John Edgar Wideman’s “Fatheralong” can be remembered as a relatively brief essay that dissects American racism in its most ominous form: willful ignorance and passive complicity. Wideman profiles the father of Emmett Till, the black fourteen-year-old whose racially motivated murder garnered additional impetus for the civil rights movement. The author’s arguments are driven by bold anecdotes—some public, others personal—and careful research. Overall, “Fatheralong” is compelling, though arguably flawed.
Wideman’s word choice is essentially telling. In other words, the essay moves from beginning to close with carefully selected words that ground the reader in the essay’s mood. For example, the government’s negative connections to Louis Till’s execution is described in the following passage, which states, “Although Mrs. Till was assisted by a lawyer, her attempt to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of her husband and the father of her only child had been stymied by the government’s terminal unresponsiveness, the very same government that ordered its colored soldiers to serve in what amounted to a separate, second-class army of conscripted laborers.” (p. 348). Note the term “stymied,” which carries tremendously negative connotations in this context, as well as the phrase “terminal unresponsiveness,” an outright effort to take the government to task. Skillfully, Wideman transitions to the more familiar case of Emmett Till by weaving in the government’s involvement in this case—again described with contempt. “The government that at its highest levels chose to break its own rules and violate the rights of Private Louis Till by sending his confidential service record . . . to lawyers defending the kidnappers and killers of his son Emmett.” (p. 348). Considering the essay’s focus on systemic issues concerning race, Wideman’s incorporation of the government’s roles in either scenario must be acknowledged. Effective word choice in these examples plays a huge part in setting the tone for the essay.
“Fatheralong” should also be praised for the research completed in the making of this personal essay. In general, this genre of essay—personal essay—seems to detach itself from formal research, relying more on personal experience and internal reflection. Wideman’s piece, however, is a worthwhile example of a personal essay that goes above and beyond, one that summons external resources in addition to internal factors that so often epitomize the personal essay. With that said, two personal statements in the essay seem uncharacteristically ambiguous. First, Wideman conveys Emmett’s date of birth before including a parenthetical detail, saying the date is “a month after [the author] was born.” (p. 349). He continues by comparing his own father with Louis Till, mentioning again via parentheticals that his father joined the war in 1942, just like Louis (p. 350). These personal assertions are never directly addressed; however, we might infer that Wideman’s point is to challenge the fate of Emmett Till, who evidently belonged to the same era in American history as the author and, perhaps more importantly, also lacked a father. Yet, in an essay that endorses the idea that race is a social construct and “whiteness” has relentlessly dominated other races, Wideman’s comparison between two black individuals (Emmett Till and himself) seems fairly incomplete. While minor, I would criticize the absence of elaboration in this essay where this parallel is concerned. In other words, I would have liked the author to either have completely built the comparison between himself and Emmett or to have avoided it completely.
Wideman, John Edgar. “Fatheralong.” The Best American Essays. Ed. Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 347-352. Print.