August Wilson was born on April 27, 1945 in the Hill district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – an area that was a black slum community. He grew up to be a playwright; his first produced play, Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, was staged in 1981.Three years later, Wilson achieved national recognition for his very successful play Ma Raine’s Black Bottom, produced at Yale University and later in New York. By the early 1990s, he was the best-known African American playwright in the United States. Among Wilson’s other well-received plays were: Fences (the story of a character named Troy Maxin, a 1950s-era illiterate garbage collector who is enraged at a white-controlled society that he believes has denied him an opportunity for baseball stardom); Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (the story of Harold Loomis, a black man cruelly incarcerated for seven years in the early Twentieth century by white authorities for an unspecified offense); and The Piano Lesson (the story of a black man who aspires to buy the same Mississippi land that his ancestors once worked as slaves).
In 2003, Wilson won the Heinz Award for “Arts and Humanities.” In the words of the Heinz Endowments, Wilson is constantly “stirring us with passion and challenging us to recognize the truths [sic.] about ourselves.” Two years before receiving the award, he stirred passion with an e-mail exchange posted on the Slate website. The exchange began on September 10, 2001. The day after 9/11, Wilson counseled:
“To understand the politics, we need to look at the origins of the war and understand that it is not a war driven by territorial disputes and fought by standing armies, but hatred for our [Americans’] arrogant display of power and our seeming callous indifference to the rest of the word’s humanity. Then I think we can, as you say, begin to address “the deeper problems that made for this fanatic hate.”
That same day (September 12), he gave this military advice:
“I suggest we forgo any military action against a handful of elusive and destructive terrorists and use our resources, and the unconquerable will of the American people, to rebuild the World Trade Center on the exact spot (Phoenix rising from the ashes) as a testament to the resiliency of the American spirit. This, to my mind, would be the truly heroic thing to do.”
The next day (September 13), he reaffirmed that America had finally gotten what it deserved:
“If, as you say, this act of terrorism says to the world, ‘You will not live in your dream, you will live in ours,’ then it is a reversal of roles. So much of America’s policies and practices, its influence on global politics and economics has resulted in us saying the very same thing to the rest of the world. The terrorists may well be responding to the ‘profound psychic humiliation’ of being colonized by another’s ideas.”
Wilson also expressed concern that the deadly terrorist assault “will fan the flames of patriotism.”
Wilson viewed the 2003 war in Iraq as a huge political blunder by the Bush administration, a blunder founded on a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates America’s enemies. Moreover, he characterized as assaults on civil liberties the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 anti-terrorism measures instituted by the U.S. government. “Away from home,” said Wilson, “we are engaged in a war that robs us of our energies and steals from our national treasury. That it is a war based on false premise and carried out with escalating misconduct and protracted deception is not our immediate concern. A more pressing matter is that the foundation upon which this country has stood from its inception is in danger of crumbling from assaults upon its principles and the articles that guarantee our liberties. . . . [O]ur enemies are not mad, bloodthirsty fanatics who exist only to kill. They are intelligent men who believe they have valid political agendas. We ignore that at our peril. It is we who are at the crossroads. This is the history we are making. Each and every day. Millions of children, born and unborn, will travel roads we have hacked out of the underbrush of the events of 9/11. . . . We cannot allow the values that were developed by generations of Americans — values that were tested and proven on the battlefield — to be scattered like so much cotton in the wind. You are either going to have civil liberties as defined and guaranteed by the Constitution, or you’re not. You can’t have some and not others. You cannot be ambiguous about the Constitution. You cannot assault its articles in the name of patriotism. No matter how dire the circumstances.”
Wilson reported that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer in June 2005. He died on October 2, 2005, at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.
Much of this profile is adapted from 57 Varieties of Radical Causes, published by Ben Johnson in September 2004.