August Wilson, R.I.P.

The playwright August Wilson died a few weeks ago. He was a powerful and unique writer, and a powerfully unique man. Five years ago, I had the chance to interview him for a book I was writing, Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper. I was interested in Wilson because Confessions was about my childhood infatuation with Franco Harris, a football player with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh; like Franco Harris, he had one black parent and one white; and I’d seen enough of Wilson’s plays (“Fences” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” are probably his best-known) to realize that the themes of my book — sport and manhood and heroism — were pretty important to him, too.

As it turned out, my interview with Wilson never made it into Confessions. It was too good. Wilson was such a heavyweight, intellectually and emotionally, that his stories would have swamped the little story I was telling, like a big freight ship charging past a canoe.

I don’t usually get sad when people die, especially people I barely know. But Wilson’s death did make me sad — not only because he was too young but because he represented a lot of things that I cherish about writing, about thinking, about living. So here is my very small tribute to Wilson, an abridged version of our conversation that day.

It took place on a winter’s late morning in New York at the Edison Hotel coffee shop (a.k.a. The Polish Tea Room), a scruffy theater hangout where Wilson sometimes sat and wrote (reportedly on napkins, which I never quite believed). He wore a dark greenish suit, fairly stylish, with a black turtleneck; his hands were finely shaped and he wore a wedding ring. He gestured constantly as he talked, hands and head and his whole body, especially when the talk turned to boxing.

SJD: Did you have a childhood hero?

AW: Sonny Liston was the hero. Without question. Sonny Liston was, you know, a boxer, he knocked guys out. I made a strong identification with him. Sonny Liston was Sonny Liston, this indestructible force. Most of them, he’d knock out in one or two rounds. He was just fearless, and for a young kid to make that identification with someone who actually knocked people out — it could transport your frustrations, let him carry all that for you. No matter what the situation was in the world, family, school, whatever, with Sonny Liston it was like, We’ll get even with you man. I fell for him right away.

Why’d you fall for him?

I hated Floyd Patterson. Floyd wasn’t a champion, as far as I was concerned, because he ducked Sonny Liston. I don’t know, first time I saw Hank Aaron, ’57 World Series, and I go, “Aw, he ain’t gonna do nuttin’.” And I remember my stepfather said, “Naw, he’s good, watch this boy, he’s good.” I think it was because he was black that I thought, ‘Aw, he ain’t gonna do nuttin.'” Bam, he hit the ball. I didn’t go around knocking people out as a kid, didn’t have to, I had him. I wasn’t angry as a kid, nothing like that. Some other kids didn’t like Liston. Liked Floyd Patterson. And of course, as you go along, when you get to the sociology of the first Patterson/Liston fight, Bobby Kennedy stopping by Patterson’s dressing room, telling him to “keep the title in the country” – so there’s a line that was drawn between those who were Sonny Liston fans and those who were Floyd Patterson fans. I still mark people by this day, what side of that divide they were on. Liston was the boogey man, the black man that was under every white man’s bed. He was an ex-convict. Made him that much more appealing to me, because he was an outsider.

How’d you feel when Ali came along?

Didn’t like him at first. This guy come in, start talking. Odd, and then he was predicting the knockouts. Then he fought Liston, I thought Liston would knock him out. Ironic, watched it right here on one of these corners here [in Times Square], they sell TV’s. Got a good look at it, I saw he couldn’t handle his speed, Ali was too fast. He couldn’t find him. Damn. Ali kept jabbing. It was sad. I came to embrace Ali, became a big fan of his. Course, that was after he became a Muslim, Vietcong stuff, etc. But he was for what he believed – how could you not like a guy like that?

Did you read everything you could about Liston?

Everything I could get my hands on. Sport magazine, etc. He was special. In 1968, he fought a fighter named Leotis Martin, and I watched it, up at my girlfriend’s house. The two Ali fight notwithstanding — I was saying they were both fixed — here was Liston on the comeback trail, knocked out about four guys, was beating hell out of Leotis Martin, just a matter of time, and Leotis Martin hit Liston with a right hand, just stunned him, stopped there, balled up, and Liston fell down. Totally unbelievable. I couldn’t see the TV because I was crying. This was legitimate, it was clear — when he got beat, I cried, I said, Okay, man, I’m my own hero now, I don’t need no heroes. I consciously said, That’s it, my hero’s fallen and I’m my hero now, and I’ll just go on from here. Leotis Martin lost his eye in the fight, never fought again. Liston was beating him up before he got beat. That was 1968-69, so I was 24. Living in Pittsburgh then. It was like a giant redwood tree falling, when he went down. That was the end of my boyhood, like the official end, even though I was 24. I started writing a play one time, called “The Death of Sonny Liston.” Didn’t work out.

Do you think hero-worship of that sort is a good idea?

Yes, not unhealthy. Every once in a while a fighter comes along in which your entire emotional being is invested in this fighter. And it’s different than just rooting for someone. Now it’s you in there fighting. Liston was a black man in America making his own moves.

Why’d you take Wilson as your last name?

A typewriter. When I was 20 years old, writing poetry, my sister was going to Fordham University, I wrote paper for her, she sent me twenty dollars, I went out and bought this typewriter. So now I’m a poet, and I’m going to pick a penname. I was born Frederick August Kittel. [Wilson was his mother’s maiden name; his father, a white baker, left the family when August was young.] I type F.A. Kittel. Fred A. Kittel. For the first time, I could see what they look like in print. I typed every possible combination: Fred Wilson, Fred A. Wilson, Frederick Wilson, typed them all up. I liked the way August Wilson looked, I said, that’s it.

Growing up, did you consider yourself black?

Oh yeah, no question. When you’re six years old, you realize that everyone in a position of authority — the teachers, the bus drivers, the police, the firemen, the lady that owns the store, the people in the welfare office downtown and clerks in the store downtown — everybody’s white. Any kind of position with authority. So you notice it. You notice when you go to the store and Robby was there, my mother sent me to get bread, and you gave him a buck, and he had to call Bella to come take the money because he wasn’t allowed. I grew up on the Hill and in Hazelwood. Moved to Hazelwood when I was like 13. Steel mills right there, basically a white blue-collar neighborhood. My stepfather was black.

Was it hard being in a white neighborhood?

Yeah. They threw bricks through the window, saying Niggers stay out. Basically, there were two streets blacks lived on. But it was a great community — the Moose, Kiwanis, whatever, and Little League baseball, maybe 12 teams, a whole lot, just from this neighborhood. The parents built this field for the kids. The Little League World Series, we were always represented, took their baseball seriously.

Did you play?

I was black. These are all white. No black teams. See, you’re talking 1958, 1959. That’s the way it was — you couldn’t go to Woolworth’s, get a cup of coffee, you couldn’t go to a hotel, I mean, Jackie Robinson couldn’t go to a hotel, so why would you think that — … See, but I appreciated the kind of neighborhood it was — good, honest, hard-working people who wanted the best for their kids. They taught their kids some good values. As far as racial aspect, that was America at the time. You as a white person certainly weren’t going to buck that. That’s the way the world was. I don’t fault them. To me, they were good people.

Was Pittsburgh more racist than elsewhere?

Yeah, more, and I understand why — the competition for the jobs. European immigrants coming — at one time, all the barbers, bakers, etc. were black, but competition got stiff. In order to get union card, you had to work six months straight. They’d let a black guy work 5 and a half months, let them go. My stepfather worked for the city, cleaning out sewers, waterworks. Any city job was good.

A lot of former Pittsburgh Steelers stayed on in Pittsburgh after they retired. I’m thinking about former athletes trying to make their way and “Fences,” how you came to want to write about Troy [a former star in baseball’s Negro Leagues who never got a chance to play in the white major leagues].

I was more concerned with his character, his willingness to engage life, wrestle with it, despite all the setbacks. I knew there was a bitterness to have the ability to do something but not have the opportunity. Black America as a whole was a stronger, more robust culture when we were all outside the door. The evidence is irrefutable. In 1965, within walking distance, I could walk to 9 different drugstore. That’s a lot of drugstores. Three wallpaper and paint stores in one community, three! Everybody trying to fix up their shacks.

Were you eager to leave Pittsburgh?

All I knew was I didn’t want to die in Pittsburgh. I hadn’t done anything yet.

How’d the 1968 riots [after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.] affect you?

Actually I don’t remember, that’s very interesting. Everyone was affected by his assassination — here’s the good guy, not like Malcolm X, he was the lamb.

Of the two, who’d you identify with?

Malcolm. With the riots, there was electricity in the air, you could actually sense it as though it were a substance. I remember walking by Wylie Avenue, a meat market, white guy in there, he had blood running down his cheek, guess he got hit by flying glass. But the look on his face: he had no idea what the hell happened. He couldn’t have told you who Martin Luther King was or anything — just a guy opens up his meat shop, sells people pork chops, goes home. I felt sorry for him. I figured at least you should know why people were doing that. They burned down the supermarket and this and that, white businesses.

Who else did you admire growing up?

Charley Burley lived across the street from me — you know Charley Burley? Bert Sugar, in his 100 fighters of all time, rated Charley Burley No. 34, we’re talking all-time. Called the Uncrowned Champion. Charley was fighting in the ’40s and ’50s, a welterweight, he would fight heavyweights, Charley would knock ’em out. Archie Moore said the toughest fight he ever fought was Charley Burley. Sugar Ray Robinson, Charley tells the story, he ducked him, nobody wanted to fight Charley he was so good. They wanted him to throw the fight, said he was gonna knock him out, Sugar Ray pulled out of the fight. He lived across the street. I never saw him fight. I used to go visit him. He was like my mother’s age. My mother’s best friend was his wife. I’d go over there and watch TV, we didn’t have TV. Charley’d take his knuckles, rub ’em on your head, Hey champ, and it’d hurt like hell, but you couldn’t let him know it hurt. Still fighting when I knew him. I remember as a kid, he was going to Germany, over at his house saying goodbye, I thought the airplane was parked outside. And there’s this cab. I’m saying, “Ma, where’s the plane?” I remember listening to the fight on the radio, with his wife, over to his house, broadcast from Germany, I was like 5 or 6 years old. He got a job with the city as a garbageman and probably — this is just coming to me, I think a lot of Troy, the idea of a hero in the community, was Charley Burley. He’d get off work and start up Center Avenue, from one end to the other, “Hey Champ, Hey Champ,” he just enjoyed it, everywhere he went, he’d buy everybody drinks, and he’d get home, had less money than when he started. Magnanimous, very generous guy, never bitter about the opportunities of his career. You’d go, “Hey Champ, could you have beat Sugar Ray?” and he’d say, “Hey, I wish I had my chance, but those things happened. But Charley’s okay, Charley don’t hold it against nobody.”

Sounds like that lack of bitterness rubbed off on you.

Yeah, I guess. It can consume you. A large part of “Hedley” [“King Hedley” was Wilson’s current play] is about forgiveness. It’s not for the other person – it’s for you, forgiveness is for yourself. It’s not bothering the other guy one bit. I always try to look and see how things got the way they were. I don’t understand everything, but if I put myself in the other person’s position — I say, oh, I see how you could think that … Yeah, Charley Burley. He was the first image I had of a man. This was prior to my stepfather. I was 12 when my mother remarried. The way Charley would dress and put that Stetson hat on and his shoes, this mustache, that’s what a man was, and I was going to be like that, I was gonna get some of them Florsheim shoes, get me a hat, you go out. I don’t know what the hell you do when you go out, but he was like the king, I was just gonna do that.