In an address at the Library of Congress in 1964, Ralph Waldo Ellison mused upon his relationship with his father, who had bestowed on his son a somewhat curious literary forename. “Why,” Ellison wondered, “hadn’t he named me after a hero such as Jack Johnson…an educator like Booker T. Washington, or a great orator and abolitionist like Frederick Douglass?… Instead, he named me after someone called Ralph Waldo Emerson, and then, when I was three, he died.”
Ellison’s question connected the perennial anxieties that have haunted African-American artists for generations—questions of inheritance, tradition, and belonging—with a more personal and painful one about fatherhood: What was the meaning of a father’s legacy, in particular one who died early in one’s life? And what did it mean to be stamped by a name so intimately connected to his ideals?
Ellison’s experience was not every child’s. But the mark of sudden and premature loss, the haunting ambiguities created by an uncertain past, has constituted an overwhelming theme in African-American literature. From the struggle over literary parentage between Richard Wright and James Baldwin, to the unclear family histories and patrimonial legacies in Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father and the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s In My Father’s House, to the letter from father to son in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, one can sketch out a veritable subgenre of literary work devoted to the struggle between black fathers and sons to give some kind of meaning to their shared fate and common past.
This fraught inheritance, the missed recognitions and ambiguities between family members, in particular fathers and sons, is one of the deep chords animating the life and writings of John Edgar Wideman, whose latest book, Writing to Save a Life, is perhaps his most desperate and bracing endeavor yet to “make some sense out of the American darkness that disconnects colored fathers from sons, a darkness in which sons and fathers lose track of one another.”
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John Edgar Wideman, now 75, is a towering figure in American literature. His prolific career, spanning half a century, is widely recognized for achievements in the novel, but Wideman is also a brilliant short-story writer, essayist, critic, and memoirist. He was twice the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and a recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant. He is also known for his love of basketball, a passion that reverberates throughout his works. A standout athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, Wideman was an All-Ivy League star on the basketball team, which allowed him to become, in 1963, the first black American to win a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford since Alain Locke in 1907. Wideman returned to Penn in 1967 to teach English, and in 1971 he founded and chaired the Afro-American Studies Program, now part of the university’s renowned Center for Africana Studies.