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9: August Wilson (1945-2005)

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    Generational Consequences

    Rebecca Joseph

    August Wilson is known as the “Theater Poet of Black America”. The Playwright explores themes like the "search for identity, racial exploitation and injustice, empowerment through the blues, and spiritual regeneration" (Little 290). He focuses on the "'internal examination' of African American life rather than the 'pushing forward' of overt political propaganda"(Little 291). According to critic Daniel Scott III, “Wilson believes that artistic imagination overshadows any need for historical accuracy, especially as he tries to deconstruct entrenched misconceptions about African Americans among his wider audiences and, by so doing, alter customary patterns of behavior and thought. He believes his mission is not so much to challenge the past but to bring it once again into focus, ‘to exemplify for today's audiences how African Americans emerged triumphant’” (Scott).

    The play, Fences, is set in 1950s Pittsburg and follows Troy Maxson who once had a promising future in baseball but circumstances as a youth led him down a path that landed him in jail. Being an ex-convict out of the system, he became a garbage collector, settled down with Rose, and started a family. It examines how external racism affects interpersonal relationships, the friction causing the oppression to be sent down the family line, and eventually manifesting into generational curses we inevitably trap ourselves in.

    We start off on a Friday evening, payday; Troy and Bono congregate at Troy’s house for their ritualistic drink and talk. We learn Troy has asked their boss why the black employees only move the garbage and aren’t allowed to drive the trucks. Bono suspects Troy of being unfaithful to Rose. Their son, Cory, has a chance to be recruited by a college football team. The news is bitter for Troy because he once played for the Negro Leagues and had a future in baseball but became too old to play for the Major Leagues by the time it was formed. Rose reminds him to finish putting the fence up. As he and Cory work on the fence together, Cory tells him he has left his job at the grocery store, A&P, for the football season. Troy refuses to allow him to quit and demands he instead quit the team and get his job back. Cory wonders why his father doesn’t like him and he unexpectedly informs him there was no rule that said he was obligated to. Like his father before him, he simply had a responsibility to care for him.

    By the end of the act, it is next Friday. Troy has been promoted, assigned the first colored garbage truck driver in the city. He and Bono talk about their experience leaving the south, their fathers, and moving north. The day he left, at fourteen, was the same day his father had knocked him out when he caught him with a girl. He became homeless and started thieving which landed him in prison for fifteen years where he learned to play baseball. Cory comes home and confronts his father after finding out he told the coach not to let him play, causing him to lose his one chance to be recruited. Troy has no remorse, telling him he shouldn’t waste his time on sports, things that’ll fill his head with trash and instead learn a trade; something they can't take away from him. He warns him his insubordination is “strike one.”

    Troy must bail his brother, Gabriel, out of jail. As Troy and Bono work on the fence he admits to his affair with Alberta. Bono sees that Rose wants to build the fence to keep what she loves close to her. When Troy tells Rose about the hearing for Gabriel to be recommitted he admits to his affair. Rose gives Troy a piece of her mind and we learn how unsatisfied with the state of his life he is and he and Cory begin to fight. When Troy wins he tells him that is “strike two.”

    Six months later, Alberta dies in childbirth and Troy brings home a baby girl. Rose tells him because he was not there Gabriel was signed away. Troy has completed the fence and tells Cory he must provide for himself. Cory brings up his shortcoming with Rose, and how the house and property he was attempting to remove him from was paid for by Gabriel’s government checks. This sparks another attack and he kicks him out.

    Eight years later, Cory has joined the marines and everyone has come together for Troy’s funeral. Cory refuses to attend and Rose tells him that won't make him a man. In the end he and his younger sister, Raynell, bond.

    In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin talks about how his grandfather had been long defeated even before his death. His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps because the future he wanted seemed unattainable to him. The system was built to predetermine their futures in a way that held most in the same circumstances and there were only so many opportunities that offered a way out and a better future. “Every Negro boy-in my situation during those years, at least-who reaches this point realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a "thing", a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way…I could not become a prizefighter- many of us tried but very few succeeded. I could not sing. I could not dance. I had been well conditioned by the world in which I grew up, so I did not yet dare take the idea of becoming a writer seriously” (Baldwin 35). What seems to happen with men like Troy and Baldwin’s father is they were kicked so many times by society they came to believe that black men had no real chance to advance. They teach it to their children because they want them so badly not to be disappointed. In most cases they had “a fear that the child, in challenging the white world's assumptions, was putting himself in the path of destruction” (Baldwin 38). They play it safe, which is why he encourages Cory to find something that can’t be taken from him like a trade. At one point Troy says, “The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway. You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade. That way you have something ain’t nobody can take away from you. You go on and learn how to put your hands to some good use. Besides hauling people’s garbage" (Wilson). He sees dreams as trash, a call to his failed dreams and current occupation, yet in this he still manages to create victories for himself and his people. Unfortunately damaged men are trying to be fathers when their fathers weren’t good fathers to them. There is also a generation of fathers who resent being fathers and don’t actually like or want their children, like Troy and his father. New generations are born and ready to challenge society, the old generation can not see the vision and end up creating a generation of kids that hate their parents for tearing them down the way society does. It could also be bitter seeing society make way for new generations when you were cast out during your time. Black boys in particular only have so many chances to make a future happen for them and Cory got that. For Troy, there is a level of envy seeing his son have a possible future in something that was a missed opportunity for him. That is why he sabotages his chances of being recruited to a college football team. In a way the envy he has towards Cory is similar to the jealousy his father had when he caught him with the girl. When society has so vehemently led you to believe you will aspire to nothing more than what they define you, it is difficult to see things any other way. When there is an opportunity to change the course of the future, it should be taken.

    Opportunities are scarce because of race, black people are limited in society, held down and oppressed by white people, limited job opportunities and bias in the workplace. As society holds them down they begin to oppress and limit themselves. They see the same happen to those around and it creates a sort of self-resentment for the hand dealt to them in life. It’s not difficult to see how those scars wouldn’t be passed down. However society advances and as more black people are given chances their predecessors weren’t, those monsters can rear their heads. A cycle of self-sabotage is created, in the form of ruining your child’s future or betraying your spouse like Troy and so many others have. In a sense, Troy is conspicuous by his presence as Fences stages the stresses and tensions whereby sons attempt to both escape and emulate fathers. Troy recalls his father's sense of responsibility and recalcitrance: "My daddy ain't had them walking blues! What you talking about? He stayed right there with his family. But he was just as evil as he could be. ... He wasn't good for nobody” (Brewer).

    It is a fitting message that at the end the children sit together symbolizing new generations working to create a hopefully better future by breaking those barriers for the next generation. Create a cycle that will build each other up rather than tear each other down. When you have the fortune then create that community. There is power in numbers and when you come together to make a change happen, people listen. Fences could be seen as that thing holding you trapped in or protection for that community or family. This fits well with our discussions on race affecting class and that deciding our future and position in life, opportunities for minorities presenting themselves in limited ways in society, as well as how family dynamics are strengthened or broken by the very real oppression externally we allow ourselves to be consumed in internally and how it can poison generations.

    "August Wilson" by The Huntington is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

    Work Cited

    Baldwin, James. Fire next Time. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1992.

    Brewer, Gaylord. "Holy and Unholy Ghosts: The Legacy of the Father in the Plays of August Wilson." Drama Criticism, edited by Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 31, Gale, 2008.

    Little, Jonathan. “August Wilson.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Christopher J. Wheatley, The Gale Group, 2000, 289-302

    Scott, Daniel M. III. "The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson." MELUS, vol. 24, no. 3, fall 1999, p. 163.

    Wilson, August. Fences: August Wilson. Samuel French, 2010.

    9: August Wilson (1945-2005) is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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