Basketball, Race, and Love

When reporters write about John Edgar Wideman, they usually start with the most sensational aspects of his life. That's why you find the same factoids in most profiles of the man and his books: He grew up in a ghetto in Pittsburgh. He became a scholarship student and eventually escaped to the Ivy League, unlike his brother Robert, who ended up in prison.

It's equally hard for writers to resist reciting Wideman's credentials: He became an All-American forward on the basketball team at Penn. There he was named the second black Rhodes scholar ever in 1963, and the first since 1907. Wideman is the only novelist to win the prestigious PEN/Faulkner award twice; he has also won the MacArthur "genius" award. It's an all-too-familiar story, a heartening stereotype: A kid from the ghetto makes good.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the first article ever written about Wideman, a profile in Life, was simply titled "The Astonishing John Edgar Wideman." Or that Salon called the young Wideman, with unintended irony, "an African-American golden boy." Or that Esquire ran a profile of Wideman that read like a checkout-line tabloid, detailing the emotional turbulence of Wideman's family.

As sensational as all this attention may be, the combination of adversity and critical acclaim places him squarely in the cult of personality in American literature, right next to such luminaries as Langston Hughes (accused by Joseph McCarthy of being a Communist) and Zora Neal Hurston (famous for her life on the road).

But such attention also suggests the danger of misreading John Edgar Wideman. It's easy to sketch the trials and achievements of a remarkable life like his. It's much more difficult to evaluate Wideman's writing.

A Life in Literature

Now is as apt a time as any to weigh Wideman's activism and oeuvre, which keeps expanding-Wideman's latest offering, "Hoop Roots: Basketball, Race, and Love," will appear in paperback this spring.

In his 15 books, Wideman has tracked racial conflict in the U.S. with the precision of a topographic map. His novel, The Cattle Killing, is set during the 1793 outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia, where blacks were scapegoated for the epidemic. Philadelphia Fire, another novel, is based on the firebombing of MOVE, a black separatist group. Brothers and Keepers chronicles Wideman's relationship with his brother Robert, from Pittsburgh to Western Penitentiary, where Robert Wideman lives today.

In these books and elsewhere, Wideman has proven a rare stylist: He has brilliantly extended the long-running emphasis among African American writers on rendering black speech and rhythms. His prose can be scanned like poetry or, better, performed as a song or slam before a microphone.

What's more, Wideman has written about the urban experience in the United States as well as anyone ever has, from colonial Philadelphia through today's inner city. And in the face of grim realities -- of racism malicious and intractable -- he does not allow justifiable rage to degenerate into passive detachment from America's burning questions and problems. As Walter Mosley noted in a review, "Through Wideman's masterly narrative the reader learns how to accept hopelessness without giving up hope."

"Hoop Roots" is no departure from this pattern. The book contains everything that makes Wideman one of the most accomplished American writers today -- and also one of the most challenging and problematic for readers. Critics and scholars of many races have hailed Wideman's work, but this acclaim has not translated into a broad popular following. You seldom hear Wideman mentioned in the same breath as Toni Morrison or Cornell West. None of his books has made it into the high school literary canon.

Why is this? Perhaps it's because John Edgar Wideman consistently challenges his readers to do more work than any contemporary author. He defies our expectations about what a book is, and in particular what a book on race is. His greatest contribution, then, may be raising a question: What do readers commonly expect from a leading black writer, and are these expectations ever fair?

Reclaiming the Playground

"Hoop Roots" is no ordinary basketball memoir. This may well be the first sports-themed book ever dedicated to W.E.B. DuBois.

Wideman reclaims playground basketball as a folk art unique to African Americans, a combination of passionate commitment, high-wire performance, and enduring tradition passed from one generation to the next like the ball itself. Like any other art, hoop demands sacrifices of all who would master it. As a young man, Wideman daily left the mother and aunts who raised him to find male peers and role models on the playground. "We went to the playground court to find our missing fathers," he writes. "We didn't find them, but we found a game, and the game served us as a daddy of sorts." Wideman offers tales of his very first shot at the hoop; of tending his dying grandmother; of body-checks from neighborhood stars -- a web of memories that could easily be discounted if they did not illuminate so much of what it means to grow up black and male in America.

Like many arts developed by African Americans, playground hoop has been exploited for commercial gain. Pro basketball players past and present enact a simplified version of black culture for the pleasure of an audience. As Wideman makes clear, this kind of performance has disturbing implications:
This modern, media-driven, vicarious, virtual possession of a black body is better than buying a slave, with all the attendant burdens of ownership. By simply copping certain trademarked booty, you could choose if and when you wished to be like Mike. Or, to be more precise, you could choose to appropriate and identify with only those black body parts you desired (dismember and reconfigure the black body) and leave the rest, the negative, bad parts, alone.
But in Wideman's view, even mass marketing can't obliterate the game's essential blackness. It's still alive and well on the playgrounds, as intuitive as a head fake, as tenacious as the wide bodies that hold sway in the paint. Like blues jams or quilt circles, it lives and endures wherever two or three people are gathered.

Folk Art and Activism

Wideman's attention to playground hoop raises a question of vital importance: What role can pastimes like sport take in serious discussions about race and activism? There's no doubt that folk cultures have an inestimable value to people of all races and ethnicities, but does playground hoop have a place alongside protests and petitions in the fight for social justice? When I had a chance to interview Wideman, I asked him about this.

You point out that playground basketball is a kind of folk culture. In our age of mass media and market-driven culture, what's the importance of this kind of folk tradition and artistry?

Wideman: First of all, folk culture is about participation. It's something in which we can all take part. That's what makes it popular. I think that participation is crucial because [folk culture] is a little edge, a little space that has not been colonized into the collective way of doing things. It offers individuals some room to do their own thing, to create something different. I think that's very important in a culture that's moving as fast as it can toward a kind of least common denominator of values and aesthetics.

How do you see expressions of folk culture like playground hoop or the blues connecting with hot-button political issues like affirmative action?

Wideman: I think of the term "creole." A creole in general means improvisation. It means resistance. It means that there is some standard and official way of doing things, and there's also a counter-culture that embodies itself in creole creativity. "Creole" describes the unusual and distinctive ways that some African Americans play with standard English. It's not a separate language, but it certainly is a distinctive way of speaking. It has a history, and it fits at the center of a way of seeing the world. So these pockets of creole creativity -- or folk culture, if you will -- can be places for resistance, places where political movements are born, where values are preserved.

Defying Expectations

Gaining these insights is not easy, though. "Hoop Roots," like the rest of Wideman's books, is a hard read. It's full of dense prose, multiple narratives, and stories within stories. And so the question has to be asked: Is John Edgar Wideman writing for a highbrow audience, or is he reflecting the real complexity of race today? Or both?

For most of his life, Wideman has studied and worked at universities. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he started teaching there. He left for a position at the University of Wyoming and then moved to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he teaches today.

Yet, is there a cost, a consequence to creating art, even revolutionary art, from the ivory tower? Does writing from the university inevitably evolve into writing for the university -- limiting the readership to members of a highly degreed audience?

It's an awkward question to raise, one that risks reducing Wideman's work to a matter of personality, the same mistake made by so many other writers. In these times, we can scarcely deny the importance of having writers and artists open the doors for social change by envisioning alternative worlds and new ways of living. The constant danger, however, is of having writing and art created for a rarefied audience, art that never reaches playground hoopsters. Again, I turned to Wideman himself for insight.

What are the rewards and the challenges of writing a different kind of basketball book?

Wideman: Writing's supposed to be about freedom and self-expression. I tell my story my way, and get a chance to share that with people with the book. If there are expectations that a book about basketball tells certain kinds of stories and covers certain kinds of ground, then it's not going to meet expectations and you have to live with that. Most writers want to get to as many readers as they can, and I'm no different. I'd like everybody to read the book. But the book isn't for everybody, because it's challenging. The reader has to participate in ways in which much mainstream writing doesn't [ask of readers] . . . It's the kind of book in which the reader shops around. Find what you like. If you're patient, and if you're interested in something that gets your attention right away, the trick of the book is to allow that initial interest to broaden and entrap or seduce the reader into some stuff that maybe the reader didn't expect in a book about basketball.

On the table of contents page in Hoop Roots, you have a statement: "Different pieces coming from different places -- read them in sequence or improvise." What sort of experience do you hope the reader will have by improvising?

Wideman: The playground game is all about improvisation. Within the space of the court, within the very minimal rules of basketball, infinite possibilities exist. I think that's the same with the book. I'd like the reader to have that kind of active role in organizing and thinking through and playing with the book. It's literally something to play with. But I have also, I hope, organized a structure so that play leads somewhere -- so that it's not just random. It's always the tension between those two, freedom and structure, that improvisation is all about.

This tension, freedom versus structure, is a defining one for Wideman. Again and again, he resists the traditional demands of readers. Instead of detailing a single storyline, he shifts from one to another, now on the playground in Pittsburgh, now traveling with the early Harlem Globetrotters in Indiana, now at his grandfather's cabin in South Carolina. Instead of sticking with a few characters, he jumps from the mind of one narrator to another and then back, constantly changing perspective.

Wideman regards such moves as democratic, because they create space within the text for discussion and disagreement among competing voices. But this kind of construction can challenge and confuse a reader. As Wideman questions matters of current politics, he also questions matters of identity, even the very distinctions between black and white, male and female.

The problem is, readers often rely on these sort of categorizations. How many activists, for instance, have time to sit down with Wideman's books amidst all the rallies and lobbying and ponder questions like, "What is a woman?" or "What is race, anyway?"

Herein lies the rub. In the end, it's difficult to produce a straight, activist reading of John Edgar Wideman, because on every page, even as he describes brutalities like lynching and prison rape, he also invites you to consider what lies beyond race, a maze of contingencies, of maybes and what ifs? At bottom, John Edgar Wideman aims to create change by changing the ways that readers read. As he said in an interview with The Atlantic:
For African American people, I am in the business of inventing a reality that gives a different perspective -- on history, on crime, on art, on love. I'm very actively deconstructing the given formulas and definitions of African American culture and life, and trying to put in their place those that seem more reasonable, more real, more lively, more potentially positive. . . . I want to get my audience out into a space that feels uncomfortable. . . . Much that I do in my writing -- technically, emotionally -- has to do with clearing space. Clearing space in my imagination, and clearing space for the audience so they can deal with something that's unknown, where none of us feels like we're in control.
Many readers, however much they want social change, also crave control. Many are very much attached to "the given formulas and definitions" of culture and life in America. We often want change to come in the terms we already know, whereas John Edgar Wideman wants to change the terms altogether. He wants more than simple truth, more than his own stories and perspectives; he wants more than literature, more than art. As he puts it in "Hoop Roots": "Let me be clear. The more I'm talking about then and now is not simply an extra slice of pie or cake. Seeking more means self-discovery. Means redefining the art I practice. In the present instance, wanting to compose and share a piece of writing that won't fail because it might not fit into someone else's notion of what a book should be."

Indeed, "Hoop Roots" will not fit the notions of many readers of what a book should be -- it's too difficult, too demanding. Nor does Wideman himself fit common notions of what a scholarship student, a professor, and a leading writer should be.

So why aren't more people reading John Edgar Wideman's books? Most likely it's because not everyone is ready for the kind of freedom that he offers. His writing does not just convey insights, it demands that you reconsider your expectations about how America can change and where that change will begin.

Christopher Weber studies nonfiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where he also teaches. He is working on a book about alternative medicine.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}