- The Ground on Which I Stand
Thank you. Some time ago I had an occasion to speak to a group of international playwrights. They had come from all over the world. From Colombia and Chile, Papua New Guinea, Poland, China, Nigeria, Italy, France, Great Britain. I began my remarks by welcoming them to my country. I didn’t always think of it as my country; but since my ancestors have been here since the early 17th century, I thought it an appropriate beginning as any. So if there are any foreigners here in the audience, “Welcome to my country.”
I wish to make it clear from the outset that I do not have a mandate to speak for anyone. There are many intelligent blacks working in the American theater who speak in loud and articulate voices. It would be the greatest of presumptions to say I speak for them. I speak only for myself and those who may think as I do.
I have come here today to make a testimony, to talk about the ground on which I stand and all the many grounds on which I and my ancestors have toiled, and the ground of theater on which my fellow artists and I have labored to bring forth its fruits, its daring and its sometimes lacerating, and often healing, truths.
The first and most obvious ground I am standing on is this platform I have so graciously been given at the 11th biennial conference of the Theater Communications Group. It is the Theater Communications Group to which we owe much of our organization and communication. I am grateful to them for entrusting me with the grave responsibility of sounding this keynote, and it is my hope to discharge my duties faithfully. I first attended the Conference in 1984, and I recall John Hirsh’s eloquent address on “The Other” and mark it as a moment of enlightenment and import. I am proud and thankful to stand here tonight in my embrace of that moment and to find myself here on this platform. It is a moment I count well and mark with privilege.
In one guise the ground I stand on has been pioneered by the Greek dramatists, by Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles, by William Shakespeare, by Shaw and Ibsen, and by the American dramatists Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. In another guise the ground that I stand on has been pioneered by my grandfather, by Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, by Martin Delaney, Marcus Garvey and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. That is the ground of the affirmation of the value of one being, an affirmation of his worth in the face of the society’s urgent and sometimes profound denial. It was this ground as a young man coming into manhood, [End Page 493] searching for something to which to dedicate my life, that I discovered in the Black Power movement of the 1960s. I felt it a duty and an honor to participate in that historic moment, as the people who had arrived in America chained and malnourished in the hold of a 350-foot Portuguese, Dutch, or English sailing ship were now seeking ways to alter their relationship to the society in which they lived, and perhaps more important, searching for ways to alter the shared expectations of themselves as a community of people. The Black Power movement of the 1960s. I find it curious but no small accident that I seldom hear those words Black Power spoken, and when mention is made of that part of our history, that part of black history in America, whether in the press or in conversation, reference is made to the civil rights movement as though the Black Power movement, an important social movement by America’s ex-slaves, had in fact never happened. But the Black Power movement of the 1960s was in fact a reality . . . that is the kiln in which I was fired and has much to do with the person I am today and the ideas and attitudes that I carry as part of my consciousness.
I mention this because it is difficult to disassociate my concerns with theater...