Author John Edgar Wideman to deliver MLK Day keynote

John Edgar Wideman, two-time winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, will address Bates College as the keynote speaker for Bates’ Martin Luther King Day celebration on Monday, Jan. 18, at 10:30 a.m. in the Clifton Daggett Gray Athletic Building.

Author of a new novel Two Cities (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), Wideman’s talk will be part of a two-day-long series of activities and presentations centered on this year’s theme of Two Societies, with a focus on class through the lenses of race and gender.

Wideman, whom The Los Angeles Times calls “our most powerful and accomplished artist of the urban black world” is the first two-time recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award, which he won for Sent for You Yesterday (Allison and Busby, 1985) and Philadelphia Fire (Vintage, 1991). His 12 fiction and two nonfiction works include Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society (Pantheon, 1994), a finalist for the National Book Award, and Brothers and Keepers (Holt and Winston, 1984).

Born to a working class African-American family in Pittsburgh, Wideman received a degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at the New School of Oxford University in England, where he earned a philosophy degree. He was the subject of a 1963 Look Magazine article “The Astonishing John Wideman.” Long interested in becoming a novelist, he starting writing at the conclusion of his Oxford years.

Wideman’s own life provided the basis for some of his writing. His brother was convicted and sentenced to life for murder committed during a robbery, though the conviction was overturned. The experience set the scene for Wideman’s memoir Brothers and Keepers. Called “a literary tour-de-force” by Library Journal, his novel The Cattle Killing is about love and family, ancestors and inheritance, slavery and freedom and the bonds separating blacks and whites.

A resident of Amherst, Mass., Wideman is a professor and associate dean of the faculty of humanities and fine arts at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He also enjoys following the exciting career of his daughter, Jamilla Wideman, a WNBA star, profiled in a 1997 Sports Illustrated cover story.

Additional events for the day include a morning coffee-hour commemorative including video clips of King’s marches in Chicago to challenge fair housing, an Andrew Young speech highlighting King’s relationship to Benjamin Mays ’20 and Bates, and the famous “I Have A Dream” speech from August 1963. Following Wideman’s talk will be followed by lunch and a series of afternoon workshops sponsored by academic departments, including two speakers sponsored by The Multicultural Center. Sharon Robinson, daughter of the famed Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, will discuss her father’s activism against racism in baseball as well as his civil rights alliance with King. Joan Elbert, a former neighbor of Black Panther Fred Hampton, will discuss COINTELPRO: The FBI’s Covert War Against U.S. Citizens.

An evening program will present The Stuart Sisters, a dramatic duo from Philadelphia, who present a poignant history of American life, featuring the African-American experience. This same program will be performed in the afternoon to accommodate the work schedules of college staff.

On Sunday, Jan. 17, at 7 p.m. in the Bates College Chapel, the Rev. Dr. Gloria White-Hammond, pediatrician at the South End Community Health Clinic and associate pastor of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston, will deliver the 1998 Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture, with music for the accompanying service provided by Cultured Voices and the Bates Community Gospel Ensemble.

The Martin Luther King Day at Bates continues as a day committed to thought, teaching and reflection for the entire community. Unlike other academic campuses, where King’s birthday is a day off, classes at Bates are set aside for all students, faculty and staff to participate in the programming.

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