“What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence” features the narrator’s obsession with the imprisoned son of his dead friend. The story offers a critique of the prison system, reflecting the author’s activism on the subject. As of 2006, Wideman’s son and younger brother were both serving life sentences for murder, and Wideman has given speeches and written stories and articles questioning the prison system and the high rates of incarceration for black males in the United States.
Imprisonment and Race
In the story, Wideman’s narrator emphasizes the dehumanization of the prison system, in which vast numbers of people are processed and monitored by equally vast numbers of computer specialists punching keys. He presents Arizona, where the son is held, as a state in which the economy depends upon prisons and other sorts of holding facilities (retirement homes, senior centers, hospices, and so on). The inmates are treated not as people, but as commodities, “a steady stream of bodies” or “traffic.” Humane and ethical concerns have vanished, just as the son has vanished beyond the sight and reach of the narrator, beyond the knowledge of the prison’s computer system. The system is dominated by the economic concerns of filling vacancies, collecting fees, and making sure the dead are replaced by the living with maximum efficiency. The absence from this picture of human values is emphasized by the narrator’s description of the “eerily vacant” streets during “heatstroke daylight hours.” He imagines the people who do the counting as “sequestered in air-conditioned towers or busy as bees underground in offices honeycombed beneath the asphalt.” In the Arizona “gulags,” each prisoner has ceased to be a person and has become “a single speck with its unique, identifying tag.” Not only are the kept (the prisoners) stripped of their humanity by such a system, but so are the keepers (the computer operators), who have been reduced to the status of insects living underground. Wideman raises the question: in such a system, arising from society’s terrified determination to keep criminals out of sight and out of reach, who are the prisoners, and who are the free? Suh Jung represents the conventional view, that prison walls separate the dangerous people (the prisoners) from the decent people (the free), as is suggested by her warning the narrator against becoming involved with the prisoner. She believes the records, which say he is guilty of terrible crimes. The narrator is more ambivalent, replying, “Everyone has crimes to answer for.” He says that people can end up in “Situations when nothing’s for sure except some of us are on one side of the bars, some on the other side, but nobody knows which side is which.” He goes on to tease Suh Jung with the possibility that he himself could be a serial killer. The narrator’s stance echoes the words of African American radical activist and prison abolitionist, Angela Y. Davis (born 1944), in her essay, “A World Unto Itself: Multiple Invisibilities of Imprisonment,” in Behind the Razor Wire (a book to which Wideman also contributed): “to hear the stories of incarcerated women and men is to recognize that little more than the luck of the draw—or rather, of one’s socioeconomic birthright—separates ‘us’ from ‘them.’” Indeed, the narrator’s experiences of the adversarial prison system lead him to feel like a criminal. During his research, when he finally extracts information on the son’s whereabouts, the automated and the human administrators of the prison system make him feel that he has done something wrong. During his visit to the prison, he is held in a wire cage under a burning sun until he is desperate to flee, fearing that he will be trapped there forever, knocked to his knees, and “forced to recite my sins, the son’s sins, the sins of the world.” Apart from the narrator’s dealings with the prison system, even in his daily existence, he is a kind of prisoner. His life, restricted by his timidity, is a “prison I’ve chosen to seal myself within,” with “fewer and fewer visits paid or received.” In his essay, “Doing Time, Marking Race” in Behind the Razor Wire , Wideman writes that incarceration is a form of apartheid. This judgment is based on the disproportionately large numbers of incarcerated black males, the perceived racism of the criminal justice system with its heavy sentencing for so-called black crimes, and the exploitation of society’s fears by politicians who promise to get tough on the crimes perpetuated by some “other” group (by implication, black people). Wideman writes that he has an intimate knowledge of prisons due to the fact that “From every category of male relative I can name—grandfather, father, son, brother, uncle, nephew, cousin, in-law—at least one member of my family has been incarcerated.” He adds, “I am a descendant of a special class of immigrants— Africans—for whom arrival in America was a life sentence in the prison of slavery.” In the same essay, Wideman comments: “To be a man of color of a certain economic class and milieu is equivalent in the public eye to being a criminal.” One possible response to such treatment is to protest loudly; another, that adopted by the narrator of “What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence,” is to keep one’s head down. The narrator compares himself unfavorably with the outspoken black activist poet Amiri Baraka (born 1934), describing himself “as quietly integrated and nonconfrontational a specimen as I seemed to be of America’s longest, most violently reviled minority.” In line with Wideman’s accusation that incarceration is a form of apartheid, “What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence” shows the desire of white middle and upper classes to separate themselves from prisons and their inmates by hiding prisoners in far away places like the Arizona desert. This desire, however, seems doomed to backfire. Just as Wideman’s story blurs the line between those locked in literal prisons and those on the outside who inhabit psychological prisons, Wideman suggests in “Doing Time, Marking Race” that for an African American underclass, the distinction between prison and the urban street is increasingly hard to define. Prison itself is being transformed by the street values of young prisoners to mirror urban war zones, revolving around drugs and gang affiliations. Prisons now “accommodate a fluid population who know their lives will involve inevitable shuttling between prison and the street.” Wideman’s story confirms that because prisons are products of attitudes of those inside and outside the prison walls, they cannot effectively be separated from the general society.
The Problem of Knowledge
The sense of isolation, alienation, and imprisonment felt by the two main characters in the story is compounded by the seeming impossibility of gaining accurate knowledge about anybody or anything in a world that is fragmented and dehumanized. The first line of the story, “I have a friend with a son in prison,” turns out to be open to doubt in its every aspect: the friend is not so much a friend as an acquaintance, the friend may or may not have a son, and the son may or may not be in prison. The narrator muses on his inability to remember his dead friend’s face or even to recognize his own face and points out that nobody knows for sure who their father is. His attempts to trace the son are frustrated by an almost impenetrable bureaucracy administered by computers and automated systems. The narrator’s small successes in gaining information are punished by an adversarial, hostile stance conveyed by these systems that makes him feel like a criminal. Even the narrator’s relationship with Suh Jung is characterized by a failure to achieve a meaningful connection, partly because of her frightened defensiveness about her true nature. The only successful attempts at both seeing and showing truth are achieved by two artists featured in the story, the Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) and the African American poet Amiri Baraka (born 1934). Giacometti’s picture of a dog awakens a passionate response in the narrator, who, contrary to his habit, both sees and recognizes its truth. Baraka’s courageous activism inspires the narrator to take small risks in his relationship with Suh Jung. The narrator, in spite of his timidity, joins the ranks of the artists when he creates his own piece of art, the story he is telling. Through the story, he shows something of the truth about society’s external and internal prisons.
Ira Mark Milne, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students, John Edgar Wideman, Volume 24-Gale (2006)