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“The Seat Not Taken” by John Edgar Wideman

Posted by | October 07, 2010 | CONSPICUOUS | 9 Comments

Today my mother-in-law/Braydon’s mother sent to us this (below) New York Times editorial from yesterday. I thought I’d post this today as it speaks to something that Braydon and I talk a lot about: the reality that although we’re raising cute-verging-on-drop-dead-gorgeous, charismatic-charming-cheerful, bright-possibly-brilliant, Gap-HannaAndersson-Patagonia-Keen-wearing, Waldorf-educated, well-traveled, foodie-fun-loving black boys… they will grow up to be black men. And all that entails. This is something we’ve posted about in the past (for example, here), and something we talk about at home on a very regular basis. Cute little black boys do grow up to be black men. The question is not ‘what will happen in the future?’ so much as ‘how will we prepare them for it?’


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.
John Edgar Wideman is a professor of Africana studies and literary arts at Brown and the author, most recently, of “Briefs.”


  • Stacey says:

    Thanks for the interesting read. And it is interesting because it seems so foreign in a lot of ways. I live in the Toronto area and take a train every day to work from the burbs. We live in a very diverse city to the east of Toronto and the train is filled with white, black, chinese, etc. with no one hesitating to sit next to anyone. I’m sure I wouldn’t notice if there was anyone who was afraid to sit next to someone different but I see a mix of people all sitting together every single day and never hesitate to sit next to any single person. So I just find it surprising and sad that this kind of thing still takes place somewhere. I guess if it does happen on my morning train it would not be noticeable because there are plenty of people who *will* sit in that empty seat. It’s lousy that some people only see the colour of someone’s skin…

  • Mika Reynolds says:

    Heather, thank you for posting this. This was forwarded to me by a number of friends and adoptive parents yesterday and has been on my mind, but I was motivated by you to go ahead and post it on our own blog. We feel protected from this reality now because Kip currently attracts so many friends and such a high-degree of stranger love, but of course the reality is that this will not always be the case.

  • Jenn says:

    Wow, I am amazed, that in that area this would still be a truth. I hate it and it makes me so sad. My children are not African American but beautifully, obviously hispanic, maya probably, also smart, charming, athletic, darling, bordering on model quality, in my opinion and others. As far as I know, totally accepted by peers, for now, but what happens in a few years? Strangely, I am not as concerned for my daughter. I am not totally sure why and wonder if my own prejudices, that I don’t consciously understand or even think I feel, somehow say that it is harder for a non white boy to be the “boyfriend” of the little MN blond girl, then it is for the darling, “exotic” hispanic girl to date the white WASP quarterback. But I think that is a truth and I am sad and scared for my amazing, loving, wonderful son.

  • Gail says:


    Thanks for posting this. As I mentioned, it will be interesting to see if the situation changes with his editorial since many riders undoubtedly read the Times. Will they sit next to him now and say something? Will it be different when our boys are grown? We can hope.


  • MM says:

    My boy, your boys, our “boyz to men.” Thank you. Thank you.

  • Anna says:

    Wow, I only thought this happened in Italy. Isee this happening in Italy…usually the Roma people on the bus are the first shunned and then the other non-whites.

    I’m Canadian and like Stacey grew up in a multicultural (and in my case, multilingual) Canadian city…mine being Montreal, never thought twice about this until I moved to Italy and people “stepped back” cause I had a slight accent (no long gone).

  • Quanni says:

    This article reminds me of a book I just finished a week ago called: The Trouble With Black Boys: And Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education by Dr. Pedro Noguera. I started reading this book because my best friend Damien (whose a sociologist down to his bones even though he works in pharmaceuticals we joke) is having his first son and brought up lots of questions over boxed wine and Papa Johns Pizza. It’s a really good book. You should check it out if you have the time.

    • Heather says:

      Quanni— Yes!!! Noguera’s ‘The Trouble with Black Boys’! Great book! I’ve read it, and I have it on a special bookshelf waiting for the day when K & O will be old enough to read it themselves. Thanks for your comment, and thanks for reading! ~Heather

  • Kate says:


    This does happen here in the UK. As a commuter, as a petite young woman I find myself consciously choosing to sit next to women rather than men. This may be due to previous experiences of harassment or my own personal prejudices and insecurities. I do hear the message of this piece, and it does break my heart. My boyfriend is African and I am dark brown Indian so although skin tone to skin tone we match, we do get looks from people of all different ethnicities.

    As an aside, I remember reading on a blog somewhere a person asking when a child develops race and skin colour perception, and I thought to myself, as “well surely difference is obvious and when a child develops language he/she will voice his/her observations” however, that Black and White Doll experiment is heartbreaking the way it illustrates how racial prejudice is ingrained at such an early age.

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