Discovery of One’s Self and Others: An Analysis of John Edgar Wideman’s “Our Time”
Things are not always what they seem. John Edgar Wideman is trying to convey that there is more in the world than what people see. We should take into account other people’s trials and tribulations rather than just focusing on our own hardships. I am not saying that we should not recognize and try to ratify our own hardships but we should try to help those who are in worst circumstances than ourselves. Wideman has to look past his own views to understand just what his brother, Robby, is trying to say to him, and he evolves through this realization. One doesn’t always see the underlying reasons for a person’s actions or why they made the decisions in life they did. Wideman conveys the fact that choices are not always easy to make; other people can not always understand the reasons why you made those choices; throughout his essay “Our Time,” Wideman using three different voices to convey the different perspectives each person. Wideman uses the voices of Robby, himself, and his mother to convey this.
In “Our Time,” John Edgar Wideman scripts an erratic story line in an attempt to communicate the emotion he felt and what he went through. This composition also focuses on the viewpoint of his mother and his brother Robby. The essay starts off in Robby’s point of view and explains about a major turning point in his own life, the tragic death of his close friend Garth. Garth’s death shone a negative light over Robby’s own perspective on life “It’s our time now. We can’t let Garth down . . . we’ll be the best. We’ll make it to the top for him. We’ll do it for Garth” (695). Garth’s death just added to the fact that Robby was already bitter with the world and had a pessimistic attitude about it. This cynical point of view was enforced with Garth’s death. He didn’t think it fair that his friend had to die and he was angry at the doctors because he thought that they should have been able to do something more to help him. Robby ended up resenting the world “The world’s a stone bitch. Nothing true if that’s not true” (694). This standpoint of Robby’s ended up getting him into trouble further on in his life. At the time he had no idea of the impact this would have on his life and what it would bring to him in the future.
Robby also tells of his past, growing up the youngest of the children and having to face the expectations that were already set for him by his older brothers and sisters. He was the rebel of the family while his siblings had always excelled at school; Robby was on a completely different level. Robby was never quite able to fit in with anyone and he was always searching for the knowledge that he was missing; the knowledge of what his mother was trying to hide from him in Homewood. Robby tells about wanting to be the rebel of the family, just to be different and stand out and he goes on to explain how his birthday was always during the time of year no one in the family liked because it was the time of year when everyone seemed to die in his family. He ended up having a birthday shrouded in misery. Robby also tells about his experience growing up in Shadyside, an all white neighborhood, where his mother thought that he would be safe from the now corrupted Homewood, where violence reigned on the streets and where drive bys became common. Wideman sat listening to his brother tell of all of his past experiences as any other person would have, although trying to connect with him throughout Robby’s reminiscing. He was not able to grasp how Robby came to be in the prison, how his life had led him to where he was now.
By Wideman telling part of his essay from the view of his brother, the reader is able to see what is inside Robby’s head and what potentially leads him to make the decisions he does, leading inevitably to his own destruction. If the essay were told from the view of just John himself, the overall message would not have been so poignant and Robby’s feelings would not have been so powerfully expressed due to the fact that we would not be able to see into Robby’s mind and feel the experiences he felt. We would not have known just how deep his hardships had become and how resentful he now was. Wideman was trying to be the one to get into Robby’s head, trying to tell Robby’s story and make himself, along with his readers, understand Robby’s plight and struggles.
Now in the present time, John is trying to talk to his brother who is in prison and will stay in prison for the rest of his life. Robby had become the rebel and went too far, murdering a man. John, however, didn’t understand what had led Robby to that point and was trying to understand him now, as a stranger going in to write a book while also trying to connect as a brother.
John was angry with Robby for upsetting his mother. He never understood exactly what Robby was going through, or what he had to grow up through. He talks about how his family grew up metaphorically in a little hut village; each family member had their own little hut for personal privacy, but with a protective wall of the whole group enclosing them. They kept their issues to themselves and dealt with their own problems. Having to deal with their own problems was how both Robby and John were raised. When John went to talk to Robby in prison and try to understand his own brother a separation between them got in the way. John had to deal with opening up and listening as a brother, not as a stranger, to what Robby was saying “The hardest habit to break, since it was the habit of a lifetime, would be listening to myself listen to him” (704). John was made to overcome the division between brothers so that he would be able to understand what Robby was trying to say and what he was feeling. “The world had seized on the difference, allowed me room to thrive, while [Robby] been forced into a cage” (704). John is beginning to try and understand the paths each of their lives had led them. The world in itself had thrown different obstacles at them and made them choose which path they would follow.
Robby realizes what has happened with his life, he “Wake(s) up some mornings and you think you in hell. Think you died and went straight to hell. I know cause I been there. Be days I wished I was dead. Be days worser than that” (727). Robby has lived his life trying to be the rebel and now he has to face the consequences for it. However, at first john did not understand how Robby could have made the choices he did to lead him to a life of being locked in a cage.
John’s mother’s viewpoint was mostly expressed in the view of how John saw her. However, there is a point in the essay where her voice actually comes through with her own thoughts and feeling and not just what John later infers. She talks about Garth’s death, which also affected her own outlook on life. It mostly affected her because it affected her son so much. She resented the fact that the doctors didn’t see to Garth properly; they let the disease that killed him take control over his body. She resented them because she foresaw the effect his death would have on her own son “A thing like that tears people up. It’s worse if you keep it inside. And that’s your brother’s way. He’ll let it eat him up and then go out and do something crazy” (698). John said she was always the one who “tried on the other person’s point of view.” Her opinion changed after what happened to Garth John realized this as he looked back on his life. She became “an aggressive, acid critic of the status quo in all its forms.” She loved her children and wanted to help them but she only went so far as she knew was right.
Wideman had to stop and actually listen to what Robby was saying; he also had to be able to understand why Robby made the decisions he did. Listening to someone is not always understanding why. You have to be able to take what they say and be able to see their point of view, and then take it into consideration. Wideman’s essay sought to convey the message of understanding between people, not always agreeing with but taking into considerations other peoples thoughts and actions.
Wideman, John Edgar. “Our Time.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2005. 689-727.