The 20th century experienced a substantial amount of literary production that explored the cultural experiences and events of the dynamic time period. Some of the most insightful literature in the United States was that which examined questions of civil rights and social progress. August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Fences is one highly prominent example of such a work. While this play was published in 1985, it depicts events that took place in the 1950s. The present essay examines the character Troy from this play in relation to how he functions within the cultural context of his time, and it addition considers this question in regards to a specific passage.
Throughout the play, Troy’s position of an African American who lived throughout the first half of the 20th century provides a substantial insight into his actions and character. As a means of understanding these cultural conditions, it is important to recognize the broader legal and political elements that had taken place at the time. Carino notes that when the play was set, “Brown vs. Board of Education decision had been rendered three years earlier. The Supreme Court had insisted that all public institutions be integrated” (50). Such legal changes attest not only to the progress that society had achieved, but also that a significant amount of discrimination had recently occurred – and was probably still taking place. Of course, Troy would have experienced segregation and this discrimination. As the play opens, Wilson clearly is referencing these changing cultural conditions through Troy in relation to his speaking up about segregation at his workplace. Troy states, I went to Mr. Rand and asked him, ‘Why? Why you got the white mens driving and the colored lifting?’ Told him, ‘what’s the matter, don’t I count? You think only white fellows got sense enough to drive a truck’” (Wilson 1158). In this instance, Troy’s actions would appear to be motivated out of the recognition of the changing cultural climate regarding discrimination throughout the United States. Of course, later in the play, Troy wins his complaint and becomes the first black garbage driver, further illustrating both his actions and the cultural climate of the period.
A substantial passage in the play that effectively reveals how Troy functions in relation to the play’s cultural context occurs in the first act. In this passage Troy is discussing how his son Cory was granted a scholarship to play football, but Troy does not want him accepting the scholarship. Speaking about the scholarship, Troy states, “I told that boy about that football stuff. The white man ain’t gonna let him get nowhere with that football. I told him when he first come to me with it” (1159). In this instance, Troy’s feelings that his son should not be allowed use the football scholarship would seem to have occurred in-part because of the challenges that he faced in his own life as a baseball player. Regarding this cultural aspect, one critic argued that, “Wilson uses a black man’s experience with the sport of baseball to epitomize the struggle because by that decade the integration of professional sports promised some young blacks a chance to realize the American Dream of material success” (Birdwell 87). In this respect, in this passage, Wilson is exploring the social progress that has been achieved through integration in baseball; however, as Troy was denied the opportunity to realize his exceptional talent in the sport, he believed that the same fate would occur for his son Cory. As such, for individuals such as Troy, “this integration came too late” (87). As the passage continues, Troy discusses his experience as a baseball player. He indicates the significant statistics he achieved, batting over .400 and hitting over 30 home runs in one year. While Bono attempts to convince him that times have changed and that because of players such as Jackie Robinson, there are now new opportunities for black players such as Cory, Troy disagrees. Instead, Troy exclaims, “I done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson. Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn’t even make!” (Wilson 1159). In this respect, Troy is echoing “the feelings of actual black ballplayers who were denied a chance to compete at the major-league level” (Koprince 349). In all, this passage is effective in not only illustrating the social conditions regarding race for African Americans in the mid-20th century, but also in exploring these conditions through Troy’s perspective, a man who lived through even harsher periods of discrimination.
Another significant element in the play in relation to Troy and the play’s larger cultural context concerns the fence that Troy is building throughout the play. Rose requests Troy to build the fence seemingly for functional purposes. However, the recurrent references to the fence clearly make it such that it constitutes a symbol in the narrative, rather than a mere plot device. Regarding the fence, Nadel argues that through building the fence Troy symbolically fought death, but more importantly, in terms of the cultural context, he was fighting historical progress (95). In this respect, one considers that — as noted previously — among the substantial cultural elements of the time was that progress was being achieved in terms of segregation, as the Supreme Court had prohibited such actions. Yet, through building the fence Troy is symbolically engaged in resisting this social progress because of his past experiences of discrimination in baseball. Of course, for Rose, the fence may take on different symbolic implications.
While perhaps the most significant cultural elements related to Troy consider the discrimination he experienced, the play also notably considers gender roles. In many ways, the character of Rose and her relationship to Cory constitutes an important means through which Wilson explores the broader questions of gender at the time. Rose appears to desire the fence out of a sense of safety and for her Cory constitutes a means to achieve this increased level of security. One considers Wilson when he describes Rose, stating, “her devotion to him stems from her recognition of the possibilities of her life without him” (Wilson 1158). Here, one recognizes that while Wilson is not indicating that Troy is abusive, he is noting that his relationship with Rose is in-part contingent on her lack of opportunities elsewhere. Such a sentiment would seem to operate as a means through which Wilson is exploring the cultural conditions for women in this period in American history, as their entrance into substantial jobs hadn’t fully occurred yet. Troy’s behavior towards Rose at various times appears to reflect these social conditions. For example, when Rose interrupts him and Bono early in the play, Troy responds, “What you worried about what we getting into for. This is men talk, woman” (1158). Here, Troy appears to be asserting his masculinity and Rose’s gendered-position in regards to 1950s culture, by indicating that a man’s role is to decide his son’s future.
In conclusion, the present essay has examined the character Troy in regards to the cultural conditions that motivated his behavior in the play “Fences.” Additionally, the essay has examined the passage in which Troy speaks about his reason for not wanting Cory to accept the football scholarship that he has been offered. Within this spectrum of investigation, it has been shown that Troy’s behavior is a product of the discrimination that he underwent throughout his life, as well as the changing cultural conditions brought on by the Supreme Court in abolishing segregation.
- Birdwell, Christine. “Death as a Fastball on the Outside Corner:” Fences'” Troy Maxson and the American Dream.” Aethlon, vol. 8, no. 1, 1990, p. 87.
- Carino, Peter, ed. Baseball/Literature/Culture: Essays, 1995–2001. Vol. 1. McFarland, 2003.
- Koprince, Susan. “Baseball as History and Myth in August Wilson’s Fences.” African American Review, vol. 40, no. 2, 2006, pp. 349-358.
- Nadel, Alan, ed. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. University of Iowa Press, 1993.
- Wilson, August. Fences, 2017.