If the blues is the wash of black suffering hung up to dry in the sun of pitiless self-reflection, then August Wilson was our greatest lyrical washerman. He was also the most gifted blues poet on the American stage. He bathed the soil of bigotry in the rhetoric of black spirituality. And he made raucous black vernacular an agitator to stir hope into motion.
“I think the blues is the best literature that we as blacks have created since we’ve been here,” Wilson said. “And it’s a lot of philosophical ideas. I call it our sacred book. So what I’ve attempted to do is mine that field, to mine those cultural ideas and attitudes and give them to my characters.”
When Wilson says the blues are literature, he is not exaggerating its importance but underscoring the blues’ sublime literary qualities. The blues are brief bursts of sonic fiction that vibrate with signifying lyrics, double entendres, and the effortless interplay between personal and social forces. The blues give lyrical shape to the hurts and affections that stymie and transform black life. The blues tap comedy to temper tragedy—and to tame the absurd. Wilson’s characters mouth those truths with moral clarity.
“White folks don’t understand about the blues,” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, dubbed the “Mother of the Blues,” says in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to Levee and her other sidemen during a lull in recording in a white-run studio. “They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand it’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life. . . . The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone. There’s something else in the world. Something’s been added by that song. This be an empty world without the blues. I take that emptiness and I try to fill it up with something.”
Not only do the blues sound literary, but Wilson refuses to draw distinctions between the kind of wisdom we get by the blues and the kind we get from philosophy. In Wilson’s work, blues artists are grassroots philosophers. Some of them are gutbucket epistemologists who make and analyze claims of knowledge grounded in black experience. Others are earthy ethicists who grapple with the evils that mar their lives and those of their loved ones.
Ma Rainey’s speech argues two interlocking ideas: that whites lack knowledge of the blues, while black folk know little else. Blacks have the blues because whites have, in large measure, given blacks the blues while striving to have as little of the blues as possible. It’s clear in Ma Rainey’s soliloquy that epistemology and anthropology are linked. Rainey asserts the moral priority and social privilege of black knowledge, that is, what black folk know is more important than what white folk know; it is important for black survival, and important, too, for acknowledging white humanity.
When Rainey says that white folk don’t understand the blues, she’s making an argument about how they’ve managed to escape the knowledge that black folk can’t escape—that the blues are knowledge that black folk can’t help having and that white folk can’t possibly possess. To be sure, white folk can have their version of the blues, but they don’t have the blues the way black folk have them. The circumstances of black life compose the blues; the conditions of black life create its artists; the constraints of black life shape its forms; and the content of black life supplies its themes and vision. When Rainey says white folk don’t understand the blues, it’s really another way of saying they don’t understand the scope and sweep of black life; they don’t understand its goals and methods, its aspirations and inspirations alike.
Rainey says white folk hear the blues but don’t know how they got there, that is, in black life, in black lore, in black legend, and especially in black throats and black bodies. Rainey’s statement is as much about creativity as it is about procedure—as much about the mystery of beginnings, and origin myths, as about the means of artistic production. Rainey claims that epistemology and cosmology are connected since life itself speaks through the blues. Rainey also claims that whites don’t understand that the blues aren’t essentially about catharsis or performance, at least not performance on the stage, but rather, the blues involve the performance of knowledge and interpretation, making the blues, in technical terms, a hermeneutical experience. Rainey says the blues give black folk a reason to keep going, to keep living, and offer them a consoling companion in a lonely universe. The blues artist fills the empty spaces of existence with meaningful music. Wilson’s blues poetry has the same effect.
If Wilson grappled with epistemology in Ma Rainey, he also confronted theodicy, or the philosophical and theological question of evil, of how one could claim God to be good, all-powerful, or all-knowing, while black pain persisted. Wilson’s blues captured the harrowing intensity of black suffering while giving voice to its victims.
“God,” the character Levee says in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, waiting a beat, letting “God” hang in the air. Levee then weighs in with counterevidence of God’s greatness, employing the N-word, repeatedly, in shocking opposition.
“God take a nigger’s prayers and throw them in the garbage. God don’t pay niggers no mind. In fact, God hate niggers.”
What Levee’s arguing is the suppressed Job-like premise of black suffering: the logical possibility that the God you love may hate you. William R. Jones argued—in a book with one of the bravest and most controversial titles a black intellectual has ever conjured, Is God a White Racist?—that one must be willing to consider that God just doesn’t love black folk. Levee was beyond considering it; he embraced the idea at full rage, his voice rising to a furious bellow, at least when I saw Charles Dutton play the role in 1984. A moment later, Levee is taking on the afterlife, those believers who “come talking . . . to me . . . about burning in hell.”
The threat of eternal damnation leaves aside a more disturbing query: What about God’s disbelief in us? Levee seems to be saying that that’s hell enough. And thus the threat of hell is really the threat of another hell, because the first one is already too dangerous, too dark, for us to consider. Tupac Shakur expressed that belief when he rapped, “We probably in Hell already.” Shakur was also skeptical of religious claims of a hell to come, and the angry religious figures who denounced him for proclaiming hell on earth in the form of black suffering: “The preacher want me buried why? Cause I know he a liar / Have you ever seen a crackhead, that’s eternal fire.”
Finally, Levee says, “Nigger, God can kiss my ass.” He prefaces his blasphemous dismissal of God with a vernacular (I am quoting the original production), and, for some, an offensive and painful reference to black folk that expresses the only redemption in that sentence—a term of racial derision transmuted to a term of endearment. But the N-word is also seen by many folk as the opposite of all that religion suggests; it helps Levee express a pervasive secularism that he sees as the most effective way to destroy the illusion of religion.
Wilson put powerful ideas into the mouths of his characters, spelled out in the black vernacular, which didn’t simply refer to language, but also embraced their native haunts where commerce and culture collaborated, and sometimes collided: the jitney station, the barbershop, the backyard, the parlor, the pool hall, and the diner where Wilson took his notebook as a homespun philosopher and as an eerily accurate ethnographer. Those gathering places—and the accoutrements and implements we find there, including a fence, or a piano, each of which is a synecdoche of racial memory and struggle in Wilson’s plays—are sacred spaces where black life is worked on, worked out, and worked into fighting shape, or at least good-enough shape to face our problems and to sing the best blues possible.
In Fences, for example, star athlete Cory asks his garbage collector father Troy, an embittered former Negro baseball league player who crushes Cory’s collegiate gridiron dreams, why he never liked him. “Who the hell say I got to like you?” Troy responds. Troy calls Cory’s a “damn fool-ass question,” assails the logic of such a query, and then asks Cory if he ate every day, had a roof over his head, and clothes on his back. When he answers yes, Troy asks his son, “Why you think that is?” “Cause you like me,” Cory says. Troy’s ire is only slightly tempered. In their tense interaction, Wilson stages a seminal moment where the implicit casts it robes on the floor and gets emotionally naked.
“Like you?” Troy says reflectively, slightly mournfully, in gentle anger. “I go out of here every morning . . . bust my butt . . . puttin’ up with them crackers every day . . . cause I like you?” Troy says, repeating Cory’s phrase in disbelief. “You about the biggest fool I ever saw.” Troy makes explicit what is often left unsaid between fathers and sons. “It’s my job. It’s my responsibility! You understand that? A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house . . . sleep you behind on my bedclothes . . . fill you belly with my food . . . cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not cause I like you! Caust it’s my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you!” Troy demands Cory’s full attention as he hammers the central point like he hammers nails in the fence of the play’s title. “I ain’t got to like you. Mr. Rand don’t give me my money come payday cause he likes me. He gives me cause he owe me. I done give you everything I had to give you. I gave you your life. Me and your mama worked that out between us. And liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain. Don’t you try and go through life worrying if somebody like you or not. You be making sure that they are doing right by you.”
Wilson lays bare the logic of black devotion to kin and fights the myth of universal black male irresponsibility. Troy growls his commitment to Cory and gives voice to the tension between obligation and affection, and argues that duty is the highest expression of love, that the bottom line in rearing and loving kids is, indeed, the bottom line: providing shelter as a metaphor for housing the bodies of black children and protecting them from natural and man-made elements. And teaching them that respect is the coin of the realm in the wider, whiter world.
Wilson’s blues were surprisingly feminist, too, and imagined how women chafed under a gender double standard as men failed to understand that women live in the same world of desire as they do.
“I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot with you,” Troy’s wife, Rose, says to him. “Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me. Don’t you think it ever crossed my mind to want to know other men? That I wanted to lay up somewhere and forget about my responsibilities? That I wanted someone to make me laugh so I could feel good. You not the only one who’s got wants and needs.”
Wilson’s domestic blues shape his ability, in King Hedley II, to intertwine complicated social issues: the grief of a mother after her son dies at the hands of the police while another woman wrestles with her decision to abort a baby without telling the father. Tonya justifies her decision to abort King’s unborn child because Tonya’s still growing, hasn’t been able to fully teach the daughter she already has about life, and she wants to spend time mothering herself and not raising more children or grandchildren. This is the sort of self-maintenance that men need never justify, nor worry that in embracing it they will appear selfish. Tonya has battled bruising doubt and comes, at last, to her decision to abort with radiant finality, thinking that she might have kept her unborn child from a life of misery or, paradoxically, of dying violently before its time. If some blacks justify corporal punishment by arguing that they’re disciplining black children so they won’t step out of line and lose their lives by arguing with police, then Tonya’s logic goes a step further as the ultimate gesture of black social protection. It’s not unlike black mothers aborting their babies in slavery to keep another soul from toiling in chains in this world.
“I’m through with babies,” Tonya says. “I ain’t raising no more. I ain’t raising no grandkids. I’m looking out for Tonya. I ain’t raising no kid to have somebody shoot him. To have his friend shoot him. To have the police shoot him.” In those three staccato phrases Wilson rebuts the alleged indifference of black folk killing other black folk. Tonya can’t see the difference between death at the hands of the police or from mayhem with “friends” when the result is the same: One’s child is dead, or one’s child is the killer.
Why I want to bring another life into this world that don’t respect life? I don’t want to raise no more babies when you got to fight to keep them alive. You take little Buddy Will’s mother up on Bryn Mawr Road. What she got? A heartache that don’t never go away. She up there now sitting down in her living room. She got to sit down ’cause she can’t stand up. She sitting down trying to figure it out. Trying to figure out what happened. One minute her house is full of life. The next minute it’s full of death. She was waiting for him to come home and they bring her a corpse. . . . I ain’t going through that. I ain’t having this baby . . . and I ain’t got to explain it to nobody.
Wilson’s blues not only underscore the right of women to own their bodies, but the pain of seeing the bodies of their babies perish at the hands of friends or foes and not being able to do a thing but cry bitter tears and try to explain the unexplainable. Though written decades before the tragic murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Wilson manages to capture the sentiments of their mothers, Sybrina Fulton and Lesley McSpadden, women made famous because their sons didn’t come home but perished at the hands of a private citizen and a cop under extremely suspicious, and I would say unjust, circumstances—deaths that helped spark a movement against black death at nonblack hands, especially those of the police. Far less famous are those mothers and fathers who bury children taken from them by other black folk. Both varieties of death visit incalculable hurt on black communities and bring inconsolable grief to black mothers.
By tracing the shape-shifting black zeitgeist that lighted on the twentieth century—by discerning, in ten plays set in each decade, its anatomy, and its logic, rationale, varied artistic and social expressions, and its virtues and promises, its joys and hopes, its pains and torments—August Wilson gave us as thrilling, complex, and synoptic a view of black life as any artist has rendered. By choosing the philosophically suggestive blues as a medium of expression, Wilson grasped the simple yet surpassing humanity of black life and gathered its component agonies and aspirations in the majestic sweep of his gritty and graceful poetry. As shaman and showman, as poet and playwright, as philosopher, anthropologist, and literary craftsman and critic, August Wilson was a twentieth-century giant who not only bestrode the culture like a colossus, but who composed words and characters that made black folk understand just who we are, as our lives played out on stage for the world to see.