»  Taki's Magazine

October 20, 2010

  The Solipsism of John Edgar Wideman

I hadn't heard of John Edgar Wideman before reading his October 6 op-ed in the New York Times. Googling around, I see that he is the author of many books, both fiction (12 novels, 6 short-story collections) and nonfiction (memoirs, basketball, and social commentary). He is 69 years old, rather handsome in appearance, African American of, I would guess from his pictures, about half white ancestry — a mulatto.

I'm not going to beat myself up for not having read any of Mr. Wideman's books. There are far too many books in the world and far too little time. In any case, his books seem to be about things which, with absolutely no offense to anyone at all, I'm just not interested in. Most seem to be about African Americans. In Sent For You Yesterday (1983), which got him a PEN/Faulkner award, he is "reimagining the black neighborhood of his youth." Philadelphia Fire (1990), which got him that same award over again — the only time that's been done, I think — is about "the 1985 police bombing of a West Philadelphia row house owned by the back-to-nature, Afrocentric cult known as 'Move'."

Yeah, I remember Move, though they were not quite the guitar-strumming flower children suggested by "back-to-nature, Afrocentric cult." Move was in fact a white-hating revolutionary and criminal gang that robbed, murdered, and generally made a major social nuisance of itself. Seeking violence, they sure enough found it, with the police fire-bombing of their Philadelphia headquarters, the event that inspired Mr. Wideman's novel. Their most famous graduate is cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, who in a just world would have died in the electric chair 28 years ago for the horrible, pitiless crime he undoubtedly committed. I'm guessing this is somewhat at odds with John Edgar Wideman's point of view on the matter, but hey — po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

In any case, although I have not read any of Mr. Wideman's books, for the aforementioned reason, I did read that October 6 op-ed at the encouragement of a friend. My friend sent it to me with howls — I mean, e-howls — of disgust and exasperation. Sort of: "Read this piece of scheissdreck the Gray Ethnomasochist Lady has just puked out, then shoot yourself in despair." Something like that. So I read it. Plainly I have not yet shot myself; but I still might, after I'm through telling you about the piece and venting thereon. It will be a sacrifice on behalf of sanity, patriotism, and our children's future. You're welcome.

The gist of Mr. Wideman's piece is as follows. He lives in New York City. He teaches at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. He rides the Amtrak train between the two cities. He boards early and takes one half of a vacant double seat. En route the train fills up, but nobody sits next to him. Because he's black!

I'm a man of color, one of the few on the train and often the only one in the quiet car, and I've concluded that color explains a lot about my experience.

Not that the situation doesn't have advantages, he allows. Unlike the fool crackers who are crushed and huddled together as far away from the black guy as they can get, he has an empty seat next to him where he can put his briefcase, papers, and snacks. Oh, but …

But the very pleasing moment of anticipation casts a shadow, because I can't accept the bounty of an extra seat without remembering why it's empty …

It's empty because he's black! And white people hate, or fear, or hate'n'fear black people so much, they won't take a seat next to one!

Christ-like, though, Mr. Wideman shoulders his cross, with compassion for those who shun him:

 … without wondering if its emptiness isn't something quite sad.

Then he remembers that Christ told us he came not to bring peace, but a sword. Just so with Mr. Wideman, who after all has fond feelings for the gunslinging rapists of Move. Time for a murmured threat, to keep Charley paying the Danegeld.

And quite dangerous, also, if left unexamined.

The fire next time! There is, however, and alas, very little danger that Mr. Wideman's solitary train rides will go unexamined — they, or any other aspect of what I'd guess he would call "the black experience." After all, here he is examining them at 600-word length on the op-ed page of the New York Times.

There is a large cohort of educated African Americans who seem to do little else. Mr. Wideman is billed in the byline of the Times piece as "a professor of Africana studies." He's examining his blackness all day long, and getting a handsome salary for it — and now a fee from the Times. Examining blackness in all its billionfold variety is Mr. Wideman's job, and the job of hundreds of other professors of Africana/Africano/Africani/Africanarum studies.

The unexamined life is, we are told, not worth living. If, like Mr. Wideman, you are one of the pampered pets of modern liberalism, with a plush affirmative-action sinecure teaching a made-up pseudo-discipline so that some university can darken up its brochures to the degree required by federal regs, the over-examined life is worth a neat 200 grand a year, plus tenure.

Does John Edgar Wideman know anything about the world other than his own blackness? If I were to pick up one of his books and start in on it, would the words soon shift and blur in front of my eyes till they just read as Black black black. Black black blackety black! BLACK! Blackblackblackblackblackblack …, as happened with the last look-at-my-blackness! book I read? Does he have anything un-black to say to me, in all my shameful un-blackness? To me, as an American? To me, as a man and a brother? To me, his poor earth-born companion / An' fellow mortal?

In one respect at least I am enlightened after reading Mr. Wideman's essay. I used to puzzle over the question: Is solipsism a viable point of view? Can one really be so firmly sealed in the prison of self that the color of one's skin is the primary datum of one's existence? Now I know the answers.

I'll tell a train story of my own; not because I nurse any hope of piercing the armor of Mr. Wideman's solipsism — by definition, nothing could do that — but because I have a hundred or so words to spare in my column allowance.

For seven years I commuted in to New York City on the Long Island Railroad, an hour each way, Huntington to Penn Station. There were plenty of African American riders. I often had only two or three empty seats to choose from. There were seat partners I avoided: obese persons, obvious drunks, eaters of smelly foodstuffs, persons muttering to themselves, and in the last year or two (this was 1992-99), riders yapping into cell phones. It never crossed my mind though, not once in seven years, to include race as a selection factor. I was looking for a seat on a train, for crying out loud, not a best friend for life.

I don't of course expect you to believe that, Mr. Wideman. Your own blackness is so infinitely fascinating to you — heck, it's your living! — you can't conceive that it is uninteresting to me, or anyone. You imagine (because you can't imagine otherwise) that your companions in the Acela carriage are thinking about you and your blackness with malice in their hearts, all the way from Providence to Penn Station.

Sorry, pal: they're not even thinking about you with love and respect in their hearts, which I'm guessing would be your distant second preference. The dreadful, inconceivable truth — brace yourself, Mr. Wideman, please — oh, can you bear it? — the appalling truth is, they are not thinking about you at all.