Honoring August Wilson: Holding hallowed cultural ground

In the month of remembering, reading and raising up the work and life of August Wilson (April 27, 1945-Oct. 2, 2005), arguably the most successful and celebrated playwright in U.S. history, one is unavoidably impressed with his unswerving, deep-rooted love and appreciation of his people and culture as the central source of his grounding, his expansive grasp of human life and his impressive creative production. Indeed, he said of Black people and his work, “What I tried to do ... in all my works is to reveal the richness of the lives of the people who show that the largest ideas are contained in their lives and that there is a nobility to their lives.”

It is this unquestioning, uncompromising, richly unlimited valuing of our people and culture that not only defines Wilson’s work but also serves as a model of excellence worthy of preservation, emulation and transmission to this generation and future generations. For he rightfully reaffirms the fundamental Kawaida contention that there is no people more noble or holy, no history more sacred and no culture more ancient, rich, revealing and instructive than our own. And we are greatly impoverished and grossly mistaken to believe and act otherwise. For there is no sanctuary, salvation, hope or worthy future for a people who lose faith in themselves and look to others, even an oppressor, for value and validation. Indeed, it is inside ourselves, as a people and a culture, that we find indispensable meaning, models and maps to encounter and understand the rest of the world, embracing both our own particularity and our shared humanity with others.

This marking also reminds us of his classic speech in 1996, “The Ground on Which I Stand” and the homage he paid to the Black Power Movement in the ’60s, which he described as “the kiln in which I was fired” and having “much to do with the person I am today and the ideas and attitudes that I carry as part of my consciousness.” We remember also with great respect his friend and co-worker Oba Rob Penny, who worked with him from the beginning, building with him space and structures for their work and its continuation and helping to ground him in nationalism and cultural nationalism, especially Kawaida, which he acknowledges in interviews.

Although there are numerous resources of Black life and human history from which Wilson drew—from Bessie Smith, blues and Romare Bearden to Messenger Muhammad and Malcolm X—it is interesting to note he also embraced and built on two central concepts of Kawaida philosophy that played a key role in the Black Arts and Black Power movements: (1) the centrality of Black culture to art, life and liberation and an expansive conception of Black culture and (2) the Kawaida definition of Black Power, the collective struggle to achieve and sustain self-determination, self-respect and self-defense. Thus, Wilson said, “The ideas of self-determination, self-respect and self-defense, which governed my life in the ’60s, I find as valid and self-urging in 1996.” It is within this framework that Wilson begins, develops and ends his classic speech.