“There is a weight of impossible description that falls away and leaves him bare and exposed to a frightful realization. It is a trauma that a sane and normal mind would be unable to withstand. HE begins to dance. A slow, strange dance, eerie and life-giving. A dance of atavistic signature and ritual. LYONS attempts to embrace him. GABRIEL pushes LYONS away. HE begins to howl in what is an attempt at song, or perhaps a song turning back into itself in an attempt at speech. HE finishes his dance and the gates of heaven stand open as wide as God’s closet.”
Written by August Wilson in 1985, “Fences” the play takes place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1957 and sets the scene for an intramural display of how a general climate of intergenerational anti-Black violence encroaches upon the everyday minutiae of the Black family. “Fences” is the sixth play of a ten-part series of plays authored by August Wilson called the “Pittsburgh Cycle.” An understanding of the ways in which August Wilson writes each character within this climate of intergenerational, intragenerational, and transgenerational anti-Black violence is precisely what must be felt within each character portrayal. Fences is a play about trauma. It is about the transferable mark of racial trauma. In other words, it is about the repetition of the wreckage of structural anti-Black racism and the many ways Black characters attempt to navigate through American militarism, racism, classism, sexism, and ableism. Each character struggles to become a “protagonist” – in their own right – yet this struggle to control their own destiny is always already made contingent upon some form of negotiation with anti-Blackness and racial trauma. There is no better illustration of this fact than TROY MAXSON.
The play starts with TROY telling a story about a co-worker – Brownie – who was afraid to let Mr. Rand (their boss) see him carrying home a watermelon. Brownie is contrasted to TROY and this contrast builds the details around BONO’s admiration for TROY. TROY was not submissive to the structure of economic precarity and racial exclusion that existed in his workplace and World. This non-submissive character, this dignity – this “honesty, capacity for hard work, and … strength” – portrays TROY’s aim to be a protagonist of his own life despite the limitations of his World and its these characteristics BONO “seeks to emulate.” (9) Even BONO’s eventual distancing from TROY can be considered a homage to what he sought to emulate in TROY’s own behavior. It is TROY’s wisdom used against him.
The play begins here and shows the way in which TROY – with both his Blackness and his Largeness – remains in tension with a force greater than his own strength. The World of the Play is an anti-Black World of Limits and Limitations. It is not a matter of IF each character of the play is struggling against a World which imposes a limitation upon the fullest extent of their dreams and capacities, it is a matter of HOW each character attempts to carve out a social life for themselves in the midst of their social death. TROY’s willingness to ask the question of race at work warrants the racial and class-based anxiety around whether or not TROY would be fired. In 1957, Black men’s place in the workplace was often at odds with the predominately white-led worker’s unions as well as their bosses. The entire play is subtended by the tension that TROY’s protagonism might come back to bite him. The question that triggers the possibility of TROY losing his job is the question that all of the Black characters throughout ‘Fences’ wrestle with as an existential wound and intramural conflict: “what’s the matter, don’t I count?”
ROSE’s devotion to TROY is a decision made within a structure of limitations too. Wilson writes, “her devotion to him stems from her recognition of the possibilities of her life without him: a succession of abusive men and their babies, a life of partying and running the streets, the Church, or aloneness with its attendant pain and frustration.” This statement is reminiscent of what the Black feminist cultural historian Saidiya Hartman describes in her second book Lose Your Mother as the ‘afterlife of slavery.’ In order to indicate the way in which ROSE’s devotion to TROY is attached to a recognition of possibilities that are all equally recognizable as not quite opportunities, it is important to cite Hartman in full:
Slavery had established a measure of man and a ranking of life and worth that has yet to be undone. If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. I, too, am the afterlife of slavery.
We must situate ROSE within the lexicon given by Saidiya Hartman around “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment” and from the very beginning we must think of ROSE as a character who would be otherwise if and only if otherwise could be. ROSE instead faces the opportunity of love as a dilemma of negative affordances: devote myself to this Man and the non-ideal love that he offers or face yet again the successive string of abusive men and their children, the wayward life of the club and streets, the Church or worse, loneliness.
GABRIEL fought in the World War II. Thus, another important dynamic of the drama is the role and effect of World War II and its traumas on working class Black families. Taken as a prism in its own right, one begins to see how American warfare cuts through Black America in doubly disastrous ways. Generally left out of the discussion around and about American veterans, the Double V campaign was started by the Pittsburgh Courier in February 7th, 1942. The campaign started by the African American newspaper stood for – ‘V for Victory’ – victory abroad and victory at home. The campaign led to record number of African American enrollment in the military in the fight against the Nazis. The underlying message being that Black America was at war for their rights domestically and ethically should fight for the rights of Jewish people in Germany. At the time, the military was still segregated and African Americans were subject to menial labor jobs. It was not until July 28th, 1948 when Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 that the military became integrated. GABRIEL exist as a pawn structurally positioned within this social milieu.
In “Fences” the Black folks must work through a series of structural and interpersonal dramas as minor battlefields of their own. In America’s never-ending wars, things change but trauma repeats. Black America exist within these wars as centrifugal figures that are dis/figured and dis/abled in the process. Wilson looks at the carnage of war through the lens of black disability. With GABRIEL, Wilson presents Black disability as that which must be policed. GABRIEL is consistently in motion between the carceral state and the carceral clinic. And what is a carceral continuum but another way of saying warfare in the American homeland? GABRIEL continues to fight another war after World War II in America and it is for this reason that he remains a guardian angel. Wilson presents Black disability as possessing an inventive, magical and imaginary capacity wherein imagination meets sacred possibility.
LYONS is the wayward son. He fancies himself a musician while not being one. He’s caught up in the rituals, but not completely involved. LYONS passion for music as a way of belonging, as a way of preventing what the otherside of “what he’d do” if he did not play music. So music functions as a solvent for a psychological turmoil that helps to get LYONS up in the morning. It is his mover and motivator. This, however, does not impress TROY whose experience as a father and provider causes him to look at his son as a failure by virtue of his dependency on not only TROY but his wife Bonnie. LYONS is the character who fails to strive to be a protagonist in his own right such that even in music he is said to be “caught up” and not in control.
The final character for this overview will be CORY and with CORY it would be a mistake to see him as a victim of only an overbearing and oppressive patriarchal father. While, patriarchy, manhood, socialization and the expectations of black male socialization, play a significant role in the trials and tribulation CORY faces throughout the play, one would be remiss to not situate CORY – once again, within a World of limits. The play begins with TROY at the mercy of Mr. Rand, and it is a feature of the play throughout that comes to stand-in for TROY’s treatment of CORY. TROY states in the infamous monologue to CORY:
TROY: …Let’s get this straight right here … before it go along any further … I ain’t got to like you. Mr. Rand don’t give me my money come payday cause he likes me. He gives me cause he owe me. I done give you everything I had to give you. I gave you your life! Me and your mama worked that out between us. And liking your black ass wasn’t part of the bargain. Don’t you try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best by making sure they doing right by you. You undersand what I’m saying, boy?
In this passage, Mr. Rand’s behavior towards TROY becomes TROY’s analogy for the way he is going to treat and be responsible for his son. Mr. Rand’s way of being towards TROY becomes the justification behind why and how TROY will father his son. But, why is TROY the Father mirroring the behaviors of his white boss onto his son? The pressures of a racially organized workforce comes to leave its own impression on the patriarchally organized black home. TROY’s frustration and anguish is not simply ‘toxic masculinity’ (though it most certainly is) it is also a real fear of repetition and trauma, and a fraught paternal yearning to protect his son, CORY, from becoming like himself. Immediately after this heart-wrenching moment TROY confesses to ROSE
ROSE: Why don’t you let the boy go ahead and play football, Troy? Ain’t no harm in that. He’s just trying to be like you with the sports.
TROY: I don’t want him to be like me! I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get. You the only decent thing that ever happened to me. I wish him that. But I don’t wish him a thing else from my life. I decided seventeen years ago that boy wasn’t getting involved in no sports. Not after what they did to me in the sports.
This fear of repetition versus CORY’s own hidden desire to both be like his father and hate his father makes CORY’s narrative a Wilsonian play on the ancient Greek drama of Oedipus. Scholars often comment on the fact that Fences was a play of which Wilson attempted to respond to critics who questioned whether or not he could write a drama in the form of the Aristotelian tragedy. In CORY and TROY, Wilson reformulates the ancient trope of Oedipus. Literary scholar and cultural critic David Marriott provides an excellent framework in his seminal text On Black Men. What he says aboutJohn Edgar Wideman’s Fatheralong, can be said about the central thesis of August Wilson’s Fences, namely, that: “Like the ties that bind Oedipus to Laius, what Fatheralong (Fences) uncovers, or more accurately, symptomatically reveals, is how racism is passed on from father to son, like an unwitting curse: a bitterness buried yet operative between them, inhabiting the son (though he doesn’t know it), a fault of self and identity.” (96) To a certain degree, this ‘unwitting curse’ might have been the point of ROSE’s comment at the end of the play about how CORY not coming to his father’s funeral would not “make him a man.” Fences is August Wilson’s re-narration of the Oedipal tragedy from the context of a poor Black family in Pittsburgh.
Locked in an American grammar, neither TROY nor CORY can be properly Fathers – both are made into eternal boys by characters, like Mr. Rand, whose absence from the script only multiplies the power of their presence. Mr. Rand is the absent ‘boss’ of TROY – the man who is the ‘boss’ of this Maxson house. Yet, that is the tragic beauty of Wilson’s play, in that, at every angle and precipice upon which the Oedipal tragedy would begin to cohere – at every moment that TROY might to attempt to assert his dominance in fatherhood or manhood (or protagonist), he is revealed to be a mockery of those terms. CORY following the fate of his father at every turn and fight is reminded by ROSE (of course, by the Mother) that his detour against his Father was nothing but a repetition of TROY himself. CORY was the Father he had never wanted to be just as TROY himself was but a repetition of a Father he had never wanted to be.
GLOSSARY OF TERMS
Afterlife of Slavery – term coined by Saidiya Hartman to describe the the enduring and destructive effects of slavery and black abjection on the present
Aristotelian tragedy – tragedy is characterised by seriousness and involves a great person who experiences a reversal of fortune.
classism – prejudice against or in favor of people belonging to a particular social class.
intergenerational anti-Black violence – a particular form of racial violence which passes traumatic effects onto subsequent generations of the same group.
militarism – the belief or desire of a government or people that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or promote national interests.
protagonism – the state, character, or activity of a protagonist.
sexism – prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.
social death – a pattern of group behavior that ignores the presence or existence of a person within the group.
social life – the various bonds humans form with others, such as family, friends, members of their community, and strangers
structural anti-Black racism – a particular form of anti-Black racism attached to a long durée of institutional practices, legal histories, and social norms that continue to systematically produced in the present.
toxic masculinity – refers to traditional cultural masculine norms that can be harmful to men, women, and society overall; this concept of toxic masculinity does not condemn men or male attributes, but rather emphasizes the harmful effects of conformity to certain traditional masculine ideal behaviors such as dominance, self-reliance, and competition.
August Wilson is a Black poet and playwright born in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 27th, 1945, the fourth of six children. Drawing his creative and theatrical resources from his home location, Wilson began to write his most famous Pittsburgh Cycle of plays early in his dramatic career and did not finish until his death on October 2nd, 2005. The Pittsburgh Cycle was a series of ten plays spanning the decades of Black experience in Twentieth Century America. The order of the plays were as follows: 1) Jitney (1979 – set in 1977); 2) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982 – set in 1927); 3) Fences (1985 – set in 1957); 4) Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986 – set in 1910; 5) The Piano Lesson (1987 – set in 1936); 6) Two Trains Running (1990 – set in 1969); 7) Seven Guitars (1995 – set in 1948); 8) King Hedley II (1998 – set in 1985); 9) Gem of the Ocean (2003 – set in 1902); 10) Radio Golf (2005 – set in 1990). Each play was set in a different decade and reflected the contestations of the time period. Wilson found inspiration in the Hill District of Pittsburgh which has been a historical African American neighborhood since the Great Migration from the South to the neighborhood in the 1920s. Describing the importance of this environment for the production of his work in an interview he stated:
I learned the language, the eating habits, the religious beliefs, the gestures, the notions of common sense, attitudes towards sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the responses to pleasure and pain . . . that my mother had learned from her mother, and which you could trace back to the first African who set foot on the continent. It is this culture that stands on these shores today as a testament to the resiliency of the African-American spirit. (Wilson 2001, 15-16)
The Hill District is the setting of all of Wilson’s plays with the exception of one. Fences is a drama that takes place in Black Pittsburgh in 1957. The characters in Fences exist in the aftermath and afterlives of three major events in the lives of Black Americans that come to influence the make-up of the play: A) the Great Migration of Black’s North, and with it, the burgeoning urbanization of Southern Black migrants in Northern Urban locations; B) World War II, and with it, the role that the Pittsburgh Courier had in promoting the Double V Campaign; C) the afterlife of slavery and with it, the ongoing legacy of racial terror and Jim Crow Segregation. J. Trent Alexander, a doctoral candidate in the history department at Carnegie Mellon University states of The Great Migration that, “African American left the South in two fairly distinct waves, the first beginning during the World War I period and the second beginning during the World War II,” (4). The setting of Fences in the aftermath of both waves attest to the settling in of the urbanization process with the roots of the Black Southern legacy continuing to make its impact on the sociocultural landscape of Black Life in Pittsburgh. Alexander states:
During the 1910s net migration from the South was nearly 500,000; almost all of these migrants were heading for the North. The migration continued in even greater numbers during the 1920s, while in the 1930s it returned to levels slightly below those of the 1910s. During the 1940s, however, the migration entered a new era, as net out-migration from the South totaled 1,243,000, nearly a third of those going west. Initially driven by World War II mobilization, 1940s levels of migration continued through the 1960s. (4)
Pittsburgh in general, and the Hill District in particular, became one of the many central locations for Black migrants from the South. These Black Southerners brought with them the weight of their cultural legacies and the strength of endurance in their character. This legacy and character became a central factor in the production of staple factions of Black life in their new urban homes. Two important Black institutions in Pittsburgh at the time were the Pittsburgh Courier and Pittsburgh’s two Negro League Baseball Teams – the Homestead Grays or the Pittsburgh Crawfords. The Negro National Baseball League was founded in 1920 and reorganized in 1933. The Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords – the two clubs TROY was likely to have played for – were founded in the 1930s. Susan Koprince, a Professor of English at the University of North Dakota, stated that: “Wilson might well have imagined Fences as set in his hometown of Pittsburgh; if so, he would also likely have imagined that Troy played for the Homestead Grays or the Pittsburgh Crawfords, two of the most talented Negro League teams during the 1930s and 40s.” (357)
The characters of Fences make specific historical reference to Black Pittsburgh’s baseball legacy twice in the play. TROY references Josh Gibson, a legendary catcher and slugger for both the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, when he states: “I saw Josh Gibson’s daughter yesterday. She walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet. Now I bet you Selkirk’s daughter ain’t walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet! I bet you that!” Josh Gibson, in 1972 became the second Negro league player to be inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He had a momentous career in which he was often called “the Black Babe Ruth” and Babe Ruth, simultaneously was often called, “the White Josh Gibson.” However, racial segregation and the so-called “gentleman’s agreement” of National Baseball Leagues which excluded non-White people from the field resulted in absolutely diametrically opposed outcomes within the life and times of these two Baseball stars. As Susan Koprince states, “Despite his legendary abilities, however, Gibson was never given the chance to play in the major leagues – a circumstance that may well have contributed to his untimely death… In the early 1940s, Gibson began to drink excessively and also developed a brain tumor that caused recurring headaches and blackouts. He died of a stroke at the age of 35, just a few months before Robinson crossed major-league baseball’s color line.” (352). In addition to this reference to Josh Gibson, LYONS also reminisces on the time he saw TROY hitting a home run in Homestead Field. He states: “Right out there in Homestead Field. He wasn’t satisfied hitting in the seats . . . he want to hit it over everything!” (353) This sociocultural milieu situates the characters of Fences within a community in Black Pittsburgh intimately connected to one of its most influential Black institutions.
The Pittsburgh Courier is important in the historical background for the impact it had on Black communities in World War II in Pittsburgh and beyond. Founded in 1907 by Edwin Nathaniel Harleston, the newspaper went into full circulation in the Hill District on January 5, 1910. The newspaper played a seminal role in informing the burgeoning Black population in Pittsburgh to the issues of the day – ranging from entertainment, sports, local news and major events – and eventually became the largest Black newspaper in the United States. The paper played a fundamental role in encouraging the enlistment of Black soldiers in World War II and challenging racial segregation in America. In pushing their ‘Double V campaign’ the Courier championed Black integration and participation in the American military through making a connection between the struggles of Black Americans in America with that of Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jewish people. When World War II began on September 1st 1939, Franklin Roosevelt wrote a letter to then editor, Robert Vann, requesting that the paper “tone down its rhetoric concerning racial discrimination,” in America and this request was honored until a twenty-six year old defense worker in Wichita, Kansas by the name of James G. Thompson wrote a letter to the newspaper entitled, “Should I Sacrifice to live ‘Half American?” In the letter, Thompson, referring to the ‘V for Victory’ signs being displayed across the U.S. and its allies, calling for victory over the Axis Powers, called for a “Double VV for Victory,” with the first V standing for victory of enemies from without and the second for victory over enemies within. This campaign became a huge success. In October 24, 1942 the Courier ran a survey to measure the impact of the campaign and found that 88 percent of its readers responded in support. This campaign led to an influx of Black Americans joining the fight in the war (one of whom might have been GABRIEL from Fences) and the failure to secure the second Victory (the war within) in the aftermath of the war in the shadows of the post-World War II years lead to the eventual flowering of the Civil Rights Era in 1954.
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