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 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 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.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, John Edgar Wideman, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, Critical Essay on “The Beginning of Homewood,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.