August Wilson’s Fences | Research Paper

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August Wilson is an African- American, award winning playwright. Fences is one of his most famous plays. The play is about a low-class man and the fences he builds between him and the other characters in the play. The play uses different symbols to tell the story. In August Wilson’s Fences, the symbols used, baseball, African American women, and Gabriel, leave us with a look at life in the twentieth century and the redemption that can come no matter the mistakes we have made.

Troy is the main character of the play. He comes to us with a criminal background of which included theft that later led to the murder of a man. With murder comes prison time and that is exactly what Troy got. While in prison, Troy was introduced to the game of baseball and realized that he was actually very talented with the sport. He very quickly fell in love with the game. After Troy was released from prison, he joined the Negro Baseball League but didn’t play long due to his old age. In the play, Troy complains to his wife Rose about being stripped of a baseball career due to his race. Troy states “I’m talking about if you could play ball then they ought to have let you play. Don’t care what color you were. Come telling me I come along too early. If you could play . . . then they ought to have let you play”. This play takes place in 1957 which was just before beginning of the Civil Rights movement which looked to gain equal rights for blacks. It can be interpreted that Troy bases his life around baseball. Koprince’s article “Baseball as History and Myth in August Wilson’s Fences” goes into great depth of how baseball is used in Fences. Koprince starts her article by referring to baseball as the American dream or as a representation of good things dealing with American life. She also mentions that the play puts Troy into three different “baseball mythic settings, the garden, the battlefield, and the graveyard” (Koprince 349). Troy makes comparison to baseball throughout the entire play. Koprince uses her article to show how Fences uses the history and myth of baseball to test the realism of the American dream. The article states that baseball is “the last pure place where Americans can dream” (Koprince 349. This however was not true for the African Americans of the world. Koprince gives us a look at what Troy would have experienced if he would have been given the chance to play professionally. She used Robert Peterson’s Only the Ball was White to shine light on the subject. Peterson tells readers that the blacks traveled with any form of transportation they could find. They were packed in tight on busses that never made it far before breaking down. This was an issue considering they were traveling all over the country to participate in these games. To earn a steady income, they were forced to play in places like Florida, Mexico, and even Cuba. The Negro Leagues were played year-round in these places due to the warmer weather. The players, being black, had troubles finding places to stay and restaurants to eat at because everything was a Whites only facility. Wilson demonstrates Troy’s experience in the Negro League to let the readers know that the “American Dream” was still out of reach for colored men and women.

As for the baseball mythic, garden, battlefield, and graveyard each represent different stages of Troy’s life. The first one mentioned is the garden. The symbolic meaning behind it is to show innocence and timeless space. She talks about baseball stadiums being built as a place where players compete for what the love and try to achieve the highest awards. The stadiums hold valuable memories that create “a walled garden of eternal youth” (Koprince 353). When old athletes return to facilities where they have competed it is hoped that they will see it as a of comfort. It is hoped that the returning athletes will remember themselves in their prime years of playing at the highest level, not as the elderly people they are now.

Some may say that Troy uses it as his safe place, a place for him to escape the racism and the mistakes he’s made both past and present. This play takes place during a time where professional baseball teams were being created. As you can suspect, these leagues were for whites only. When Troy hears about the continued discrimination, he becomes enraged. Troy Maxson is convinced that as a black man in America “you are born with two strikes on you before you even come to the plate” (Koprince 349). There are many times throughout the play that Wilson put Troy in situations where he can reminisce on his days in the Negro League. This gives him the chance to reflect on emotions of black baseball players who were stripped of the opportunity to compete at the next level. For Troy, this wasn’t the case. Reminiscing on his days in the league has turned in an extended horror film. Instead of seeing the intended opportunities, Troy has come to see the true light of racism and poverty. The once all star player is now living his life as garbage man. Troy complains to his with Rose about how hard he works but is still just making enough to get by. He says “I come in here every Friday. I carry a sack of potatoes and a bucket of lard. You all line up at the door with your hands out. I give you the lint from my pockets. I give you my sweat and my blood. I aint got no tears. I done spent them.” He also mentions that without the government check he received for his brother Gabriel’s mental issues he wouldn’t have a roof over his head. The place where Troy used to excel in play is now just a yard of dirt. Troy has made a baseball from old wadded up rags that hangs from a tree for him to hit with his wooden bat. This yard has become his new place to reminisce on his glory days.

Koprince talks about the playing field also being his battlefield. He is the warrior of the field. His equipment are his weapons and the field is the literal battlefield.  Wilson portrays Troy as a batter up against the best pitcher trying to get a hit. This compares to his life and how he is doing everything he can to make a comfortable living for his family. Troy tells Rose “you got to guard it closely… always looking for the curve ball on the inside corner. You can’t afford to let none get past you. You can’t afford a call strike. If you go down… you go down swinging” (Wilson 69). His yard was his battle ground where he turned his frustration onto his younger son Cory. Cory is wants to play football in college and has scouts looking at him but Troy tell him he isn’t allowed. The readers may say that this is because Troy didn’t get that opportunity. He is afraid of change and doesn’t allow Cory to play. They argue and Troy ends up telling Cory he has two strikes, if he gets a third one Troy is going to kick him out.

The last thing Koprince mentions is the graveyard. She talks about the graveyard being a metaphorical and literal use of symbolism. In baseball, there is an obvious winner and loser, the game cannot end in a tie. In this case, Troy is the loser and it is symbolized by his death. Troy died while he was outside in his yard hitting his rag tied baseball when he collapsed. Troy knows that he can’t fight death, he says “everybody gonna die” but as Troy would say, if you’re going to go down you better go down swinging. That was his moto and that is how he went down, swinging.

David Letzler, author of Walking Around the Fences: Troy Maxson and the Ideology of “Going Down Swinging” takes us to a different side of the topic baseball and how it is used in Fences. He starts out his essay going over some of the parts when Troy talks about the Negro League and how some of the Black players were better than the white players. In the play, Troy talks about how George Selkirk had a lower batting average that Troy, yet he still got to play right field for the Yankees. He states “Man batting .269, understand? .269. What kind of make? I was hitting .432 with thirty-seven homeruns! Man batting .269 and playing right field for the Yankees” (Wilson 462).  Troy is clearly upset that the white men get opportunities simply because of their color when clearly, he was the better athlete. Letzler then goes on to talk about how Troy’s baseball judgements are incorrect. He says that “Troy gets about almost everything he says regarding the sport wrong, a problem nowhere more profound than with respect to the maligned Selkirk” (Letzler 301). He isn’t implying that Troy may not have been one of the best players to live but that “the view of social, racial, and political worldview Troy derives from baseball is misguided.” (Letzler 302). Troy’s motto is “going down swinging” which Letzler feels the audience has misinterpreted. Since the audience does not realize the incorrect judgements, they aren’t able to see that Troy’s obsession of “going down swinging” is harmful. The term “going down swinging” typically means that you have failed but you have given everything you had in the process whereas “going down looking” simply means going down without a fight. Letzler talks about the differences between the two and the misinterpretation that comes with them. A batter who strikes out swinging and a batter who strikes out looking get the same result. In the book, it’s a strikeout. To the public eye, swinging and striking out looks better because it shows you giving effort to hit the ball whereas looking makes it seem as if you don’t care or you have no desire to hit it. He also says that “if one does not swing, one has no chance to hit, but if one does swing, the pitch cannot be called a ball, the player cannot draw for a walk.” (Letzler 303). This means that if you go down swinging you have no chance of drawing a walk, there is no chance that the pitch could be called a ball, specifically stating that “the batter swinging and either putting a weakly hit ball in play or missing it entirely may well lead to a worse result than letting the pitch pass.” (Letzler 304). This can be interpreted that sometimes taking a chance is better than swinging and missing all together. Letzler believes that troy is afraid to “draw a walk” even though, statistically it is more valuable than a strikeout. Troy’s motto of “going down swinging” could very well be the reason he was in the position he was in. Even if Troy had used his “going down swinging” mentality, it wouldn’t have gotten him a position in the League due to the racial discrimination at hand.

Sandra G. Shannon’s article The Fences They Build: August Wilsons Deception of African American Women focuses on the discrimination and disrespect African American women suffered. Sandra talks about Wilson’s mother and how he witnessed the discrimination she received. Shannon’s article shows us the discrimination Wilsons mother received. She was married to a German born white man who was irresponsible which left her raising her five children mostly alone. Troy’s wife Rose is based on Wilsons mother Daisy, a strong principled woman. The women in this play are “placed in traditional roles as wives, mothers, organizers, and pillars of strength, but he also portrays free-wheeling, independent sides of them which are skeptical of men and the demands of marriage and family.” (Shannon 2). Shannon talks about Troy’s affair and how he must ask Rose to care for the child because Alberta died in child birth. This leads Shannon to talk about African American women being considered a victim, she uses the words “the product of a crude male consciousness” (Shannon 3) meaning raw male consciousness. Rose agrees to care for the child which is Wilsons way of showing her freewheeling, independent side. Although Rose agrees, she makes it clear that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with Troy, calling him a “Womanless man.” (Wilson 506). This is another way that Wilson shows the strength of women. Shannon’s primary focus in this article in women and their values. She states that “Yet, as she later acknowledges, the cost for doing this has been to neglect her own individuality and to allow herself to love for Troy and the family” (Shannon 3). In this case Rose is putting her personal values behind to keep her family happy. Troy had an affair with another woman and Rose decided to care for the baby despite it not being her own child. African American women in the early twentieth century were taken advantage of. As a woman, nurturing is a trait that is expected. Troy knew that Rose wouldn’t be able to leave the baby on her own. Troy is taking advantage of the goof woman Rose is and therefore Shannon’s argument that African American women are considered victims is relevant.

Myles Weber’s article Rescuing the Tragic Bully in August Wilson’s Fences focuses on the symbolic meaning behind Gabriel and his trumpet. Gabriel is Troy’s brother who endured a major head injury while serving in World War II which left him with significant mental disabilities. The play concludes with the death of Troy. Gabriel, who can be compare to the Archangel Gabriel, is trying to convince St. Peter to open the gates and let Troy enter Heaven. Weber has portrayed that Troy is a “self-absorbed bully of a protagonist” telling us that he is the one being “rescued” (Weber 648). Gabriel’s way of reaching St. Peter is through his trumpet which is missing its mouthpiece. Gabriel blows the trumpet trying endlessly to make it sound, but he fails for three attempts. The play tells us that Gabriel will not seek defeat and begins to dance, “A slow, strange dance, eerie and life giving. A dance atavistic signature and Ritual” (Wilson 520). When Gabriel finishes his dance, the gates have opened and Troy has been forgiven. Weber thinks that having Gabriel manipulate the Heavens to rescue Troy, Wilson’s play “breaks the Aristotelian tradition, which would normally oblige the protagonist to endure, unhappily ever after, the consequences of his own hubristic error” (Weber 648). Instead, Troy was forgiven of all his sins, “following eight years of estrangement from his son Cory and eight years spent as a womanless man… Troy Maxson is redeemed, though posthumously” (Weber 650). Wilson was showing us that even through sin, knowing your God can reward you.

The twentieth century was a hard time for African Americans. Fences opens our eyes to just how serious discrimination was for both men and women. August Wilson uses a low class African American family to show us the struggles that come with being black. The main character, Troy, was an exceptional baseball player who was stripped of a shot at the big leagues all because of the color of his skin. He uses baseball to help us relate with him and his struggles. Using phrases like “going down swinging” lets us know that Troy feels like if he goes down he’s going down with a fight. Wilson also uses Troy’s brother Gabriel as spiritual symbol. Gabriel represents forgiveness even when we don’t feel like it is deserved. Wilsons play Fences expands our knowledge on the hard times black families faced in the twentieth century for simply being of color. Troy’s motto was “going down swinging” and Wilson effectively showed us just how important that can be. Always fight for what’s yours, never give up on family, and believe forgiveness is real.

Work Cited

  • Koprince, Susan. “Baseball as History and Myth in August Wilson’s Fences.” African AmericanReview, vol. 40, no. 2, 2006, pp. 349–58. International Bibliography, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cpid,url&custid=s4338230db=mlf&AN=2006532924. Accessed 15 October 2018.
  • Letzler, David. “Walking Around the Fences: Troy Maxson and the Ideology of ‘Going Down Swinging.’” African American Review, vol. 47, no. 2–3, 2014, pp. 301–312. International Bibliography, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cpid,url&custid=s4338230&db=mlf&AN=2015380994. Accessed 15 October 2018.
  • Sandra G. Shannon. “The Fences They Build: August Wilson’s Depiction of African-American Women.” Obsidian II, no. 2, 1991, p. 1. JSTOR Journals, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cpid,url&custid=s4338230&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.44485235. Accessed 15 October 2018.
  • Weber, Myles. “Rescuing the Tragic Bully in August Wilson’s Fences.” Southern Review, vol. 50, no. 4, Sept. 2014, p. 648. International Bibliography, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cpid,url&custid=s4338230db=f5h&AN=99097043. Accessed 15 October 2018.
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