In the recesses of my baby-boomer memory, I have a recollection of a lesson learned in my fourth-grade class in a public school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. The lesson taught us that America is a melting pot, made up of those who had sought and found refuge on these shores. Although my grandparents, immigrants from Barbados, were among the “tired and poor” who sailed past the Statue of Liberty on their way to Ellis Island, nobody who looked like them were to be found in the pictures of the “huddled masses” in my social studies text book. In those days, “Negro history” was relegated to one week in February, when we learned about George Washington Carver, Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson and other noteworthy people of color.
Today, some six decades later, we live (we would like to think) in a more enlightened America. “Diversity” and “multiculturalism” are held up as goals and ideals for our society, and in celebrating them, we have, hopefully, eschewed the melting pot concept, which is predicated on the belief that each ethnic group is merely an ingredient that has contributed its flavor to the sauce, but which has lost its identity in the process. We have now embraced a more apt metaphor — the salad bowl — for in it, we celebrate the fact that each group contributes to the dish while maintaining its unique identity.
African-Americans have been an integral part of the American salad bowl for five centuries, and today make up 13 percent of the national population and 26 percent of the population of Pittsburgh.
The August Wilson Center for African American Culture was founded, not, as some believe, as a black “side show” or afterthought — an “ethnic P.S.” — but as a place where everyone could have the opportunity to celebrate how the contributions of African-Americans with Pittsburgh roots — people such as Ahmad Jamal, Earl Hines, Billy Strayhorn and August Wilson himself — have enriched the whole community. A modern-day parable, perhaps, illustrates this point.
In 1989, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the French Republic, President Francois Mitterrand threw a big party. Among the invited performers were 125 members of the marching band of Florida A&M University, a predominantly black school, who, trumpets blaring, boogied and moon-walked down the Champs-Elysees! When asked why they were invited, the French president stated that African-American music is the only authentic American music; everything else — zut alors! — is borrowed.
Others have advanced the philistine view that places like the August Wilson Center are a luxury, that we dare not celebrate black contributions to the arts at a time when African-American school children lag behind in math and science.
Really? To them, we say it’s not either/or but both/and! Would we want to live in a world in which the muses had not inspired poets like Paul Lawrence Dunbar, authors like Zora Neale Hurston, artists like Jacob Lawrence, and playwrights like August Wilson — without whose insights we would be bereft of deep insights into the black experience?
In many respects, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture is the institutional representative of the legacy of the accomplishments of African-Americans in Pittsburgh and their contributions to the entire region, and indeed the nation. The loss of the center would leave a serious void in the cultural legacy of all Pittsburghers. History would not look kindly upon a world-class city, whose landmarks have graced the pages of National Geographic, if that city shows indifference or even contempt for the gifts of a people who have labored, often at great personal sacrifice, to make that city great.
Can we, residents of a city acclaimed to be among the nation’s most livable, live with ourselves in the knowledge that we squandered a golden opportunity to offer to the region and to the nation an unparalleled example of a venue where the achievements of generations of people long oppressed can be celebrated by all? We certainly cannot stand idly by and let the center become a tenant in a proposed hotel complex — a development that would do nothing less than eviscerate the center of its identity and result in minimizing and eventually eradicating its potential effect.
Many elected officials, community and civic organizations, and local foundations have asserted that the August Wilson Center must be preserved. Their views are not vain hopes, but represent an achievable goal. They know, and we know, that the $10 million or so needed to keep the center afloat, while admittedly more than the proceeds of a parish bake sale, is not, in the fullness of time, a lot of money. They are confident that Pittsburghers will rise to the occasion and exercise good and responsible stewardship. They believe that we will not allow the August Wilson Center, designed by architect Allison Williams to look like a slave ship, to rot in dry dock.
The Rev. Harold T. Lewis is rector emeritus of Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside.