August Wilson’s plays have lit up Broadway as few ever have. One theater is even named after him. His plays about The Hill District in Pittsburgh gripped African American New Yorkers like tales of their own neighborhoods.
You may be surprised that the playwright for the Academy Award nominee “Fences,” directed by Denzel Washington, had his roots in the Nation of Islam. (Viola Davis won Best Supporting Actress for her role in the movie.)
“Although many can choose to overlook Mr. August Wilson's life and experiences as a Nation of Islam member, it is impossible to erase the impact that those years played on the works and thinking of August's creative artistry,” says Jabril Abdul Hafeez, who teaches Qur'anic Linguistics at the Masjid An-Nur Islamic Center in Pittsburgh and was part of the Nation of Islam at the same time as August Wilson. “To do so would be cheating the truth about the real August Wilson's education, life, and legacy.”
Masjid An-Nur is the offshoot of the original Temple of the Nation of Islam in Pittsburgh where August Wilson first joined the ranks of the Black consciousness movement. Many of An-Nur’s older members joined the Nation with Wilson to begin their journey into Islam.
“He was just another solider,” said Quadir Abdullah. Abdullah was a lieutenant at Pittsburgh’s Muhammad Temple No. 22, the meeting site for the Nation of Islam, when Wilson attended. He remembers Wilson as a good worker and astute observer of his surroundings, but also says that Wilson “wasn’t someone to be awestruck by.”
“He didn’t exploit his abilities, he didn’t show off,” Abdullah recalls. In fact, Wilson barely made an impression at all aside from his quirk of constantly scribbling down notes in a notebook about the scenes that were taking place around him. “We had an expression,” Abdullah explains about the Nation’s paramilitary structure, “’Yours is not to question why, yours is but to do or die!’ If we gave [August] orders, he followed them. He would go out, sold papers, bring people to the masjid so they could hear the message.” Abdullah could tell that the young Wilson was “here to be involved.”
Even though he never officially converted to the Nation, Wilson referred to himself as a Nationalist until he died. In a 1991 interview with Sandra Shannon, he said that he still respected all of the teachings, that he thought “Elijah Muhammad is one of the most important black men that ever lived in America.”
“The one thing we did not have as Black Americans was a mythology,” he said, “we had no origins myth. Elijah Muhammad supplied that.” Before his career as a playwright launched, Wilson wrote poetry and lauded such Nation of Islam figures as Malcolm X and the boxer Muhammad Ali.
I discovered a letter on a fan forum that pointed me in this direction. The forum features letters about August Wilson that were sent to a collector of his work. The letter that caught my attention was from 2007, one year after Wilson’s death, and was signed by Jabril Abdul Hafeez. It read:
“The Mr. August Wilson that I can talk about that I knew came out of my connection to him as we both were Nation of Islam members where I met his first wife Brenda Burton in the 70's. She was a major influence on his life as it relates to "Black" consciousness. He joined her in marriage and enlisted in the Nation of Islam during the early 70's…”
The Nation of Islam was founded in 1930 in Detroit by Wallace Fard Muhammad with the mission to improve the spiritual, social, and economic fate of African Americans in the United State of America. Though loosely based on the Quran, the Nation taught many things that differ from the original Arabic text. One teaching was that blacks were the original gods and that the white race was created by a jealous scientist to interfere with their sovereignty.
In the age of segregation and less than a century after the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the Nation of Islam was the “antidote to the idea that White was God,” Abdul Hafeez told me.
Practically, its mission was to establish businesses and institutions in black communities which had up to that point been almost completely reliant on outside services. Businesses and institutions run by white ownership could deny service to black patrons. The Nation’s response was that black communities should establish their own. Once African Americans could grow their own crops from the ground, manufacture their own goods in factories, and sell their own merchandise and services in stores, they would had achieved the dignity of self-possession.
Religious iconography was written into all of Wilson’s works. Renowned for capturing the syntax and atmosphere of African-American Pittsburgh in an arc of ten plays that span ten centuries, Wilson knew that spirituality also needed to have a role in the black lives that he wrote. “Blacks are essentially a religious people,” he told David Savran in a 1987 interview.
References to Yoruba, Christianity, and ancestor worship span his collection of plays, sometimes as a grace that saves his characters from an otherwise futile, directionless fate, but more often as a ball and chain that his characters must escape from.
In The Piano Lesson, the aspiring preacher Avery tries to excise the ghost of an old slave master from the house by reciting Bible passages and sprinkling holy water onstage, but his efforts are undermined when the only spell that the ghost responds to is the character Berniece sitting down at her father’s piano and singing a plea to her ancestors to help her.
In Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the main character Herald Loomis has been abandoned by his wife and has sunken into a despairing, delusional life. When his wife finally returns, she pleads that Loomis “look to Jesus. Even if you done fell away from the church you can be saved again.” As she recites Psalm 23 to him, Loomis slashes his own chest with a knife and finds peace in the bloodletting. Ultimately, he is his own savior, rather than having someone else die for him.
In the last play that he wrote, Gem of the Ocean, the matriarch Aunt Ester (whose name sounds out “ancestor,” and who is a recurring character in Wilson’s plays) brings the main character Citizen to the City of Bones and shows him that he can only be free if his identity is rooted in the history of the slaves who were brought to America.
Wilson grew up in the ethnically and religiously diverse Hill District of Pittsburgh in the 1940s and 1950s. The Hill was predominantly African American and had several churches in its blocks, including the Holy Trinity Parish and the Holy Trinity school that Wilson attended as a child, taught by nuns who were part of the Catholic Sisters of Divine Providence.
The Hill District of Pittsburgh
Wilson was born on Frederick August Kittel, Jr. on April 27, 1945 in the Hill District of Pittsburg. In the front of the ground floor of the apartment that Wilson grew up in was a store, Bella’s Market, owned by a Jewish family. The St. George Syrian/Antiochian Orthodox Church stood down the street from Wilson’s childhood home at 1727 Bedford Avenue and was the house of worship for the Hill’s Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian congregation. Seven blocks downtown from Bedford was Logan Street, colloquially called “Jew Town” and which has been compared to New York City’s Lower East Side for its sidewalk sales. His father was mostly absent, and he wrote under his mother's maiden name Wilson.
Though the home of Wilson’s mother, Daisy Kittel, was not religious, Wilson attended elementary school at Holy Trinity School. He also recalled that on Sundays, a local lady named Sarah Degree would pick up him and forty other children on the block and bring them to Sunday school at St. Bridget’s parish. Wilson attested that though he recalls going to St. Bridget’s, all African Americans in the neighborhood were considered members of the “black” church, St. Benedict the Moor’s, at the bottom of the hill.
In the late 1950s, Holy Trinity was demolished to build downtown Pittsburgh’s Civic Sports Arena and its congregation merged with St. Bridget’s. Then, as the Catholic population of the Hill dwindled, in 1968, St. Bridget’s joined St. Benedict the Moor.
As an adult, Wilson acknowledged that the black church was a hugely important institution in helping and giving dignity to black community. At the same time, he argued that African Americans should have had their own institutions to turn to, an idea that he probably picked up during his years in the Nation.
The details that Wilson had been scribbling down at the mosque and elsewhere would later flesh out his writing, capturing the nuances of African American speech and interaction. The ideas of black nationalism espoused by the Nation of Islam also bled into his plays and stories. He showcased male African American characters who were seeking to build up their own capital and establish a dignity, an identify, for themselves. Part of that was not looking to a White God to save them, but finding divinity in their own blackness.
“When you look in the mirror, you should see your god,” he said in 1990 after winning his second Pulitzer Prize for The Piano Lesson. “If you don’t, you have somebody else’s God.”
The Nation of Islam in Pittsburgh
In the 1950s, a minister of the Nation of Islam named Imam Mustafa Hassain traveled from Detroit to Pittsburgh to start Muhammad Temple Number 22. Hassain moved into a house in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood and met residents by selling eggs door-to-door. He invited those he met to meetings in his apartment, where he preached The Nation of Islam’s message of self-reliance, self-defense, and self-respect.
This message was magnetic to a working-class population that felt that, no matter how hard they worked, they would never quite make their fair dues. Wilson himself had felt that injustice; he often shared an anecdote about a time his mother won a laundry machine when she called in the correct answer for a radio call-in contest. When the radio hosts realized that the winner was a black woman, they tried to give her a used washing machine instead of the new one that had been promised.
The mosque, which was based in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood, grew quickly. Abdul Hafeez estimates that at its peak three hundred members were on the Nation of Islam’s books in Pittsburgh.
Muhammad Temple No 22 moved from its first location on Lang Street to a new building on Kelly Street between Homewood Avenue and Sterrett Street in 1969. In the Temple’s ground floor was a school that taught boys and girls, originally in staggered class times to avoid the confluence of genders, and then in a co-ed schedule, from pre-K to high school. Across the street was an elegant restaurant run by the Nation, a hot spot for members of the Nation to meet up and support the business, and for prospective couples to meet each other in the safe, respectable presence of others.
Two or three storefronts that stocked groceries and home goods, and a bakery that sold bean pies, flanked the restaurant on either side. These also were sourced by the Nation’s entrepreneurial network. Wajihah, Abdullah’s wife who joined the Nation in 1971, remembered a time that a group of core members traveled from Pittsburgh to Athens, Georgia to visit a farm that was owned by members of the Nation. There, she saw where the crops were grown than were then trucked up to Nation-owned grocery stores in Pittsburgh and other cities. The Nation also established the Blue Seas Whiting Fish Company in Chicago to supply fish to affiliate communities in other cities. The uniforms that men and women in the Nation wore were handmade by local women. The goal—complete self-sufficiency—was close in hand.
In the midst of this was August Wilson, who found mentors and comrades in the Nation’s ranks, including Rob Penny, Curtiss Porter, and Sala Udin. Penny co-established the Black Horizons Theater with Wilson and encouraged the younger man to switch from poetry to plays. The University of Pittsburgh professor Porter spearheaded the student movement to demand that a department of African Studies be established at the university with men like Udin, who also helped found the Centre Avenue Poets’ Theater Workshop with Wilson and Penny and went on to be Pittsburgh councilman for the Sixth District for ten years.
Marriage into the Nation of Islam
Also a member of the Nation was a young woman named Brenda Burton. Burton had grown up in the Hill District with Wilson. Her father Joseph Burton had been an entrepreneur himself and owned both a pool room, Burton’s Recreational Parlor, and a restaurant called Burton’s Place Father & Son. Wajihah remembers that Burton was “quiet to a point” but would speak up when she felt she needed to voice her opinion. A community-conscious woman, she was studying nursing. Wilson and Burton were engaged when Burton began attending meetings with the Nation in 1969 or 1970. In 1969, the two were married.
“I’m not taking a perspective,” Wajihah begins, then observes that people who came into the Nation in order to please someone else rather than out of their own conviction tended to move in and out. August, she thinks, came in because his wife was in. Then, in 1970, their daughter Sakina Ansari was born, a further incentive to stay.
Wilson attempted to convert to Islam in order to preserve the marriage, but within three years, the difference between him and his wife was too great to reconcile.
Leaving the Nation of Islam
Wilson stepped away from the Nation when he and Burton divorced in 1972. What caused the split was never publicized; at the time, Wilson had not yet risen to prominence. In later interviews, Wilson, who delighted in discussing the details of his character’s lives, was much more reticent in divulging the details of his own. In one 1984 interview with writer and theater critic Michael Feingold, Wilson conceded that they had broken up over “religious differences,” quoting, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Wilson may have refused to attend the Sunday service at the Temple and to follow the strict dictates of the Nation—for example, Wilson remained a lifelong smoker, which was prohibited.
As art mirrors life, Wilson’s 1984 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom features a character named Toledo whose own marriage ruptured after his wife joined the Christian church.
“There ain’t nothing wrong with that,” Toledo exposits, “A good Christian woman going to church and wanna do right by her god. There ain’t nothing wrong with that. But she got up there, got to seeing them good Christian mens and wondering why I ain’t like that. Soon she figure she got a heathen on her hands. She figured she couldn’t live like that.”
“For a lot of people, the task of doing what we did was overwhelming,” Abdullah hypothesizes. It’s not that Wilson rejected the message of the Nation, but that the mission was too large for the young artist. Abdullah also asks, “What are you? Do you agree with everything your religion says? Some things [August] didn’t agree with—some things we all didn’t agree with—but we evolved into something better.”
In the late 70s, after the death of Elijah Muhammed, his son Warith Deen Mohammad preached a transition to “Pure” Sunni Islam, or the “Universal” Islam. Some chose to follow Louis Farrakhan and remain with the Nation. Others, like the congregation of An-Nur in 1975, split off and formed their own masjids that were more universally focused. Masjid An-Nur now teaches following a God, Allah, who is outside of creation itself—not a black man, but a Creator who loves all of His creation.
Searching for Wilson’s first wife
Would Burton have better insight into Wilson’s thoughts about the Nation? Wajihah had been trying to get in touch with her but the phone line rang without being answered, and the voice mailbox was too full to leave a message.
The two women had remained close even after Burton moved out of Pittsburgh to study in New York City. Wajihah wasn’t sure if Burton had joined up with the Nation at their New York Temple, but the two women reconnected when Burton moved back to Pittsburgh. In fact, Burton was the one who helped Wajihah prepare for her wedding in 1972, and they alternated babysitting each other’s daughters. Then, Burton moved out to Cleveland. When Wajihah followed in 1981, moving to Shaker Heights where she hoped to enroll her children in a better school system, she looked up the masjid that Burton now attended: Masjid Bilal, situated on the Euclid Avenue border of Cleveland’s Hough and Fairfax neighborhoods.
Wajihah moved back to Pittsburgh in 2012 but the two women maintained a “good closeness” and still talk regularly on the phone. This week, though, she does not seem able to get ahold of Burton. “Maybe she is traveling, visiting her grandson,” Wajihah offers. She also explains that Burton, who is in her late 60’s now, recently went back to school to become a nurse practitioner.
Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood was incorporated into the city of Cleveland in 1873 as a wealthy, white enclave. After World War I, the well-to-do residents moved out to the suburbs and the area was filled by a wave of African Americans moving northward from the South in the Second Great Migration. The area is known for its race riots in the 1960s
Walking down the street now to Masjid Bilal, it seems like a neighborhood in transition. The sidewalk is uneven, and the grass that grows in a strip between the sidewalk and the street is patchy.
Masjid Bilal is a brown brick building arranged at a diamond angle to the street rather than facing the street perpendicularly. It is centered in a large parking lot around it. Across the street is a row of new-looking apartments, and catty corner is an Aldi’s grocery store. Euclid Avenue is wide like Park Avenue in Manhattan, with the opposing sides of the street separated by a divider of grass and trees. The masjid is just one house of worship on this God’s Row; one block away is a Church of the Latter Day Saints.
Right next door, taking up the entire block, like a smaller Carnegie Hall topped with a grand rose-gold dome, is the Church of God & True Holiness. On the next corner, across from a cluster of shops and take-out restaurants, is the New Life at Calvary Presbyterian Church. Their stone façade holds up an LCD screen than cycles through messages, one of them asking, “Parents, please let your children have the opportunity to know God!” Residents sit on stoops and watch the waning street traffic. It is not yet time for rush hour.
The masjid is closed when I arrive, but there is a meeting being held in the basement space: a gathering of interfaith leaders and community representatives discussing how they can address the Islamphobia that has taken root in the greater United States and in their own neighborhoods. The senior imam of Masjid Bilal, El Hajj Shafeeq Sabir is sitting at the table next to Congresswoman Marcia Fudge. Mayor Frank Jackson had made comments earlier in the afternoon.
The secretary of the masjid remembers a Brenda that used to attend Masjid Bilal—but she went by the last name Shakoor, not Burton, after remarrying a Muslim man in Cleveland. She did not still attend, but there was her phone number.
The line rang and rang, but no one picked up. An automated voice announced that the voice mailbox was full. And though the intimate perspective of August Wilson’s time with the Nation of Islam, what brought him in and why he ultimately left, is out there, for now it remains, though a little more explored than before, still buried in the mind of Brenda Burton Shakoor.