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Plague Epic

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Novelist John Edgar Wideman casts a light of burning truth on the bridge between Africa and America in our history

The Cattle Killing
By John Edgar Wideman
Houghton Mifflin; 212 pages; $22.95 cloth

Reviewed by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

EVERY SO often in the thousands of pages of novels I have read in my lifetime, I have come across a passage so crystalline clear and sharp that it has been a single vision of truth striking me, as Colonel Kurtz said in the movie Apocalypse Now, like a diamond to the forehead. Only a passage, here and there, in all of those books--a single sentence that resonates backward and forward in your life, opening great, gaping rents of understanding in both directions. It is for these moments that I read.

And then comes along two-time PEN/Faulkner award-winning author John Edgar Wideman with his new novel, The Cattle Killing, which is like all of those disparate little rain droplets of truth and vision and understanding run down together into one great bay of a book, into which I leaped and submerged myself in one enormous drenching over a fall weekend, and coming up again found that the world is not quite the way it was when I left it, changed not so much in shape as it is in texture and color.

It is not that the storytelling of Wideman has radically altered my opinion of things as it is that he has allowed me to see something that I had always wanted to see and confirmed what I always wanted to know. I saw the African and the American in me as one whole, solid being rather than as two divided halves, warring at each other with spear and pistol.

THE MAIN CHARACTER of The Cattle Killing is an African American minister, recently freed from slavery, who wanders the countryside in the area of Philadelphia during the time of a great plague that devastated that city during the 1790s. Through this preacher, we see the agony of the first attempts at African assimilation into America.

Trained in the speech patterns and Christian religion of his native world, he is beset by the rhythms and spirit visions of his ancestral world; he hovers in between, unable to fit in either. Meeting a black woman maid in the hallway of a doctor's house, the minister wonders to himself:

    [W]hose Negro is this and how has this Negro been treated by the whites who own it and does it speak for them, like them, has it been broken, tamed by them, should I pity it or despise it or cringe from its pain and shame or put it in its place, one-up its airs with mine. Will I see nothing or see my own face in the mirror of this other whose eyes search mine for confirmation or dismissal or love. What have they done to you, baby. Sweet Jesus, what have they done.

THE PLAGUE itself plays a large part in the story line, a demonstration that while death and suffering strike indiscriminately of class and color, the ultimate effects of such tragedies, and our reactions to them, often say worlds about our positions within society.

Wideman also manages to bring together several seemingly unrelated events--the Boer invasion and conquest of South Africa and its effect upon the African cattle herders who originally lived there; the 18th-century European search for the secret of internal human anatomy that drove both doctors and artists to rob the graves of the dead; the walkout of African American worshipers from the segregated white churches that led to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.

All these disparate threads are united only by the fact that they occurred at roughly the same historical time, and that Wideman saw a connection between them and found a story line that would bring them together in this book.

It is a story line so strong that the author is able to follow it both backward and forward in time without losing the reader, changing points of view at will, allowing the truth to be discovered as it is in the real world: the sum of many truths, the sum of many visions.

When the plague orphans many black children, forcing them into an institution, a rich, blind white woman volunteers to come each day to educate them, bringing along her black maid to assist. We see the work first through the woman herself, feel her love for the children and sympathy for their plight, experience the longing and agony she feels when the long hours of work cause her to be separated from her husband.

"You must visit [the orphanage] soon," she dictates in a letter. "[T]he school, the orphan children, have become a new family for me--I'm afraid I shamelessly mother them as much as teach them." But almost immediately, the author turns the vision back on itself, looking out at the volunteer teacher from the eyes of one of the orphans:

    Yes, I remember the first day I saw the women here, the pale one and the one my color who was the other's shadow, her eyes. I hated both of them immediately, their flouncing gowns, their fluttering voices breaking the silence of winter rooms. The black one. The blind one who would never find me unless the dark scout led her to my hiding places. I despised their soft, unmarked hands. Their ease and flow entering this place they know they can leave whenever they choose. Pretending to be something they are not, pretending we who live here are something we are not. ... [T]hen the words [the white one] recited were fingers kneading the back of my neck, ungentle fingers squeezing, pulling, as if to awaken me and put me to sleep at the same time. Fingers pulling me apart and patting the torn flesh into soft patties dead as sausage.

Whose vision is correct: the teacher's or the student's, the white woman's or the black boy's? Lesser writers would provide the answer in the form of a God-like narrator, who stands above all restricted, mortal viewpoints and tells us "what really happened."

Mirroring the real world, Wideman does not allow such easy answers. He knows that we have not yet begun to probe fully the nature of the questions. In a country that alternately embraces us and pushes us away, sometimes almost within the same breath, African Americans struggle to find our identity.

How much of us is African--that which is seemingly despised and disgraceful--and how much is American? And what is the real nature of this Africa whose flag we carry upon our bodies in the color of our skins, the width of our noses, the bend of our hair--and whose soul we carry within our own hearts? Who are we, we African Americans?

Our own experiences are often so contradictory that they give out no clarity. In the reading of history we find facts but rarely answers. In The Cattle Killing, Wideman takes us to the great fault line that divides African Americans from our ancestral home: that stormy period when some of us were still being brought in chains from the old culture while some of us had already become assimilated into the new.

Here is the violent, burning furnace in which African America was forged. These are the Gates of Hell, from which African Americans have too often looked away in pain. Wideman makes us look, for it is only in seeing who we are that we can be healed.

But then again, The Cattle Killing is not just a novel for African Americans. Wideman serves up truths like platters of food at a church picnic: about our sexuality, about our natures as women and men, about our work, about our lives. There is something here for everybody who holds out a plate.

Wideman is not a writer of popular fiction. The Cattle Killing is no Waiting to Exhale. You're not going to see four or five open copies in the trolley car on your way to work. This is a difficult, involved work, and readers must expect to put in some extra effort if they're going to make their way to the center of this tangled forest of words.

If they do, they will find that the rewards are great. For in the center of this forest, there is a bright and shining star--Galadriel's phial--a beacon to light their way in the dark and confusing places of their lives.

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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