Friday, February 25, 2011


I've always seen my 15-year friendship with August Wilson during his time in Seattle as an enriching experience for which I am thankful. He was one of America's most celebrated playwrights, like my brother (we were only three years different in age), and in my story (or perhaps it is really an essay) "Night Hawks," I describe the 8 to 10-hour dinner conversations we had for a decade and a half.
"Race" is a subject I generally only think about when someone puts that topic directly in front of me. But August thought about it all the time, 24/7. And because he devoted so much thought to it, he always during our conversations said something about race that I found insightful, and unforgettable.  For example: August once told me about his participation on a panel with other playwrights. One of them, a white writer, was talking about something and suddenly referred to August, saying his plays were about race. (Probably because his characters are black.) Well, if you know anything about August Wilson, you know that his comeback to that would be memorable. He said, "And your plays aren't about race?"
What is important here, I think, is that everything in our social experience has a racial register, whether we are aware of it or not. The white playwright on that panel probably didn't see that his work is indirectly and inevitably about race because his characters never discuss it and it is not a theme, premise or a dramatic situation in his plays. He had the social luxury of not seeing this, of race being invisible in the imaginative worlds he creates. But what August, for whom understanding race was a matter of survival, was pointing out (no doubt painfully to that writer) is that the very historical and existential situation of that playwright's characters in the world---in a society where whiteness is privileged---means that their opportunities, their options in life from the moment they are born, the spaces they can move through with ease, what they read, who they associate with and marry, every one of their decisions small and large has a racial signature on it, whether they like that or not. Who his characters are today is linked to the history of slavery and racial segregation that precedes them and makes the specifics of their social world possible. All one has to do is look hard enough and one will see that. The absence of "race" (people of color, or black American history and culture) in his plays made the experience of "race" all the more present, if one has well-trained eyes.
The eyes of August Wilson were finely tuned to how race historically seeps into and saturates our social lives the way water does in sand. 

1 comment:

  1. The idea of a "racial signature" is very suggestive. The white playwright mentioned here ironically has the luxury of ignorance: he can afford (really he mistakenly thinks he can afford) to leave blank the racial signature of his work. But that signature is still there, at some level. Ellison speaks for him, too, if only on the lower frequencies.