A Transplant That Did Not Take: August Wilson's Views on the Great Migration

Article excerpt

On two occasions, I have witnessed playwright August Wilson stir his audience into an emotional frenzy simply by stating his views on the Great Migration. In September 1995, as a guest at a day-long series of forums at Howard University, and in April 1996, as the recipient of the 15th Annual William Inge Distinguished Playwright Award in Independence, Kansas, he articulated what has become for his plays a profound artistic influence and for his politics a well-rehearsed platform. Since neither of the two heated discussions afforded me the opportunity to record Wilson's comments, I was happy to find that he has aired the same controversial view on the Great Migration expressed in both Washington, D.C., and in Independence, Kansas, in several published interviews. In one such interview, he asserts,

We were land-based agrarian people from Africa. We were uprooted.

from Africa, and we spent 200 years developing our culture as black

Americans. And then we left the South. We uprooted ourselves and

attempted to transplant this culture to the pavements of the industrialized

North. And it was a transplant that did not take. I think if we had

stayed in the South, we would have been a stronger people. And

because the connection between the South of the 20's, 30's and 40's has

been broken, it's very difficult to understand who we are. (Rothstein 8)

In another, he notes,

We came to the North, and we're still victims of discrimination and

oppression in the North. The real reason that the people left was a

search for jobs, because the agriculture, cotton agriculture in particular,

could no longer support us. But the move to the cities has not been a

good move. Today ... we still don't have jobs. The last time blacks in

America were working was during the Second World War, when there

was a need for labor, and it did not matter what color you were.

(Moyers 167)

Blacks in both audiences cringed in disbelief, arguing passionately that the South held very few opportunities for their grandmothers and grandfathers, many of whom--given the prevalence of Ku Klux Klansmen violence, voter disenfranchisement, and the eternal financial rut of tenant farming--saw moving north as their only logical option. Whites, likewise, in both audiences, stood their ground, baffled that Wilson could not concede that the relative progress blacks have made in Northern cities was proof that the move even exceeded original expectations.

When pressed to respond to both groups, Wilson, without hesitation, easily shifted the direction of both debates from his implied call for contemporary descendants of the Great Migration to embark upon an actual physical relocation back down south to a sobering account of the extent of their rejection up north. In highly charged and eloquent, yet stinging, indictments of the North, Wilson takes as his text the "mistake" made by blacks in leaving the South yet focuses his verbal agility upon revealing the double jeopardy of their settling in the North. In both scenarios, Wilson's rhetorical maneuvers, his articulate and engaging delivery, and the sheer passion of his argument ultimately silenced dissenters. By the end of both sessions, neither audience seemed particularly aware of or bothered by his red herring tactic, nor did they appear conscious of the original premises of their respective arguments against him. What occurred in both instances, I contend, was the playwright's very calculated and choreographed invitation to both audiences to share and experience that same blues landscape that informs his plays. It is a landscape much like that designed by Jean Toomer, author of the soulful Cane, wherein the blues-ridden author "weary of homeless waters ... turns back to the ancestral soil, opens himself to its folk art and its folk ways, tries to find his roots, his origins . …