“Daddy Garbage” is the second story in John Edgar Wideman’s collection Damballah, the second book in Wideman’s Homewood Trilogy. “Daddy Garbage” follows “Damballah,” a tale of an African slave who, before his murder in 1852, transfers the African spiritual legacy to a young American slave. “Daddy Garbage” is set in 20th-century Homewood and features John French, grandfather of the narrator and usually seen as a surrogate for Wideman himself. The writer, the intellectual, must get the story right so that he can use his gifts to illustrate and communicate the communal links stretching across seas and generations of black history. At first glance, “Daddy Garbage” seems very different from “Damballah,” but a main theme in both tales is, in fact, confl icting views of the worth of a black life.
Typical of Wideman’s contemporary style, “Daddy Garbage” moves in and out of time sequences. In the opening scene, set during the summer of the mid20th century, an aged Lemuel Strayhorn sells iceballs from his cart on Homewood Avenue. His customer is Geraldine French, daughter of his friend John French, who is buying iceballs for her great nieces and nephews and recalling Strayhorn’s dog Daddy Garbage, long deceased. Although Strayhorn says he cannot remember his reason for naming the dog Daddy Garbage, Geraldine replies, “I bet you still remember what you want to remember” and tells him he will live for centuries (30). In the next scene, however, it is snow ing and Daddy Garbage is the young dog who makes a discovery in a garbage can beyond a row of low-income housing: Vexed and thinking to himself, “Nigger garbage ain’t worth shit” (32), Strayhorn unwraps the package and thinks he has discovered a “little, battered, brown-skinned doll” until he realizes to his horror that she was a newborn baby, wrapped in newspaper, whom someone had tossed on the trash heap.
Cradling the dead baby under his arm, he first thinks to ask advice from Freeda French, John’s wife, but she sends one of her daughters to turn him away from the door. In her view, Strayhorn infl uences John to gamble and drink wine. Strayhorn puts the little corpse on the pile of mattresses he uses for a bed and joins French in the Bucket of Blood. If French’s major fl aw is his alcoholism, his major gift is his love of all his children and grandchildren; he is as appalled as Strayhorn: “Ain’t nobody could do that. Ain’t nobody done nothing like that,” he protests, but Strayhorn swears that he and Daddy Garbage found the baby “laid in the garbage like wasn’t nothing but spoilt meat” (36). Together they decide that, despite the snow and the cold, they must give the infant the decent burial it deserves. Strayhorn agrees that even Daddy Garbage deserved a burial; he would never consider throwing him in the trash.
The baby’s identity is never resolved and the perpetrator never identified, but after considering possibilities, French decides that it does not matter: “Black or white. Boy or Girl. A mongrel made by niggers tipping in white folks’ beds or white folks paying visits to black. Everybody knew it was happening every night. Homewood people every color in the rainbow and they talking about white people and black people like there’s a brick wall tween them and nobody don’t know how to get over” (38). The cold and somber scene is juxtaposed to another hot July one, in which French’s daughter, Gertrude, tells Strayhorn that her older sister, Lizabeth, wants her father in the hospital where she has just given birth to a baby boy. Even though she is embarrassed to note her father’s drunken singing of “an ignorant darky song” (41), she still loves him and thinks of him as “Daddy John” (42). The warm summer scene shifts again to the cold burial of the abandoned child and a conversation between Strayhorn and French. Therein they compare the heartless life of the cold urban North to the warm communal life of the South that, despite slavery and economic deprivation, is part of African-American culture. The two men, with Daddy Garbage in attendance, bury the infant in a full six feet of earth, telling it to “sleep in peace” (43) and laying it to rest on a cushion of snow.
Coleman, James W. “Damballah: The Intellectual and the Folk Voice.” In Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.
Wideman, John. “The Architectonics of Fiction.” Callaloo 13 (Winter 1990): 42–46.
———. “Daddy Garbage.” In Damballah. New York: Avon Books, 1981.
———. “Defi ning the Black Voice in Fiction.” Black American Literature Forum 2 (Fall 1977): 79–82.
———. “Frame and Dialect: The Evolution of the Black Voice in Fiction,” American Poetry Review 5, no. 5 (1976): 34–37.
———. “Of Love and Dust: A Reconsideration.” Callaloo 1 (May 1978): 76–84.