The Dilemma of Writing

In my latest review at Splice, I conclude that John Edgar Wideman’s American Histories might be the best book I’ve read so far this year. That’s due in no small part to Wideman’s unflinching analysis of the ethical dilemma at the heart of his writing practice as a relatively privileged member of an underprivileged minority group:

Broadly considered, Wideman’s body of work reveals a lifelong interest in African American experiences over the last two or three hundred years. Fair enough, and unsurprising in light of the author’s background. But American Histories zeroes in on a more specific and more recent sort of experience, an experience of falling outside the cultural logic that determines the experiences of many others. The logic runs like this. Historically, most African Americans have been at least disenfranchised, and more often outright abused, by white people in positions of power. Currently, many if not most African Americans remain effectively disempowered by political and economic forces that maintain the systemic structures of white privilege. Relative to white Americans, throughout the history of the United States, the majority of African Americans have been and continue to be disproportionately disempowered: by slavery, by segregation, and more latterly by a criminal justice system that upends African American lives as effectively as those prior historical forces. But —

But social statistics can’t reckon with the stuff of individual being. While they may be symptomatic of the forces that colour the majority experience of a particular demographic, they’re not able to speak to the demographic in its totality. What troubles Wideman’s conscience in American Histories is the firmness of his claim to a social identity in light of his status as a statistical outlier. Relative to other African Americans, and especially to other African American men, John Edgar Wideman enjoys a social and economic position of enviable privilege. By what logic can he assert a right to speak for African Americans less privileged than himself? Indeed, by what logic can he assert a right even to speak of them?

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