How Do You Know What You Know?

HowILearned1_(600x399)A man I encountered at an Upper East Side bus stop Thursday afternoon would benefit from seeing How I Learned What I Learned at the Signature Theater. I thought of him when I saw Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s brilliant performance two nights later, and wished I could give him a ticket.  The man was standing at the bus shelter waiting for the M79 heading west. I’d smiled at him as I approached the corner, so when the bus pulled up and people started filing on, I extended my hand, in a gesture indicating, “Please go ahead of me, you were here first.” The man, stepped back, shaking his head angrily and said in a low, quiet voice, “No, I am a black man with a third grade education;  I am vermin, I am low-life.” I was stunned.  I extended my hand again and said, “Please, go ahead.” People in the line behind me were getting impatient. He repeated, this time louder,  “I am a black man with a third grade education. I am vermin, I am low-life.”  I wanted to cry out, “Wait a minute, this is me and you! I’m the person who just smiled at you a second ago, remember? And by the way, I don’t accept your view of yourself. I am telling you to get on the bus. You were here before me. Go to the front of the bus.” But he was dug in. I couldn’t fix this. I heard someone groan.  I think the man is still standing there. I know I am. August Wilson would have known what to do.

2 thoughts on “How Do You Know What You Know?

  1. That is such a sad, powerful description of the encounter with a somehow who is speaking his truth, but not “the” truth. What in the play, by the way, do you think would you have liked him to understand?

    • This play is a memoir as one man show, written, and originally performed by August Wilson in 2003, before his death in 2005. Although Wilson, whose work chronicles the black experience, believed that “the ideas and attitudes Americans had toward slaves followed them out of slavery and became entrenched in the nation’s psyche,” he also discovered people could be “stunned into silence by the power of art “ and find in it ” the possibility of human life.” Kind of like the work of August Wilson himself. I would have liked for the man at the bus stop to have seen that there was ‘possibility’ for his life.

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