Because The Cattle Killing, John Edgar Wideman’s first work of
fiction in six years, is about loss – loss of life, loss of faith, loss
of hope, innocence and direction – it seems only fitting that this
review should begin like the book, with a metaphorical slaughtering.
The final determination – what might have been hoped for at the
outset of this novel, what might have become of all its potential and
power – is virtually D.O.A. The narration, though intermittently
brilliant, is frequently oblique and clumsily passed from speaker to
speaker. Add to this the author’s confusion of tense and person, and
you have a work of fiction that is consummately frustrating and doomed
Nevertheless, The Cattle Killing is a chillingly pretty corpse – a
poetic, gutsy, and penetrating piece of prose that, like one of the
characters who chimerically passes through it, drowns itself. But
before disposing of the carcass, let’s examine it.
To say that book is not illuminating, intriguing fiction would be a
lie. Set primarily in the Philadelphia area of both the present and
eighteenth centuries, this multifaceted tale includes recollections
from lives spent in Africa and Europe.
The first voice shared is that of a middle-aged African American, a
successful novelist revisiting the Philadelphia ghetto of his youth.
While trekking through the still-mean city streets to visit his
estranged father and share with him his latest novel, this author’s
somber reflections center on the sad state of affairs that have caused
inner-city Black youth to wreak havoc on each other though one brutal,
futile killing after another. This opening coupled with the book’s
title suggest that whatever comes next, some allusion will be drawn to
connect the senselessness of Black-on-Black crime to the carnage of
“Shoot. Chute. Black boys shoot each other. Murder themselves.
Shoot. Chute. Panicked cattle funneled down the killing chute, nose
pressed into the drippy ass of the one ahead. Shitting and pissing all
over themselves because finally, too late, they understand. Understand
whose skull is split by the ax at the end of the tunnel.”
The torch immediately passes from these contemporary musings to
plague-ridden eighteenth-century Philadelphia. There, a young Black
itinerant preacher – a former slave given to fits, fainting spells, and
visions – is reduced to vagrancy after his congregation of freed
Africans is decimated by a racist mob. Narrating his tale to an
unidentified listener, he speaks of the terrible destruction wrought by
the plague – apparently yellow fever, common to that era – and of his
vain efforts to save victims and souls alike in its wake.
He also relates a haunting story of a woman he encountered during
his travels. The woman – starving, delirious, and near death – was
carrying in her arms a dead White infant. She was the slave of a rich
White family which was determined to keep the contagion from their
midst. When their youngest child showed signs of the dreaded disease,
they cast the infant out of the household, despite the protests of the
slave who was herself ejected. The woman and child were wandering
aimlessly in the wilderness when they encountered the preacher, who
offers aid and leads them to a river – into which the forlorn woman
wades, babe in arms, until both she and the child disappear under the
water. Dumbstruck, the preacher is too numb to save them.
The incident rocks his already beleaguered faith, and for the
remainder of the novel, he attempts to relate this tragedy and that of
the murder of his flock to the time he spent in the home of an
interfacial couple who rescue him from the bitter cold and snow of
Unfortunately, this is where the telling of this tale sustains the
most fatal blows while simultaneously offering its most salient
perspectives. When Wideman attempts to weave the story of one couple –
an elderly African man who was a former slave and his English wife who
was once an indentured servant – into the web of the novel’s fabric,
his literary stylings begin to stretch and strain the plot. Despite the
depth of research Wideman undertook to authenticate his work, the novel
seems to squeeze its life and breath out too fast as it rushes to the
Even the elder’s sharing of the misdirected prophecy that is the
crux of the novel’s premise gets too short shrift. The parable of death
and destruction that he relates focuses on the Xhosa people of Africa –
people from a past era who were also plague-ridden and weakened by
years of fighting off White invaders. An Xhosa woman, instructed to do
so by an insidious spirit, convinces her people that in order to repel
the White invaders, they must kill their own cattle. When they
voluntarily slaughter their herds – which were the underlying strength
of their position in their world – in a last ditch effort to save
themselves, the prophecy is proved to be false and the tactic futile.
The Xhosa are decimated, losing their land, their livelihood, and their
But this tale’s strength is weakened by what appears to be Wideman’s
race to conclusion. The insertion in the last fifty pages of cameos by
noted historical characters – like Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the
African Methodist Episcopal church, and Dr. Benjamin Thrush, a
physician whose unorthodox treatments for the plague cast him into
controversy – seems awkward and misapplied. Their presence serves only
to blur the contours of this already circuitous tale.
Nonetheless, Wideman cannot be faulted for lack of eloquence. His
writing retains its characteristic power – a penchant for challenging
and testing the boundaries of fiction, biography and essay with
dexterity and flair. The Cattle Killing is captivating, almost
spellbinding, and discomforting.
It is predictable in the attempt to link the seemingly inscrutable
penchant for violence of today’s Black urban youth with a tragic Xhosa
tale of a falsely prophesied remedy for White aggression. What is
unexpected – and in the final analysis, implausible, ineffective, and
discomforting – is that Wideman’s circular tale, like cud proceeding
through the stomachs of a cow, is never quite completely digested.
There’s a message in The Cattle Killing somewhere, but you have to chew
on it for a long time to find out exactly what it is.
D. Kamili Anderson is the associate editor for the Journal of Negro
Education, a co-editor of the Encyclopedia of African-American
Education (1996 Green wood Press), and a former staff writer for Black
Issues in Higher Education.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com