John Edgar Wideman
In John Edgar Wideman’s article “Our Time” he describes several situations that ultimately lead to the downfall and imprisonment of his brother Robby. Wideman tells stories of several things that happened to his brother while he was growing up that could have helped contribute to his drug use and crime.
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In her essay “Arts of the Contact Zone”, Mary Louise Pratt tells of a similar situation. Pratt, who is a teacher and cultural historian, tells the story of Guaman Poma and his letter to King Phillip III. Poma, in his letter, tells the king his criticisms of the Spanish conquest in South America.
Pratt labels Poma’s letter an autoethnographic text. Which is a text “in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them”(487). What Pratt means by her description is that Poma is describing himself and his people to the king, with the representations that the conquerors gave them.
Poma tells the king the entire story, how the conquerors came in and forced Poma and his people to adapt to their ways, sometimes inadvertently, and sometimes not. In addition to autoethnography, Pratt also describes Pomas letter with the word transculturation. Pratt describes transculturation as “processes whereby members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant or metropolitan culture”(491).
Basically what transculturation means is a lower level group of people assimilating the ways of a higher level group of people, sometimes to try and be more like the higher ups, and sometimes because it is forced upon the lower level.
Pratt wants readers to see texts this way because it makes the reader look for the deeper meaning behind the text. It makes the readers think deeper about peoples actions and ask themselves, Is this person the way he is because of the effect of someone else, or is he the way he is because that is the person he wants to be?
This process can prove to be very helpful in figuring out why people do things, and why people are the way they are.
When thinking about both Pratt and Wideman it is very easy to relate some of Pratt’s concepts to parts in Wideman’s article. One of the points that Wideman speaks of is the neighborhood that his younger brother was brought up in, and the people that he associated with. For the better part of Robby’s life, he lived in Homewood.
Wideman describes Homewood during Robby’s life “with signs as blatant as sudden fire engines and patrol cars breaking your sleep, screaming through the dark Homewood streets”(670). Homewood was not a normal community where you could walk around at night and feel safe. Raising Robby in Homewood almost set him up to be a criminal.
When Robby speaks to John about his time in Homewood, the dialogue that ensues is autoethnographic on Robby’s part. He describes to Wideman the person that he became because of the representations of the criminals around him. He explains how he felt out of place if he didn’t partake in the drugs and the violence.
Robby could choose to be different; he could associate with different people. However, Wideman tells it like Robby selectively collaborates with the criminals. Robby even adopts the slang language that the criminals of Homewood communicate with. You could almost call the criminals that Robbie associated with “conquerors”.
They came in and indirectly forced the people there to represent themselves like the criminals. By looking at Robby’s experience as autoethnographic, readers are able to better understand why he was somewhat forced to be the way he was during his time there.