August Wilson examines the ugly contradictions in American history

August Wilson, May 1985
Playwright August Wilson discusses his new work at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, Conn., May 4, 1985. Person at left is unidentified. (AP Photo/Bob Child)
Bob Child | Associated Press file 1985

In order to understand the persisting suspicion between black and white Americans, it is essential to put your concerns and difficulties in a historical context.

That was the mission of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson when he spoke in 1991 at the University of Minnesota Alumni Association, rebroadcast on MPR News recently.

"I am here to make a testimony of sorts," Wilson said. "I do not speak for black America ... it would be the greatest of assumptions to say I speak for them. I speak only for myself and those who may think as I do."

Wilson said that not consider himself a scholar and that his remarks are based on observations.

Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh with his mother, three sisters and two brothers. "We were poor, but my mother's strength of character and unswerving principles made us rich in spirit and bountiful in the many facets of love and endurance."

He dropped out of school at a young age, "but I did not drop out of life."

In his travels he observed that many people perceive the black experience as simple and exhaustible — meanwhile countless artistic and educational pursuits are focused on the white experience.

In order to understand the why behind these occurrences it is necessary to look to slavery in America.

"It was an idea in the mind of someone capable of empowering it, of investing it with seed and germination. It was an idea that compelled inventions and inspired logistics," said Wilson.

It is a cruel irony, Wilson said, that the travelers who settled in North America in search of freedom would eventually take the freedom of others and use them for trade.

Having either forgotten or never learning the culture of their homeland, Africans began to develop their own way of life in America.

"And it is this culture that I learned in my mother's house, that this society has willfully and systematically tried to destroy," Wilson said.

He titled this keynote address "Odyssey of an African in America." Wilson died of liver cancer in 2005. This year, a film based on his play "Fences" received four Oscar nominations. Wilson wrote the screenplay.

To listen to the speech, click the audio player above.

Further reading

• More: Before 'Fences,' August Wilson was a poet - and a St. Paulite

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