August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1945. The son of a white father who was rarely around his family and a black mother who struggled to raise her six children on welfare and her meager income from janitorial jobs, Wilson learned at first hand about the hardships and prejudice facing black people in American society.
When the family moved to a predominantly white neighborhood, bricks were thrown through their windows, and Wilson’s schools days at Central Catholic High School were clouded by the racial epithets he often found scrawled on his desk. Wilson’s mother, a proud, determined woman who insisted that her children spend time each day reading, imbued young August with a sense of pride and self-esteem.
Wilson’s formal schooling ended in the ninth grade. Refusing to believe that a well-researched and footnoted paper that Wilson submitted could be his own work, his teacher gave him a failing grade. Wilson tore up the paper and never returned to school, choosing instead to educate himself at the local public library, where he read extensively on a wide range of subjects. There, he discovered for the first time the works of black authors such as Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright.
Wilson’s teens were for him a time of great anger and frustration, which found occasional release in outbursts of rage as he and his friends smashed the black lawn jockeys that they found in front of white homes. During the 1960’s, Wilson joined several Black Power organizations, and for many years he adopted a militant stance toward society’s racial injustices.
He supported himself during this period with a brief stint in the Army and by working as a short-order cook and a stock clerk. A keen observer of the world around him, he also began storing up the details of life in the black community that would later inform his plays, lending to them the authenticity that has made them successful.
Wilson’s career as a writer began almost by chance when he was twenty. His older sister paid him twenty dollars to write a college term paper for her, and he used the money to buy himself a used typewriter. Still supporting himself with odd jobs, Wilson began writing poetry and became associated with the Black Arts movement in...
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Wilson’s groundbreaking cycle of plays chronicling the black experience in the twentieth century brought a vital new voice to the American theater. The stories that he told and the complex characters that he created offered powerful dramatic portraits of lives that have often been marginalized or forgotten altogether. Believing that only by embracing their history can African Americans find a true sense of their heritage, Wilson drew on important periods in black history as background material for his plays. His poetic explorations of African American lives and culture embodied the sentiment that he once expressed in an interview: “Claim what is yours.”
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