean cruise ship in 2013. Water, like fire, is a textual trope that both overwhelms and crystallizes.

And there is a timelessness to certain passages that make the book at once instructive history and immediately poignant. One in particular stands out as speaking to our collective moment, though Wideman is speaking directly to his son Jacob, who has spent most of his life incarcerated. He writes:

I’m not looking to give you consolation. I wish I was able. What I’m trying to do is share my way of thinking about some things that are basically unthinkable. I cannot separate myself from you. Yet I understand we’re different. I will try to accept and deal with whatever shape your life takes. I know it’s not my life and try as I might I can’t ease what’s happening to you, can’t exchange places or take some of the weight for you. But I believe you have the power in your hands to do what no one can do for you. Live your life strongly, fully, moment by moment. Make do. Hold on.

Philadelphia remains the poorest major city in the United States. Its Black communities are still, as Philadelphia Fire depicts, economically devastated and yet filled with intensive political and creative energy that takes almost as many paths as there are people. On any given weekend, you can return to the place Cudjoe went looking for a story to tell: Clark Park. On any given Saturday at Forty-Third and Baltimore, there are families and ballers, players and gentrifiers. There is also a quiet humming detente between the haves and the have-nots, between the old and new. You can see the ones who have hardscrabble living, sustaining themselves on a shrinking territory and living in the along. From that vantage point it is easy to understand that Wideman’s guidance to hold on, make do, and live strongly is an essential, ancestral wisdom. I don’t suppose a community easily forgets being set ablaze or drowned in grief any more than they forget the plantation, the migration, the segregation, and the deindustrialization. Memory haunts. And there, thirty-seven blocks to the west of where the Liberty Bell is held behind glass for tourists to admiringly behold, you’ll find a place where its cracks are actually felt.

[Originally published on October 5, 2020 via The Paris Review]

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