Wideman was born on June 14, 1941. He grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA and much of his writing is set there, especially in the Homewood neighborhood of the East End. He graduated from Pittsburgh's Peabody High School, then attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he became an All-Ivy League forward on the basketball team. He was the second African-American to win a Rhodes Scholarship (New College, Oxford University, England), graduating in 1966. He also graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa.
A widely-celebrated writer and the winner of many literary awards, he is the first to win the International PEN/Faulkner Award twice: in 1984 for Sent for You Yesterday and in 1990 for Philadelphia Fire. In 2000 he won the O. Henry Award for his short story "Weight", published in The Callaloo Journal.
His nonfiction book Brothers and Keepers received a National Book Critics Circle nomination, and his memoir Fatheralong was a finalist for the National Book Award. He is also the recipient of a MacArthur genius grant. Wideman was chosen as winner of the Rea Award for the Short Story in 1998, for outstanding achievement in that genre. In 1997, his novel The Cattle Killing won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction.
He has taught at the University of Wyoming, University of Pennsylvania, where he founded and chaired the African American Studies Department, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst's MFA Program for Poets & Writers. He currently teaches at Brown University, and he sits on the contributing editorial board of the literary journal Conjunctions.
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.
Jamila Wideman later became a professional basketball player in the Women's National Basketball Association and the Israeli League.