Wideman graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania before becoming the second African American ever to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, allowing him to work toward his doctorate at Oxford University.
He has taught at the University of Iowa’s Creative Writing Workshop, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wyoming at Laramie, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and as a visiting writer at many colleges.
A second conversation took place last fall at a crowded restaurant in Boston.
In both meetings, Wideman spoke for hours, only occasionally raising his voice above a near whisper.
At family gatherings, the older folk had the floor, had pride of place, and it was their stories I remember.
INTERVIEWER Could you give me a brief example of one or two of the stories?The story begins as historical fiction but swiftly moves away from the conventional, its ten sections shifting between the voices not only of Brown and Douglass but also that of the author himself, looking out of a motel window on a snowy morning, trying to imagine himself into his characters’ lives.He considers John Brown as a boy, driving cattle through a blizzard: “I compare his predicament to mine, and I’m ashamed.” Empathy is the business of fiction, but the drive towards it has a peculiar urgency in Wideman’s work, which has often blurred the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, the personal and the imagined.In Wideman’s work another life, a different set of possibilities, is always within reach. Wideman describes what he values about this community: “I think it’s the people who make the neighborhood.Since 2004, Wideman has been Assa Messer Professor and Professor and Africana Studies and English at Brown University.During the six years that he taught at the University of Pennsylvania, he became their first Black tenured professor, created their first African American studies program, (which he chaired from 1971-1973), and had his first book, , published. The Homewood neighborhood in Pittsburgh where he spent his youth serves as the setting for a number of his books.That’s the difference between learning about Homewood through my writing and learning about Homewood from sociologists.My grandfather on my mother’s side told stories about his work and working with the other Italian paperhangers. People would try to out talk or over talk or loud talk one another. There isn’t the energy, there isn’t the call and response. Frank Yerby was around, but I didn’t even know Frank Yerby was African-American.They are not set pieces, but folk art, folk performance. I read all the books that were in the Shadyside Boy’s Club library—books about submarines, dogs, grizzly bears. My mother read fat historical or romantic novels; my father liked to read Westerns, Zane Grey, that kind of stuff. INTERVIEWER Did you read any African American writers then? I liked stuff that had an adventurous edge to it, that took me to places I had no experience of.