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Social Issues in August Wilson’s “Fences”

August Wilson’s “Fences” delves into the lives of African Americans. More specifically, Wilson uses the life of the protagonist Troy Maxson to explore common social conflicts and themes such as love, gender roles, and responsibility. Troy’s conflict with the Whites, as well as Tory’s relationship with Rose, are two dominant conflicts that appear throughout the story; however, the author puts more emphasis on the conflict between Troy and his son, Cory. Although the setting is in the 1950s the social issues highlighted in “Fences” are still relevant today.

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Family Conflict

The conflict between Troy and Cory is one of the main issues raised by Wilson and it is evident from multiple instances. Troy and his son live in two different realities. On the one hand, Cory is convinced that he can be a successful baseball player while Troy is still caught up in the past. Cory, on the other hand, was born at a time when change was starting to take root. More black players make the first team and Troy’s son believes that he has the opportunity to succeed in professional baseball. In one instance Cory complains that “You (Troy) ain’t never gave me nothing! You ain’t never done nothing but hold me back. Afraid I was gonna be better than you” (Mays). His father is angered with such ambitions because he cannot yet accept the fact that times have changed. He even sends his son away from home. In retaliation, Cory loses all respect for Tory to the point that he is unwilling to attend his funeral.

Father-son conflict is a common phenomenon in the modern world. Most fathers who act authoritatively find that their sons might become rebellious. Still, it has been found that men might put in the effort to salvage something out of the bad relationship although the exact opposite happens in the case of Troy. Rather than nurturing a personal relationship with his son, Troy becomes resentful and bitter to the point of sending his son away. Experts agree that in such a situation the father should initiate and lead the reconciliation process. Troy, for example, could have attempted to see the world from his son’s perspective. At least, he should have shown interest in helping Cory achieve his goal to become a professional athlete. On the other hand, Cory can also attempt to see his father’s perception and understand that change is inherently difficult. Cory’s conflict with his father dominates their entire relationship from the time he was a child (Wilson). He insists that he has never felt loved by his father despite doing his best to become successful in life. As a result, Cory wants to create a life away from his father although this only intensifies the conflict between them.

As early as the first scene, the audience can see that Troy is a man of many layers. He is authoritative and wants to control everything in the family, but at the same time, he is unfaithful. He is also determined to ensure that his children have a better life than he had and fights for equal rights. Just like most parents today, Troy tries to sell personal beliefs and philosophy to his family in many ways. For instance, he insists that his sons should learn old songs that were passed on to him by his father. During his time as a player, Tory rarely made the first team even though he was a talented athlete. He is adamant that the same fate awaits his son and tries to convince him that the fact that he was black meant it was impossible to get the priority in anything, let alone sports. This harsh reality affected Troy mentally and psychologically; so much that he believes society can’t change. Unfortunately, his insistence that Cory should give up baseball leads the son to a displeasing fate.

Broken father-son relationships are prolific in classical literature. Ernest J. Gaines and Ernest Hemingway, for example, highlight generational conflicts and the conflict in the son-father relationship. More specifically, Hemingway tries to deconstruct pervasive notions about Native Americans by telling the story of Nick and his father. Another writer who expresses similar sentiments is Robert Bly. In his poem, “Prayer for my Father”, Bly writes… “that body in you insisting on living in the old hawk for whom the world darkens (“Prayer for My Father by Robert Bly | Poetry Magazine”)”. Similarly, Gaines uses short stories to expose the divide in the African-American family, asserting that the surrogate and the extended African American family is ever-changing.

Racism

Racism is another important issue raised by Wilson in “Fences”. Racial discrimination directly destroyed Tory’s dreams of becoming a professional baseball player. Cory’s dreams were also ruined by racism, though indirectly. As the play comes to the end, Tory gets promoted to a truck driver but he soon realizes that the new position was not what he expected. He is unable to socialize with other workers because most of them are white and he ends up hating his job. Today, racism is still a pervasive issue that continues to affect people’s lives negatively. The last fifty years have seen some progress, however, more still needs to be done if there is going to be equality (Brooks et al., 1-5). According to recent research, black people are particularly dissatisfied with the progress made in the U.S. In fact, “… more than eight-in-ten black adults say the legacy of slavery affects the position of black people in America today, including 59% who say it affects it a great deal” (Horowitz et al. par.3). There are also those who like Troy believe it is impossible to achieve racial equality in the U.S. More specifically, “about eight-in-ten blacks (78%) say the country hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving black people equal rights with whites, and fully half say it’s unlikely that the country will eventually achieve racial equality” (Horowitz et al.par.3).

Family Responsibility

Family responsibility is the contemporary issue that appears repeatedly in “Fences”. Once again Wilson uses the protagonist’s life to highlight common questions such as caring for the spouse, child protection, and the ability to emotional support (Wilson). Like most fathers today, Troy is caught up in the illusion that his only responsibility is to provide shelter and food. He is not concerned with the emotional well-being of his sons and doesn’t see value in being faithful to his wife. Troy’s point of view is that as long as he provides for his wife, then he could go around seeing other women. Instead of trying to strengthen his relationship with his legitimate family, Troy builds a fence and widens the divide within the family. Wilson makes it clear that Troy’s infidelity destroys his marriage to Rose. For instance, as soon as Troy brings his son with Alberta, Rose makes the following remarks, “From right now… this child got a mother. But you a womanless man” (Mays). Ultimately Troy’s relationship with Alberta destroys his marriage.

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Today there are different laws and regulations associated with family responsibility. Such laws do not get into matters of personal responsibility; for example, there are no regulations that make it mandatory for fathers to provide emotional support. Still, relevant concepts such as caregiving responsibilities and employees’ rights are covered in the law. An excellent example is the Family responsibilities discrimination (FRD) which addresses employees’ responsibility to provide care to members of their family (O’Connor et al., 212-220). FRD applies to any working man or woman in the U.S who might want to actively take care of the children.

Conclusion

To summarize, issues associated with racism, family responsibility, and family conflict are equally relevant in the modern world as they were during the 1940s and 1950s when Wilson composed “Fences”. The conflict between Troy and his son essentially gives insight into contemporary conflicts created by the generational gap everywhere. What makes the play so effective is the fact that Wilson delves into the private lives of the protagonist and his family. In other words, the author uses the characters to present the internal conflict caused by issues such as racism and family conflict. Troy’s internal struggle with racism is what influences his decisions for the family. Unfortunately, he only manages to intensify the family conflict and ultimately destroys his relationship with Cory. One might rightly argue that Troy’s actions are motivated by the desire to change his son’s life because he is unable to change his own. He is determined to convince his son that the world is a cruel place where black people are seen as lesser beings. Troy’s obsession to control everyone his family can easily be seen from the following remarks made by Cory,

“The whole time I was growing up…living in his house…Papa was like a shadow that followed you everywhere. It weighed on you and sunk into your flesh. It would wrap around you and lay there until you couldn’t tell which one was you anymore” (Wilson I).

Unfortunately, Troy does not recognize that his efforts to control Cory’s life only push them apart. Cory finally decides he had enough and leaves home to enroll in the marines; more than thirty years ago, Troy had also left home following a confrontation with his father.

Works Cited

Brooks, Wanda M. et al. “Reading, Sharing, and Experiencing Literary/Lived Narratives about Contemporary Racism”. Sage Journals, 2018.

Horowitz, Juliana Menasce et al. “Views On Race in America 2019”. Pew Research Center’S Social & Demographic Trends Project, Web.

Mays, Kelly J. The Norton Introduction to Literature. WW Norton & Company, 2015.

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O’Connor, Lindsey Trimble, and Julie A. Kmec. “Is It Discrimination, Or Fair and Deserved? How Beliefs About Work, Family, And Gender Shape Recognition of Family Responsibilities Discrimination”. Sage Journals, 2020.

Prayer for My Father by Robert Bly | Poetry Magazine”. Poetry Magazine, Web.

Wilson, August. Fences. vol. 6. Penguin, 2016.

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