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An OpEd column by August Wilson: Feed your mind, the rest will follow

Sunday, March 28, 1999

By August Wilson

It is good to be here. It is good to come back. Coming back implies a going. I moved from Pittsburgh to St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 5, 1978. I left Pittsburgh but Pittsburgh never left me.

It was on these streets in this community in this city that I came into manhood and I have a fierce affection for the Hill District and the people who raised me, who have sanctioned my life and ultimately provide it with its meaning.

I got my first library card from the Hill District Branch of Carnegie library on Wylie Avenue in 1950. Labor historians do not speak well of Andrew Carnegie. Among other things, they call him a scoundrel.

But I can say nothing bad about a man who made it possible to sit in his library and read the labor historian reports. Andrew Carnegie will forever be for me that man who made it possible for me to stand here today.

From my early childhood, books have always been an important part of my life. That has carried over in my adulthood and I have often fallen asleep with a book in my arms where there should have been a woman. I have stained the pages of books with coffee, ketchup, water, mustard, bourbon and more than a few times with tears. I did not grow up around books. I grew up around the idea of reading. My mother had a sixth-grade education and the idea of reading was important with her.

If you could read, you could do anything. Without reading you were left to the devices of your own native intelligence and the things you could do were limited.

You were limited if you were the best of shoe cobblers and couldn't read the lease on your shop or the electric bill when it came or a note left with a pair of shoes that said, "Please replace heels and soles. I will not be able to pick up until the 19th as I am going to visit my Mother in Alabama."

You could be the best of chefs but you were limited if you couldn't read the menu or distinguish on the order form a case of chickens from a case of eggs or a sack of flour from a sack of rice. Or if you were a dishwasher going to apply for a job if you couldn't read the street signs to find the address.

You could be intelligent, you could be charming, well mannered, good natured with a sense of humor and any other attributes and social graces which are admired and respected, but if you could not read, you were limited in the application of your native intelligence.

If you could not read you were cut off from information. That is what a book is. It is like a computer disk with bits of stored information. Reading is like operating a computer. Marshall McLuhan said that. My mother understood it intuitively.

She recognized that she lived in a society in which information is equated with power. She learned this by observing the lives of her parents.

Sharecroppers from North Carolina, good, honest, intelligent people whose lives were rich and full in spirit but meager in provision because they could not read. And because reading was important to her and because she regretted she had to quit school to work in the fields, she taught me and my five brothers and sisters to read at an early age.

I was the one who wanted to read all the books in the house. I started on the Bible in the fifth grade and skipping the begats, figured I could finish it by the time I was grown. I read all of the Hardy Boys and my sisters' Nancy Drew mysteries. I wore out my library card and cried when I lost it.

I became notorious for keeping books past their due date. When I had an occasion to speak at the Carnegie Library in 1987, I returned a book, "The Collected Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar," that I had checked out in 1959. I read anything and everything. If it was in English, I read it. Editorials, essays, advertisements, instruction manuals, magazines, comic books, newspapers.

When I was 14, I walked into the Hazelwood Branch of the Carnegie Library on my way home from Louis Field with my basketball under my arm and changed my life.

I discovered the Negro section of the library with its 30 or so books. Before I was to discover Langston Hughes and Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, I discovered an obscure sociological text in which I came across the phrase "the Negro's power of hard work."

At that time I used to earn the huge sum of $3 for cutting Mr. Douglas' lawn. Mr. Douglas was the father of the Olympic gold medalist Herb Douglas and he was blind. I was proud of the fact that a blind man trusted me to cut his lawn and I am afraid that after reading that line about the Negro's power of hard work, I didn't so much cut Mr. Douglas' lawn as plow it.

That word power was magical. I had never seen or heard of it associated with the word Negro before. Even though the context of its usage was in explaining the Negro's suitability for slavery, it didn't matter. I wrenched it from its place in the text and set it separate in my mind in a high place.

Little did I realize that I would come back to that word "power" as a young man entering adulthood, associated not with hard work but the self-determination, self-respect and self-defense of those very same Negroes.

Had I not been blinded by the word "power" and read further, this particular text would have undoubtedly spoken about the Negroes' power of song, which would not have really meant anything to me then. Song meant Smoky Robinson's "Who's Loving You," Ray Charles' "Hit The Road Jack," James Brown's "Bewildered" and The Coasters' "Little Egypt."

It was years later that I would look behind the song for its philosophical ideas and attitudes that would make it the ladder of culture that the African used to climb into the new world. And it was some time later, without the basketball, that I returned and pulled off the shelf a book called "The Invisible Man."

It opened a world that I entered and have never left. I have for years been promising myself a second reading, as an adult and a much more experienced reader, but I continually forestall it because I do not want to abandon the magical and mystifying memory of that first reading.

If I have not read "The Invisible Man" again, I have read the poems of Langston Hughes over and over. They stand as timeless texts that are seminal to our experience in what the Hon. Elijah Muhammad called "the wilderness of North America."

It was only after reading Langston Hughes's "Mother to Son" that I realized my mother might have had a life outside my consciousness with a history and aspirations which I knew nothing about. All of these things as a 14-year-old kid, who because he weighed 175 pounds and was nearly as big as Floyd Patterson, wanted to be the heavyweight champion of the world for two months and Hank Aaron the next two.

The thing that was constant was that shelf in the library with those 30 or so odd books from which, after I read them and was preparing to move on, I took a lot of new ideas and discoveries about myself and what life as an adult could possibly mean and how it might possibly be lived.

But one thing I took beyond all others that that shelf of books gave me was the proof that it was possible to be a writer.

I decided that that is what I wanted to be, and I began to become discriminate in my reading. I sought out black writers. I read books on history, sociology. I began to understand the world and the society in which I lived.

I began to understand why all the positions of authority I had encountered in my 14 years - the teachers, the principal, the policeman, the mailman, the landlord, the grocer, the pharmacist, the people in the welfare department, the clerks in the department stores, the fireman, the streetcar conductor, the insurance man, the furniture salesman.

I began to understand why they were all white. I began to understand who I was and what expectations the society had of me. I began to understand how it was my grandmother and grandfather came to be in Spear, North Carolina. I began to understand the profound implications of slavery. How the denial of moral competence stripped one of the rights and investments of his humanity.

At the age of 15, betraying all my mother's hopes for me, I dropped out of school after writing a 20-page paper on Napoleon that the teacher did not believe I had written. I tore it up, put it in his wastebasket and walked out of the school. I did not return.

I dropped out of school but I didn't drop out of life. Not wanting my mother to know I was not going to school, I would leave the house each morning and go to the main branch of the Carnegie Library in Oakland, where they had all the books in the world.

The library was so vast I actually believed that, as a matter of course, they received all the books ever written. I would stay in the library till it was time to come home from school. I felt suddenly liberated from the constraints of a pre-arranged curriculum that labored through one book in eight months.

I began to read about things I was interested in. Cultural anthropology, theology, the Civil War, slavery, furniture making, photography, airplanes, automobiles, trains and boats, agriculture, culinary art, pottery and table manners.

I read biography to learn what a man's life might encompass. I read Moss Hart's "Act One." I read Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, W.E.B. Dubois' "The Souls of Black Folk," I read "Up From Slavery." I read the Emancipation Proclamation and the Constitution of the United States.

When I was 20, I left the library and I left my mother's house and went out into the community of the Hill District to learn what it was they had to teach me. I went out on the street corners, the bars and restaurants and barbershops to learn how to be a man, to learn what codes of conduct the community sanctioned and how I might best live a full and dedicated life.

What did the community of people among whom I lived and shared a common past expect of me? What conduct did they sanction? What did they condemn?

What maps had been prepared for me by the scouts, the elderly people whose arrival was a point of departure and who had carved out of the underbrush of America' s paranoia a path leading back to a time when this same community of people made do without surnames and lived in dirt floor cabins? What were their ideas and attitudes, their response to the world they found themselves in? What manner of being had they devised that corresponded to their sensibilities and their temperament? What strategies had they developed for engaging life and enlarging the spirit?

I found my dedication in the ideas of the black power movement and the old men, the elders of the community who would congregate in Pat's Place, the cigar store on Wylie Avenue. It was a simple dedication to live life with dignity and whatever eloquence the heart could call upon.

My discovery of the blues in 1965 was the last piece in the puzzle of my education. With the blues I had discovered the mythology, history and social organization of the culture I had learned at my mother's knee.

The blues was a response to the world of a specific culture and it provided me with a ground to stand on, a territory from which I might make further explorations and to which I could always return safe in the knowledge that there was no idea that could not be contained by black life.

It was not until I discovered the blues that I could look at myself as a black man and not find that wanting. I could look in the mirror and say that was sufficient.

Which brings me really to the point of my remarks here today.

Information without the cultural tools to assess its value, without the morality that teaches one how to use it, is empty information and does not contribute to our growth and survival as Africans in America.

For thousand of years, Africans have been transmitting information orally. Africans in America have continued that oral tradition. The information passed orally becomes part of the community's possessions and part of its strength.

Yet we have allowed the connection with even our most recent past to be broken and the values that were developed by generations of Africans in America, values that were tested and proven on the cultural battlefield of self-affirmation, to be torn asunder and scattered like so much cotton in the wind.

If we are not walking in our grandfathers' shoes, then whose shoes are we walking in? Our grandfathers and mothers lived and fought and died to preserve a way of life that was important to them. They taught us everything we know to be true. Every conceivable facet of life was mapped out and handed to us and we got the maps stored in the closet. We got them hidden under the bed. It has been years since we looked at them. Our children know nothing about them.

It's hard to follow the maps and kill somebody over $15 worth of narcotics. Everything on the maps says human life is valued higher than that. Everything in the books says there is a value and worth to a person's being that is not to be taken lightly. The book says, if you are going to participate in the process of evolution and survival, this is the way that we have found to live.

You have to make your spirit larger and stronger. It doesn't get larger by killing your brother. It doesn't get stronger by disrespecting your elders. The book does not say to steal your grandmother's TV to buy dope.

Out of the historical rubble of slavery, the African has forged new connections and new points of reference, fired in the kiln of evolution and survival. His culture is his weapon. It affirms the value and worth of his being. It is the ladder by which he has climbed into the new world. We cannot expect books to do the work that should take place in our hearts and our homes.

If the African who arrived in America chained and malnourished in the hold of a 350-ton Portuguese vessel is still chained and malnourished after 380 years, can it be anybody's fault but ours? Along with the information of books, we must provide our young people with the cultural tools to assess the world they live in.

We have an honorable history in the world of men. We have a moral personality and a right to our liberty and all that accrues naturally from that.

To provide our young people with anything less than a vivid understanding of that is to bankrupt their future and continue to limit their aspirations to a pair of tennis shoes, while the youth of the rest of the world boldly and imaginatively struggle to remake and seize every opportunity to make their lives more fruitful and fulfilling.

This is the text of an address given by August Wilson on March 18, 1999, at the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Hill District branch of the Carnegie Library.

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