Interviewed for an article in 1963, one of his white classmates recalled Wideman telling her that "he wouldn't want to be seen on the street alone with a white girl" and that "when class breaks came, he would seldom walk to the next class with the white students".
In his memoir, Brothers and Keepers, he described a heated freshman-year encounter with a white student in the dorm room of an African-American friend: the white student claimed to know more about blues music than Wideman did, and his friend refused to offer support.
Together, they relocated to an area outside of Pittsburgh either during or immediately after the American Civil War.
According to Wideman family lore, this ancestor first settled the area that eventually became the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Homewood, despite the fact that a white lawyer and politician, William Wilkins, is credited with founding the community. The couple moved back to Pittsburgh and the Homewood neighborhood after Wideman was born in 1941.
Wideman traces his roots to the period of American slavery.
On his mother's side, his great-great-great-grandmother was a slave from Maryland who had children with her master's son.
His personal experience, including the incarceration of his brother, has played a significant role in his work.
Currently, he is a professor emeritus at Brown University and lives in New York City and France.
According to Wideman, the encounter left him feeling that he had "no place to hide", I was running away from Pittsburgh, from poverty, from blackness.
To get ahead, to make something of myself, college had seemed a logical, necessary step; my exile, my flight from home began with good grades, with good English, with setting myself apart long before I'd earned a scholarship and a train ticket over the mountains to Philadelphia…if I ever had any hesitations or reconsiderations about the path I'd chosen, youall were back home in the ghetto to remind me how lucky I was.