A Short Biographic Sketch and Annotated Bibliography on August Wilson

By Martin, Basil D.; Downing, Michael | Making Connections, October 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

A Short Biographic Sketch and Annotated Bibliography on August Wilson


Martin, Basil D., Downing, Michael, Making Connections


Wilson's Life

Frederick August Kittel, whom we now know as August Wilson, was born on April 27, 1945, in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the fourth of six children and changed his surname to Wilson when he was 20, which was his mother's surname. His mother was Daisy Wilson, a black cleaning lady raised in North Carolina, and his father was Frederick Kittel, a white baker who had emigrated in childhood from Germany (Herrington). His mother divorced his father and married David Bedford, who was the inspiration for the character Troy Maxson, the father in the play Fences. Wilson was also inspired by the poetry and plays of Amiri Baraka, the paintings of Romare Bearden, and the music of Bessie Smith. Wilson once said in an interview with Sandra G. Shannon for the African American Review, "It's like our culture is in the music." He also said in the same interview, " and the musicians are way ahead of the writers I see, so I'm trying to close the gap." Wilson considered himself to be a "cultural nationalist." Samuel G. Freedman, in his article " A Voice from the Streets," said: "He is one part Dylan Thomas and one part Malcolm X, a lyric poet fired in the kiln of Black Nationalism."

Wilson ended his formal education in 1960 by dropping out of high school when his teacher accused him of plagiarizing a class paper on Napoleon, suggesting it was too good for a black boy to have written (Herrington). After he dropped out of school in the ninth grade at the age of 15, Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library became his new classroom, where he studied the works of Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and other African American writers ("Wilson, August," 1987). In a 1987 interview, Wilson said, "These books were a comfort. Just the idea black people would write books. I wanted my book up there, too, I used to dream about being part of the Harlem Renaissance" (Bogumil).

Wilson enlisted in the United States Army in 1962 but only served the first year of his three-year assignment before returning home to Pittsburgh (Herrington). Once back in Pittsburgh he worked various odd-jobs, such as gardener, short-order cook, porter, and sheet-metal worker. In 1965, aged 20, he bought his first typewriter, a second-hand Royal manual, earned by writing a term paper titled "Two Violent Poets-Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg," comparing the poetry of Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg (Herrington). Wilson's first writings were poems, some of which were eventually published in the magazines Black Lines, Black World, Negro Digest and Antaeus. He also produced some unpublished short stories written in authentic vernacular dialogue, which he would eventually bring to life in his plays throughout the years ("Wilson, August," 2006).

In 1965 Wilson helped to start Pittsburgh's Centre Avenue Poets' Theater Workshop (Bogumil). In 1968 he founded Black Horizons in the Hill District with playwright and teacher Rob Penny. It was a combined art gallery and theatrical troupe, which produced his early plays as well as various cultural programs ("Wilson, August," 2006). At this time the purpose of his plays was to " politicize the community and raise consciousness." In The Christian Science Monitor, Wilson is quoted as saying, "I think black theater of the '60s was angry, didactic, and a pushing outward. What I try to do is an inward examination.. ..I think Black Americans have the most dramatic story of all mankind to tell" (DeVries). Wilson's first theatrical success was in 1976, when his stage piece The Homecoming was produced at the Kuntu Repertory Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh. Later, a short dramatic effort, Fullerton Street, was produced at the Allegheny Repertory Theater in Pittsburgh ("Wilson, August," 2006).

In 1969 Wilson married his first wife, Brenda Burton, a Black Muslim, and a year later his first child, Sakina Ansari, was born (Herrington). In 1972, he divorced Brenda Burton because of political and religious differences (Herrington). …

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