“Frankstown Was the World with a Big W”: Pittsburgh and Beyond, an Interview with John Edgar Wideman


  • Leila Kamali


On Friday, October 18, 2019, I conducted an interview with John Edgar Wideman at his home in New York City. The conversation was incredibly rich, John being very generous indeed with his memories and his profound insights. Our first focus was Pittsburgh itself—what a joy to hear him speak about the Homewood of his childhood, about something like a lost world. We discussed basketball, the languages of his childhood, and origin stories; as the conversation progressed, John reflected poignantly on what he sees as the cost of his success, that he is pushed ahead as a token while very little of his privilege is afforded to his own community. 

He also had much to say about a driving quality of shame that he has experienced on a number of occasions in his life—in being shamed by a white classmate for not knowing more about Black music, and the related shame of not knowing much Black literature, and how that motivated him to establish the African American Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania. We discussed the expansion of his intellectual and cultural horizons that came with the experience of being a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. The interview concluded with a sense of the awe with which the author regards his brother as well as his son, who have retained their humanity in spite of the greatest odds, and a reflection on the role of creativity in accomplishing such a feat.