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You Good evening, I'm Bill Moyers. Can music change your life? It sure can if you're young, you're black and you've never heard anyone sing the blues before. Tonight a successful American playwright tells us how Bessie Smith spoke to his soul and his spirit and why the Cosby Show doesn't. Join me for a conversation with August Wilson. This program is made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
A world of ideas with Bill Moyers. It's been a long road for playwright August Wilson from a boarding house in Pittsburgh to the Broadway stage. Wilson worked and obscured into 1984. When Ma Rainey's black bottom hit New York, his play about musicians who struggle not to sell out to white tastes. We're in Seoul, Africa for the price of the millions. We're in Seoul ourselves to the white man in order to be like him. Look at the way he dressed. That in African? That's the white man. We're trying to be just like him. We don't so who we are in order to become someone else. We just have the imitation white man. For what else are we going to be living over here? I'm living just me. I ain't no imitation nothing. You can't change who you are by how you dress. That's what I got to say. It ain't even all how you dance. That's how you see the world. That's how you find a life. It don't matter what you're talking about. I ain't no imitation white man. I don't want to be no white man. Beneath that drive to be someone Wilson found bitterness.
God, take a niggas prayers and throw them in the garbage. God don't pay niggas no mind. In fact, God hating it. He will all flow in it. Jesus don't love you now. Jesus, hate no black ass. Come talking at you to me. Talk about burning hell. Niggas, God can kiss my ass. Wilson took that fury and created a powerful drama about fatherhood in his next Broadway production, Fences, starring James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson. You eat every day. Yes sir. Got a roof over your head. Yes sir. And clothes on your back. Yes sir. Why you think that is? Because of you. Hell, I know it's because of me. Why you think that is? Because you like me? Like you? I go out of here every morning and bust my butt, putting up with them crackers all day long,
because I like you. You're the biggest fool I ever saw. It is my job. Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Fences in 1987. He is riding a cycle of plays to resurrect black forces from every decade of this century. For all his success Wilson lives quietly in Minnesota. I visited him at the Playwright Center here in Minneapolis, which supported his work early on, and where he still feels at home. Your plays are set in the past. Joe Turner 1911, Marraini 1927, Fences the 1950s. Do you ever think about riding about now, about what's happening in your time in mind today? I don't look at our society that they too much. I'm still, my focus is still in the past. And part of the reason is because when I do, the world's spring of my art and what I do, I get from the blues. So I listen to the music of the particular period that I'm working on. And I think inside the music is clues to what is happening with the people. And I don't know that much about
contemporary music. So if I were going to write a play set in 1980, I would go and listen to the music. And why were blues so important? Is it Marraini who says that you sing the blues, not to feel better, but to understand life? Sure, blues are important primarily because they contain the cultural expression, the cultural response to blacks in America and to the situation that they find themselves. And in contained in the blues is the philosophical system at work. And as part of the oral tradition, this is a way of passing along information. And in order if you're going to tell someone a story of you, you want to keep information alive, you have to make it memorable so that the person here will go tell someone else's side stays alive. So blues was the way of doing that. And the music then provided you with emotional reference for the information. And it was sanctioned by the community in a sense that if someone else sang the song, or other people sang the song, they kept it alive because they sanctioned
the information that was contained. Do you remember the first time you heard the blues? I do. Very specifically, I remember Bessie Smith. I used to collect 78 records that I would buy from St. Vincent de Borsdor in five cents a piece. And I did this indiscriminately. I just take whatever was there. Ten records. And I listen to Patty Bage and Walter Houston September song. And one day in my stack record, there was a yellow label record that had a typewritten label, which was kind of odd. And I put it on. And there was nobody in town with the biggest weed joy roll like mine. It was by Bessie Smith, of course. And I listened to it and I had one of those old 70s where he had to keep putting them needle. And I recall I listened to the record 22 straight times. I had never, in my 20s, 22, just over, you know, I had never heard anything like it. And I was literally stunned by its beauty. It was very much different than Patty Bage singing,
whatever she was singing. And it spoke, there was an immediate emotional response. What did I say? Well, it was someone speaking directly to me about about the fact that this is mine. And this is something that I can connect with that I instantly, emotionally understood that all that the rest of the music I was listening to did not concern me was not a part of me. But this spoke to something in myself and it said this is yours. You said earlier that music is a way of processing information. What was the information that Blues brought to a kid named August Wilson? One that there could be that there was a nobility to the lives of blacks in America, which I didn't always see. I was at that time living in a rooming house in Pittsburgh. And after I discovered the Blues, I began to look at the people in the house a little differently than I had before. I began to see a value in their life that I simply hadn't seen
before I discovered a beauty and a nobility to, in essence, what was their struggle simply to stay alive, their struggle to survive. The mere fact that they were still able to to make this music, it was a salute to the testament to the resiliency of their spirit. You know, as you talk, I think of these black teenagers in the ghetto, Newark in particular, where I spent a lot of time filming a documentary for CBS. And I think of those moments in Joe Turner when your play, when the characters are absolutely struck dumb because, as you wrote, they ain't got words to tell. And I think of those kids in Newark. They don't have words to tell their story. The Blues don't speak to them. It's mainly rap. Do you think August Wilson could write a play about those kids? Sure. I mean, we come out of the same tradition. We come out of the same culture.
I haven't, is everything early? I haven't actually stopped to look at what is happening with them. In particular, life, yeah. But there's no question because it's me also. You were a dropout, like a lot of these kids in the ghetto today. Who reached you? Who brought the poet to life in you? I think it was my mother. I mean, she's the one who taught me how to read. Also, reading was very important there because she stressed the idea that if you can read, you can do anything. But if you could read, why did you leave high school? I was bored. I was confused. I was disappointed in myself. I didn't do any work in at your school until my history teacher assigned this to write a paper on a historical personage. I choose Napoleon. Why Napoleon? I had always been fascinated with Napoleon because it was a self-made inquiry that your Hugo said that Napoleon's will to power. It was a title of my paper and I submitted it to my teacher. He didn't think I read it and he wanted me to
explain to him and I had my bibliography and my footnotes and I felt that's all the explanation. I should give. Well, I'm sure of that was he gave me a feeling great on a paper. He had written an A plus on it or an E and said, I'm going to give you one of these two grades. When I refused to prove to him that I'd written a paper other than the say that I had written it, he circled the E and handed it back to me and I tore the paper up, threw it in his waist basket and walked out of the school. I was 15 years old and I did not go back. How were the next morning I got up and I went and played basketball right underneath the principal's window. As I looked back and of course I went in and come out and say why aren't you in school so I could tell him and tell someone and he never came out. Do you ever go back to what did they call it the hill that was your area, the hill in Pittsburgh? What's happened to it? The same thing has happened to most black communities. Most of it is no longer there.
It's the buildings and what used to be at one time a very thriving community, all but a depressed community but still there were stores and shops all along the avenue. They are not there anymore. When I left my mother's house I went out into that community to learn what it meant to be a man and I still have family there. So I go back as often as I can. I go and I stand on the corner and say yeah this is me. Have any of those people seen any of your playing? They have yes. Do they talk to you about them? They do. There are some of the guys on the avenue people that you see just hanging out on the street. All I know they don't really know what brother, they don't know anything. All I know is you did something and they don't walk up and they say hey are you dumb man proud we proud of you. It was the fact that someone from that community did something whatever. You once wrote one of your characters said everyone has to find his own song. How do these people find their song? Well I think they want to have it. They just have to realize that and they have to learn how to sing it. In that particular case in Joe Turner
the song was the African identity. It was connecting yourself to that and understanding that this is who you are. As an African. I mean these people in Pittsburgh you think must find the African that's in them or in their past before they really know who they are. We are Africans who have been in America since the 17th century. We are Americans but we are first of all we are African. There's no way that you can dispute the fact that we are African people. We have a culture that is separate and distinct from the mainstream white America's culture. But friends of mine who go back to Africa say that they find themselves thinking and being treated as if they were American tourists. No question. They're Americans. Sure. Sure. And absolutely and if you take these people I'm talking about you take them back over to Africa they walk around trying to figure out what the hell is going on and there's no way they're taken relate to that. You see
bits of sensibilities are African. They are Africans who have been removed from Africa. You know the Jews in their Passover celebration always in by saying next year in Jerusalem they have a fixed place but what does it mean to next year in Africa? Part of what our problem is Blacks in America is one that we don't claim that partly because of the linguistic environment in which we live in. And I was in Tucson at the writers conference and I challenged my host to pull out his dictionary and look up the words white and black and he looked up the word white and he came up with things like white unmarked by malignant influence of desirable condition, a sterling man upright fair and honest and he looked up the word black and you get a villain marked by malignant influence, unqualified violator of laws, etc. These are actual definitions in which there's dictionary. So this is a part of the linguistic environment
so when white America looks at a black they see the opposite of everything that they are not. Some whites are saying today that for blacks in the ghetto to emerge into the mainstream of American life they really have to become mainstream Americans. They've got to become part of the white culture that you can't exist, you can't thrive in a mainstream culture unless you become like the mainstream culture. Well they hold up examples of the Irish or the Germans. These are all Europeans who share the same sensibilities as the mainstream so it's very easy for them to melt but we cannot change our names and hide behind the label of being an American because we're very visible minority. You can look at us, you can see us coming up block away. So there's no way that we can melt into the power. Other race offenses are the orientals. They allow their cultural differences. You look at an oriental and they may do things very differently and they do they participate in the world differently than Europeans do. Chinatown in San Francisco is a tourist
attraction. Yes. Harlem is not. Harlem is not. Yes. So it's because we allow the Chinese to have their cultural differences. I don't know if we do a lot and we salute them for it. You see the blacks are not allowed. The blacks are expected to become like whites without really understanding in order to do that that we have to turn our head around almost 360 degrees. You see because our worldviews are so drastically different to begin with. But if blacks keep looking for the African in them. If they keep returning spiritually or emotionally to their roots, can they ever come to terms with this dichotomy, with living in these two worlds. They're always going to be held by the past in a way that is potentially destructive. Oh, I know it's potentially just destructive at all. In other words, to say that I am an African, that I can participate in a society as an African. I don't have to become, I don't have to adopt European values, European aesthetics,
European ways of throwing things in order to live in the world. What's your opinion then of the Cosby Show? Do you ever see the Cosby Show? It does not reflect Black America into my mind. In what sense? In most of Black America's housing projects, without jobs, living on welfare, and this is not the case in the Cosby Show. Because all the values that household or strictly what I would call white American values, it would be hard pressed to even, to even you can search the entire United States. And I think you would be hard pressed to find that family. Despite the fact that there are some blacks who have, quote, made it, who have money and who own their own houses. For instance, who are not a welfare, who are educated, who have responsible jobs. They actually make a very small portion of Black America. Most of Black America is
crowded in housing projects looking for jobs. Well, I understand that. But again, back to the Jewish Passover, where the Jews pray next year in Jerusalem. Since Africans don't have a Jerusalem, don't they have to say next year in the American dream, I have a dream that I can make it in this country. Isn't that the Jerusalem for Black America? Well, maybe, but there's another part of the Passover. And I was invited to one time and for the money invited me. And I went and I was struggling with the very first words. It starts off, we were slaves in the land of Egypt. You see, now that's the, that's the first thing. And then next year in Jerusalem comes at the end. But they were constantly reminding themselves of what this historical situation has been. So, you know, I think, for instance, I found it criminal in the fact that we, after hundreds of years in bondage, do not celebrate our emancipation proclamation. That we do not
have a thing like the Passover, where we sit down and we remind ourselves that we are African people that we were slaves because we try to run away. We try to hide that part of our past. We don't have that. If we did something like that, we say this is who we are. We recognize the fact one that we are Africans. We recognize the fact that we were slaves and we recognize that since we have a common past and we have a common future also. You remind me as you talk of the fact that both Jews and blacks have been through such great suffering. And yet, as they went into the ovens or owned of the slave ships, they kept singing the song of the Lord. And when I think of that, of the faith of both peoples, I think of, of, of, of levy in Marraini's black bottom. Remember, he hears that a white mob has forced a black preacher to humiliate himself and he cries out, where the hell was God when all this was going on? What saw this Wilson's answer to
that question? Well, it was, it was the wrong God that he was expecting to come and help him. I think as he later points out, he answers the question himself as if this is the white man's God. If you, the fact that Africans, when he came to America, their religion was stripped from them, everything, their language, their culture, their ideas, and when you look in the mirror, you should see your God. If you don't, you have somebody else's God. So, in fact, what we do is, we worship an image of God, which is white, right? Which is the image of the very same people, we're talking about image now, the very same people who have oppressed you, who have put you on the slave ships, who have beaten you and who have forced you to work, etc. The image was a white man. So, the God of the slave holder can't be the God of the slave? There's no question, no, there's two different things. The paradox for August Wilson, at least to me,
if I can be personal for a minute, is you had a white father. I did, yes. And yet you chose the black route. Because the cultural environment of my life was black. Because as I grew up, I learned black culture and the name of those knees, so to speak. You didn't make a conscious choice. I'm going to choose black culture. And of course, just who I always have been, the cultural environment of my life has always been the forces that have shaped me, the nurturing, the learning of all the black ideas about the world. You see, when I went to fences, I wept. I wasn't an outsider, even though it was about the black experience in America. I wept at the relationship between the father and the son, at the mother, who was so loyal to a disloyal husband, at the importance of tradition, the role of the community. I wept. I was not an outsider there. I felt a part of that experience you were writing about. But you were writing about black America. I tried to explore in terms of
the life I know best, those things which are common to all culture. So, this was a specific fix of the player. Black, the commonalities of culture, or larger, the universualities in the play. So, I think you were able to make connections with the father's, because the plays, the specifics of black, but you have father, son, conflict, you have husband, wife, you have whatever. So, you you're not unsympathetic to those blacks who look at the hostables in the Cosby Show and see there something that they want, something to achieve. You're saying that's not the whole story. It's not the whole story. And of course, everyone, I mean, you go into Newark and to get over Newark and you ask the people what they want. They want these and homes. They would like to be the Huxibles. This is what they want, but there are no avenues for them to do that. In order to do that, one, you have to deny a white America, the social contract, the white Americans give them blacks. If you want to participate in society, you have to
deny who you are. You cannot participate in society as African. You can't come and bring that African stuff. But the dominant commercial ethos in America so strong that it seems to me, and there are so many more people who watch television than attend the plays, that it seems to me the hostables are winning the battle for the black imagination and that the August Wilson's and the Choi Mattsons and the Marraini's are losing. Yes, but you see, I think even blacks who sit up there and look at the Cosby Show and one of they may want to participate and share some of the wealth, say, the Cosby, they understand that's foreign to them. That is not the way they live their lives. That is not the way they socialize. They recognize it immediately. That's the way white people do that. But they would like to have that and still be who they are and still socialize and do the things that they do. They would probably go out and buy big Cadillac because it says of style is different and it might be a yellow one or pink one. There's simply aesthetics that basically we do everything differently. But we still would like
to have whatever rewards the society has to offer to someone who is willing to work and who has a talent to basically to sell. You once said, Mr. Wilson, that the most valuable blacks were those in prison who had the warrior spirit, as you called it, in the African sense. Men who went out and got for their women and children, what they needed when all other avenues were closed to them. Who do you think has the warrior spirit in America today? Who's fighting the battle? I think those same people for the most part, I think every sense we've been since the first African set foot on the continent, there has been a resistance. And I think that this spirit is best exemplified in those, not necessarily all of them are in a penetrate. The ones because of that spirit, they find themselves on the opposite side of the society has constantly tried to crush that spirit. I was going to suggest maybe the middle class, the black middle class,
possesses that warrior spirit today in the sense that they're struggling in a white man's world to make it, to provide for their children, to keep that house, pay that mortgage, send those kids to school, to live the life of responsibility, that there's a struggle going on there in the in the black middle class. The real struggle has been since African first set foot on the continent and affirmation of the value of oneself. And I think if in order to participate in American society in order to accomplish some of the things which the black middle class is accomplished, if you have had to give up that self in order to accomplish them, then you are not making affirmation in the value of the African being. You're saying that in order to do that, I must become someone else, I must become someone else. The example I always use is I was in the bus station in St. Paul and I saw six Japanese Americans who were sitting down having breakfast and I simply I sat in and observed them and they chatted among themselves very politely and they ate their
breakfast, they got up and they paid the bill and they walked out and I sat there and I said, what would have been a difference if six black guys that come in here and sit down? What is of course the difference is the first thing I discovered is that none of the Japanese guys played the jukebox. So the first thing was six black guys walking there, somebody's going to go over to the jukebox. They're going to put a quarter in the jukebox, somebody's going to come up and say, hey, Rowdy, man, play this and he's going to say, now, man, play your own record. You know, hey, I'm playing with you, don't believe my record, man, put your own quarter in there. The second thing I noticed, no one sent anything to the waitress. Now, six black guys, like, hey, man, what's happened? What's your phone number? Now, I don't talk to him, he can't read, but give me a phone number. The guy's going to give the player another record, somebody's going to still piece of bacon off his plate. He's going to come back, say, man, we've been missing with my food. I ain't playing with y'all, don't be. We've missing with my food. When the time come to pay the bill, it's going to be, hey, Joe, lend me a dollar, man. So if you were a white person sitting observing that, you would say they don't know how to act, they loud, they don't like one another,
the guy wouldn't let him play the record, the guy stole food off his plate, but if you go to him six guys and say, what's the situation here, you find out they're the greatest of friends, and I just have them breakfast, the same way the Japanese guys had breakfast, but they do it a little differently. This is just who they are in the world. They cannot not do it like that because that's who they are. So you've answered my question. I was going to ask you, don't you grow weary of thinking black, writing black, being asked questions about blackness. Oh, how could one go weary of that? I mean, you never transcend who you are. From the playwright's center in Minneapolis, this has been a conversation with August Wilson. I'm Bill Moyers. This program was made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
For a transcript of this program, send $3.2, a world of ideas, journal graphics, 267 Broadway, New York, New York, 1007. Videocasset information is also available at this address. I'm Bill Moyers. Join me for part two of a conversation with the writer and thinker Isaac Asimov as we test the proposition that people want something real at the end of the day, next time on a world of ideas.
A World of Ideas
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August Wilson
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Playwright August Wilson says he has found great inspiration in the blues. Wilson broke onto Broadway in 1984 with MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for FENCES. He is at work on a cycle of plays that will resurrect Black voices from every decade of this century.
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Award(s) won: George Foster Peabody Award for the series
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A WORLD OF IDEAS with Bill Moyers aired in 1988 and 1990. The half-hour episodes featured scientists, writers, artists, philosophers, historians -- some well-known, many never before seen on television.
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: Konner, Joan
: Moyers, Judith Davidson
: Tucher, Andie
: Doctoroff O'Neill, Judy
: White, Arthur
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Editor: Moyers, Bill
Editor: Doniger, Scott P.
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Producer: Knull, Kate Roth
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Chicago: “A World of Ideas; 129; August Wilson,” 1988-10-20, Public Affairs Television & Doctoroff Media Group, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 20, 2024,
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