Being Black on Amtrack

Although John Edgar Wideman is a celebrated author, I've only read a few of his novels. I've actually read more about his personal life as it is compelling. He was a Rhodes scholar and won the PEN/Faulkner Award, has a daughter who played professional basketball and has the double tragedy of a brother and a son in jail for life. 

A snapshot of his life:

John Edgar Wideman is one of the leading chroniclers of life in urban black America. An author who intertwines ghetto experiences with experimental fiction techniques, personal history with social events, Wideman is the only artist who has won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for literature twice.
For Wideman, an Oxford-trained scholar, that process of absorbing a community and relating its history artistically has provided grist for complex revelations on family relationships, isolation, and the search for self.
The novel Hiding Place deals with a young boy on the run from a petty robbery that turned deadly. The situation is very similar to the circumstances surrounding the incarceration of Robby Wideman. Robby, the author's younger brother, was sentenced in 1976 to life in prison for his part in a larceny/murder case. Wideman sought to understand his brother's plight, publishing Brothers and Keepers, in 1984. The book, Wideman's only major nonfiction piece to date, attempts to address the difficult questions of "success" and "failure" on white society's terms as well as the sense of guilt Wideman felt about his brother's fate.
Tragedy struck again in 1986. Wideman's second son, Jacob, fatally stabbed a fellow camper during an outing in Arizona. Both boys were sixteen. Facing the death penalty, Jacob Wideman agreed to plead guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. John Wideman has steadfastly refused to comment on the case in interviews. "I don't like to talk about it," he said.
In 1965 he married Judith Ann Goldman, an attorney, with whom he has three children: Daniel, Jacob, and Jamila. That marriage ended in divorce in 2000. In 2004 he married a former French journalist, with whom he resides on the lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City.

In early October, he wrote an insightful op-ed for the New York Times called, "Seat Not Taken". 

I’m a man of color, one of the few on the train and often the only one in the quiet car, and I’ve concluded that color explains a lot about my experience. Unless the car is nearly full, color will determine, even if it doesn’t exactly clarify, why 9 times out of 10 people will shun a free seat if it means sitting beside me.

I implore you to read it as it clearly presents how race still matters in the USA despite the progress made - progress that has given America our first black President.

As a man of color, I could easily identify to the "casual experiment" the author describes. Throughout my life, I've noticed similar instances although never thought to formalize my observations.

The article is printed in its entirety below. I feel it's important for everyone to read especially those who have little or no knowledge about this aspect of race in the USA.

Happy Gswede Sunday!
October 6, 2010

The Seat Not Taken


AT least twice a week I ride Amtrak’s high-speed Acela train from my home in New York City to my teaching job in Providence, R.I. The route passes through a region of the country populated by, statistics tell us, a significant segment of its most educated, affluent, sophisticated and enlightened citizens.

Over the last four years, excluding summers, I have conducted a casual sociological experiment in which I am both participant and observer. It’s a survey I began not because I had some specific point to prove by gathering data to support it, but because I couldn’t avoid becoming aware of an obvious, disquieting truth.

Almost invariably, after I have hustled aboard early and occupied one half of a vacant double seat in the usually crowded quiet car, the empty place next to me will remain empty for the entire trip.

I’m a man of color, one of the few on the train and often the only one in the quiet car, and I’ve concluded that color explains a lot about my experience. Unless the car is nearly full, color will determine, even if it doesn’t exactly clarify, why 9 times out of 10 people will shun a free seat if it means sitting beside me.

Giving them and myself the benefit of the doubt, I can rule out excessive body odor or bad breath; a hateful, intimidating scowl; hip-hop clothing; or a hideous deformity as possible objections to my person. Considering also the cost of an Acela ticket, the fact that I display no visible indications of religious preference and, finally, the numerous external signs of middle-class membership I share with the majority of the passengers, color appears to be a sufficient reason for the behavior I have recorded.

Of course, I’m not registering a complaint about the privilege, conferred upon me by color, to enjoy the luxury of an extra seat to myself. I relish the opportunity to spread out, savor the privacy and quiet and work or gaze at the scenic New England woods and coast. It’s a particularly appealing perk if I compare the train to air travel or any other mode of transportation, besides walking or bicycling, for negotiating the mercilessly congested Northeast Corridor. Still, in the year 2010, with an African-descended, brown president in the White House and a nation confidently asserting its passage into a postracial era, it strikes me as odd to ride beside a vacant seat, just about every time I embark on a three-hour journey each way, from home to work and back.

I admit I look forward to the moment when other passengers, searching for a good seat, or any seat at all on the busiest days, stop anxiously prowling the quiet-car aisle, the moment when they have all settled elsewhere, including the ones who willfully blinded themselves to the open seat beside me or were unconvinced of its availability when they passed by. I savor that precise moment when the train sighs and begins to glide away from Penn or Providence Station, and I’m able to say to myself, with relative assurance, that the vacant place beside me is free, free at last, or at least free until the next station. I can relax, prop open my briefcase or rest papers, snacks or my arm in the unoccupied seat.

But the very pleasing moment of anticipation casts a shadow, because I can’t accept the bounty of an extra seat without remembering why it’s empty, without wondering if its emptiness isn’t something quite sad. And quite dangerous, also, if left unexamined. Posters in the train, the station, the subway warn: if you see something, say something.

Would the space between them be just as wide on Amtrack?


Anonymous said...

It's a joke, this world is in so many ways is a joke.

We will continue focusing on making this a better world, you, me and everyone else we know that thinks and acts for the better of all mankind.

Anonymous said...

Read last week and forwarded to my daughter. She and my son experienced this in a movie theater.

Drew said...

The author illustrates an observation that I see all the time. Strangely enough, I see this more often in "enlightened" metropolitan areas than in less populated racially homogenous areas of the country. I think that this phenomenon is more due to the invocation of a protective cue necessary to live in big cities (which of course could be racially influenced) than it is a conscious action of racial disqualification.

Conversely, not all situations of racial disqualification can be described that way. For example, it seems that only in the real big cities (LA, NYC, Boston, and Chicago etc.) do I experience the "locked door" scenario. This is the situation where if I happen to walk past a car, typically in a parking lot, and that car is driven by a white woman, I can immediately hear the doors lock even before she starts the car.

As a black male (perhaps any darker race for that matter) you are frequently experiencing situations like this that you might think about and wonder. Sometimes you might change your behavior to preempt the ensuing anxiety that your race might provoke. Maybe I'll cross this lonely dark street at night walking 20ft behind a white woman to relieve her of her nervousness of having a black man walk behind her. I wouldn't normally do this, of course, but like the author, it will sometimes turn on my observation mode to see how the other person is going to handle it. Will they cross the street? Will they whip out their cell phone and pretend to talk? Will they stop and let me walk past? Will they not even care?

You might think that it only the case of a woman feeling physically vulnerable around a man - especially in environments where self-protection is limited or non-existent. This is might be partly true. However, if you ask, I don't think white male could ever recall a situation where this kind of racial evaluation might occur.

The author enjoys the space the empty seat provides him on the train whether his suspicions lead him to believe that it was a gift of the travel gods, or an oft maligned by-product of racial conscience. Likewise, I enjoy the ability of knowing that sometimes I can command the environment that allows me to deal with other people’s insecurities regarding race. Sometimes it's best to just kick your feet up and have fun with it.

Anonymous said...

you can count on people making decisions based on past experience, ignorance and fear in mixed amounts... it has caused many problems throughout the ages and things usually take a long, long time to change, mostly with hideous violent consequences...

Anonymous said...

Disturbing that that is the case in the 21st century. We still have a ways to go