How I Learned What I Learned

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 11, 2016

Victor Mack
Victor Mack  

For most of my life, my subconscious habit has been white preference; music, literature, theater, food... when I had a choice, I veered toward the familiar and comfortable, and decidedly away from what was "alien" to me. The national conversation over the last few years has forced me to look at my unthinking choices, and on the advice of broad-minded people who went before me, I started pushing myself beyond what was comfortable.

At first, I *had* to listen to the things that people of color had to say, and then I became intrigued, and now I have developed a preference for voices unlike my own, who talk about lives and experiences vastly different from mine. Listening to those voices, I learn the shape of the world outside my narrow understanding.

It's because of my ingrained habit of white preference that I had -- to my shame -- never heard of August Wilson, whose play "How I Learned What I Learned" opened for me the world of Wilson's lovely and wry insights, his lyrical and expansive poetry and prose.

"To arrive at this moment in my life," he wrote, "I have traveled many roads, some circuitous, some brambled and rough, some sharp and straight, and all of them have led as if by some grand design to the one burnished with art and small irrevocable tragedies. I've carried in my pocket, to bargain my passage, memory and a wild heart that plies its trade with considerate and sometimes alarming passion."

I hunted for the exact text of that section online because I had to hear those words again. They take my breath away.

In a series of vignettes illuminating Wilson's path from childhood to his life as a writer, "How I Learned What I Learned" traces lines from seemingly disparate events to a single woven thread of Wilson's being. With long reflections on the "accident" of being born black, in-depth consideration of living in the black and poor neighborhood, a four-minute walk from downtown Pittsburgh, contemplation of the facts of being a young black man in American society, Wilson's play was thoroughly unfamiliar and uncontrollably illuminating.

I am of the altogether unbiased opinion that writers are heroes; metaphysical problem solvers who examine life's offerings and find order, patterns, a way to make sense of our chaos. Everyone tries to do this in his own way, but writers do so with words that can be used to explain this understanding to other people. Wilson pieced together his breadth of wisdom about life in these multiple sequences of words for our mutual enrichment, and we would be wise to listen and reflect on our own paths.

Portland Playhouse has, once again, brought to the stage a breathtaking, thoughtful and intelligent play that has the potential to enlarge our humanity. And for once, I was thrilled that most of the crowd was white because it is white people (myself included) who need to listen, absorb and reflect on what has brought us to this point in our lives, to this point in our individual and collective histories.

In Wilson's words, "we both, black and white, are victims of our history, and our victimization leaves us staring at each other across a great divide of economics and privilege that each year, each decade, widens into a gulf."

The ineffable Victor Mack brings August Wilson to life. Mack's considerable talents of embodied storytelling give this performance the ease of enjoying an afternoon talking to a beloved friend who has the best stories and the warmest delivery. Oh, for a chance to see more of Victor Mack... please, Portland casting directors, are you listening?

When we gorge on material as familiar as white bread, we are losing the chance to experience delectable and nourishing fare prepared by other hands, expressive of cultures other than our own, palate-expanding, generous meals that might change our beliefs about ourselves forever. I have missed August Wilson's enriching work for most of my life; what else are we missing in our preference?

It's only words, they say. Words don't matter. But words have the power to shape lives, as Wilson shows. He pointed to Webster's definition of "black" ("connected with the devil") and showed how those words create a space around him and other black people in America, a space that's left our society divided.

"We are all," he said, "victims of a linguistic environment." With words -- and just words -- Wilson built himself a life in that separate place, a life of poetry in poverty and drama in his quotidian experience.

Words can brand you, as Wilson found out, and scar the minds of people who see you as "other." In tracing his moral education, he invites us to do the same, and white audiences bear this responsibility the heaviest. People of color are constantly forced to look at the world's moral grading system, as Wilson shows in his story about being denied an envelope at the bank by the teller who reluctantly, and after extreme vetting, cashed Wilson's paycheck.

"She looked on a man and said 'this man does not deserve the same respect other men deserve.' This is the sin that caused slavery."

Wilson reveled in the exploration of the "limitations of the instrument," his instrument being his own voice and words. His joy in creation radiates even through the heavier stories, as he applied each lesson learned to the next experience, stacking confidently the knowledge needed to overcome the next hurdle. Looking back, he traced the crucial lessons through time, seeing how he got to each mile marker. He knew, eventually, how he learned what he learned, but he didn't always know he was learning it.

We have a chance right now to heed the lessons of our past, to listen to Wilson's words and see how we learned what we learned. "Art and small, irrevocable tragedies" comprise Wilson's play, but "art," for such a small word, comprises the moment of liftoff hoped for in every act of creativity. "Art" is the mirror to our culture, showing us things we can't see without assistance.

Wilson, and this profound and powerful staging of his play, have given us an opportunity to take a good, long look at how we have all learned what we learned. Please grab this opportunity with both hands, and see "How I Learned what I Learned." On your way out, thank Portland Playhouse for bringing August Wilson's work to our city.

"How I Learned What I Learned" runs through Nov. 6 at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St, Portland, OR 97211. For tickets or information, call 503-488-5822 or visit

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.