This reading group guide for American Histories includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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In this new short-story collection, John Edgar Wideman reimagines the past and the present, the living and the dead, and the personal and the historical. Engaging with subjects both intimate and wide-ranging, Wideman explores birth, death, and the intricacies of family life with the same rigor and beauty as he does the experiences of famous historical figures like Frederick Douglass and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Dense with layered meaning and philosophical insight, these stories illuminate the joys and shadows of the human condition, particularly as they relate to love, aging, and race. From “Bonds,” about the lucky-or-unlucky birth of a child, to “Nat Turner Confesses,” about the life of revolutionary Nat Turner, this extraordinary collection builds in power and range to its striking conclusion—taken all together, a profound, essential meditation on American life.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In the “A Prefatory Note,” John Edgar Wideman writes that his guess is that “slavery won’t disappear until only two human beings left alive, neither one strong enough to enslave the other” (page 2). What does this statement lead you to believe about Wideman’s definition of slavery, and how does that differ from your understanding of the concept?
2. In “JB & FD,” John Brown and Frederick Douglass, a white and black abolitionist, respectively, each believe in the eradication of slavery, but they disagree about how to get there. What is the effect, at the story’s end, of creating a black character named John Brown, after the figure who was, in life, the more militant of the two? How does this complicate the dialogue between the two men?
3. “My Dead” describes the narrator’s relationship with his brother Otis, or Gene. What do you make of the relationship between the narrator, describing his complex feelings about a man with the author’s last name, and the author himself?
4. “Bonds” is an unconventional story about labor, with its focus the mother’s attempt to delay her child’s birth so he won’t have an unlucky birthdate. He already has two strikes against him, she thinks—“strike of poor, strike of colored” (page 48)—and a third is too much. What does this unusual evocation of maternal love bring up for you?
5. In “Writing Teacher,” the narrator and his student, Teresa, work on her story, a story about a young woman of color, a single mother, that the narrator believes his student wants to “help.” The narrator implies that Teresa, being white and otherwise privileged, has little authentic understanding of the character she’s created. Do you believe that it’s impossible, or prohibitively difficult, for a white person to write well about people of color? What mistakes does Teresa make in this story?
6. “Williamsburg Bridge” follows a man contemplating suicide. At the end of the story, do you believe the narrator is “cured”? Do you believe that he jumps?
7. What’s the distinction between Givers and Gratefuls in “Empire”? How does that map onto distinctions in our current society?
8. In “Yellow Sea,” the narrator asks the reader to “imagine an audience of Precious
composed solely of big, dark-skinned, poor, unwed teenage mothers” (page 186). How does this engagement with film compare to the narrator’s feelings about watching and being watched in “New Start,” in which he and his wife consume episodes of Downton Abbey
9. Death is a theme in many of these stories. “Ghost Dancer,” for instance, has the narrator visited by the ghost of a bird he once fed in his garden. What’s the emotional resonance of this visitation, coming after stories like “Williamsburg Bridge” and “My Dead”?
10. In “Collage,” Romare Bearden tells Jean-Michel Basquiat a story from the Italian Renaissance, that artists at that time sometimes intentionally rendered perspective imperfectly because they feared “deep cuts opening like doors into a canvas” (page 203). How do Bearden and Basquiat, in this story, create windows into other realities with their work?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Research the works of Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat, many of which can be viewed online. How do they compare?
2. Watch Yellow Sea
, referenced in “Yellow Sea.” Discuss how the films complicate your understanding of the story.
3. Pair your reading of American Histories
with one of John Edgar Wideman’s nonfiction works, like Writing to Save a Life
, to deepen your understanding of his writing.