Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Genius Rides the Acela Alone

The title of the OpEd piece in today's New York Times caught my eye: "The Seat Not Taken."

Then I saw that it was written by John Edgar Wideman, who had been on the faculty at UMass Amherst, where I teach, and, upon "retirement," joined the faculty of Brown University, my alma mater. You can find our "connections" on the Provost's page at UMass Amherst.

The OpEd piece was haunting and painful for me to read so I had to write about it since it moved me very much.

John Edgar Wideman is a Fulbright scholar, a MacArthur Fellow (considered to be a genius award), and an author of acclaim who has received numerous awards and honors for his writings.

In the OpEd
, he writes how during his commutes from DC to Providence, Rhode Island, where Brown University is located, via the Acela train, the seat next to him is often vacant.

He writes: 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 would give anything to be able to sit next to him for the 6 hour ride on the Acela from DC to Providence or from Providence to DC to just be able to talk to him!

In the transportation & logistics class that I am teaching this semester the students and I often exchange our travel stories around the world and we have especially noted some magnificent train rides (including some high speed ones) that we have taken in Europe. We have even discussed such dreams as highspeed rail throughout the US. How painful that someone of the stature of a John Edgar Wideman feels ostracized while riding the Acela in the US!

By the way, his daughter, Jamila Wideman, who graduated from our local high school, Amherst High, and then went on to captain the Stanford University women's basketball team and then played for the WNBA, was just last week honored by the high school. She is now a lawyer and works in NYC.