Set in the 1950s, August Wilson’s famous play Fences is a masterful work that illustrates the effects of racism and segregation that African Americans faced in the pre-Civil Rights Era. Fences’ protagonist Troy is a man who has been denied his own version of the American Dream through the institutional racism he experienced growing up as a talented baseball player in a segregated league. Since Troy was limited to the Negro Leagues because of the color of his skin, he never made it to the major leagues, where he could have capitalized on his talent and earning potential. Instead, his dream remained unrealized, and he became despondent and cynical. Moreover, the negativity of his experiences with racism and oppression inform his parenting style with his sons, Cory, Raynell, and Lyons. Fences particularly focuses on the relationship between Troy and Cory, whose own athletic talents mirror those of his father, only Cory has an opportunity to go pro (in football) that his father did not have. The dissonance between aspirations for blacks in the 1950s and the actuality of dreams denied (or, to borrow from poet Langston Hughes, “dreams deferred”) forms the crux of the tension in Fences’ narrative.
What makes Fences such a critical success is the thematic layering that Wilson achieves throughout his work. Fences is play that borrows tropes from African American civil rights advocates and literary innovators, such as Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin. Specifically, Wilson works with Du Bois’ concept of the “double consciousness,” an identity crisis many blacks faced during the pre-Civil Rights Era. Du Bois defines double consciousness as the “‘two-ness’ of being ‘an American, a Negro; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder’” (qtd. in Bruce 299). Wilson masterfully works with this theme in Fences, creating separate generations of characters who face similar trials on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the subsequent legislation that would outlaw segregation and associated discrimination in public spheres. Though Troy wants the best for his son Cory, his double consciousness and bitterness stemming from years of institutional racism harden him and make him unable to relate to his son, as show here in this quote from the play, where Troy discusses Cory’s potential to play football:
TROY: I told that boy about that football stuff. The white man ain’t gonna let him get nowhere with that football … He ought to go and get recruited in how to fix cars or something where he can make a living. (Wilson 1159; Act I)
The divide between father and son, and between the two generations, shows how deeply-ingrained systems of racism can penetrate family relationships. Troy and Cory’s inability to reconcile their differences leads directly to Troy’s own tragic ending and his estrangement from the family.
August Wilson’s play Fences succeeds on many levels, particularly its realism and relevance to social issues in American history (and today) and its characterizations, which illustrate the interrelated nature between racism and identity. Even when Troy attempts to better himself and his economic position, he is ironically held in place by societal forces and institutional racism, as shown when he receives a “promotion” that has him picking up after white people as a renewed symbol of African American marginalization: “They keep switching me around. Got me out in Green-tree now … hauling white folks’ garbage” (Wilson 1177; Act 2). Wilson’s play also succeeds in its symbolic approach, as its very title, Fences, points to the different barriers the characters face in the play, i.e., social, political, economic, psychological, etc. Wilson’s play is truly a timeless piece whose social statement makes readers and viewers think critically about the consequences of racism on the oppressed minorities in American society.
- Wilson, August. Fences. 1985. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/wpick/output.pdf. Accessed 3 May 2017.
- Bruce, Dickson D. “W. E. B. Du Bois and the Idea of Double Consciousness.” American Literature, vol. 64, no. 2, 1992, pp. 299–309., www.jstor.org/stable/2927837.