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August Wilson's "Fences"

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What makes Fences (1985) a truly remarkable drama is that its author, African-American playwright August Wilson (1945-2005), is passionate about race without openly revealing his views regarding racism and racial discrimination in America of the 1950's (Stanton). All characters in the play which takes place in 1957—that is, well before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's and 1970's—are African-Americans. The winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Fences is the sixth in Wilson’s ten-play “Pittsburgh cycle” about the lives of black Americans and how they deal with racism every day. Each play is set in a different decade of the 20th century, but takes place in the same black neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The central character in Fences is Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old garbage collector, who has trouble achieving the American Dream for himself and his family. Troy’s only claim to being part of the rising African-American middle class is that he owns an old house—unlike his father, who remained a poor sharecropper throughout his life and never owned his own land or any other property. Even Troy's home ownership is largely due to his misappropriation of the disability benefits of his severely disabled brother Gabriel, a mentally handicapped WWII veteran (with a bullet lodged in his head): “That's the only way I got roof over my head...cause of that metal plate (in Gabe's head)” (Wilson 1.2.152-153). Troy's grouchy frustration and general dissatisfaction with life can be traced back to his failed dream of becoming a top baseball star at a time when professional sports were still racially segregated. His failure to play major-league baseball is one of the reasons why Troy protests against racial discrimination throughout the play, as he refuses to accept any more “fences” erected by Jim Crow.

An angry Troy complains to his labor union about racial discrimination on the job. His grudge is that white employees drive the garbage trucks, while black employees like himself dump the trash: “Why you got the white men driving and the colored lifting?... You think only white fellows got sense enough to drive a truck. That ain’t no paper job! Hell, anybody can drive a truck. How come you got all whites driving and the colored lifting?” (1.1.21-25). To appease him, Troy is promoted to truck driver, even though he does not have a driver's license because secretly he is an illiterate. Scarred by his own exclusion from major-league baseball, Troy paradoxically prevents his son Cory, a gifted high-school athlete, from attending college on a football scholarship, telling Cory that black athletes have to be twice as talented as whites to make the football team. Failing to realize that the times may have changed, especially for black football players, Troy ruins his son's only chance for advancement in life available to talented African-American athletes. When a drunk Troy kicks his embittered son out of the house, Cory joins the military and becomes a Marine corporal. In 1965, he comes home just in time to attend most reluctantly his Dad's funeral. His mother, Rose, castigates him for trying to stay away from the funeral service: “Not going to your daddy's funeral ain't gonna make you a man” (2.5.123-124). What is unmentioned in the play's surrealist ending is that Cory may soon be sent to fight in Vietnam and end up exactly like his unfortunate uncle, the severely disabled war veteran Gabriel (who, in the final scene, is trying to storm “the gates of heaven”). Or perhaps end up being even worse than Gabe!

Unlike Athol Fugard's famous drama “Master Harold”...and the Boys, white racism is an invisible but still very powerful force in Fences. Race and American history seem to be very closely intertwined ever since the first African slaves were brought to North America in 1619. According to several recent history books, including Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution (2006) written by Law Professors Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen, black slavery played a decisive role in the founding of our Republic—from the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution through the promulgation of the U.S. Constitution. It appears that the War of Independence was sparked directly by a fateful decision of the High Court in London in the 1772 case of Somerset v Stewart, which freed an escaped African slave, James Somerset, who had been originally sold on the slave market in Boston, Mass. Having declared that black slavery was “odious,” the Court outlawed it throughout Great Britain, resulting in the immediate emancipation of over 15,000 African slaves living in England. For the American colonists, this shocking court ruling was made even worse by the 1766 Declaratory Act of the British Parliament which had given London legal power over “all cases whatsoever” involving the laws of the 13 British colonies in North America.

The growing fear that the British Parliament may abolish black slavery in North America terrified the hundreds of thousands of slave-owning colonists, both rich and poor, but especially those in the South. The escalating incidents of local African slaves trying to free themselves under the influence of the London High Court's ruling also contributed to the whites' panic-stricken demands for declaring independence and separating from the mother country, the United Kingdom. Initially, the calls for independence were made under the slogan “No taxation without representation,” which was particularly popular in the Northeast. But when London offered the 13 colonies legislative representation in the British parliament, the offer was rejected, because the American colonists coldly calculated that they would not have enough seats in the British Parliament—given their comparatively small populations—to block any future bills abolishing black slavery and the slave trade throughout the British Empire. The inevitable result was the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War. The First Continental Congress in 1774 was quick to reaffirm the right of all American slave-owners, especially those in the South, to preserve the old institution of black slavery. The U.S. Constitution, which came into force in 1789, allowed all white Americans to buy, own, and sell African slaves. As Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (District of Colombia) explains in her introduction to Slave Nation, “The price of freedom from England was bondage for African slaves in America. America would be a slave nation” (Blumrosen, Introduction). Fences' tragic protagonist Troy Maxson is obviously a legacy from that controversial and rarely acknowledged history of the founding of our nation.

 

The American Dream

Apart from race and racism, there is also a very serious intergenerational conflict at the heart of Fences involving the family patriarch Troy and his otherwise respectful sons Lyons and Cory, both whom (especially Cory) are chafing under his domineering and tight-fisted tyranny. First, Troy refuses to lend ten dollars to Lyons until his wife Rose finally does so (even though Lyons is Troy's son from a previous marriage). Parroting the language of white racism, Troy calls the 34-year-old Lyons a “nigger” who is “too lazy to work”—just because Lyons wants to be a musician and refuses to “be carrying nobody's rubbish” (1.1.340-341), like Troy does for a living. But Troy's conflict with Cory, a high-school student with good grades and a gifted football player, is much more momentous. Troy's excuse for banning his son from playing high-school football and even refusing to meet his North Carolina college football recruiter is white racism: “The colored guy got to be twice as good before he get on the team. That's why I don't want you to get all tied up in them sports” (1.3.98-99). Calling young Cory a “nigger” and a “black ass,” Troys orders him to get a “real” job at the local A&P store and learn a trade (fixing cars or home-building), because “The white man ain't gonna let you get anywhere with that football noway” (1.3.133-134).

Everyone around Troy tries in vain to make him see that times have changed and that Cory will have a real opportunity to play college football. His wife Rose tells him: “They got lots of colored boys playing ball now. Baseball and football” (1.1.76). Even Troy's best friend Bono tries to convince him: “Times have changed, Troy, you just come along too early” (1.1.77). But Troy still refuses to let his son play high-school football, claiming that he does not want Cory to suffer from the same sort of humiliating racist rejection, as in his own case. Troy is being most disingenuous, however, because he knows well that for Cory playing high-school football is just a means to go to college on a football scholarship. Lyons wants to be a musician rather than work as a menial laborer like Troy, while Cory wants a TV set and aspires to attend college, unlike his illiterate father. It is clearly a clash between Troy's very modest working-class (proletarian) expectations and his sons' middle-class hopes and aspirations. In his anger, an inebriated Troy kicks Cory out of the house: ”You a man. Now let's see you act like one. Turn you behind around and walk out this yard. And when you get there in the alley...you can forget about this house. See? Because this is my house. You go on and be a man and get your own house” (2.4.125-129).

Troy Maxson is clearly a tragic figure. He was one of eleven kids in a family of a very poor sharecropper in rural Alabama, who was struggling to support himself and his family by picking cotton for a white landowner, Mr. Lubin. When Troy was about eight, his mother abandoned him, when she left for good her vile husband and all her children. When he was fourteen, Troy had a fist fight with his Dad who was trying to molest his 13-year-old girlfriend: “But I see where he was chasing me off so he could have the gal for himself. When I see what the matter of it was, I lost all fear of my daddy. Right there is where I become a man...at fourteen years of age” (1.4.234-237). After his father kicked him out, he walked two hundred miles to Mobile. Failing to find any work or housing there, Troy became a thief and a strong-arm robber. Troy knifed to death one of his victims, who had shot him while resisting his attempt at robbing him. He served thirteen years in the federal penitentiary, where Troy learned to play baseball and met his future sidekick Bono. Next, Troy left Alabama looking for work in industrial Pittsburgh in the hope of escaping poverty and racial oppression. Although he now lives with his family in the racially desegregated North, Troy is still haunted by the ghosts of his terrible Southern past. Major-league baseball became racially integrated in the late 1940s and early 1950's, but this new opportunity for black baseball players came too late for Troy, who was already 43.

An ex-convict and former top Negro-League ballplayer, Troy is caught in a Waiting for Godot world in which he feels he is totally unwelcome and without hope in white society. He is now a very disgruntled garbage-collection employee for lack of better employment opportunities for African-Americans. Troy is unhappy that even though he works very hard, he has only “seventy-three dollars and twenty-two cents...sitting up in” his bank account (1.3.69-70), when he needs at least “two hundred and sixty-four dollars...cash money” to tar the leaking roof of his aging house. Troy complains about having to pay an extortionate interest rate for his shabby home furniture, because the “devil” himself, a “white fellow,” took advantage of his illiteracy, ignorance, and lack of credit to sell him a long-term contract with extended payments. After paying the white door-to-door furniture salesman ten dollars a month for 15 years, “I got an empty house with some raggedy furniture in it. Cory ain't got no bed. He's sleeping on a pile of rags on the floor. Working every day and can't get no credit” (1.1.290-292). That kind of racial humiliation and denigration must have been a very troubling and vexing issue for Troy. The prevailing conditions of poverty, lack of opportunity, and racial discrimination drives him so crazy that he tends to lash out furiously—Stanley Kowalski-like (the antihero of Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire)—at everybody, including his two sons, especially Cory. In his unhappiness, Troy gets drunk every weekend and even has a long extramarital affair, resulting in an illegitimate offspring (from his girlfriend Alberta who dies during the childbirth).

 

A Tragic Antihero?

According to Aristotle, a tragic hero must be essentially a good person. The hero must have dignity and other personal qualities in order to qualify as a tragic figure and then must suffer a downfall through no fault of his own. Often, such a figure suffers a fall as a result of his or her own strengths. For example, King Oedipus, a classic example of a tragic hero, suffers a disastrous downfall as a result of his attempt to maintain his dignity and self-respect, vigorously pursue honesty, justice and truth, and avoid a terribly dishonorable fate, as predicted for him by the Oracle of Delphi. His life story is a tragedy—not only because it has a tragic ending per se, but because Oedipus meets a terrible end despite being a good man with noble intentions. And he suffers all the more because of his moral strength and honesty.

If Troy Maxson is to be understood as a tragic hero in the Aristotelian sense, the play has to show first that he is a good man who has dignity and self-respect, then show that he suffers a downfall through no fault of his own. So, is Troy a hero, a villain, or a combination of both? Throughout Fences Troy does show some signs of being a true hero, but he plays more often the role of a villain. Troy and his best friend Bono are garbage collectors in their city. Being black employees, they are not allowed to drive the trucks, but only lift the garbage. Troy does not agree with this company policy so he complains to his white boss. The boss tells Troy that he needs to complain to the union. Troy is not afraid of losing his job due to his complaints, so he does so. He is given a promotion and becomes the first black garbage truck driver in the entire city. Back in his day, Troy played successfully Negro-League baseball. By the time blacks were allowed to play major-league baseball, Troy was too old. But he is still a real hero in the eyes of his family, friends, and co-workers. At the end of the play, he dies from a heart attack while swinging a baseball bat at an old ball hung from a tree.

We see Troy as a tragic figure—he is a hero but undoubtedly also a villain. The author's position here is rather complex and nuanced. Indeed, if Troy cared so much about Cory, as he claims, why did he prevent him from getting a football scholarship to attend college, which seems to be much more important to his son than football itself? And why did Troy most brutally kick Cory out of the house which he had built entirely with the disability money Troy had illegally stolen from Gabriel? Why did he constantly bully and terrorize Cory, always forcing him to back down? Why did he insult and humiliate Cory all the time: “Troy [shoves him on the shoulder]: Nigger! That's what you are. You just another nigger on the street to me!... Get your black ass out of my yard!” (2.4.146-147, 155). Troy deliberately provokes this last fight so that he could kick Cory out of the house in the same cruel way that his own evil-minded father had kicked him out when Troy was only fourteen. Troy obviously did it so that his bastard baby daughter could have “Cory's room.”As Cory justly says: “You ain't never gave me nothing! You ain't never done nothing but hold me back. Afraid I was gonna be better than you. All you ever did was try and make me scared of you. I used to tremble every time you called my name. Every time I heard your footsteps in the house” (2.4.134-137). Troy is also a shameless liar who did the same nasty trick to Gabriel, as he had done to Cory: after pretending that he does not want to have his disabled brother incarcerated, he sent him to a mental hospital so that he could keep for himself half of Gabriel's veteran disability payments. That is exactly what Rose is accusing Troy of having done after she has talked with Gabriel's landlady and read the news in the local newspaper: “You did Gabe just like you did Cory. You wouldn't sign the paper for Cory...but you signed for Gabe. You signed that paper” (2.2.46-47). Troy is clearly a victim of racial prejudice and discrimination, but he is also as mean, vicious, and villainous as his own father was—who, as Troy himself admits—“was the devil himself” (1.4.241-242).

We see the character of Troy Maxson—his last name supposedly an “amalgamation” of Mason and Dixon after the “Mason-Dixon line” (the famous imaginary line that separated the slave states in the South from the slavery-free states in the North)—being transformed throughout the play. Some theater critics have compared Troy to Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and to King Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. But an even more appropriate comparison would be with the dualistic Shen Te/Shui Ta character in Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan. At the play's opening, Troy is a real ancient Greek-style hero who is successfully fighting his garbage-collection company's racist employment practices (much like Oedipus vanquishes the Sphinx in Oedipus Rex) and enjoys the respect, love, and admiration of everyone around him. But as his character gradually starts revealing the very deep emotional scars from his traumatic past in the racially segregated South, Troy is slowly transformed into an Aristotelian tragic figure. He becomes, in fact, a tragic hero—one who exhibits admirable personal qualities but—through some tragic flaw of character or the intervention of fate—falls in status from being truly heroic to being wretched. At the end of the play, he betrays nearly everybody close to him—Cory (whom he bans from playing high-school football—Cory's ticket to college education—because high-school football prevents his son from working at the local A&P store), his wife Rose (by having a prolonged extramarital affair, from which the out-of-wedlock Raynell was born, and finally kicking her son Cory out of the house to make room for his bastard baby daughter), his brother Gabriel (whom he sends to the mental hospital, so that he could continue stealing Gabriel's veteran disability checks), and even Bono (who is no longer his best friend). Ostracized, disliked and disrespected, Tory becomes his own worst enemy—in other words, an evil character and a villain who is guilty of serious crimes against those closest to him.

 

Conclusion

Troy Maxson is the central character in Fences who faces racial prejudice and injustice all his life. The racially-biased society in which he lives has consigned him to working very hard for little pay as a trash collector in downtown Pittsburgh. Troy displays all the disorienting and maddening effects which Jim Crow has inflicted upon the African-American psyche, as his image is transformed from a being a real hero to everyone around him into a tragic figure and villain. The play is set in 1957, a time when racism was still very visible in this country and African-Americans had to struggle for racial equality and a better life. In Fences, racial oppression and discrimination is alluded to as a “monster” (King Oedipus's Sphinx?) that haunts all of Troy’s past and present. Troy is so bitter over losing his chance to play integrated major-league baseball—the key to his success in sports and life—that he eventually turns on his family and friends.

The playwright August Wilson (German father, black mother) uses sports (Troy, Cory) and music (Lyons) as a metaphor to symbolize the only path that African-Americans could use to achieve upward social mobility and middle-class success in mid-century America. Indeed, baseball presents the only possibility for Troy to achieve the American Dream and perhaps even become a sports celebrity. He learns the ball game in prison and after serving time he plays Negro-League baseball. He was considered the top ballplayer in the colored league who could have become a baseball great, but his race and age deny him the chance to prove himself as a superior athlete. When major-league baseball was finally desegregated, Troy had already turned 43. Being so far beyond his playing prime that no big league team would sign him deeply embitters Troy for the rest of his life. The lack of racial equality and justice is a cruel impediment to Troy which keeps the American Dream out of his grasp and turns him into an angry and evil character. Ultimately, white racism is the underlying explanation for his life of crime, poverty, racial oppression and discrimination, as well as for his moral ruination. It turns Troy from a good man with good intentions into a tragic figure and antihero, destroying his goodness as well as his relationships with all those closest to him.

 

Works Cited

Blumrosen, Alfred W., and Ruth G. Blumrosen. Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution. New York: Sourcebooks Paperback. 2006. Print.

Garner Jr., Stanton. “August Wilson.” The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. Eds. J. Ellen Gainor et al. New York, London: Norton, 2014. 1612-1617. Print.

Wilson, August. Fences. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. Eds. J. Ellen Gainor et al. New York, London: Norton, 2014. 1617-1665. Print.