Despite multiple attempts at addressing injustices observed at historical, systemic, and structural levels, the problem of race and the struggles that people of color face persists vehemently in the U.S. social context. The tragedy of the African American community is reflected impeccable in August Wilson’s 1985 novel Fences, which delves into the life of an African American family, its patriarch, Troy Maxson, and their complex relationships. While having been depicted as a flawed person, Troy is ultimately redeemed, not with his own actions, but with the forgiveness of his family members as he passes away. Thus, Troy Maxson embodies the African American experience of racial prejudices and blatant racism, including the anxieties and internal conflicts that this experience entails.
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Calling Troy Maxson a man who has made mistakes in his personal and family life would be charitable, yet the character was created not to portray an impeccable image of an African American person and their family. Instead, Troy represents the tragedy of African American people by showing how distorted one’s life may become due to systematic oppression and racial profiling. While far from being demonic, Troy’s character is responsible for carrying the idea of social isolation into his family relationships.
Following Troy’s character in Fences, one will realize that his personality took its shape as he was being systematically denied the basic need of self-fulfillment and self-actualization in society. At the very beginning of the novel, the reader realizes the depth of injustice as Troy is denied the opportunity to join the baseball league. As Troy’s personal story evolves, he realizes that his career is also at stake due to his legacy and culture: “All I want them to do is change the job description. Give everybody a chance to drive the truck” (Wilson, Fences 3). As the reader follows Troy’s character, the fact that the character is being systematically marginalized and ousted out of every field in which the dominant Euro-American culture exists becomes evident.
However, the lessons that the audience learns along with Troy go beyond the simplified statement of racism being bad. The challenges faced by Troy fall into a wider narrative of whether the problems that African American people face can be embraced and understood by the White American community as the way of shedding light on the problem of racism. At this point, one may need to consider the act that McCarthy’s play was expected to be directed by an African American person, with August Wilson’s attempts at finding the director that could capture the essence of the play. The main rationale behind the resistance of the studio at the time could be summarized in the following assumption: “no one is going to turn a budget of $15 million over to a black director” (Wilson, “I Want a Black Director!”). Remarkably, several African American actors vocalized their refusal to seek out a director based solely on the color of the former’s skin: “I don’t want to hire nobody just ’cause they’re black” (Wilson, “I Want a Black Director!”).
Nevertheless, the idea of a white person staging a play that depicts the life of a Black family is problematic in its very conception for other reasons, including, but not limited to, the lack of presence of African American stage directors in the industry. Attributing the observed problem to the lack of racial colorblindness, the proponents of the latter dismiss the fact that the proposed perspective ignores the legacy of the African American culture. While one can – and, quite reasonably, should – be empathetic with the plight of disadvantaged African American people, it is impossible for a Euro-American person to gain the same extent of insight into the challenges that systematic institutionalized oppression has caused African American people to experience. Therefore, the controversy in how the conflict concerning the choice of the director harkens back to the message of the play is quite ironic and at the same time emblematic of the struggles that the African American community has been facing due to systemic oppression and prejudices weighed against them.
The image of fences as a metaphor for limitations that one puts on one’s interactions within the microcosm of a family or in the context of society is rendered numerous times I the novel with reference to troy. Although the idea of a fence as the boundary that will keep strangers out of one’s personal space might be the first idea to be associated with the described symbol, fences in the titular novel may also be the embodiment of Troy’s manipulative relationships with his family. As Bogumil explains, “Tony Marxson builds fences in order to exert control over all those whom he encounters, including himself” (34). Thus, the reader sees Troy as a three-dimensional character with a unique arc that, while not involving change, represents internal conflict.
As a result, the character of Troy is not simply inserted into the play to showcase that racism is bad. Instead of restating the facts that most of American society has internalized after the continuous struggle against racial segregation, the play points to the effects that the complicated history of racial relationships will have on the interracial dialogue in the future. In this context, Troy embodies the hurtful past of abuse and neglect that racial minorities, specifically, African American people, have suffered in American society. The crumbling relationships with his family members, in turn, symbolize the impact that the devastating legacy of the African American culture has on new generations (Wilson, Fences 52). However, whereas Troy clearly represents the idea of the past being impossible to forget, the final gesture of Cory symbolizes the notion that reconciliation between generations is still possible.
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Herein lies the secret of Troy being a very memorable and impactful character while remaining very difficult to relate to due to his numerous personal flaws and mistakes. The character serves not only as the symbol of victims of racial profiling and prejudices but also the embodiment of the internal conflict between and within the generations of African American people in regard to their legacy. While Troy, being crushed by years of racial profiling and discrimination, denies any attempt at the further fight for equality, Cory shows the willingness to accept the challenge and struggle for gaining his rights. The generation gap is depicted explicitly in the scene where Troy shows his pain and anguish over the years of rejection, warning Cory of the possibility of the same fate.
The lessons that the reader may learn from Troy, therefore, concerns the necessity to find the way of prioritizing one’s values and examining the nature of one’s internal conflicts, as well as the societal factors that have caused it. Though Troy’s pain and anguish at the idea of seeking new opportunities to fight for his rights are understandable, as well as his desire to shield his family members from the same experience, the methods that he chooses are far from being adequate. Building a wall between one’s family and social injustices may spare one some misery, yet it will accomplish nothing in advancing the situation and improving it.
Moreover, the fact that Troy transferred his strategy of managing his social interactions to his communication with the family members teaches the reader a crucial lesson about toxicity and manipulation within a family. It would have been very easy to condemn the character, pinning every wrong action that he did on the intrinsic personal flaws that he had, yet Wilson manages to make the character’s internal struggle very graphic and vivid: “That’s all I got, Rose. That’s all I got to give. I can’t give nothing else” (Wilson, Fences 8). As a result, while Maxson’s actions are not justified, he is seen as sympathetic, while not being defined as a model worth following. Maxson’s attitude, including his unwillingness to change his perception of social interactions and demolish the Fences that he has been building for the entirety of his adult life, represents the tragedy of the African American history and the complex legacy that it carries.
Being the representation of a victim of oppression against African Americans, Maxson is a unique character that is not supposed to be seen as either positive or sympathetic but, instead, serve a didactic purpose. Maxson’s experience teaches the reader about the importance of advancing the resolution of a social conflict and refusing to build relationships within a family based on the idea of isolation of those that disagree. Incorporating a complex history itself, the play is a crucial portrayal of the African American legacy and the challenges that the African American community has to face. However, the play simultaneously introduces cautious optimism for the future generation in hopes of resolving the internal struggles of the oppressed population and managing the social conflict.
Bogumil, Mary L. “Fences: Posthumous Justice.” Understanding August Wilson. Understanding Contemporary American Literature. Rev. ed. U of South Carolina Press, 2011, pp. 40-55.
Wilson, August. Fences. Vintage, 1977.
“I Want a Black Director!” Spin Magazine, 1990, Web.