Booker T. Washington, August Wilson, and the Shadows in the Garden

By Menson-Furr, Ladrica | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2005 | Go to article overview

Booker T. Washington, August Wilson, and the Shadows in the Garden


Menson-Furr, Ladrica, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay situates dramatist August Wilson's twentieth century cycle dramas within the socioeconomic theory espoused by Booker T. Washington in his "Atlanta Exposition Address." The essay suggests that, similar to Washington, Wilson recognizes the value of farming and land ownership as viable components in the African American male's history.

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"Whereas in Egypt the coming of the locust made desolation, in the
farming South the departure of the Negro laid waste the agricultural
industry--crops rotted, houses careened crazily in their utter
desertion, and grass grew up in streets. On to the North! The land of
promise."--Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah's Gourd Vine

Historically, the African American man has shared a connection with the American soil. Despite the chains of slavery, the binds of the sharecropping system, and the instability of landownership in the Jim Crow South, the black man has been able to establish a relationship with the soil of a nation that has been strengthened by his toil and irrigated by his blood. This idea has been discussed in both historical and literary texts. I contend, however, that nowhere does this symbiotic relationship between the black man and the soil resonate more significantly than in the twentieth century cycle dramas of playwright August Wilson. With the production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, August Wilson set out to compose a cycle of dramas that would chronicle the history of African American culture during each decade of the twentieth century. While scholars have discussed Wilson's works in numerous ways, I would like to contribute a more focussed discussion, noting how Wilson has embedded the agrarian roots of the African American culture, specifically the black man's connection to the land, into the foundation of his dramatic texts and has challenged his audiences to consider his theory that "it was a transplant that did not take" (Rothstein, as qtd. in Shannon 659). He dramatizes how the migration of African Americans from the South to the North failed in its "promise" to reward the southern black severed from his home with a new life. Moreover, Wilson's theory suggests that the black male northern transplant will always, in memory or deed, carry the southern retention of farming in his blood, for it was in the blood of his father.

In The Past is Present in the Dramas of August Wilson, Harry Elam asserts that: "Wilson's cycle suggests that the tensions between father and son that contribute to anxieties of black masculinity must be addressed by confronting the past, finding room for forgiveness as well as resistance, re-membering the 'father's story' in ways that allow one to hold on but also let go" (145). Drawing on Elam's reading of Wilson's cycle dramas, I argue that Wilson not only examines the tensions between father and son as explorations of black masculinity, but that these tensions also reflect the location of the "father's story." Usually for Wilson this story is set on a farm in the American South, and deals with the son's attempt to learn from or dismiss this stigmatized chapter and space in the annals of African American male history. What Wilson undertakes in his examination of this tension is similar to what Booker T. Washington accomplishes in the infamous "Atlanta Exposition Address" as he advocates that blacks should "cast down their buckets" into the trades learned in the school of American slavery. Wilson's dramas re-define and re-present the image of the black man on the farm, transforming him into a hero and his farm work into a noble profession through which he is given the power of creation, and the "green thumb" of life, to save his race and himself. This "green thumb" is located and illustrated in what I identify as both a hereditary and geographical connection to the southern soil. In The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Two Trains Running, and King Hedley II, August Wilson re-introduces the shadow in the garden--the black man--to the American literary imagination and uses his cycle series as a vehicle to educate his audiences about the black man and his desire to transform the southern gardens of slavery--the plantations and sharecropping fields--into his own Edenic, American Paradise. …

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