Memory Haunts: John Edgar Wideman's Fictionalized Account of the 1985 MOVE Bombing

Historians in the News
tags: African American studies, racism, Police, literature, Philadelphia, MOVE

These ruins. This Black Camelot and its cracked Liberty Bell burn, lit by the same match that ignited two blocks of Osage Avenue.

—John Edgar Wideman, Philadelphia Fire

Neighbors were warned to clear out of the area before nearly five hundred police officers arrived at the house, 6221 Osage Avenue, on May 13, 1985. Electricity and water were shut off. The police speaker boomed. Tear gas was lobbed, gunfire returned, a melee of back and forth. Then the home was bombed. A conflagration erupted and spread wildly. Eleven residents died; sixty-five homes were destroyed. It was an unprecedented tragedy in the city of Philadelphia.

This is the event that John Edgar Wideman takes on in Philadelphia Fire, first published in 1990. As a writer, Wideman is inextricably connected to Pittsburgh, his home city. But this is a Philadelphia book, set in the city where Wideman attended college and later taught. In its pages, the geography of Philadelphia streets and the political fabric that was laid upon them is precise and exacting. In a sense, Philadelphia Fire is not just a map of the city but of the nation and our collective condition.

The first part of the book is a fictionalized account of the historic event. Cudjoe, a writer, is threading together the story of May 13, 1985, when the city of Philadelphia bombed the home of members of the MOVE political organization. MOVE, not an acronym but an imperative, as in “on the move,” is a Black liberation organization first founded in 1972. From the outset, they were distinguished among numerous peer organizations for their environmentalism, cooperative living, and strong advocacy of animal rights. Based in Philadelphia, MOVE raised the ire of the city establishment and many members of the surrounding community for their vociferous political announcements and unconventional domestic habits. They’d had prior run-ins with the notorious police chief Frank Rizzo. Still, the retaliation against MOVE by the city leadership sent shock waves through the surrounding community for decades to come.

Though fictionalized, the realpolitik of the city pulses on every page of Philadelphia Fire. The rise of a Black political machine in the city, capstoned by the first African American mayor, is set against the residual presence of a radical Black political organization in Ronald Reagan’s America. Desire, patriarchy, and poverty swirl around the cast of Black men and boys as Cudjoe looks for a child survivor who cannot be found. The lost child and the theme of lost childhood echo through the entire work.

The second part of Philadelphia Fire is a step back. Wideman allows us to see the ways in which his and Cudjoe’s biographical details overlap. Cudjoe is a fictionalized version of the author at work, returning to the city of his college years, where he first escaped Pittsburgh and then later served as a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania. Wideman intersperses details from his own life, as is characteristic of his writing. The ever-present grief of his brother’s and son’s incarcerations, and the interstitial space of the Black creative intellectual, both a member of the elite and speaker of the dispossessed, are cogently and powerfully rendered. Though Philadelphia Fire is more grammatically conventional than some of his other books, Wideman is as inventive and architecturally sophisticated here as always. He moves in and out of moments of fictionalization and commentary in a manner that makes the novel as much a lesson in craft as a work of art. How does one tell a story that is important because it deals with matters of life and death? The question is asked and answered.

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