Born in 1941, John Edgar Wideman spent his childhood in Homewood, a poor African American neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During his adolescence, Wideman’s family moved to Shadyside, a wealthier neighborhood where Wideman thrived as a student and athlete, as well as being elected class president in his high school. From 1959 through 1963, Wideman attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he won the university’s creative writing prize and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, selected as an Ivy League MVP in basketball and inducted into the Big Five Hall of Fame.
As a star on the basketball court and only the second African American Rhodes Scholar, he was featured in a cover story of Look magazine titled “The Astonishing John Edgar Wideman” (1963). In that article, one of Wideman’s professors pointed out that all of the attention and status would complicate his life, because they were transforming him into a symbol. What his professor failed to note was that John’s life up to that point had already been largely characterized by symbolic complications.
Upon completing his MA at Oxford in 1966, Wideman attended the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he wrote his first novel. He began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967 and, at the request of the African American student body, became the founding director of the university’s African American Studies department. Over the course of his career, Wideman taught at other major universities – the University of Wyoming at Laramie, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Brown University.
Beyond prestigious faculty appointments, he has also won great recognition for his work; among these accolades are two Pen/Faulkner Awards, an O. Henry Award, an American Book Award, a MacArthur Genius Grant, and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Additionally, he has been called, “one of America’s premier writers of fiction” by the New York Times and won a lifetime achievement award for historical fiction, as well as awards for short stories and for challenging racism. He has also been a finalist for the National Book Award, nominated for the National Critic’s Circle Award, and remains a prolific author.
Brothers and Keepers (1984), a memoir by Wideman, charts the quite divergent paths taken by him and his brother, despite similar upbringings. John grows up to become a Rhodes Scholar, a college professor, and a successful writer, while his brother, Faruq, who is struggling with addiction, receives a life sentence for his role in a botched robbery and confidence scheme that turn deadly. Through personal recollections and lengthy interviews conducted through prison glass, Wideman compares the trajectory of his own life to that of his brother’s and, in the process, tells a story that grapples with race, identity, prison conditions, and the American Dream.
Robert Faruq Wideman is most widely known through his brother John Edgar Wideman’s memoir Brothers and Keepers. However, his personal accomplishments are remarkable enough on their own. While incarcerated, he earned a college degree and eventually began teaching math classes as part of the University of Pittsburgh’s educational programming in SCI-Pittsburgh. He is one of the co-founders of the Elsinore Bennu Think Tank for Restorative Justice, a co-author of the book Life Sentences: Writings from Inside of an American Prison, and the Executive Director of the House of Life-Pittsburgh (a program for returning citizens). Since his commutation, he has been employed as a community health worker specializing in the issue of homelessness.
In 1993, Faruq’s son was lost to street violence in Pittsburgh. Convinced that there was more than enough dark karma to go around, he became even more determined to break the cycle of violence that had fractured his family.
He was quoted as saying that all that he is currently involved in … “is an extension of what I’d been doing in prison. …I’ve been doing this for decades. I discovered the best way to help yourself is to help someone else.”