Brothers and Keepers (1984) is a memoir by American author John Edgar Wideman (1941-Present). Having grown up in an impoverished Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, the character John Wideman worked hard to secure a successful career as a writer and professor. When his younger brother receives a life sentence, John traces their respective paths to analyze themes of systemic racism and identity issues in America.
Brothers and Keepers: Summary
The summary of John Edgar Wideman's Brothers and Keepers starts in the late 1970s. John Wideman is a successful writer who enjoys a comfortable life teaching literature at the University of Wyoming. Having grown up in the poverty-stricken Black neighborhood of Homewood, Pittsburgh, John worked hard to establish a comfortable life for himself in the white suburbs. However, he feels disconnected from his Roots and identity. John's younger brother Robby stayed in Homewood and fell into a life of crime and addiction. After Robby receives a life sentence for murder, John visits him in prison to conduct a series of interviews about their upbringing and divergent life paths.
How does Wideman describe the difference between his childhood growing up in an impoverished Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh and his life as a successful author in Wyoming?
The story begins in February 1976 when John receives a call from his mother informing him that Robby is a fugitive from the law. Three months prior, Robby and two other addicts tried to sell a bunch of stolen TVs to a fence. When a dispute occurred, one of the addicts drew a gun and shot the fence. Robby soon turns up at John's doorstep and stays for the night, but John finds himself unable to ask his younger brother about the murder.
A fence is someone who buys and sells stolen property at a discounted rate. A fence acts as the middleman, buying the goods from a thief and selling them to a buyer.
Fig. 1 - Months after the crime, the F.B.I. tracks down Robby and his accomplices.
Shortly afterward, Robby is arrested by the F.B.I. and sentenced to prison. Each year, John pays a visit to his brother at the Western State Penitentiary, where the pair discuss their childhoods. Robby admits that he grew up in the shadow of his elder siblings. While John and his sister were popular and academically successful in high school, Robby struggled to find his place in the world.
While John received educational scholarships that allowed him to forge a career as a teacher and writer, Robby was not as focused on academics as his brother. How did this difference affect the brothers' futures?
Desperate to find some sense of glory, Robby started hanging out with a street gang and experimenting with drugs. Attracted to the dangerous unpredictability of street life, Robby became addicted to heroin and began to commit crimes to pay for his addiction. Although each man focused their energies on very different fields, John recognizes that Robby's drive for meaning is similar to John's ambitions to succeed in education and escape his upbringing.
More similarities crop up as John sees how the everyday racism of American life shapes both his and Robby's life. While John was lucky enough to have received scholarships to renowned learning institutions, Robby grew up in a time of increased poverty, drug use, and violence in the Black community. This coincided with a period of increased sentencing and imprisonment, which saw young Black men like Robby receiving harsh sentences. He saw becoming an outlaw as his only chance of success. While Robby suffered a more overt form of racism, John dealt with a more subtle form of discrimination. In Wyoming, John had to sacrifice his identity and turn his back on his community to assimilate into white culture. Both men were chasing their version of the American Dream.
Fig. 2 - Wideman uses Robby's story to expose the brutality of the American prison system.
As Robby's story unfolds, the focus switches to his life in prison. The reader learns about the brutal reality of the incarcerated, who are subjected to violence and even murder at the hands of the guards. Since Robby is stripped of many fundamental rights, John sees his imprisonment as an unofficial death sentence. Much like the Black community in America, mainstream society ignores the terrible treatment of its prisoners.
In 1984, the prestigious New York Times Book Review named Brothers and Keepers one of the year's most outstanding books.
While in prison, Robby gains an associate's degree and is the speaker at graduation. His learning empowers him with the means to express himself. Toward the end of the book, entire sections are dedicated to excerpts of Robby's poetry and letters he has written in prison. As Robby shares his experiences, John recognizes that his brother is not a murderer but someone who fell into a trap. The book ends as Robby's appeals are exhausted, and he loses all hope of being released from prison.
Why does Wideman purposely end the book in a pessimistic and hopeless tone?
Brothers and Keepers: Characters
The lead characters of Brothers and Keepers are the writer John Edgar Wideman and his incarcerated brother Robby.
Having worked hard to escape his neighborhood, John Wideman lives a comfortable life in rural Wyoming, yet he still feels ostracized in his predominantly white environment. Despite his success, John feels he is compromising his true identity and Roots to fit in and make other people comfortable in his presence. Although the book focuses on Robby's journey, the author also learns much about his past and present by uncovering Robby's experiences.
Fig. 3 - His loss of identity taints John's successful life in Wyoming.
Robby is ten years younger than his brother John and grew up in the shadow of his elder sibling. As a teenager, Robby turned to the streets to make a name for himself and began using drugs. Wideman presents Robby as representative of many young Black men of his time. Denied the access to opportunities many others take for granted, Robby used crime and drugs as a form of escapism. When the police caught Robby, he faced a justice system that was overly stringent and had little interest in rehabilitation.
Although the book employs a pessimistic tone and has a downbeat ending, in real-life, Robby Wideman's story eventually had a happy ending. He faced a long, hard road to justice. When Brothers and Keepers was first published in 1984, Robby's case gained national attention. His case was featured on the popular news show 60 Minutes and became the subject of various op-ed pieces. Despite the interest, Robby's appeals continued to be unsuccessful.
Robby's life was struck by tragedy when his son, Omar, was murdered in 1993. The event served as a turning point for Robby. He told a journalist, "I had to change and do something to help someone. By the grace of God and effort, I just began to change and held on to hope." 1
Robby joined Narcotics Anonymous and was able to kick his drug addiction, eventually becoming a sponsor to other inmates in the program. He continued to study and volunteered for a mentoring program that intervened with at-risk youth.
Fig. 4 - After many failed attempts, Robby finally won his freedom in 2019.
In 1998 Robby's lawyer was able to unearth fresh evidence which justified a new trial. According to court documents, the victim's family had settled a medical malpractice suit with the doctor who had treated the gunshot wounds. A judge agreed that the victim's death was not a result of the gunshot and, therefore, not murder. After almost 25 years in prison, Robby was granted bail. However, the county district attorney ignored the judge's ruling and ordered Robby to remain imprisoned.
Robby's grounds for a retrial were dismissed upon appeal, and his hopes of getting out of prison disappeared once again. In 2018, the governor of Pennsylvania elected a new lieutenant governor to focus on the state's rehabilitation and parole system. Robby's lawyer believed that with his long history of good behavior and helping other prisoners, he would be a strong candidate for a commutation of the sentence; this means that his original life sentence would be changed or reduced, allowing him to go free.
Robby's appeal to the new board was successful, and on July 2, 2019, after serving 44 years in prison, Robby Wideman was released.
Brothers and Keepers: Themes
John Edgar Wideman uses his memoir to explore themes of inequity in American society and the limitations of identity.
Inequality and Identity
Although John and Robby end up on vastly different paths, they each faced the harsh reality of racism in America. As a Black man from a low-income neighborhood, John could not feel comfortable in his middle-class, white environment in Wyoming. Despite his hard work and success, John still faces the limitations of his identity. At several points, he is racially profiled by the local police and is brought in for questioning after Robby's arrest. John is constantly reminded of his Black identity, which isolates him from others.
John also feels this sense of isolation from other Black people. Having left his family and community behind to pursue his career, John recognizes that he could only succeed because he cut himself off from his roots. At the being of the memoir, he recalls feeling uncomfortable at Robby's expressions of Black identity. John is married to a white woman and enjoys classical music, which separates him from other Black people, some of whom consider him a sellout.
Fig. 5 - Strict sentencing and drug criminalization contributed to America's ballooning prison population.
While John feels the pressure of a social system, Robby faces the American legal system, which criminalizes and imprisons young Black men more than any other group. During the 1970s, America entered its age of mass incarceration, and the imprisonment rate grew exponentially, especially in the Black community. Robby's story is just one of many that highlight the systemic racism of America's legal system.
Unlike John, Robby did not receive educational opportunities to escape poverty and a life of crime. Only through the prison's educational program can Robby discover his love of learning. John realizes that people like Robby have great potential because the system is not designed for them to succeed.
Brothers and Keepers: Analysis
An analysis of the style, techniques, and title of John Edgar Wideman's Brothers and Keepers gives deeper meaning to this war novel. The novel's title references the biblical story of Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis. After Cain murders his brother Abel, God asks Cain about his brother's whereabouts. To cover up his actions, Cain tells God, "I know not; am I my brother's keeper?" The question reflects Cain's attempt to absolve himself of responsibility for his sibling.
Wideman adapts this biblical phrase as the book's title. The "brothers" refers to his relationship with Robby, while the "keepers" refers to the sadistic correctional officers who impose a brutal regime on the prisoners. Robby describes the system of violence used to dehumanize and suppress the prisoners, including murder.
Most of the memoir employs John's first-person point of view, which the author uses to explore his past. this perspective gives the reader a great of insight into John's thoughts and writing process. As John interviews Robby, he begins to question his motivations for writing the book, fearing it may be opportunistic.
First-person point of view: a narrative device where the story is told from a character's perspective using "I". With this point of view, the reader is given direct access to the character's inner thoughts and feelings.
Later in the book, John includes examples of Robby's writing through poetry and letters. While a formal and professional style characterizes John's writing, Robby employs a more natural form that provides for street vernacular. By including his brother's voice, John can paint a fuller picture of the brothers contrasting life paths.
Brothers and Keepers employs a pessimistic tone to reflect hopelessness about the prisoner's plight and racism in America. Just as Robby is left in prison with no hope of parole, the book's downbeat ending leaves the reader without hope or optimism.
Brothers and Keepers: Quotes
Some meaningful quotes of John Edgar Wideman's Brothers and Keepers shed light on America's inequality and problems in the prison system.
I was running away from Pittsburgh, from poverty, from blackness." (Visits)
By all metrics, John is a success. He has a successful career, a loving wife, and security. However, he had to turn his back on his roots and identity to obtain his goals. With Robby's imprisonment, John is forced to face his past and evaluate his life and American society.
Prison is more perverse. Inside the walls nothing is certain, nothing can be taken for granted except the arbitrary exercise of absolute power." (Doing Time)
John learns about America's brutal prison system during his interviews with Robby. Denied many fundamental rights, prisoners are forced to survive in a degrading and hopeless environment. As well as facing violence at the hands of the guards, prisoners are expected to submit to their authority.
Brothers and Keepers - Key takeaways
- Brothers and Keepers (1984) is a memoir by American author John Edgar Wideman.
- When John's younger brother Robby receives a life sentence, the writer tries to piece together the events that led the men on radically different life paths.
- Wideman uses the men's stories to explore more significant social issues of systemic racism and identity in America.
- The book contains writing from both John and excerpts of Robby's letters and poetry.
- Although the book ends on a pessimistic note, in real life, Robby Wideman eventually won his freedom in 2019.
1 Deb Erdley, "Robert Wideman begins a new life in Pittsburgh halfway house after 44 years in prison." Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 07/16/19.
- Fig. 3 - Laramie Mountains by Jamesmartin111: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Laramie_Mountains_East.jpg
- Fig. 5 - Timeline of total number of inmates in U.S. prisons and jails. From 1920 to 2008 from November Coalition: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_incarceration_timeline.gif