Fences is a play in two acts written by August Wilson in 1985 and set in the 1950s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The plot follows the life of Troy Maxon, a former African American baseball player who is presently a garbage collector struggling to support his family and manage his relationships with the people around him. One of the central conflicts of the play is between Troy and Cory, his high-school teenage son from his current wife, Rose.
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Cory caught the attention of his school football trainer and has a chance to enroll in college via a football scholarship. His father, however, remains adamantly opposed to the idea and does not sign the permission paper required for Cory’s scholarship, thus effectively ruining his child’s only chance to a college education. Troy’s motivation for this seemingly unexplainable act is complex, manifold, and involves both altruistic and selfish reasons. These are his insistence on Cory having a more stable occupation, his desire to spare his child racial discrimination he experienced as a baseball player, and, ultimately, the jealousy of a failed athlete.
The first reason why Troy insists that Cory should not take the football scholarship appears to be a genuine concern for the latter’s well-being. Troy wants his son to have a stable occupation, not susceptible to the commotions of an athlete’s life. When Cory tries to convince him to sign the permission paper, Troy answers that he should instead find a proper working specialty: “learn how to fix cars or build houses or something” (Wilson 40).
From his perspective, being a mechanic or a builder is preferable to the career of a football player. Troy even refuses to consider football a proper profession. When he insists that Cory should “get… a trade,” he implies that football does not count as one (Wilson 40). As far as Troy is concerned, an athlete’s career may be over at any moment, which is not surprising considering his own experience as a baseball player. The skills of a builder or a mechanic, however, are always in demand. Thus, Troy wants Cory to have a more stable occupation that may bring profit under any circumstances and ensure a living for him.
Another reason why Troy does not even entertain the idea of Cory taking his football scholarship is his own experience of racial discrimination in professional sports. At the beginning of the play, when Troy, Rose, and Bono discuss sports, Rose mentions Cory’s perspectives as a football player and suggests Troy should support his son. Troy’s reaction, however, is pessimistic: “white man ain’t gonna let him get nowhere with that football” (Wilson 10).
According to the play’s main character, racial discrimination is so prevalent in professional sports that playing football is not even worth trying for a black person. Troy bases this assertion on his own negative experience as a baseball player in the pre-war times and projects his own circumstances on the life of his son. In this sense, his motivation seems genuinely altruistic as well: being convinced that a black person cannot make a career in professional sports, he wants to spare his child inevitable and unnecessary anguish. Thus, just as with the first reason, Troy’s second motivation also represents him as a father who wants the best for his son in the long run, even if it creates tensions.
Yet the last reason behind Troy’s attitude casts a different light on his motivations and represents him as bitter and jealous. At one instance, Rose points out that “they got a lot of colored baseball players now” (Wilson 12), suggesting that times have changed. Thus, Troy is aware that contemporary sports are more inclusive than before the war. While Cory may encounter racism, it will not be as harsh as that experienced by Troy, suggesting that he has another motivation as well. He hints at it when he says angrily: “if you could play ball then they ought to have let you play. Don’t care what color you were” (Wilson 12).
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This phrase reveals that the end of Troy’s baseball career continues to haunt him. Yet if a mere memory is so painful for him than seeing his son succeeding where he failed and achieving acclaim in professional sports would be unbearable. It would make Cory a living reminder of what Troy could not achieve in his youth and, to avoid this, Troy makes an egoistic decision: if he could not play because of his color, neither can Cory.
Speaking from my own historical context based on my experiences in the contemporary United States, Troy’s attitude is definitely surprising, as his conviction that society will never accept a black athlete comes from another age. While there are still racial issues that deserve due consideration, contemporary America, at the very least, does not share the uncompromising attitude toward blacks in sports that ruined Troy’s life. Interestingly enough, even the play’s characters, who live and act in the 1950s, already perceive Troy’s convictions as partially obsolete. When Rose notes that “they got a lot of colored baseball players now,” she gently suggests that Troy’s views may already be a relic of the past and not as relevant anymore (Wilson 12).
Thus, the perspective of the mid-century already revealed Troy’s perception of racial discrimination as eternal and unshakable as untrue. In the 1980s, when Wilson wrote the play, Michael Jordan dominated the sports commercials, vigorously enforcing a black athlete’s right to be at the forefront of attention. The fact that Troy’s stubbornness looks surprising for me now is a testimony of the long way African American athletes came since the pre-war times.
Troy Maxon, the main character of Fences, has his reasons not to sign the permission papers that would allow his son Cory to continue his football training and enroll in college as a result. One of these reasons is Troy’s insistence that Cory should receive a working specialty, such as a builder or a mechanic, because he perceives it as a stable, albeit modest, occupation. The second reason is more personal: after experiencing racial discrimination firsthand as a black baseball player, Troy wants to help his son by sparing him unnecessary anguish, which he views as inevitable.
Yet there is also a third and more selfish reason: Cory achieving success in football would be a reminder of what Troy lost, meaning that jealousy and bitterness also play a part in Troy’s decision. This adamant conviction that professional sports offer no opportunities for black athletes seems puzzling to a contemporary reader who observes evidence to the contrary on a daily basis. Yet it is rooted in Troy’s pre-war experiences, and tracing the distance traveled by African American athletes since then may be one of the reasons why Wilson wrote his play.
Wilson, August. “Fences.” Scripts.com. Web.