By Sam Alcorn
LEWISBURG, Pa. — The award-winning writer John Edgar Wideman received the 2009 Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters at Bucknell University on Tuesday night before reading passages from an upcoming book and discussing his writings about race and class.
Saying that he wanted the audience to hear his "writer's voice," Wideman read what he described as a "work in progress" based on the life of Louis Till, the father of Emmett Till, who was the victim of a brutal 1955 murder that galvanized the civil rights movement.
Louis Till, drafted in World War II, was convicted of raping two women and killing a third. He was executed by the Army, which originally told Till's wife, Mamie, only that he had been killed due to "willful misconduct."
'We come from families'
"Louis Till is Emmett's father and it's scary because in our society, and in our country, in a sense black men don't have fathers. Black men are, in the sort of collective imagination, orphans," said Wideman. "We come from nowhere; we have no roots, or very immediate roots, in the ghetto where we are created by sort of spontaneous combustion, or gas. But that's not true. We come from families.
"What's strange is a death, a murder, a crime as infamous as what happened to Emmett Till is not paired in the public imagination ... with the death of his father," he said. "Why and how are these two deaths of black men, father and son, connected? That is the burden of my new fiction. That's what I'm writing about."
"People come to universities like Bucknell for a common purpose," said Bucknell Provost Mick Smyer, who presented the award to Wideman in the Weis Center for the Performing Arts. "We seek knowledge. We want to understand the world around us and that cannot begin without understanding ourselves. In his work, from his short stories to his essays, his novels and memoirs, Mr. Wideman has been a daring and original explorer of a similar theme."
Stellar list of recipients
As the recipient of the Weis fellowship, Wideman joined a stellar list of who's who in contemporary literature. Previous recipients are Toni Morrison, John Updike, Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, Joyce Carol Oates, Derek Walcott and David McCullough.
"I feel quite humble, humbled by the names of the authors who have preceded me," said Wideman, whose honors have included the National Magazine Editors' Prize for Short Fiction, the American Book Award for Fiction, the Lannan Literary Fellowship for Fiction, the MacArthur Award, and the O. Henry Award.
Wideman, who is also the first author to twice receive the international PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, asked the Weis Center audience to "listen" as he read from his book in progress. "Just listening will encourage me to get the thing finished."
He read from pages — some typed, some handwritten — in a syncopated prose that he later said in a conversation facilitated by Bucknell Assistant Professor of English James Peterson, drew on the sounds and rhythms often associated with hip-hop. He used, in part, the voice of Emmett Till's mother, Mamie, to begin painting the word portrait.
At the conclusion of the reading, Peterson said what many in the audience likely felt: "Wow. ... That was very powerful."
Peterson opened the audience question and answer period by asking Wideman, a professor of Africana Studies and English at Brown University, if he thought that America had entered a "post-racial era" since the election of Barack Obama as the first black American president.
"Nice work if you can get it. That's what my father used to say about wishful thinking and people who used words that didn't have any backside or couldn't support what they were saying," said Wideman. "We are still in the throes of how this country depends on class and how it is structured so that one class is supported by many, many classes and many people."
No quick fix
He said the election of President Obama is not the quick fix that many had hoped it would be.
"For almost a year, during the election campaign, we had a vision in our heads that American didn't have to be like the old America. And we created something quite miraculous," he said. "But because the issue of class was not dealt with, the race button was still available to push. ... It would be much easier to elect a president and be done with all that old-timey stuff. ... So, two steps forward in progress, and always a step back."
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