Poets & Writers

Playwright August Wilson on Writing About Black America

Watch video from Bill Moyers' 1988 conversation with the playwright behind Fences, a Pulitzer Prize-winning work that was nominated for a number of Oscars this year.

Watch: August Wilson on 'Fences' and Writing About Black America

One of the films in contention for multiple awards at the Oscars this Sunday is Fences, a cinematic adaptation of an August Wilson play ushered onto the big screen by Denzel Washington. The film was nominated for a number of Oscars, including best picture, best actor (for Denzel Washington), best supporting actress (for Viola Davis) and best adapted screenplay — an Oscar that would be awarded to the late playwright, who died in 2005.

Back in 1988, Bill Moyers spoke with August Wilson about his plays, which chronicle the African-American experience throughout the 20th century. Their conversation took place a year after Wilson won his first Pulitzer Prize (for Fences), and two years before he won his second (for The Piano Lesson). Bill had just seen a performance of Fences, and spoke to Wilson about it, and how race informed his writing.




BILL MOYERS: A paradox for August Wilson, at least for me — if I can be personal for a minute — is you had a white father.

AUGUST WILSON: I did, yes.

BILL MOYERS: And yet you chose the black route, the black culture.

AUGUST WILSON: Because the cultural environment of my life was black. As I grew up, I learned black culture at my mother’s knee, so to speak.

BILL MOYERS: You didn’t make a conscious choice? I’m going to choose black —

AUGUST WILSON: No. That’s who I always have been. The cultural environment of my life has always been- the forces that have shaped me, the nurturing, the learning, have all be black ideas about the world.

BILL MOYERS: Do I hear you arguing for separate but equal cultures? 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.

AUGUST WILSON: I try to explore in terms of the life I know best those things which are common to all culture, so while the specifics in the play are black, the commonalities of culture are larger. There are universal realities in the play. So you’re able — I think you were able to make connections with the father’s — because the specifics are black, but you have father-son conflict, you have husband-wife, you have whatever.

BILL MOYERS: So, you’re not unsympathetic to those blacks who look at the Huxtables on The Cosby Show and see there something that they want, something to achieve. But you’re saying that’s not the whole story.

AUGUST WILSON: That’s not the whole story. And of course, everyone — I mean, you can go into Newark, the ghetto in Newark, and you ask the people what they want; they want decent homes, they would like to be the Huxtables. 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 white America. The social contract that white America has given blacks is if you want to participate in society, you have to deny who you are. You cannot participate in the society as Africans. You can’t come and bring that African stuff.

BILL MOYERS: But the dominant commercial ethos in America is 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 Huxtables are winning the battle for the black imagination, and that the August Wilsons and the Troy Maxsons and the Ma Raineys are losing.

AUGUST WILSON: Yes, but you see, I think even blacks who sit up there and look at The Cosby Show, while they may want to participate and share some of the wealth, say, of the Cosbys; 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 that immediately as 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 thjngs that they do. They would probably go out and buy a big Cadillac, because their sense of style is different. And it might be a yellow one or a pink one. And it’s simply aesthetics, Basically, we do everything differently. But we still would like to have, you know, whatever rewards the society has to offer to someone who is willing to work and who has the talent to, basically, to sell.

BILL MOYERS: 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 of their avenues were closed to them. Who do you think has the warrior spirit in America today? Who’s fighting the battle?

AUGUST WILSON: I think those same people, for the most part. I think ever since 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 the penitentiary — but the ones, because of the spirit, who find themselves on the opposite side of the society that has constantly tried to crush that spirit.

BILL MOYERS: 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 black middle class.

AUGUST WILSON: The real struggle has been since Africans first set foot on the continent, an affirmation of the value of one’s self. And I think if, in order to participate in American society, in order to accomplish some of the things which the black middle class has accomplished, if you have had to give up that self in order to accomplish that, then you are not making an affirmation of the value of the African being. You are saying that in order to do that I must become someone else, I must become like 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 sat there and observed them. And they chattered 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 the difference if six black guys had come in here and sit down? What is the cultural difference? And the first thing I discovered is that none of the Japanese guys played the jukebox. So the first thing when six black guys walk in there, somebody’s going to go over to the jukebox, they’ll go and put a quarter in the jukebox. Somebody’s going to come up and say, “Hey, Rodney man, play this.” And he’s going to say, “No, man, plan your own record.” You know. “Hey, I ain’t playin’ with you. Don’t play my record, man. Put your own quarter in there.” And the second thing I noticed, no one said anything to the waitress. Now, six black guys, “Hey, mama, what’s happening, what’s your phone number?” “Naw, don’t talk to him, he can’t read, but give me your phone number.” The guy’s going to get up to play another record, somebody’s going to steal a piece of bacon off his plate, he’s going to come back and say, “Man, who been messin’ with my food? I ain’t playin’ with you all, don’t be messin’ with my food.” When the time comes to pay the bill, it’s going to be “Hey, Joe, loan me a dollar, man.” Right?

So if you were a white person sitting observing that, you would say they don’t know how to act, they’re 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 them six guys and say, “What’s the situation here?” you’ll find out they’re the greatest of friends and they’re just having 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.

BILL MOYERS: 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?

AUGUST WILSON: Well, how could one grow weary of that? I mean, you never transcend who you are.