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.”
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.