Black community not to blame for August Wilson Center crisis

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by Fred Logan
We are all very sad to hear that the August Wilson Center is in deep financial trouble and may close its doors. But don’t let anyone try to tell you that the local Black community is to blame for AWC’s plight. The May 11, 2013 Post-Gazette reported that AWC has a multi-million dollar debt and is laying off its staff.

Some fools are bound to argue what they always do: They will also charge that the Black community does this and that with its money but doesn’t support black institutions as much as it should. Even if this is true in general, we still, in this case, are not the blame for AWC.

The local Black community at large never pledged or signed an oath that it would take on ACW’s financial burden. It was never polled on support for AWC.
 
On a very bright, but cold and windy weekday morning several years back, I was at the AWC’s groundbreaking with Aisha White. We stood there trembling in the cold under a great big white tent. Bill Robinson, Dan Onorato, and several other elected officials were on the platform to speak. At the time, Neil Barclay was AWC’s CEO. He said the center had raised $27 million of its $38 million total costs. And it looked to raise most of the $11 million shortfall in the Black community. That was my first time hearing that.

Aisha White stays up on what’s going on around town. So, I asked her if she had heard that before. She said, no she had not. I asked her if she thought AWC could raise the money in the local Black community and she said she doubted it very much. I agreed with her 100 %. A lot of Black people I have talked with since then were also very doubtful. Time has proven us correct.

Richard Adams told me several weeks ago that he was surprised and impressed to hear recently that Black people in Allegheny County have the combined annual income of some $1 billion.

That is a lot of money. But what are the total annual living expenses for Black people in the county? Subtract the basic living expenses, food, shelter, clothing, transportation, education, etc. from that $1 B and what is left, if anything, is the Black “discretionary” money for things like AWC.   

A very important financial question to ask here is this. If the Black community had pledged to underwrite the center, did AWC have the staff wherewithal to collect the money? It would be a major labor-intensive task to collect that money which would come in in dribbles from local Black people. We can argue abstractly on what the Black community should do. But the official government statistics have said that Black people in the greater Pittsburgh area are the most poverty stricken Black people in the  top 40 US metropolitan regions. That says concretely what we can do.

Fund raising is organization as much as it is commitment. The African American church assemblies its congregation weekly and collects offerings from its members who need what the church provides. It is very difficult to image a more efficient revenue raising mechanism.   

In contrast, the local Black community loved the Harambee II Black Arts Festival during the festival’s heydays some 20 years ago, and would have given the festival financial support. But the Harambee organization was over burdened with programming, logistics, etc., and did not have the organization to collect individual contributions. One year, Harambee made donation envelops and forgot to put a return address on them.  The late Beverly Lovelace was a staunch Harambee patron. On her own, she sent a donation to Harambee each year during its heydays. I ran into her once and she laughed and told the truth. She said she know you all need the money but are too stretched out to solicit it.
That was Harambee.

Carl Redwood, Dessie Bey, Vernell Lille, Connie Bailey, Vickie Bey, Sam Black, Augustus “Gus” Brown and some other sophisticated Black arts patrons have pointed out to me a variety of important issues to ask about AWC. I will only ask one of these non-financial questions.

I knew August Wilson only well enough to speak when we met. I saw five or six of his plays and read some of his essays on art. I saw his 1989 lecture at the Harambee II Black Arts Festival and a year or so later heard him speak at the Hazlet Theater on the Northside. Based on this and from talking with people who knew August much better than I did, for example Rob Penny, I ask,  would August himself preferred, and would the Center be more politically and culturally situated and more financially solvent,  if it was located on  Centre Avenue in August’s beloved Hill District and not on Liberty Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh?

Someone is bound to say the question is based on hindsight. Yes, that’s true, but it is still a valid question to ask.

Since the steel mills left town decades ago, countless multimillion dollar projects have gone belly up, Lloyd and Taylor’s, ad infinitum. In each case, we are told the blame was the local market, a recession, mismanagement or some other systemic economic factor. What you have never heard argued and what you will never hear argued, by Black or White folks, is that the local White community at large is the blame for any of these White led failures because the White community did not support them.

In the face of this, fools will still try to blame the Black community for every Black led project that comes along and fails. We are morally, politically, and culturally obligated to tell them they are wrong, not that this will convince all of them, and defool each and every damn fool.   

 

Your comments are welcome.

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