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The New York Sun


Dog Days of August

May 17, 2007

By John H. McWhorter

I have seen all of the late August Wilson's ten-play cycle on the black experience. I treasure the memories of several of them, especially Fences and Seven Guitars. However, I have always been a little uneasy at the prospect of the final entry, Radio Golf, which takes place in the nineties. That's because I got the feeling that the nineties play would be about what a mess someone like me is.

And it turns out it is: Radio Golf just premiered on Broadway, with the message that to the extent that black people assimilate to white culture, they are losing their true "selves." Wilson's idea was that communities like the struggling but stable Hill District he grew up in in Pittsburgh were homes to "real" black people. He even calls said people the Nword, which shows that rappers are hardly the first to use the word as a term of affection.

I, on the other hand, am what one of the more "authentic" Radio Golf characters terms a "Negro." I have no music, I have lost my soul. I think I'm white, and since I'm not, I'm not really anything, except lost. According to the previous Wilson play that ran on Broadway, Gem of the Ocean, what might save me as a lost black person is a reaffirmation of my roots in Africa, enslavement, and survival.

I think I understand where Wilson was coming from. He grew up in the days of Jim Crow, when a black identity was not something to be chosen, nurtured and custom-fitted the way it is now. And Wilson was hardly alone in missing the community cohesiveness that this forged in black communities. One old timer describing growing up in the Hill District remembered that "I knew everybody on my block and they knew me."

Now, Wilson certainly knew that life in neighborhoods like this wasn't paradise. The same old timer, for example, also remembered "wind whipping through the gaps between the frame and the window, and the holes in the walls and the leaking and the toilet fixtures that work sometimes and don't work sometimes." It would seem that Wilson's ideal was for black people to become something like Fred Sanfords with money in the bank. With quality housing, but "knowing who we are."

But it's the "who we are" part that I have a hard time wrapping my head around. Several years ago a young black woman I was talking to said "I think we'll always be a sad people." I asked her why, and the upshot of the answer was that our psyches will always be stained with the trauma of dislocation and lost identity.

But to this, I still ask "Why?" I ask that not because I don't want it to be that way—although I don't. I ask that because it is really unclear to me that black Americans will be the only humans in history to never heal. I don't see the logic in it.

I, for one, feel thoroughly "real." I have plenty of music in me: I have hundreds of CDs and a piano. I suspect my CD collection and Wilson's would overlap only slightly—but I've got plenty of stuff Wilson would accept as authentically black, and I process all kinds of "realities" in the non-black music as well.

Yes, my wife is white. However, she sure looks real to me, and our relationship feels real, too; last time I checked she was my soulmate. With another roll of the dice, she may have been a black soulmate. They come in all colors.

As much as I have loved so many of Wilson's plays, I do not accept that the life I lead is unreal, inauthentic, or broken. Our vegetable garden is authentic, and I do not water my cucumbers because I wish I was white. My life is authentic. It is authentic to me.

I can understand Wilson's alienation from the mainstream, given the times he lived through. But I'm not sure this alienation can take us into the future.

In real life, quite a few of we descendants of the injured are thriving. Life isn't perfect, but we're making it. We're getting over, and in the process, getting over it. Wilson doesn't want us to get over it. But the racial identity he is suggesting is based on feeling ever conflicted, deeply different, with roots in a far off land in another time.

That might float some people's boats, but I am more interested in feeling whole right here and now. History is important—but not so much that, as Faulkner had it, the past isn't even past.

August Wilson was, no questions asked, real. I wish that in his parting message to the world, he could have allowed that I and millions of other black people leading lives like mine are real too.

Original Source:



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