The Beginning of Homewood

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The Beginning of Homewood

John Edgar Wideman 1981

Author Biography

Plot Summary




Historical Context

Critical Overview



Further Reading

John Edgar Wideman is the author of dozens of books and stories and has in the last two decades claimed his rightful place among the most important contemporary American authors. Central to his legacy, the Homewood books, originally published as separate volumes, Damballah, Hiding Place, and Sent For You Yesterday, were collected under the title The Homewood Trilogy and published in 1985. “The Beginning of Homewood” has emerged as the most anthologized of all the stories in the volume.

“The Beginning of Homewood” employs Wideman’s call and response narrative technique to blend the stories of his ancestor Sybela Owens, his elderly aunt May, and his own incarcerated brother, Robby. In the story, which he confesses has “something wrong with it,” he poses the question whether Sybela’s crime (of escaping slavery) can be weighed against Robby’s. Though Wideman never offers a resolution for this thorny problem, by juxtaposing these two images of freedom and bondage, he encourages readers to explore the complex and deeply ambiguous moral landscape that all of the characters inhabit.

Author Biography

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1941, John Edgar Wideman has led a life filled with remarkable achievement and terrible tragedy. He is the author of seven novels, three collections of short stories, and two books of nonfiction. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wyoming, and the University of Massachusetts, where he is currently a member of the faculty.

When Wideman was still a baby, his family moved from Washington to Pittsburgh and settled in Homewood, a black neighborhood with a rich history that would later inspire several books. Within a decade, however, Wideman’s family moved from Homewood to the predominantly white, upper-class neighborhood of Shadyside. John flourished in school, becoming captain of the basketball team and the class valedictorian. In 1959, he entered the University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship, intending to be a psychology major. After switching to English as a major, he continued to excel as both a student and an athlete, winning election to Phi Beta Kappa and all Ivy-league in basketball. By his senior year Wideman had decided to become a writer.

After graduation in 1963, Wideman became the first African American to win a Rhodes Scholarship since Alain Locke in 1905. At Oxford he continued to study literature and began his teaching career in the summer term at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1965, he married Judith Ann Goldman and the next year received his degree from Oxford. After attending the famous University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop and publishing his first novel, A Glance Away, Wideman returned to the University of Pennsylvania to teach. After students asked him to teach a course in African-American literature, Wideman began his own personal exploration of black literature and reconsidered his own voice as an African-American writer. After publishing two more novels, Widmean entered an eight-year fallow period.

In the mid-1970s two things happened that changed the course of Wideman’s life. He accepted an offer from the University of Wyoming and moved away from his roots and history to the virtually all-white world of Laramie. Within a year, his brother Robby, who had remained in the Pittsburgh area, was sentenced to life imprisonment for armed robbery and murder. After an exceptionally productive ten-year period, Wideman and his family moved back east and he began teaching at the University of Massachusetts in Amorist, a position he continues to hold. The same year in which they moved east, 1986, the Wideman family experienced yet another tragedy when his middle child, Jacob, confessed to killing a roommate at summer camp and, at eighteen years old, was sentenced to life in prison.

Plot Summary

The story opens as the narrator tries to explain how the story came into being. It began, he says, as a letter to his brother, which he “began writing on a Greek island two years ago, but never finished, never sent.” Addressing his absent brother, he then proceeds to tell “the story that came before the letter,” the story about his great-great-great-grandmother Sybela Owens and how she escaped slavery and settled in Pittsburgh in what is now known as Homewood.

At his grandfather’s funeral, the narrator had heard the elderly aunts talk of Sybela and the beginnings of Homewood. Through the intervening voices of his aunt May and Bess, the narrator relates the story of Sybela’s “escape, her five-hundred-mile flight through hostile, dangerous territory.”

Having been a slave on a plantation near Cumberland, Maryland, Sybela escaped one night with her two small children and Charlie Bell, the white man and son of the owner, who “stole” her when he learned that his father planned to sell her. The year was 1859; Sybela was around eighteen years old, and Charlie was the father of the children. Charlie and Sybela went on to have eighteen more children. Eventually, as Aunt May relates, “the other white men let Charlie know they didn’t want one of their kind living with no black woman so Charlie up and moved.” And the neighborhood where he moved, “way up on Bruston Hill where nobody ’round trying to mind his business,” marked the beginning of Homewood.

Sybela was remarkable, not only because of her courageous escape from slavery but also because of her legendary ability to refuse to internalize her status as slave. She was known throughout the plantation as a woman of exceptional pride and reminded old-timers of another woman who maintained the autonomy of her body against the all common sexual advantages of white owners by wearing a cage around her torso.

After Aunt May and Mother Bess finish telling their story about Sybela and the old days, the narrator’s voice returns in the final paragraphs. Again, he addresses his brother, whom he last saw “in chains... old-time leg irons and wrist shackles and twenty pounds of iron dragged through the marble corridors in Fort Collins.” He wonders if there is a larger scale of justice at work, if the “Court could set your crime against Sybela’s, the price of our freedom against yours.”


Charlie Bell

Charlie Bell is the white man whose family owns Sybela Owens. As was the cruel custom among slave-holding men, he has forced Sybela to be his concubine. One night he comes to her cabin and “steals” her and her two children, of whom he is the father, and together they run north toward Pittsburgh where the neighborhood in which they settle becomes known as Homewood.


Called Mother Bess, she’s May’s sister and fellow caretaker of Sybela’s spirit and the family’s history.


Maggie is the oldest of Sybela’s two children who accompany her in her flight from slavery (with Charlie Bell). The story does not specify, but it is reasonable to suppose that they are Bell’s children as well.


Called Aunt May most of the time by the narrator, she, like Mother Bess, belongs to an intermediate generation of women. She is old enough to remember Sybela as an old woman and takes it as her responsibility to tell the old stories to the younger generations. The narrator hears her tell these stories at his grandfather’s funeral, and it plants the idea of this story in his head. May also has a certain way of talking that the narrator finds fascinating, and he attempts to imitate it in his prose.from a Greek island to his brother who is in prison and is his self-conscious attempt to connect her story to his.


The narrator is the great-great-great-grandson of Sybela Owens. This story is a letter he’s writing

from a Greek island to his brother who is in prison and is his self-conscious attempt to connect her story to his.

Sybela Owens

Sybela is the narrator’s (and the un-named “you” to whom the story is told, the narrator’s brother’s) great-great-great-grandmother. A “black woman who in 1859 was approximately eighteen years old,” she’s the ancestor that helped establish the African-American community of Homewood when she settled there with Charlie Bell. Sybela went on to have eighteen more children in addition to the two she brought with her when she escaped from slavery. She’s a kind of spiritual leader of the family, and the older women, Aunt May and Mother Bess, tell stories about her courage and strength in order to keep her memory alive and the family history known to the younger generations. Wideman uses the story of her captivity and flight as a contrast to his brother’s flight and captivity in the criminal justice system.


Thomas is Maggie’s younger brother.

Topics for Further Study

  • How common was it for runaway slaves to make it to freedom and establish permanent homes in the North? Do some research to see if Sybela’s story is typical. Identify through research other areas in Northern cities like Homewood.
  • What’s the significance of Greece and the Greek island in the story? How does it relate to the Sybil, which the narrator identifies with Sybela?
  • Compare Wideman’s narrative technique of weaving together multiple voices with the narrative technique of another story you have read.
  • Explain your opinions on Wideman’s comparison of his brother to a runaway slave? What questions about fairness and the criminal justice system are raised by this story? Try to answer this question by looking at the issues from several perspectives.



“The Beginning of Homewood” and the volume of short stories of which it is a part, Damballah, belongs to the stage of Wideman’s career when he began to write from an Afrocentric perspective. After the eight year hiatus following the publication of the novel The Lynchers, Wideman moved his family back East and shifted his literary interest to stories more connected to his own life and to African-American culture and history.

Critic Doreatha Drummond Mbalia explains that this process is necessarily incremental. Wideman’s literary education, Mbalia explains, was Eurocentric. That is, he was taught to view the world from a European, or white, point of view and came to internalized European standards and values for art and literature. Thus, when he began his career as a writer, he emulated white writers like William Faulkner and James Joyce. According to Mbalia, Wideman, like so many African-American authors, needed to “reclaim his African personality.” This process “occurred in developmental stages, she continues, “caused by a quantitative buildup of a number of factors, largely negative, involving family members, race concerns, and the writing process itself.” For Wideman, the most influential of these factors was his brother Robby’s arrest for murder, which brought him back into the fold of his family for the first time in years. He writes about this experience in the memoir Brothers and Keepers:”The distance I’d put between my brother’s world and mine suddenly collapsed. The two thousand miles between Laramie, Wyoming, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my years of willed ignorance, of flight and hiding, has not changed a simple truth: I could not run fast enough or far enough. Robby was inside me. Wherever he was, running for his life, he carried part of me with him.” “The Beginning of Homewood,” then, is a story about his own ancestor, Sybela Owens, who came to Homewood in 1859 but is addressed to a fictionalized version of his incarcerated brother. The story is about both Sybela’s and Tommy’s (Robby’s) flights from bondage—hers from slavery, his as a fugitive—but it is also about Wideman’s narrator’s struggle to reconcile these two stories and to locate his own voice in them.

Freedom and Bondage

Images of freedom and bondage animate the narrative of “The Beginning of Homewood.” Wideman juxtaposes the story of his great-great-great grandmother Sybela Owens with the story of his brother, to whom the story is addressed as a letter, in order to challenge readers’ assumptions about what freedom and bondage signify in the African-American experience. Moreover, the narrator explores the ways in which he is bound to his family’s history and, conversely, how free he is to tell the story. In this sense, Wideman’s relationship with the material for his story is problematic. Critic Barbara Seidman explains that “by embedding Sybela’s story of physical and spiritual redemption within a meditation on his brother’s grim circumstances, the narrator conveys the continued urgency of such issues for African Americans; he also engages the metafictional self-reflexiveness that characterizes his generation of American writers as he muses over the act of writing and its problematic relationship to living events.”

Sybela’s narrative moves nominally from bondage to freedom as she escapes from slavery in the South to the free black communities of Pittsburgh in the North. But crossing over from slavery to freedom, Wideman suggests, is never as simple and absolute as it appears. Sybela’s freedom is compromised by her dependence on Charlie Bell, the white man who “stole” her and her children. She may have escaped slavery, but her status as his property is fundamentally unchanged. Sybela’s story is one of gradual self-emancipation from the psychological bonds of slavery, and her presence in May’s and Bess’s narratives testifies that she has finally found freedom: she belongs to them.

Tommy’s (Robby’s) trajectory, on the other hand, is the opposite of Sybela’s. He moves from freedom to captivity in the criminal justice system. In a gesture analogous to the portrayal of the ambiguity of Sybela’s freedom, Wideman’s story suggests that Tommy’s prior freedom was already constrained, as it is for most African-American males, and that his captivity is merely superficial because his defiance keeps him free to some extent.

The narrator, as well, is caught up in the shifting valences of freedom and bondage. While he presumes to write to his brother from the safe and remote location of Greece, he is ineluctably drawn into the stories of both his ancestors and his brother. It’s as if he isn’t free to tell other stories; he must tell these. Furthermore, as he explains in the opening paragraph of “The Beginning of Homewood,” one story is held captive by another: “The letter [to his brother] remains inside the story, buried, bleeding through when I read.”


Narration: Oral Tradition

Wideman’s narrative technique in “The Beginning of Homewood” is related to the development of his Afrocentric point of view. By the time in his career when he was writing the stories that make up Damballah, Wideman had shaken off the single narrator perspective of his earlier fiction and had merged his interest in the modernist prose of Faulkner and James Joyce with his concern to write about the African-American experience. The resulting narrative technique attempts to render in prose aspects of the African-American oral traditions of storytelling and call and response. In an interview with James Coleman, Wideman explains how he came to adopt these new techniques: “In the later books also I began to understand how in using Afro-American folklore and language I didn’t have to give up any of the goals that I was after when I was using more Europeanized and more traditional—literary traditional—devices and techniques.”

“The Beginning of Homewood,” as the final story in Damballah, makes particularly good use of these Afrocentric literary techniques. In the words of critic Seidmann, Wideman’s narrator “creates a wall of sound from the voices he has unloosed in the preceding stories; writing to his brother in prison, he acknowledges that his real task as a writer has been to hear and synthesize those women’s testimonials to the community’s history of defeat and transcendence.” In other words, he allows Sybela and May and Bess to speak through him, to use him as an instrument to tell their stories across barriers of time, culture, and geography. To choose this technique is also to comment on the role of the storyteller, or writer, in the African-American culture. To some extent, this kind of self-consciousness about the role of the writer is a feature of all modern literature, as Seidmann explains. Like many of his contemporaries, Wideman “engages in the metafictional self-reflexiveness that characterizes his generation of American writers as he muses over the act of writing and its problematic relationship to lived events.” But as Wideman himself explains in the interview with James Coleman, there is something more at stake for African-American writers. “Storytellers are always inside and outside the story by definition. Sometimes in Afro-American culture there are these little doors, there are these wonderful windows by which the storyteller gets pulled back, so he doesn’t feel too lonely, doesn’t feel left out...”

Setting: Mythical Spaces

Just as Wideman’s use of many narrative voices, or poly-vocality, allows him to tell the story from several perspectives, his use of diffuse and multiple settings for the story adds to its power and range. It’s difficult to say where the story takes place. Is it the place from which the narrator is writing the letter to his brother? Is it the plantation in Maryland? Is it Homewood of the mid-nineteenth century, or Homewood of the 1970s and 1980s? Is it the Fort Collins courtroom where the narrator last sees his brother? Or even the Greek island where the narrator first begins thinking about these stories? Wideman’s point is that the story is set in all these places and times, but its true force does not emerge until they come together, layered upon and woven around each other.

As a result of this layered or woven construction, Wideman’s narrative settings take on more mythic dimensions than they otherwise would. The character of Sybela, for example, resonates with the legend of a slave woman, named Belle, from an earlier era, as well as with the Greek legend of the Sybil, who, when asked what she wanted, replied “I want to die.” The intermingling of these identities and stories helps to imbue Homewood with a history and significance that would have been lost without the intervention of the storytellers.

Historical Context

Life under Slavery

The institution of slavery placed enormous physical and psychological burdens on the body of the slave population in the American South. In addition to the hideous cruelties of forced labor, slaves faced a constant threat of being sold. This meant that slaves lived with a gnawing instability, as families could be broken up against their will.

Female slaves endured yet another hardship as they frequently became the objects of unwanted and often violent sexual advances from white owners and overseers. In fact, many white owners who viewed their slaves as property, considered sexual appropriation of black women to be their right. As a result, there were many white men who had two families: one in the big house and another down in the slave quarters. To make matters even worse, the children of these unions, mulattos, were treated even worse. Linda Brent, a slave whose autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was originally published in 1861, wrote that “slavery was terrible for me, but it is far more terrible for women.” Walter Teller explains in his introduction to a new edition to Brent’s book in 1973 that “while all female slaves were subject to sexual abuse, mulattos in particular were exploited sexually.” The subject was rarely discussed, even among anti-slavery activists. In fact, when a white woman, L. Marie Child, helped to bring Brent’s narrative into print, she felt compelled to warn her readers in a preface about the “indelicate” subject matter contained in the book: “This peculiar phase of slavery has generally been kept veiled; but the public ought to be made acquainted with its monstrous features, and I willingly take responsibility of presenting them with the veil withdrawn. I do this for the sake of my sisters in bondage, who are suffering wrongs so foul, that our ears are too delicate to listen to them.”

Homewood and African-American Enclaves

An enclave is a section or an area of a city or town in which members of an ethnic group settle. As opposed to a ghetto, where members of ethnic or religious groups are forced to live, enclaves are created by members of these groups and tend to cultivate community support networks and other economic structures. Of course, runaway slaves and free Blacks would not necessarily have their pick of prime real estate in cities like Pittsburgh in the mid-nineteenth century. Nor would the residents of Homewood, or enclaves like it in other cities, have much economic power to wield. The value of enclaves like Homewood, Wideman explains, is in their power to preserve and reproduce culture and tradition. In an interview with Jessica Lusting in 1992, he explains that the appeal of Homewood is “not so much with bricks and boards,” but in the people’s “sense of values and the way they treated one another and the way they treated the place.” Wideman elaborates on how African-American enclaves like Homewood are so important: “Africans couldn’t bring African buildings, ecology, languages wholesale, in the material sense, to the New World. But they brought the invisible dimensions of their society, of our culture, to this land.”

Critical Overview

As many of his critics have pointed out, the novel Damballah, of which “The Beginning of Homewood” is a part, marks the end of a fallow period for Wideman and signals the beginning of a new phase for him as a writer. Not surprisingly, then, some critics, expecting more of the same from the accomplished college professor and Rhodes scholar, were somewhat put off by his new thematic interests and stylistic innovations. On the other hand, some reviewers and critics saw the book as the culmination of Wideman’s career up to that point.

Writing in the New York Times, reviewer Mel Watkins says that Wideman’s latest work contains “the high regard for language and craft demonstrated in [his] previous books.” He goes on to praise Damballah for its formal daring and departure from the rules of the novel. The book, he says, “is something of a departure for him, and in freeing his voice from the confines of the novel form, he has written what is possibly his most impressive work.” Watkins concludes that” Wideman is one of America’s premier writers of fiction.” Finally, he sounds a note that other reviewers and critics have also echoed: “That they [Damballah and Hiding Place] were published originally in paperback perhaps suggests that he is also one of our most underrated writers.”

Also writing in the New York Times, reviewer John Leonard praises both Damballah and Hiding Place, but decries their paperback status. Suggesting that the publishing world does not acknowledge the literary permanence of many black writers, Leonard wonders if publishers aren’t guilty of “a new ’aesthetic’ of bad faith.” He concludes: “That his two new books will fall apart after a second reading is a scandal.” But in an interview in the New York Times with Edwin McDowell, Wideman explains that it was his decision to bring the books out in paperback. Citing the modest hardcover sales of his earlier work, Wideman explained: “I spend an enormous amount of time and energy writing and I want to write good books, but I also want people to read them.”

Among the stories in Damballah, “The Beginning of Homewood” is often singled out by critics and reviewers as a particularly successful example of the kinds of stories Wideman was writing during this period. “The Beginning of Homewood,” because it links the stories set in Africa with those set in Pittsburgh that will follow in the next volume, seems to best embody the features that reviewer Randall Kenan identified as Wideman’s strength during the Homewood period: “It is as if he wrote his stories and then compressed them to a third of their original size. Eschewing quotation marks, Wideman has his speakers shift and shift and at times meld—as if into one mind, one voice.”

Literary critics recognized in these collage-like techniques, despite the African-American setting and allusions to an oral literature, the hallmarks of literary modernism as practiced by the likes of James Joyce and William Faulkner. Despite the praise he received for the Homewood stories, Wideman continued to develop his experimental techniques and Afrocentric perspectives. This trend, as Mbalia points out, has caused some members of the literary establishment to dismiss his more recent work as not quite up to the standards of the Homewood stories. In her estimation, reviewers “emphasized the beauty of the Homewood stories,” and implied that they “were more lyrical and thus more powerful works of art than the more recent ones.”


Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton

Piedmont-Marton teaches literature and writing classes at Southwestern University in Texas. She writes frequently about the modern short story. In this essay she explores the moral ambiguity at work in’The Beginning of Homewood.

Like William Faulkner does in his novels and stories set in the fictional world of Yoknapatawpha, Wideman creates a complex landscape in “The Beginning of Homewood” that allows him to enmesh his characters in webs of moral ambiguities. The community of Homewood founded by runaway slave Sybela Owens, the narrator’s great-great-great-grandmother, is certainly not an unqualified safe-haven. Though life in Homewood is preferable to life as a slave in Maryland, Sybela’s escape from freedom, Wideman’s story suggests, is compromised by her alliance with Charlie Bell, the white man and father of her children who stole her from his own father and brought her to Pittsburgh. The story’s theme of moral ambiguity is dramatized by the narrator’s comparison between Sybela’s escape from slavery and his own brother’s captivity. By asking himself and readers to weigh her crime against his, he suggests that her emancipation is incomplete and the crimes committed against her are not yet fully redressed. Thus the story leads readers into extremely ambiguous moral territory— intimating that the narrator’s brother’s crime is caused or balanced by the legacy of slavery. But the narrator’s own reticence and ambivalence about asking these questions, about even telling the story, encourages readers to contemplate the troubling issues that the story raises rather than just turn away from them.

The opening paragraph of the story sets the tone of moral ambiguity and introduces the narrator as a troubled mediator, as someone stuck in the middle. He describes the story to follow as unfinished, as having something wrong with it. He identifies himself as reader as well as author of the text: “I have just finished reading a story which began as a letter to you.” The letter, which was never finished and never sent, was written from a Greek island two

What Do I Read Next?

  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl(1973) by Linda Brent was originally published with the assistance of a white woman named L. Maria Child in 1861. This book has become a crucial piece in nineteenth-century American literature. Though the slave narrative constitutes its own genre, Brent’s book is one of the few written by a woman.
  • “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker is a short story that explores many of the same themes about African-American culture that Wideman’s stories do. Walker also experiments with the same techniques of integrating oral culture into the story format.
  • Cane(1923) by Jean Toomer uses experimental techniques drawn both from literary modernism and from traditional African-American culture. Toomer renders a richly textured and powerful portrait of the lives of African Americans in the South. This is one of the books that Wideman cites as an influence on his work.

years earlier. The narrator’s distance—and alienation—from home is significant and will figure into the complex moral equations he explores regarding ethics of escape. But readers don’t know now to whom the narrator is writing, nor why “there is something wrong about the story nothing can fix.”

Soon, however, the narrator begins to explain how one story overtook another, how the letter he never finished became the story he’s telling now. He also maps out some of the moral territory across which his narrative and intellectual journey will take place. First, he says, he wanted to tell Aunt May’s story, let her voice come through him to tell the tale of great-great-great-grandmother Sybela Owens’ flight to freedom. But as clearly as he hears May’s voice working through him, he is also nagged by the question why he “was on a Greek island and why you were six thousand miles away in prison and what all that meant and what I could say to you about it.” At first, telling May’s and Sybela’s story seemed as simple as it was important: “the theme was to be the urge for freedom, the resolve of the runaway to live free or die.” But the narrator soon discovers the disquieting fact that when he tries to connect Sybela’s story to his brother’s, he’s unable to maintain the safety of his objective storytelling stance: “I couldn’t tell either story without implicating myself.” What he runs up against is “the matter of guilt, of responsibility,” and he finds he must include himself in the reckoning. Then movement of his narrative from the cafe in the Greek islands back to Homewood, back, in fact, to Sybela Owens and the beginning of Homewood, is a return to the place from which he believed he had escaped. But in returning he finds that he must face matters of guilt and responsibility; he must, as the storyteller, set his brother’s crime against “the crime of this female runaway.”

The narrator’s reckoning process requires that he reconsider Sybela’s story in light of both his own and his brother’s life. When he revisits her “dash for freedom,” he finds that he wants to dwell on her first day of freedom, but cannot. The reason his imagination won’t stay fixed on how Sybela felt and what she thought that first day when she isn’t awakened by the sound of the conch shell is that her freedom is compromised and mediated, not simple, as he had always thought it was. Sybela’s freedom is incomplete, and her autonomy limited. She trades absolute freedom—and the risk of death and capture—for the protection she gets from remaining with Charlie Bell. On her first day of freedom, Sybela “misses the moaning horn and hates the white man, her lover, her liberator, her children’s father sleeping beside her.” In other words, the line between slavery and freedom is not absolute, nor is the boundary between evil and good, and hate and love. Sybela’s freedom, upon which the narrator’s entire family’s existence depends, is not the result of a singular, heroic act. Rather, she’s free because of an infinite number of calculations and compromises, all of which have consequences. She may have escaped the plantation and some of the strictures of slavery, but she remains bound to Charlie, at first because he knows where they’re going and later because he can offer her and her children protection. He knows his way in the world and she does not: “All white men seemed to know that magic that connected the plantation to the rest of the world, a world which for her was no more than a handful of words she had heard others use.”

When the narrator imagines what would happen to Sybela if she had been caught, “a funky, dirty, black woman, caught and humbled, marched through like the prize of war she is,” he is compelled to ask himself “why not me.” And then he addresses his questions to his brother’s situation, also “paraded . . . costumed, fettered through the halls,” and wonders if he “could have run away without committing a crime.” Will running away always be a crime for descendants of Sybela Owens, the woman who never managed to quite run far enough? The narrator wonders if his own distance from, or escape from, Homewood constitutes a crime, or if it is compensated by his brother’s crime.

The narrator suggests that his brother’s incarceration is a consequence of Homewood’s history. According to May’s account, the land on which Sybela and Charlie originally settled is “fixed,” or cursed. She explains: “That spiteful piece of property been the downfall of so many I done forgot half the troubles come to people try to live there.” She describes how the beautiful babies she remembers later become men about whom there always seems to be some terrible story to tell: “I remembers the babies. How beautiful they were. Then somebody tells me this one’s dead, or that one’s dying or Rashad going to court today or they gave Tommy life.”

Though it stops short of drawing conclusions, Wideman’s story suggests that even today in Homewood, a community founded by a runaway slave and her white lover, determining guilt and innocence is no simple matter. By setting up the comparison between Sybela’s incarceration under the institution of slavery and her moral but illegal escape on the one hand, and Robby’s flight from the law and subsequent imprisonment on the other hand, Wideman asks some troubling questions about

“By setting up the comparison between Sybela’s incarceration under the institution of slavery and her moral but illegal escape on the one hand, and Robby’s flight from the law and subsequent imprisonment on the other hand, Wideman asks some troubling questions about justice and accountability.”

justice and accountability. Is Robby’s criminalization inevitable? Is his flight from justice preordained and his imprisonment an instance of the historical desire of white America to subdue rebellious black Americans like Sybela? By examining his own role in the family and his safe, privileged distance from the kind of life his brother has led, the narrator wonders if his freedom had been purchased by his brother’s. The story implies that the curse of the piece of land on which Sybela and Charlie settled insists that the family has not yet paid for Sybela’s crime of resistance, and that it demands that every generation must offer up one of its own to white authority to compensate for Sybela’s refusal to give herself and her children up.

Just as the narrative landscape of Wideman’s story proves to be more complex than meets the eye, so does it’s moral terrain. Wideman challenges readers to sort out one voice from the next and leaves readers to wrestle with gaps and unanswered questions. On a moral level, however, his story has an even more profoundly destabilizing effect by linking Sybela’s “crime” of escaping slavery, to Robby’s crime and capture, to the narrator’s “escape” from the life his brother and so many others have been consigned to live.

Source: Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, Critical Essay on “The Beginning of Homewood,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

James Frazier

Frazier is an instructor of high school and college English literature and composition. In this essay, he analyzes the relation of Wideman ’s structure to his themes.

John Edgar Wideman’s short story, “The Beginning of Homewood,” is a complex assembly of smaller stories that the narrator attempts to meaningfully string together. The many stories he tells appear in the letter written from the narrator to his brother, imprisoned for life for a murder to which he was an accomplice. That letter is the short story “The Beginning of Homewood.” His brother’s fate prompts the narrator into “trying to figure out why I was on a Greek island and why you were six thousand miles away in prison and what all that meant and what I could say to you about it.” Feeling he must say something to his brother (”the only person I needed to write was you”), he begins a letter, but “five or six sentences addressed to you and then the story took over.” The narrator never finishes this original letter or its story. He does, however, later re-read it and is provoked to write the second letter—the present story. The first story the narrator tells, about a letter becoming a story but never getting sent, establishes one of the major themes of “The Beginning of Homewood,” namely, the attempt to make sense of events through telling stories. Additionally, the structure here serves to blur the generic distinctions between letters and stories, suggesting that stories take on much of their meaning through whomever the writer is addressing, and that, conversely, letters to others may be not very different from stories we want to tell them, specifically and individually.

The second story the narrator wants to tell his brother, that of their great-great-great-grandmother Sybela Owens, he calls both a story and a meditation. Moreover, it is a meditation that he “had wanted to decorate with the trappings of a story.” As the short story “The Beginning of Homewood” is both story and letter, here the story of Sybela is both story and meditation meant to look like a story. The effect is a further blurring of genre distinctions, which here suggests that stories might be characterized as meditations, instruments for thought processes that change the reader or listener. With that invitation to meditate on Sybela’s story, the narrator proceeds. Sybela had been a runaway slave, and the theme of the story as the narrator wants to tell it is “the urge for freedom,” presumably because his brother feels the same urge. But this application gets too complicated. His attempt “to tell Sybela’s story as it connected with yours,” proves difficult since she ran away from slavery, and his brother ran away from the scene of a murder he committed. It would seem obvious that a slave who runs away is certainly less a criminal than a man who commits murder and runs from the law. Therefore, there is an initial impulse to say something to his brother with this story, but the message is deferred because the narrator is uncertain how to make sense of it; the parallels between the stories of Sybela and his brother seem difficult to maintain. Still, in the face of this frustration, he persists, faithful that telling the story will yield some meaning, some understanding for his brother and him. Straining to relate his brother’s story to Sybela’s, he wonders whether the difference might be one of language, whether there are “names other than ’outlaw’ to call you,” whether “words other than ’crime’” might “define” his brother’s actions. Though during slavery a slave who ran away was, legally speaking, committing a crime, few people would today call a runaway slave a criminal. Perhaps such a change in perception could redeem his brother. But imagining such a change is a difficult and complex task. The narrator wants to tell a story that can console his brother, offer him some kind of redemption, some kind of connection, but there are parts that don’t fit, that he can’t make sense of. This is presumably why the original letter was deferred for so long.

Yet Aunt May’s voice, which echoes throughout “The Beginning of Homewood,” gets him “started on the story” of Sybela. Like Aunt May, the narrator allows himself to make “digressions within digressions.” Imitating Aunt May’s stories that“exist because of their parts and each part is a story worth telling, worth examining to find the stories it contains,” the narrator takes two important “digressions” off the Sybela story, seeking “to recover everything.” These are the stories of Sybil and Belle. Sybela’s very identity—her name—preserves both of these women’s stories. Sybela and Sybil the Greek priestess are both imprisoned, but Sybela overcomes the death of spirit that comes from being caged, while Sybil begs for death. Thus, Sybela’s triumph of spirit is highlighted through contrast. It becomes an example the narrator wants to hold up for his brother. Sybil’s story contributes meaning to Sybela’s and, by extension, to the story of the narrator’s brother. Sybela, Sybil, and Belle— who encloses her head in a bird cage to ward off the sexual advances of white men—all struggle with captivity and the waiting it entails. They raise the possibility of, and complicate the issue of, dignity within captivity. In the worst case scenario, captivity might finally allow no hope except the “hauntingly human expressiveness” with which one can sing Sybil’s song, “I want to die.” As these stories provided ways for her fellow slaves to interpret Sybela, so they all three might provide interpretations for the situation in which the narrator and his brother find themselves. The quick complications the narrator brings together with this grouping of stories—those of Sybela, Sybil, Belle, and his brother—demonstrate his readiness to concede that there are no easy answers and to deal with the difficulties directly. Striving to be the kind of storyteller Aunt May is, one whose stories take shape in the process of telling, he has faith that the stories, however disparate, can be pieced together into a unified and meaningful whole. And so he continues to tell them.

Around the middle of “The Beginning of Homewood,” the narrator writes his own version of a piece of his brother’s story, the scene at the courthouse in Fort Collins, Colorado. The imagery in this account provides links to the other stories, inviting comparisons. For example, details such as the hallway that” some other black prisoner mopped” and the “drag of the iron” that binds their legs suggest the slavery and bondage of the narrator’s brother’s ancestors. The narrator’s brother and accomplice pretend no awareness of the chains that cage them at the courthouse, creating around themselves a “glass cage,” in which they perform for the onlookers, and asserting their spiritual independence from the physical chains that bind them. This “glass cage” is part of a pattern of cage imagery that links many of the stories, and how these characters respond to the cages is a good point of contrast. The image of the cage recalls the self-imposed cage worn on Belle’s head, which became a symbol of self-rule and dignity to protect her from the sexual advances of the white men. Sybil is caged by the magician and wants to die. Sybela flees her cage, and escapes. Yet the most important cage is the prison that holds the narrator’s brother, and the question that drives this story is: What should my reaction to this cage be? It’s a question as urgent to his brother as to the narrator.

In the project of telling stories to find meaning and order, the narrator might also hypothesize variations on those stories. For example, he realizes that Sybela is a much closer parallel to himself than to his brother since he and Sybela both escaped—she the slavery, he the conditions that have landed his brother in jail. So by imagining her getting caught,

“The first story the narrator tells, about a letter becoming a story but never getting sent, establishes one of the major themes of ’The Beginning of Homewood,” namely, the attempt to make sense of events through telling stories.”

he distances himself and turns Sybela’s story, once more, into his brother’s: “I ask myself again why not me, why is it the two of you skewered and displayed like she would have been if she hadn’t kept running.” In this comparison, his brother becomes a victim of the social forces around him, as sympathetic as a runaway slave. Tinkering with the story allows the narrator to wonder, to question the society that has jailed his brother. Yet, the tone is not argumentative. It is openly exploratory, not angrily condemnatory. He wonders “if you really had any chance, if anything had changed between her crime and yours.” The tension is not relieved, but the hypothesized story creates new possibilities for the narrator to consider in trying to make sense of his brother’s situation, and thus the layering of these stories continues to fulfill an important purpose.

Yet another story, that of Sybela’s life at Homewood, finally shows the significance of the title,“The Beginning of Homewood.” Like most of the stories the narrator tells, this one has no real conclusion; it ends in a kind of limbo. Racists in the community run Sybela and Charlie Bell off the property at Hamilton Avenue, and legend says that “Grandmother Owens cursed it.” As evidence of this curse, Aunt May offers two more stories, one of a“crazy woman” that tried to live there and “strangled her babies and slit her own throat,” and another of a Jehovah’s Witness church there that “burned to the ground.” The property is “still empty ’cept for ashes and black stones.” All of these details suggest that things have not yet been set right. The land from which this family springs is still cursed and at odds with its surroundings, and no one knows how to release it. There is sterility, lack of peace, and discord. The story is called “The Beginning of Homewood,” because this beginning is what still determines the lives of these family members, and the story has no end yet. Still in the beginning stages of making sense of Homewood and its people, they wait for an authentic resolution.

This theme of waiting pervades “The Beginning of Homewood.” In the first paragraph, the narrator’s report that he has delayed the writing of the letter—the telling of the story—establishes the mood of “The Beginning of Homewood,” one of uncertain waiting and incompletion. Furthermore, the narrator’s brother waits in prison. Sybil waits in a cage. The isle of Delos waits in a barren limbo with no death and no birth. The narrator has just visited Dachau, where prisoners waited and died, hopelessly. Aunt May’s plea in her song for the lord to come down and touch her expresses a reverent waiting. May and Sybela Owens wait for each other in their exchange of gazes, wait to share the truth, wait to hear it, wait upon each other. The narrator wonders whether he would have tried to escape slavery, or waited in its hold. The narrator ends this letter to his brother with the words, “Hold on.”

In the last story the narrator tells, people wait to hear the Supreme Court. The Court will be hearing a story to which it must offer some kind of resolution, a case involving prison conditions and inmate rights. Though it does not seem that this case would directly affect the narrator’s brother, it offers hope because the Court may be able to re-conceptualize human rights; it has “a chance to author its version of the Emancipation Proclamation.” The simple hearing of an unusual story might cause the Court to see things differently, the narrator hopes, to probe deeper than present ideas of “crime,” to “ask why you are where you are, and why the rest of us are here.” For the narrator, there is no simple conviction that everything will turn out well, but his faith in storytelling allows him to have faith in the institutions of justice that have imprisoned his brother. Given the circumstances, that is a tremendous accomplishment.

At the conclusion of “The Beginning of Homewood,” none of the stories end. There is still waiting to be done, everyone must“hold on.” They will all wait for some resolution, for some new version of the Emancipation Proclamation, for the Judgment Day that Sybela’s neighbors saw portended in the falling of stars, stars who come to symbolize her descendants and their falls. While that waiting is uncertain in nature, the stories told can begin “to cohere” and offer hope that their lives may finally do the same.

Source: James Frazier, Critical Essay on “The Beginning of Homewood,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Jessica Lustig

In the following interview, Wideman discusses how the fictional Homewood portrayed in his stories relates to the real Homewood, his hometown.

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Source: Jessica Lustig, “Home: An Interview with John Edgar Wideman,” in African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 3. Fall 992.


Brent, Linda, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harcourt Brace, 1973.

Kenan, Randall,“A Most Righteous Prayer,” in The Nation, Vol. 250, No. 1, January 1, 1990, pp. 25-27.

Leonard, John, Review in New York Times, November 27, 1981, p. 23, col. 1.

Lustig, Jessica, “Home: An Interview with John Edgar Wideman,” in Conversations with John Edgar Wideman, edited by Bonnie TuSmith, University Press of Mississippi, 1998.

Mbalia, Doreatha Drummond, John Edgar Wideman: Reclaiming the African Personality, Susquehanna University Press, 1995.

McDowell, Edwin, Review in New York Times Book Review, November 13, 1994, p. 11.

O’Brien, John, “John Wideman,” in Conversations with John Edgar Wideman, edited by Bonnie TuSmith, University Press of Mississippi, 1998.

Watkins, Mel, Review in New York Times Book Review, April 11, 1982, p. 6.

Further Reading

Coleman, James, Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman, University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

This study takes on the complicated issues that arise when the Eurocentric models of modernism are applied to African-American writing.

Du Bois, W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folk,1903.

This essay is one of the classics in the study of African-American literature. In it Du Bois explains his theories of second sight.

Hurston, Zora Neale, Mules and Men, Perennial Library, 1990.

This pioneering work by the anthropologist and writer remains the landmark study of African-American culture in the post-reconstruction South.

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The Beginning of Homewood

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