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Race Component in August Wilson’s Fences

The American playwright August Wilson’s two-act play Fences, set in the 1950s, is the second in his line of works about African American life in the 20th century (Kuiper, 2011). The play explores how racism affects the course of black individuals’ lives through the character of Troy, who is unable to pursue his dreams of being a baseball player because of the colour of his skin. Troy, a man with “fences” between himself and his family, lives dependent on a past which is not fulfilling for him. His dependency on past experiences and disappointments deprives him of developing meaningful relationships with the people around him. The play demonstrates a man who tries to survive, in his own terms, in a racist society that is promised to be equal and just for all, regardless of race, class, ethnicity and social background. This article explores the portrayal of the impact of racial discrimination towards black families and how this may affect the way black individuals perceive themselves in turn.


Figure 1: A scene from the play staged (Lone Tree Arts Center, 2018).

Troy Maxson, the protagonist of Fences, is an exceptional baseball player at a period when the professional leagues were off-limits to black players; he bitterly laments his missed possibilities. Troy, a former inmate who is now a garbage collector, overcomes obstacles to become the first black person to occupy the position in the city which is not, of course, satisfactory for him. Troy, “in pursuit of the elusive American Dream” (Walton, 2003, p. 57) has dreamt of a different life in which he could chase his dreams but he has faced racial constraints not allowing him to do what he wants in “the promise of a land of freedom with opportunity and equality for all” (Wattley, 2010, p. 3) which depicts the understanding of American Dream. For many writers, through the unfulfilled dreams of Troy, Wilson depicts the failed promise of the American Dream (Koprince, 2006). In contrast to his father’s pessimistic views on black people who have no chance in the white privileged society, “Cory seems to believe in the promises of American dream” (Koprince, 2006, p. 354). Cory interprets his father’s unsuccessful attempts to be a baseball player as a misfortune and so he does not associate this with their racial background, telling his father: "Just cause you didn't have a chance! You just scared I'm gonna be better than you, that's all" (Wilson, 1986, 1.4.60). Troy seems to completely accept the impositions of white society not because he works as a garbage collector, but because he wants his son to also submit to white people’s racial prejudice-based rules, while Cory opposes this view.


Troy embodies self-deprivation within the dialogues with his son by totally adopting the idea that black people have no chance other than orienting themselves into the white societal system. While, for Cory, the concept of the American Dream is still promising opportunities, for Troy, Koprince argues, “It has turned into a nightmare. Instead of limitless opportunities, he has come to know racial discrimination and poverty” (Koprince 2006, p. 353). Although the American Dream, one of the United States’ foundational ideologies, promises the people of the U.S. an equal environment giving them the opportunity of pursuing their ideals and flourishing regardless of their background, through the character of Troy, the audience is presented with a paradox embedded in the American society. American Dream seems not to function, in Troy’s life, as a hopeful opportunity but an unfulfilled promise which is expected it to be just the opposite according to the definition.


Figure 2: Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson and Jovan Adepo plays Cory in Fences (Courtesy Paramount Pictures, 2018).

Troy, as a man who experienced racial discrimination firsthand, does not let his teenage son Cory accept a football scholarship to college. Troy is sure of the fact that it is not possible for Cory to do what he wants in the white man’s world. When Rose tells Troy that “Cory done went and got recruited by a college football team”, Troy responds by saying:

“I told that boy about that football stuff. The white man ain't gonna let him get nowhere with that football. I told him when he first come to me with it. Now you come telling me he done went and got more tied up in it. He ought to go and get recruited in how to fix cars or something where he can make a living” (Wilson, 1986, 1.1.10).

Troy, believing that black people do not have control over their own lives, thinks that Cory is working in vain because no matter how gifted he is in his field, he is aware that society's inherent racism puts him at a severe disadvantage in pursuing and accomplishing his goals. As a consequence of the discrimination Troy faces throughout his life, in his mind he identifies black people as a whole to be group of people deprived of their free will who have to endure a white-dominated society in order to survive. In African-American sociologist W.E.B Du Bois’s essay analysing black people’s perception of themselves, The Souls of Black Folk, he used the term “double consciousness” to explain the spiritual and psychological duality black people experience due to assumptions imposed on them by white people throughout their lives. Du Bois argues, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (1903, p.150).


Azad describes black people's experience about double consciousness as following; "They see America as the land where they were forced to live there against their will, and in which their identities are greatly distorted, while they see Africa as their homeland which they belong to" (2021, p. 208). Double consciousness leads black people to feel torn in self-identification and they feel lost in a society where they are segregated from “civilization”. In the play, Troy seems to be under the effect of this duality which urges him to hold his son Cory back from his dreams rather than encouraging him because he is certain that Cory will inevitably face this reality. After Troy’s disappointing experiences in his baseball career, he gives up on his goals and surrenders himself to the idea that the black community is under the custody of white civilization and its prejudiced laws. He begins to identify himself according to how he is perceived by white people, who consider black people to be “something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be "kept down," or "in his place," or "helped up," to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden” (Locke, 1925, p. 3).


Wattley (2010) indicates in his essay that “Troy knows the world to be a hostile, racist, and unwelcoming place for black people, and he attempts to prepare Cory for such a world by behaving toward his son without tenderness or softness, as he will be treated in society” (p. 6). Troy is afraid that his son might go through what he already did and does not want Cory to go through the same bitter experiences or become shocked and jaded at the disparity he will face in the public sphere. Therefore, by projecting his own fears onto Cory, Troy attempts to protect his son from the same disappointments he encountered. In order to be heard, Troy resorts to violence and makes sure that Cory remembers, “he is the boss” (1.3). Troy hurts his family believing he is doing so with good intentions, but it is his way of processing his pain of not being able to realize his dreams and the fact that he is able to become the patriarch of his household with some form of power or control seems to be the only consolation for his wounded ego.


This idea of an “ideal manhood” is presented throughout the play. Troy, as a man, is well aware of the expectations of society. It is most effectively show in his bitter conversation with Cory, where he proclaims:

“It's my job. It's my responsibility! You understand that? A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house [...] sleep you behind on my bedclothes [...] fill you belly up with my food [...] cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not 'cause I like you! Cause it's my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you! Let's get this straight right here [...] before it go along any further [...] I ain't got to like you” (1.3).
Figure 3: James Earl Jones stars as Troy Maxson in Fences (San Francisco Chronicle, 2010).

Troy implies that he is expected to provide financial support to his family because he is “the man of the house”. He presents this as his reason for working but at the same time, he reveals that he feels as if he has lived in vain because this is not what he has dreamed of. Troy continues working as a garbage collector for the sake of providing for his family despite being overwhelmed by the fact that the job he was given by society was not his dream of playing baseball, but collecting garbage. Feeling trapped in an identity and lifestyle he never wanted, Troy chases happiness outside rather than through the companionship of "his long suffering wife" (Walton, 2003, p. 58). When Troy impregnates another woman and informs his wife Rose about the situation; "I'm gonna be a daddy. I'm gonna be somebody's daddy" (Wilson, 1986, 2.1.68), Rose complains about how much she has done for them even though he has been emotionally unavailable for years and wants to know what the other woman has that she lacks. Troy responds that:

"It’s just . . . She gives me a different idea ... a different understanding a bout myself. I can step out of this house and get away from the pressures and problems ... be a different man. I ain't got to wonder how I'm gonna pay the bills or get the roof fixed. I can just be a part of myself that I ain't never been" (Wilson, 1986, 2.1.71).

Once again, Troy reveals that he is in search of a life in which feels completely different from his current one and in order to help him get rid of his own confusion in his identity, he engages in a different lifestyle with another woman while "avoiding his overwhelming responsibilities about his family"(Azad, 2021, p. 208).


In conclusion, through Fences, August Wilson tells the story of a baseball player who was prevented from pursuing his dreams and ideals as a young man due to the discrimination he faced in a white-dominated society, resulting in his current profession as a garbage collector. The character of Troy represents the broken promise of the American Dream which insisted that every single individual citizen of the United States, regardless of race, class, gender or ethnicity, would be granted equal social, economic and political opportunities. However, the ideology of the American Dream is unable to provide Troy with such equality and, instead, he is consistently being held back from his desires. Being torn from his own path in life, Troy has bitterly experienced that he is not a part of the society he lives in. Troy’s experiences and Wilson’s portrayal of him reveal how people who suffer from racial discrimination struggle while trying to survive in an environment where they are disapproved of, not only regarding their careers but also in domestic life and relationships while depicting an example of how "double consciousness" plays a critical role in black individuals' lives.


Bibliographical References

Koprince, S. (2006). Baseball as History and Myth in August Wilson's" Fences". African American Review, 40(2), 349-358.


Du Bois, W. B. (1903). The Souls Of Black Folk. pdf.


Locke, A. (1925). Enter the New Negro. Survey Graphic, 6(6), 631-634.

Wattley, A. (2010). Father-Son Conflict and the American Dream in Arthur Miller's" Death of a Salesman" and August Wilson's" Fences". The Arthur Miller Journal, 5(2), 1-20.


Wilson, August. Fences. Penguin Books, 1991.


TURKI, H., & Hindreen, A. Z. A. D. Double Consciousness in August Wilson’s Fences. Eurasian Journal of English Language and Literature, 3(1), 207-217.


Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2022, May 15). Fences. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Fences

Visual Sources

Cover Image: San Francisco Chronicle. (2010). James Earl Jones stars as Troy Maxson in Fences [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.sfchronicle.com/entertainment/article/Look-for-Washington-s-version-of-Wilson-s-9516906.php


Figure 1: Lone Tree Arts Center. (2018). A scene from the play staged [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.lonetreeartscenter.org/fences


Figure 2: Courtesy Paramount Pictures. (2018). Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson and Jovan Adepo plays Cory in Fences [Photograph]. WBUR. Retrieved from: https://www.wbur.org/news/2016/12/24/august-wilson-fences


Figure 3: San Francisco Chronicle. (2010). James Earl Jones stars as Troy Maxson in Fences [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.sfchronicle.com/entertainment/article/Look-for-Washington-s-version-of-Wilson-s-9516906.php


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Hazal Kazancı

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