Analysis of John Edgar Wideman’s Damballah

Through its 12 stories, the first of which is Damballah, traces the earliest tales of the characters who eventually play roles in the so-called Homewood Trilogy; some are even named after Wideman’s family members. On one level, the book is a storyteller’s achievement, developing relationships and linking generations. On another, it is about the storytelling process itself: Wideman dedicates the book to his own brother, Robby; models Tommy, one of the characters in both Hiding Place and Damballah, on him; and demonstrates the connections that can be forged through the sharing of stories across time. It is also a way to portray two very different brothers— one intellectual but for a long time uncomfortable with his blackness, one jailed for murder, but more attuned to his blackness. John French, featured in several stories, including Daddy Garbage, gathers stories of African-American family history, cultural tradition, folk ritual, myth, and song to link himself to family members both in the past and in the present and in the community memory that links them all.

As the critic James W. Coleman points out, Damballah views African-American tradition as tied closely to African tradition: It is “a river fl owing back and forth in black history” (79). Wideman deliberately blurs time lines as the African slave Orion looks directly into the eyes of the American slave and, later, wills the word Damballah into the American to form links among past, present, and future. Much of the tradition is supernatural, communicated by ghosts and spirits, dreams and magic.

Damballah is the second book in the Homewood Trilogy, preceded by Hiding Place (1981), a novel, and followed by Sent for You Yesterday (1983). The epigraph explains that the god Damballah, or “good serpent of the sky,” is the ancient and venerable father, who gathers the family together and gives peace. His association with family and community tradition suggests a link among all the stories; indeed, the book’s interconnected tales, from the “ancient origin of the race” (Damballah 11) to Pittsburgh’s inner-city neighborhood of Homewood, form a short story cycle that critics have compared to William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children, and Ernest Gaines’s Bloodline.

The story “Damballah” opens on a cane plantation in 1852 as the solitary African slave Orion bathes in the river. After the white men stole him from his village and took him over the sea to this plantation, this “blood-soaked land” (18), he realizes that he can bear slavery no longer. He refuses to speak another word of English, the language of “the white people who had decided to kill him” (18), or to touch another portion of the white man’s food. Orion—called Ryan by the African-American slaves—knows that one of them, a young boy, is watching him as he bathes, and Orion has determined that he will pass on his African spirit and wisdom to this boy: “He could be the one. This boy born so far from home. This boy who knew nothing but what the whites told him. This boy could learn the story and tell it again” (18). And so, on the eve of his death, Orion bores his eyes into the boy, who feels him “boring a hole into his chest and thrusting into that space the word Damballah. Then the hooded eyes were gone” (20). Orion draws a cross in the dust and speaks the word again.

Saint Malo, may 11. File photo: american author John Edgar Wideman attending book fair in Saint Malo, France.
Photo by Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

The boy is clearly fascinated with Orion and, despite warnings from Aunt Nissy, the slave who cooks for the whites, he insists on repeating the word Damballah. This is the word that Orion apparently yelled in the middle of the sermon preached by Jim, the African-American Christian preacher. Orion’s final act of insubordination occurs as he violently pulls the plantation overseer off his horse, breaking half of his bones, a crime that dooms him to death. Observed by the boy, four men drag Orion to the barn, from which he hears one single scream, “A bull screaming once that night and torches burning in the barn and Master and the men coming out and no Ryan” (24). In a deliberate blurring of events, the Master spends the night with Patty in the slave quarters, causing the weeping Mistress to lock herself in her room; in the morning—but which morning?— Mistress sees the naked Orion on the porch—or was it his spirit?—and no one dares call the Master back from slave row, and no one but the boy dares approach the barn. Once inside, he finds Orion’s head brutally severed from his body. The boy recalls the stories Orion has told him, draws a cross in the dust, repeats the word, and settles in to wait for Orion’s spirit: “Damballah said it be a long way a ghost be going and Jordan chilly and wide and a new ghost take his time getting his wings together. Long way to go so you can sit and listen till the ghost ready to go on home” (25). Mixing African and Christian references together in anticipation of African-American cultural history, the boy eventually sees the spirit rise from Orion’s body. Moving full circle, he throws the head into the river.

The mythic aura of the story is enhanced by the dual perspectives, both African and African-American, and the slightly uncertain time sequence: Orion, recalling his independence in his African village, is willing his own death. He was kidnapped, taken to the United States, sold to another owner, returned to the cane plantation after being repeatedly beaten for “misconduct” (22), refused to eat or speak English, and deliberately attacked the overseer. At the opening of the story, though, he recalls his African village and is certain that when he dies, his African fathers will “sweep him away, carry him home again” (18). Wideman’s depiction of his refusal to adapt to slavery contrasts sharply with his evocation of those who succumbed. Aunt Lissy calls “Ryan” a “wild African nigger” (18) and slaps the boy when he repeats the word Damballah: “Don’t you ever, you hear me, ever let me hear that heathen talk no more. You hear me, boy? You talk Merican, boy” (21). Preacher Jim prays that God will forgive Orion’s “heathen ways” (25). Wideman sketches in the horrors of slavery with brief but vivid detail: Orion is sent back by the white man who beats him, finds him “brutish” and “a fl awed piece of the Indies” unfit even for his kennels; significantly, he finds Orion utterly lacking both human qualities and a soul (22). The nameless African-American boy is locked in a room all day to polish silver, and the slave Patty is at the beck and call of her white Master. Orion becomes Wideman’s prototype of the slave who escapes and fl ies home to Africa, while the others, if they are lucky, endure slavery and produce progeny who move north in the 20th century and populate such areas as Homewood.

Analysis of John Edgar Wideman’s Daddy Garbage

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.
———. “Damballah.” In Damballah. New York: Avon Books, 1981.
———. “Defining 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.

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