Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706
Classism within the African-American Community
A central theme of Wine in the Wilderness is the issue of socioeconomic class divisions within the African-American community. Bill, Cynthia, and Sonny-man are educated, middle-class professionals; Cynthia is a social worker, Bill is an artist, and Sonny-man is a writer. Oldtimer and Tommy, on the other hand, are underprivileged and not welleducated; Tommy works in a factory, while Oldtimer seems to be unemployed. One of the primary tensions of the play is that caused by the class divisions between these two sets of characters. The middle-class characters look down on the workingclass characters, pretending to befriend them while showing them little respect. They do not even have enough respect for Oldtimer, their elder, to ever have asked his real name. The entire plot revolves around their plan to use Tommy as a model for Bill’s painting of ‘‘the worst chick in town.’’
Bill is generally condescending toward Tommy, holding his higher education and bookish knowledge of history and literature over her. He corrects her manner of speaking and treats her as if she were completely ignorant. Tommy becomes slightly aware of this class tension when she asks Cynthia if she is not good enough for Bill. However, it is not until Tommy learns of Bill’s real perception of her as ‘‘the worst gal in town’’ that she finally sees clearly how much he and his friends look down on her. Tommy accurately accuses them of looking down on the ‘‘masses’’ of African-Americans, who are not as educated or as privileged as they. Tommy even points out that Bill looks down on his own parents, who worked hard in order to own a home and provide him with greater opportunities. Tommy further accuses Bill of claiming to ‘‘love’’ African- American culture, while he in fact despises the actual African-American people he sees on the street every day. By the end of the play, Bill learns from Tommy to overcome his attitude of class snobbery toward other members of his community.
Another central theme of Wine in the Wilderness is African-American womanhood. Bill intends his series of three paintings to represent his ‘‘statement’’ on ‘‘black womanhood.’’ Through his first painting, ‘‘Black girlhood,’’ Bill expresses his view of African-American girls as innocent and pure. In the second painting, ‘‘Wine in the Wilderness,’’ he depicts his idealized image of ‘‘perfect black womanhood,’’ as a stylish, physically beautiful woman in Afro-centric clothing and accessories. This image betrays Bill’s idealized vision of ‘‘black womanhood’’ as a sexual fantasy resembling an image in a fashion magazine, rather than a real woman engaging in the struggles and joys of everyday life. Bill’s unpainted third image represents a view of the average African-American woman as downand- out and ‘‘hopeless.’’ At this point, Bill’s view of ‘‘black womanhood’’ is very insulting toward African-American women in general, as he expresses disdain for women who work and struggle and live and love on a day-to-day basis, mostly without the benefit of financial comfort or opportunity for higher education. Bill is critical of the ‘‘masses’’ of African-American women like Tommy, whom he views as ‘‘ignorant, unfeminine, coarse,’’ and ‘‘rude.’’ He perceives these women as dominating African-American men, and tells Tommy, ‘‘the Matriarchy gotta go.’’ Cynthia, too, although an African-American woman, expresses a similar attitude toward women like Tommy. She instructs Tommy to be more subservient toward men and advises her to allow men to have the upper hand. Cynthia expresses the opinion that African-American women have somehow robbed African-American men of their masculinity. She tells Tommy, ‘‘You have to let the black man have his manhood again,’’ to which Tommy responds, ‘‘I didn’t take it from him, how I’m gonna give it back?’’
By the end of the play, Bill realizes that he has been misguided in perceiving the ‘‘masses’’ of African-American women in such a negative light. He realizes that everyday women like Tommy are ‘‘the real beautiful people.’’ Through the character of Tommy, Childress criticizes those African-American men who blame African-American women for the oppression they suffer in a white-dominated society. By contrast, Childress celebrates women like Tommy, who work and struggle through everyday life, as an ideal image of ‘‘black womanhood.’’