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A transplant that did not take: August Wilson's views on the great migration.

On two occasions, I have witnessed playwright August Wilson stir his audience into an emotional frenzy simply by stating his views on the Great Migration. In September 1995, as a guest at a day-long series of forums at Howard University, and in April 1996, as the recipient of the 15th Annual William Inge Distinguished Playwright Award in Independence, Kansas, he articulated what has become for his plays a profound artistic influence and for his politics a well-rehearsed platform. Since neither of the two heated discussions afforded me the opportunity to record Wilson's comments, I was happy to find that he has aired the same controversial view on the Great Migration expressed in both Washington, D.C., and in Independence, Kansas, in several published interviews. In one such interview, he asserts,

We were land-based agrarian people from Africa. We were uprooted.

from Africa, and we spent 200 years developing our culture as black

Americans. And then we left the South. We uprooted ourselves and

attempted to transplant this culture to the pavements of the industrialized

North. And it was a transplant that did not take. I think if we had

stayed in the South, we would have been a stronger people. And

because the connection between the South of the 20's, 30's and 40's has

been broken, it's very difficult to understand who we are. (Rothstein 8)

In another, he notes,

We came to the North, and we're still victims of discrimination and

oppression in the North. The real reason that the people left was a

search for jobs, because the agriculture, cotton agriculture in particular,

could no longer support us. But the move to the cities has not been a

good move. Today ... we still don't have jobs. The last time blacks in

America were working was during the Second World War, when there

was a need for labor, and it did not matter what color you were.

(Moyers 167)

Blacks in both audiences cringed in disbelief, arguing passionately that the South held very few opportunities for their grandmothers and grandfathers, many of whom--given the prevalence of Ku Klux Klansmen violence, voter disenfranchisement, and the eternal financial rut of tenant farming--saw moving north as their only logical option. Whites, likewise, in both audiences, stood their ground, baffled that Wilson could not concede that the relative progress blacks have made in Northern cities was proof that the move even exceeded original expectations.

When pressed to respond to both groups, Wilson, without hesitation, easily shifted the direction of both debates from his implied call for contemporary descendants of the Great Migration to embark upon an actual physical relocation back down south to a sobering account of the extent of their rejection up north. In highly charged and eloquent, yet stinging, indictments of the North, Wilson takes as his text the "mistake" made by blacks in leaving the South yet focuses his verbal agility upon revealing the double jeopardy of their settling in the North. In both scenarios, Wilson's rhetorical maneuvers, his articulate and engaging delivery, and the sheer passion of his argument ultimately silenced dissenters. By the end of both sessions, neither audience seemed particularly aware of or bothered by his red herring tactic, nor did they appear conscious of the original premises of their respective arguments against him. What occurred in both instances, I contend, was the playwright's very calculated and choreographed invitation to both audiences to share and experience that same blues landscape that informs his plays. It is a landscape much like that designed by Jean Toomer, author of the soulful Cane, wherein the blues-ridden author "weary of homeless waters ... turns back to the ancestral soil, opens himself to its folk art and its folk ways, tries to find his roots, his origins ... a step toward the definition of himself" (Munson 173).

Even away from such public forums, in his private role as writer, Wilson continues to show the apocalyptic and tragic results of what he deems the original sin of African Americans; that is, the mistake they made in transplanting an agrarian-based culture to a concrete-based environment. Thus, his characters are often portrayed as wide-eyed optimists who, despite their earnest attempts to determine their destinies, either perish in the city or become part of its human refuse. Utilizing both subtle and glaringly obvious dramatic techniques, the playwright reinforces his position about the "transplant that did not take" or the "mistake" of the black migration North. His characters who hail from Southern states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia and have made their homes in Pittsburgh or Chicago--or those who even aspire to relocate to such places--seem doomed to failure, turmoil, restlessness, alienation, or possibly death. While I am sure Wilson concedes to the impracticality of arguing for a sweeping reversal of the massive exodus of blacks at the turn of the century, he demonstrates in two of the seven plays he has published to date--Seven Guitars and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom--that a mistake has been made, that some form of cosmic retribution is certain, and that atonement for this so-called original sin sometimes comes at a high price. Like Toomer, Wilson achieves his objective correlative by capturing the blues impulse in his writing which enables his audience to "finger the jagged grain" (Ellison 90) of life up north for the Southern-born and bred Negro.

To some extent, August Wilson visits the theme of the Great Migration as an enormous mistake in each of his seven published plays: Jitney, Joe Turner's Come And Gone, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Fences, Two Trains Running, and Seven Guitars. Set in either Pittsburgh or Chicago, each captures the blues impulse of the Southern Negro's initiation into the Northern way of life. Blasphemy, self-mutilation, convulsions, arrested speech, unexplained scars, incarceration, domestic turmoil, splintering of the nuclear family structure, and mental trauma that manifests itself in either neurosis, schizophrenia, or dimentia are but a few of the evils that plague Wilson's Northern-bound characters.

In Wilson's two works which deal with the blues music recording industry and the related lure of Chicago, this mistake is elevated to tragedy. Seven Guitars and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom convey Wilson's subtle curse upon the black Southern migrant, which he visits upon the aspiring blues artist. While the other five plays end with characters "pointing in the right direction" (to use Wilson's phrase), these two plays end with the rather gloomy spectre of death for the bluesman--figurative and literal. Seven Guitars Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton and Ma Rainey's Levee fail in their attempts to leave their mark on the blues recording industry at the expense of denouncing both Africa and the South. Kim Pereira, author of August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey, explains the reason that the blues musician's often tragic love affair with Chicago is one of Wilson's favorite metaphors for emphasizing the extreme difficulties Southern migrants experienced once up north:

Migration and the motives that

prompted it are typified in the peripatetic

lifestyle of blues singers ....

Having been tied down for so long by

slavery and sharecropping, blacks

were anxious to be on the move,

unable to put down roots just yet, desperate

to fill a spiritual void created by

three hundred years of captivity. Blues

lyrics spoke of this desire to get away

and reflected the separation behind the

migration: men and women looking

for each other or leaving their homes

and their loved ones. (61-62)

As Pereira suggests, Wilson calls upon his dramatic efforts to compress the stories of hundreds of black Southern migrants into the individual sufferings of blues musicians. In the Preface to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Wilson explains,

It is with these Negroes that our concern

lies most heavily: their values,

their attitudes, and particularly their

music.... the Alabama or Mississippi

roots have been strangled by the northern

manners and customs of free men

of definite and sincere worth, men for

whom this music often lies at the forefront

of their conscience and concerns.

Thus they are laid open to be consumed

by it .... (xv-xvi)

Seven Guitars, August Wilson's seventh and most recent installment in his project to write ten plays of the black experience since 1900--affirms in numerous ways that the transplant of the migration did not take. Set in Pittsburgh in 1948, the play has as its central focus Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, a blues musician whose dream of a Chicago recording deal is lost to desperate circumstances. Despite having his sights set on marrying his true love, moving to Chicago, and signing with a big record company, Floyd Barton's seemingly inevitable compunction for trying to move even further north, from Pittsburgh to Chicago, dictates that he will be arrested for vagrancy in Pittsburgh and sentenced to ninety days in jail, that he will be denied the money he earns in jail from a work detail due to a technicality, that he must pawn his all-important guitar, and that he will desperately resort to armed robbery to obtain the price of a grave marker for his mother and a ticket to Chicago. His ultimate curse is that, before reaching Chicago, he will die in a scuffle over the same stolen money.

Other characters who frequent the backyard setting in Pittsburgh have their share of trouble as well: the erratic and obsessive Hedley, who dreams that someday he will own a plantation and be a "big man"; the lone and cynical landlord Louise, who frequently laments yet endures the single life; the "fast" and pregnant new arrival Ruby, who flees man trouble down south, seeking temporary refuge up north in her Aunt's home; the brooding Canewell, whose blues is captured by his melodious and talented harmonica playing; and the hopeless flirt Red Carter, who brags of his wife's fertility, yet makes no pretense about being monogamous. Having common fates as Southern migrants in a Northern town, these characters regularly gather in a backyard setting to commiserate about the rejection they face daily and about the frightening contrasts between the rituals of Southern and Northern living. In one such moment, Red Carter recalls,

Once upon a time in America it use to

be all right to have a rooster in your

yard. Now that done changed. It use to

be you could leave your door open.

Now you got to bar the roof.... You

need a license for everything. You

need a license to sing on the street. You

need a license to sell peanuts. Soon,

you mark my words, soon you need a

license to walk down the street. (82-83)

Although Pittsburgh is sufficiently "Northern" for many of the characters, such as Louise and Ruby, they share Floyd's belief that "It ain't as good as Chicago" (68). For others, such as Red Carter, Vera, and Floyd, Chicago is the proverbial Promised Land--where a black man can conceivably become rich and where "more people mean more opportunity and more things to do" (62).

The Chicago Defender newspaper took the lead in promoting this image of Chicago as a Northern utopia for the Southern migrant. According to a recent study on the Great Black Migration,

Despite numerous attempts

to halt its distribution, the

Defender was circulated.

Stated federal investigator

T. J. Woofter, the Chicago

paper "makes its lurid appeal

to the lowly class of Negroes.

In some sections it has probably

been more effective in

carrying off Negroes than all the labor

agents put together." ... the Defender

was said to have sold more than

150,000 copies an issue. Frederick

Detweiler, who has studied the black

press extensively, concludes that a

more realistic estimate of readership is

1,000 readers to every 100 copies sold.

A correspondent of the Defender

wrote: "White people are paying more

attention to the race in order to keep

them in the South, but the Chicago

Defender has emblazoned upon their

minds `Bound for the Promised

Land.'" (Marks 28)

Despite the Chicago Defender's obviously successful media blitz that emphasized in the most convincing ways the great advantages which were awaiting those who would go north, Wilson challenges its propagandistic premise on an artistic level, countering its very basic appeals to the Negro that the North can offer all that the South does not.

This artistic war that Wilson wages against the myth promoted by the Defender and against the so-called "transplant that did not take" continues to find expression in several less obvious features of Seven Guitars. For example, Miss Tillery's rooster becomes the source of much discontent for Floyd and Louise, especially, who reject it as a residual of their now geographically and culturally distant Southern heritage. Louise, who lives next door, grumbles, "She don't need that rooster. All she got to do is go down to Woolworth's and get her an alarm clock. It don't cost but a dollar and forty-nine cents." Like Louise, Floyd frequently registers his disgust for the barnyard bird: "If I had me a BB gun I'd shoot that rooster," and "Stop all that noise!" followed by a carefully aimed stone hurled across the fence (59). The bird's instinctual crowing in this Northern urban setting is regarded by several of the characters not only as unwelcomed noise but also as an absurdist ritual or, to use one of Wilson's familiar phrases, a "leftover from history." That is, unlike this group of migrants or descendants of migrants, the rooster unashamedly holds onto his tradition, ignoring the related stigma that it is an obsolete presence in a debatably more progressive Northern environment. Despite having been transplanted out of its familiar surroundings, it continues to affirm its uncompromised identity though its periodic crowing.

As a familiar image of the local color of the Southern landscape, the rooster is especially familiar in Southern folklore as well as in voodoo ritual. Canewell provides a sampling of its narrative possibilities:

That's one of them Alabama roosters.

See, he fall in love with the way he

sound and want to crow about everything.

Every time the notion strike

him. That don't do nothing but get

people confused. That kind of rooster

ain't no good for nobody. Best thing

you can do is try and make a stew out

of him.

He continues,

The rooster didn't crow during slavery.

He say, "Naw. I ain't gonna be part of

nothing like that. I ain't gonna wake

nobody up." He didn't start crowing

again till after the Emancipation

Proclamation. The people got to

whooping and hollering so, he say,

"Naw, you all ain't gonna leave me out."


While Miss Tillery's rooster inspires such amusing anecdotes, it also assumes a darker role in Seven Guitars as it becomes, at the hands of Hedley, a sacrificial object. Taking his cue from Louise and Floyd's constant complaints against the bird, Hedley excuses himself from the group, forcefully abducts it from its owners premises, and returns later to cut its throat before a disbelieving crowd. Inasmuch as this scene recalls similar bloodletting rituals performed by the resident conjure man in Joe Turner's Come And Gone, it also warrants being viewed in terms of Wilson's efforts to infuse his plays with recognizable images of Africa. Mindful of the meaning afforded by this African context, it is feasible, therefore, to view Hedley's slashing of the rooster's throat--in clear view of those who deplore it--as a paradoxical "wake-up call," a ringing alarm to those who have been lulled into a similar rejection of their immediate Southern past and familiar rituals of a not-so-distant Africa. In Hedley's role as the play's slightly deranged and misunderstood conscience, he explains the rooster's historical importance to the black man in affirming the continuity of life from slavery to the present, ultimately equating the fate of the bird with that of the transplanted Negro:

God ain't making no more roosters. It is

a thing of the past. Soon you mark my

words when God ain't making no more

niggers.... You hear this rooster you

know you alive. You be glad to see the

sun cause there come a time sure enough

when you see your last day and this

rooster you don't hear no more. (64)

This unspoken, though strongly suggested, "transplant that did not take" finds yet another signification in the goldenseal plant which Canewell presents to Vera once he learns that she is contemplating a move further north to Chicago with Floyd. It is a medicinal plant whose healing tea, made from either its leaves or its roots, according to Canewell, promises to "be all the doctor you need." His warning to her to "plant it now. Don't let the roots dry out" (27) creates a basis for regarding the plant as another one of Wilson's metaphors for the misplaced black Southern migrant. Like the rooster, it has been removed from its familiar home and compelled to exist in alien soil. Its fragile roots--too long exposed to the hostile winds of the North--promise imminent doom.

Despite Hedley's care in planting Vera's floral gift, Floyd unearths its roots when he stashes stolen money nearby. Again, the image of the unsuccessful transplant looms large and gains even more relevance as it envelopes Floyd. Wilson's mixing of images in this scene of the goldenseal's exposed roots and that of a potential blues legend turned armed robber speaks volumes. Like the plant, Floyd has lost hold of his anchor, his support base which slips even further from his grasp as he looks toward a new life in Chicago. His subsequent demise is certain.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom puts another tragic spin on Wilson's pronouncement against Southern black involvement in the Great Migration. He conveys this negative judgment most noticeably through Ma Rainey's trumpet player, Levee, who has left behind him an emotionally painful South and who now aspires to make a name for himself in Chicago by recording his own lyrics. Yet, like Floyd, Levee is destined to self-destruct. He is a product of the Deep South who, like other talented musicians in Ma Rainey's band, has made his way from the cotton fields and mule teams of Dixie to the big city recording studio of Chicago.

Convening in a cold, dingy studio in Chicago to record their music for a Paramount label, Ma's backup musicians must accept $25 and a pat on the back for their efforts. Their unenviable circumstances provide a ironic scenario of what Floyd Barton might have fallen prey to had he not perished in Pittsburgh. Although Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is about the plight of bluesmen, the Southern blues diva Ma Rainey commands an appreciable amount of the play's attention. After prolonging her arrival, she finally comes to a recording session flanked by an entourage of hangers-on, further irritating the white producers with demands for a Coca-Cola, more heat in the studio, and a microphone for her stuttering nephew, who, she insists, will announce her on the album before she sings.

While Ma tries the patience of her two promoters, her crew of black male musicians waiting in the basement band room argue and amuse each other with bouts of the dozens and pseudo-philosophical wisdom. Their conversations, which slip from an argument over the correct spelling of the word music to an existentialist discussion of black history, gradually intensify and unexpectedly erupt when a commonplace incident leads to murder. The self-made philosopher and pianist Toledo inadvertently steps on the new Florsheim shoes of the sulking trumpet player Levee. Apparently still angered by the recent refusal of one of Ma Rainey's promoters to help launch his musical career, Levee becomes enraged and stabs Toledo in the back.

Perhaps more than any of Wilson's other converts of the North, Levee is "laid open to be consumed by it" (xvi). Abrasive, conniving, insecure, bitter, blatantly anti-Christian, and ultimately homicidal, Levee epitomizes the transplant that did not take. He does so in several ways, none more obvious and reverberating than the murder of a fellow member of Ma's band. Prior to Toledo's seemingly inconsequential act of stepping on Levee's new pair of Florsheims, Levee sulks over a business deal gone bad with one of Ma's white promoters and broods over the beating he suffered at the hands of Toledo for cursing his God. In an interview with Kim Powers, Wilson describes the violence against Toledo as "a transference of aggression from Sturdyvant to Toledo, who throughout the play has been set up as a substitute for the white man" (54). Although Wilson's psychoanalytic explanation of Levee's fit of insanity may shed some light on the trumpeter's twisted logic, an equally useful view of the black-on-black crime is that Toledo's murder is but the final phase of Levee's unsuccessful attempts to make it in Chicago. As Wilson does in Seven Guitars, he here teases us with images of a possible good life looming within reach of these sons of the South, yet, as if awakening from a pleasant dream to a nightmarish reality of the North, only death, doom, and self-destruction greet him.

Levee's potential to self-destruct because of his severed ties with the South is also evident in his futile attempts to replace Ma Rainey's "old jug band music" with his jazzed-up arrangements. He scowls at his colleagues, and repeatedly taunts them with insults stemming from his deep-seated loathing of anything related to life in the South. His aversion to the South surfaces in his instructions to fellow band members on how to adopt his style of music: "Now we gonna dance it ... but we ain't gonna countrify it. This ain't no barn dance" (Ma Rainey 38). It also appears in an early verbal jab at Toledo: "Nigger got them clod hoppers! Old brogans! He ain't nothing but a sharecropper.... Got nerve to put on a suit and tie with them farming boots" (40). And later, he teases Slow Drag: "That's why you so backwards. You just an old country boy talking about Fat Back, Arkansas, and New Orleans in the same breath" (54).

Levee's bitter rejections by both Ma Rainey, who eventually fires him, and Sturdyvant, who misleads him, suggest that the gods whom he denounces viciously throughout the play have conspired against him. After he witnesses the rape of his mother and the murder of his father on their own land down south, his reasons for leaving this place may appear understandable, yet his fate is nonetheless directly related to his decisions to flee north rather than stay south, avenge his father's murder, and retrieve his family's land. According to Wilson's design, there are no exceptions. Thus, Levee's irreverence, his violence, and ultimately the certain fate that awaits him may all be interpreted as the wages of his sins against his past. After he breaks free of the South as well as Ma's band, self-destruction soon follows.

As Wilson does in Seven Guitars, he uses certain seemingly minor animate and/or inanimate props as symbolic media for his meta-discourse on the pervasive theme of the trouble transplant. Levee's Florsheim shoes, for example, represent much more than fancy footwear. Coded in his actions and reactions toward this item of apparel is what psychoanalysts refer to as displacement; that is, the unconscious attempt to "present concealed wishes through symbols, softening our desires" (Bressler 91). Also, the shoes become the thrust of a subtext subtly analogous to the play's larger thematic emphasis upon the transplant that did not take. Levee projects onto these shoes certain aspects of his own subconscious struggle to succeed in the North and to create as much geographic and cultural distance as he can between himself and the South. The exquisite shoes regularly worn by the fashion-minded Northerner of impeccable taste are the antithesis of the brogans so typical of an agricultural environment. Investing $4 of the money he won shooting craps and $7 of his own personal money, Levee acquires his coveted Florsheims and expects immediate results: women, good music, and good times. Like the lime-green suit Lymon buys from Wining Boy in Wilson's The Piano Lesson, the Florsheim shoes are believed to possess magical powers.

Despite the absurdity of wearing Florsheims in a dingy recording studio, Levee is proud of his purchase. Yet somehow this pride turns to obsession when Toledo inadvertently steps on his $11 investment and pays dearly for having done so. Displacement, absurdity, and obsession are conditions associated with Levee's shoes as well as conditions brought on by the realization that the move north was somehow against the principles of nature.

Perhaps as a result of August Wilson's parallel and ongoing interest in poetry--his first love as a young artist--his plays are grounded in figurative language and illusion. Perhaps also due to his demonstrated skill at extemporaneous debate, coupled, incidentally, with his acknowledged love of the sport of boxing, his plays combine aspects of artful dodging and crafty maneuvers. Wilson, in honor of his African ancestors, preserves the folklore and the wisdom he learned while sitting at the feet of his elders. Whether he vents his controversial philosophy of the Great Migration on stage through a succession of troubled characters and highly suggestive props or whether he raises this same issue before a confrontational audience, his evasive posture foregrounds his guiding dramatic principle that the transplant simply did not take.

Works Cited

Bressler, Charles. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1994.

Ellison, Ralph. "Richard Wright's Blues." 1945. Shadow and Act. New York: NAL, 1964. 89-104.

Marks, Carole. Farewell--We're Good and Gone: The Great Black Migration. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Moyers, Bill. "August Wilson." A World of Ideas: Conversations with Thoughtful Men and Women. Ed. Moyers. New York: Doubleday, 1989. 167-80.

Munson, Gorham B. "Toomer as Artist." 1925. Cane: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Darwin T. Turner. New York: Norton, 1988. 171-74.

Pereira, Kim. August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey. Urbana: Illinois UP, 1995.

Powers, Kim. "An Interview with August Wilson." Theater 16 (Fall/Winter 1984): 50-55.

Rothstein, Mervyn. "Round Five for the Theatrical Heavyweight." New York Times 15 Apr. 1990: 1+.

Wilson, August. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. New York: Plume, 1985. -- Seven Guitars. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Sandra G. Shannon is Professor of African American literature and criticism at Howard University and a frequently published August Wilson scholar. Her recent book The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson (Howard UP, 1995) traces the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's evolution from his boyhood interest in black literature to his phenomenal success at writing plays of the black experience as an adult.
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Title Annotation:playwright's views on Black migration from the South to the North
Author:Shannon, Sandra G.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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