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An August Occasion

Thinking through Wilson's legacy

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We're honoring August Wilson on May 30 with a landmark dedication ceremony outside his birthplace, at 1727 Bedford Ave. His résumé is long, his awards prominent, his successes outstanding, and his gifts unending. And oh yeah, he was born and raised in the Hill District.

I remember talking to Wilson one day, and being struck when he said there was a time he didn't believe he was going to live to be 21 years old. Pittsburgh was very rough for a young, black man. (Times have changed, eh?) I remember how many times he told audiences that he'd been a high school dropout. Wilson had fortitude, gumption and intellectualism. But he was also one of the "lost boys," one of the fellas hanging out in the streets, not entirely sure what to do.

He wasn't a "street kid." Not that many people are. But even as a "lost boy," he was young, gifted and black -- with all of the complexity and contradictions such an identity entails.

When I think about what it's been like to grow up in Pittsburgh -- thinking about the times I've felt so lost, watching other people wonder how they got lost -- I also think long and hard about how someone such as August Wilson was "found." How I was found. And, simply put, it was the recognition that as blacks we have a history and heritage that long outweighs the negative imagery and false superiority people in this city, and country, have about us.

We're an African people: varied, complex, diasporic, "Americanized," the whole nine -- but that is who we are. And it wasn't until I understood that basic fact, outside of my general value of myself as a human being, that the world seemed to open up to me. There was just so much I didn't know about what it was to be African in this world.

The civil rights and Black Power eras in this country are directly related to the African independence movements of the 1950s and 60s. Within a 16-year period beginning in 1957 (Ghana's independence), 18 African countries became liberated from European domination and control. I can't even imagine the hope that had to have inspired throughout Africa, but I am a direct recipient of what it inspired here. I've got Rosa and Malcolm and Ella and Angela and Huey and Kathleen and Martin and Bobby to thank.

As an activist, I've been repeatedly asked why and/or how I think I could represent my community (be it Hill residents or African Americans or maybe even women or academics or whatever) without having been elected. Or maybe I'm supposed be sanctioned by the imaginary local equivalent of an Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. I mean no harm when I respond with long, gasp-filled laughter ... but even if Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson lived in the Hill District, I would not feel the need to obtain his permission before standing up for the principles I believe.

The individual is inherently connected to community. In the African community, we believe in "call and response." You make a call, and if the response is great, then that is your election, my friend. When 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. attended small community meetings, that was one thing. When he spoke at church the Sunday before the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, that was quite another. The response was resounding, and that was his election.

Indeed, based on the numbers in the last primary, many people were more inspired to show up for local rallies against casinos, save affordable housing and fight public bus cuts, than they were to show up at the polls. Yes, I wish we remembered that these two activities are inherently interrelated. But even if one does not vote, it does not mean that one's voice can't be heard.

There is a very stagnant way of thinking in this city that is fueled by old money. It's blind, it's somewhat callous, it's patronizing and paternal. Many of you, for example, are short-sighted enough to believe that so many young people are dying because of "snitching" ... and that so many young people are uninspired because they're simply apathetic. You're wrong.

And old money with no progressive vision will never allow a young August to thrive here. Or even to live past 21 years old.

Dr. Goddess Says: Thou Shalt Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way

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