August Wilson was a prolific and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, who created ten masterful plays that illustrated and dramatized the African-American experience throughout the twentieth century; one play for each decade. The most famous of those plays was “Fences”. “Fences” portrays an accurate depiction of the African-American experience and the constant struggle that African-Americans endured due to racism and segregation in America in the 1950s; however, hope in the form of a civil rights movement was on the horizon. Due to racism and segregation, African-Americans’ opportunities to achieve basic rights were thwarted. During the 1950s, the struggle against racism and segregation came to a tipping point; a shift to make America more inclusive. Clear and convincing evidence will be presented to support the argument that “Fences” depicts an accurate representation of the widespread segregation, discrimination, and racism in the 1950s.
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A review of the African-American experience, starting from the founding of America to the 1950s, is necessary to demonstrate how “Fences” reflects the African-American experience; not only in the Bedford Hills District of Pittsburgh, but in America as a whole in the twentieth century. To most the Declaration of Independence is symbol of freedom and independence. A prominent phrase from the Declaration of Independence is that “all men are created equal”. This purported freedom and independence was not inclusive for all, just Caucasians. Many of the authors of the Declaration of Independence were African-American slave owners. The hypocrisy of this is undeniable. It was not until 87 years later that African-American slaves would be declared free. In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by Present Abraham Lincoln, abolishing slavery. This proclamation made the millions of enslaved African-Americans free, if they were able to escape from the racist confederacy of the southern states.
In 1896, the Separate but Equal Doctrine became law in America. For the better part of fifty years, this racist law forced African-Americans to utilize separate substandard schools, bathrooms, drinking fountains, restaurants, and even sitting in the rear of a bus. Due to this segregation, African-Americans attended schools in deplorable conditions and lived in neighborhoods that their Caucasian counterparts refused to because of their aging infrastructure and unsafe conditions. This segregation only provided for jobs that Caucasians were not willing to work, typically hard manual labor with low pay. In the rare event that an African-American had the opportunity to flourish economically and escape the inner city, financial institutions were less likely to provide home loans to African-Americans. The campaign for African-American rights, usually referred to as the civil rights movement, went forward in 1950s in persistent and deliberate steps.
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court dealt a knockout punch to the racist ideas of the Jim Crow era. In the case of Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the high court overturned the Separate but Equal Doctrine. This ruling made segregation in the nation’s public-school system illegal and more importantly a movement of change.
Like all plays within August Wilson’s Century Cycle, “Fences” illustrates the African-American experience. Wilson’s background of being discriminated against formed the basis of his beliefs and his literary character. During the play the main character, Troy, is building a fence around his home. For Troy, the fence is a way to shield his family, in particular his sons, from the disappointment of pursuing their dreams. Troy has built up a fence to protect his family and everything he has worked hard for from a society that he believes is as equally racist now (1957), as during the early part of the twentieth century. This belief acts as barrier to move on in life during a time of renewed hope; the onset of the civil rights movement.
While “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is a famous phrase in the United States Declaration of Independence, there was not equal opportunities for African-Americans to obtain these aspirations during the era in which the play takes place. At the onset of the play, Troy appears to be on the road to achieving these basic civil liberties and rights, nonetheless, there is a dark cloud of bitterness that shrouds Troy’s thinking. Growing up in the early part of the twentieth century shaped Troy’s view on life. The fresh wounds of slavery, bigotry, and racism prevented Troy from following his aspirations as a young adult. He is a bitter, yet extremely hard-working. The racist American society during Troy’s adolescence and early adulthood provided a barrier for Troy to accomplish his dreams. Although Troy’s wife, Rose, and good friend, Bono, recognize that change is on the horizon, Troy’s bitterness blinds him. This is illustrated in one specific piece of dialogue between Troy, Rose, and Bono. “ROSE: Cory done went and got recruited by a college football team. TROY: I told that boy about that football stuff. The white man ain’t gonna let him get nowhere with that football”. Rose believes it is an honor to get recruited. Troy believes that it will get him nowhere. Troy solicits Bono to agree with him; however, Bono agrees with Rose that times are changing. “BONO: If he be like you in the sports . . . he’s gonna be all right. TROY: What it ever get me? Ain’t got a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. ROSE: Times have changed since you was playing baseball, Troy. That was before the war. Times have changed a lot since then. TROY: How in hell they done changed? ROSE: They got lots of colored boys playing ball now. Baseball and football. BONO: You right about that, Rose. Times have changed, Troy. You just come along too early”. This specific dialogue illustrates that African-Americans in the 1950s, in part, were disadvantaged from opportunities of a better life, however; both Rose and Bono recognize that change in the form of equal treatment was coming soon.
During the latter part of the 1950s, an equal rights movement has begun, where with patience and persistence, segregation and hate can be abolished. In 1955, Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a Caucasian man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, inspired mass protests across America furthering civil rights reform. Troy fails to recognize this even considering recent opportunities afforded to him at work with a promotion and to his son, Cory, with the possibility of a football scholarship. This is illustrated in a specific conflict between Troy and Cory. Troy confronts Cory about continuing to pursue the football scholarship rather than do his chores and work at the full-time at the A & P. Cory explains that a football recruiter is traveling up from North Carolina to obtain Troy’s consent. Troy refuses to even meet with the recruiter. TROY: I don’t care where he coming from. 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 can’t nobody take away from you. You go on and learn how to put your hands to some good use. Besides hauling people’s garbage. CORY: I get good grades, Pop. That’s why the recruiter wants to talk with you. You got to keep up your grades to get recruited. This way I’ll be going to college. I’ll get a chance”.
The conflict illustrates that Troy is bitter for the way that he was treated by Caucasians during his prime years. Troy does not want Cory subjected to the same disappointment that he endured. Troy’s bitterness has blinded him to the opportunities in a new era of moving towards equal treatment for all. Both of Troy’s sons believe that there is hope on the horizon for equal treatment of African-Americans. This is further evidenced through Troy’s eldest son, Lyons’ pursuit of music, a nonlabor-intensive pursuit. Lyons believes that African-Americans can succeed at careers that are not centered around hard labor. Troy believes that both sons are ignorant to the bleakness of society on African-Americans and reacts by building up a fence around their dreams outside of a trade focused career.
As evidenced throughout this paper, “Fences” depicts an accurate representation of the African American experience in America, specifically the Bedford Hills district of Pittsburgh, in the 1950s.
- August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand. (2015). PBS. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/august-wilson-the-ground-on-which-i-stand/3697/
- Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
- Emancipation Proclamation. (2021). National Archives. Retrieved from https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/emancipation-proclamation
- Fences. (n.d.). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Fences-play-by-Wilson
- Harris, L. V. (1996). The contemporary African American experience in Fences. African American Review, 30(3), 405-418.
- Parks, R., & Haskins, J. (1992). Rosa Parks: My Story. Dial Books.
- The Declaration of Independence. (n.d.). National Archives. Retrieved from https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript