In his most acclaimed work to date, Fatheralong, John Edgar Wideman presents a timely, critical, and cogent discussion on the paradigm of race and its injurious impact on Black people. In particular, Wideman highlights the capacity and ability of Black fathers to sustain and nurture their relationships with their sons in a society where race still remains the one defining and determining social characteristic of material well-being, social and political mobility, and violence. Wideman supports this contention through his historical and contemporary analysis of Black men's status in U.S. society, and grounds his critique by discussing his own relationship with his father. Wideman believes that the liberation of Black people is dependent upon Black people in general, and Black men in particular, who must beat back the forces that systematically continue to deny them the opportunity and right to "claim their own manhood" (p. 65) in a society that depicts them as inadequate.
According to Wideman, the paradigm of race is the "by-product" of scientific determination to unravel the perceived mystery surrounding the discovery of the human family in Rift Valley in East Africa, which resulted in the "destabilizing of conventional notions of `race'"(p. xii). Linking European domination and the race paradigm, Wideman writes, "Of all the weapons devised to conquer and subjugate the lands beyond Europe, the most effective, pervasive, and enduring, the one that served to coordinate, harmonize, and intensify the effects of other weapons, is the concept of race" (p. xiii). He states further that "the paradigm of race located within its victims the causes and justification of the victim's plight. Thus the oppressed, to the degree they internalized the message of race, became active agents of their oppression" (p. xiii). Wideman contends that the paradigm of race has systematically infected any possibility of conversations between Black fathers and their sons because everywhere in the United States "the inadequacy of black fathers, their lack of manhood" (p. 65) is perpetuated as the gospel. Wideman writes that "this country, as it presently functions, stands between black fathers and sons, impeding communication, frustrating development, killing or destroying the bodies and minds of young men, short-circuiting the natural process of growth, maturity, the cycle of the generations" (pp. 65–66). He asserts that improving the prospects of young Black men will not happen until the country transforms itself and moves in a direction that rejects values sustained and kept alive by the paradigm of race.
Wideman's work is timely, as many indicators of race relations point to a growing racial and ethnic intolerance in U.S. society, such as the maelstrom following the beating of a defenseless Black man named Rodney King by four White Los Angeles police officers, which was caught on videotape. Additionally, Wideman's discussion of his relationship with his father in particular, and the father-son relationship in general, bears heavily on the Black community and this nation as a whole. At a time when several reports, such as Black Father Involvement in Headstart by Lawrence Gary (1987) and The American Black Male: His Present Status and His Future edited by Richard Majors and Jacob Gordon (1994), reveal that large numbers of Black fathers are not living in the same home as their children, Wideman's work explores the implications this has not only for the development of Black men, but also for the institution of the family.
One major implication of absent Black fathers is that sons do not receive the expected knowledge and skills that fathers have provided their sons for centuries so that the historical legacy of their people is passed on. Wideman speaks to this when he states that "stories must be told" and "ideas of manhood, true and transforming" must be passed by the father to his son (p. 64). However, for Black fathers and sons in this society, "this privilege has been systematically breached in a most shameful and public way" (p. 64). The effects of the disruption of this natural process is most evident in Black life today, with prison becoming America's twentieth-century plantations for young Black males, and no end in sight as we enter the next century.