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Fugitives and Freedom

Shirah Kraus's picture

Brothers and Keepers. My thoughts spring back to my Jewish education. I remember learning in Jewish day school and in synagogue the story of Cain and Abel: Cain is jealous of his brother, Abel, and then murders him. Something about God preferring Abel’s meat offerings over Cain’s crops. Then God asks Cain where Abel is and Cain responds, “how should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?”(Genesis 4:9). Of course God knows what Cain did, so, I wonder, why does God ask the question? God then “sentences” Cain to a life of wandering the earth—which to me as a child seemed like Cain got a pretty good deal. Looking back at the text, I notice that Cain, however, feels that his punishment is unbearable. The word “fugitive” in this particular translation jumps out to me: “a fugitive and a wanderer shalt thou be in the earth,” God says (Genesis 4:12). 

This reminds me of John Edgar Wideman’s description of his brother’s last night of freedom in Brothers and Keepers. John writes, “I believed I was providing a respite from the pursuit… I thought they [Robby and his friends] had stopped [running], but they were still on the road. I hadn’t begun to explore the depths of my naiveté, my bewilderment” (14). In hindsight, John realizes that the running doesn’t stop for someone condemned to be a fugitive. As Robby tells his brother, “You don’t know what it’s like, man. Running… running. Never no peace” (Wideman 14, emphasis added). Robby is a fugitive, a wanderer, running, living in fear, without peace—like Cain. If Robby is Cain and the dead man is Abel, then why does John title his book plural: Brothers and Keepers? I think this is because John is also Cain and Robby Abel, a brother distancing himself from brother and family: “I was running away from Pittsburgh, from poverty, from blackness” (Wideman 26-7). Both Widemans are brothers and keepers. And not to disrespect the particularism of Wideman’s narrative, I think this plural title invites the reader to see themselves as both brother and keeper. We are runners, fugitives, people who have acted in jealousy and made mistakes. We are also vulnerable, scared, victims of hate and violence.

Being a fugitive, a wanderer is also about belonging—or a lack thereof. When someone wanders, they have no place, no home. It scares me to feel like I am outside of the circle, the system, what is “normal.” Maybe it is like conversations we have had about “proper” English and who gets to belong, and ability. I remember doing a linguistics project on bilingualism in which I interviewed a bilingual friend. She, and others, described feelings of not belonging to either language or culture—for her Mexican and American. Living on the dash. Mexican-American. Neither American nor Mexican, just - . Are marginalized identities fugitives?

John Wideman writes about Robby’s “last night of freedom,” but is Robby free at all as a fugitive? (13). Can he be free with “never no peace?” (14). I’m thinking back to the Socrates café and our conversation about freedom and what it is. I remember DuBois’s description of abolition as the ultimate goal for black people in the U.S. But then once slavery was legally abolished, black people were (and are) still not free. Jim Crow laws, racism, oppression enslave. The thirteenth amendment allows for forced labor as a punishment for crimes, so in a very literal sense prisoners are enslaved. And if some people are not free, than no one is free. I believe that freedom, like justice, can only be real if everyone has it. Freedom, to me, is more than just being able to do whatever you want. Freedom is a state of existence in which oppression does not exist, in which no one has to fear that their brother (any person) will slay them and in which no one is a fugitive.

And also, freedom is a feeling, a belief that anything is possible. I feel free when I close my eyes and feel the warmth of your breath and the rays of the sun and I feel content in the moment and confident that I can do anything. I am who I am and who I wish to be.