Uncertainty, Discourse, and Democracy in John Edgar Wideman’s Writing, 1980s to Today


  • Leila Kamali


This article examines uncertainty as a defining characteristic in the writing of one of Pittsburgh’s most notable sons, John Edgar Wideman. Uncertainty appears in Wideman’s writing as a quality that is particularly linked to racialized experience and can herald greater possibilities for democracy than are represented within mainstream U.S. American discourse. Uncertainty, however, also forms a key feature of racial terror in Wideman’s work, the illusion of certainty appearing as a form of safety and protection.

Reading from a selection of his works, including Damballah (1981), God’s Gym (2005), and Writing to Save a Life (2016), I draw on Eva Mackey’s analysis of white settler communities and the phenomenon of uncertainty that is stimulated by their encounter with debates for Indigenous peoples’ land rights. This forms an apt allegory for the discussions of antiracism that have exploded in the public domain since the death of George Floyd, and it stimulates considerations of “safe discourse” (after Patricia Hill Collins), silence, responsibility, and “wake work” as modes of navigating uncertainty in the face of what Christina Sharpe calls the “engine of racism.” Wideman searches for narrative and ontological modes that can preserve consciousness from totalitarian structures, including race and surveillance, and the attachment to notions of certainty they present. He explores blues, silence, and the experience of rapture as spaces that extend beyond discourse, in which Black men in particular might benefit from the possibilities of uncertain forms of subjectivity that are uncolonized by racial capitalism.