Like many of the folks I know my husband and I along with another couple went to the movies to see the film version of August Wilson’s masterpiece, “Fences.” We have all seen the stage play before. I initially saw it starring James Earl Jones in the lead as Troy Maxson. I later saw it starring Roscoe Orman (formerly Gordon of “Sesame Street”). Going to see it as a film was probably more about supporting good Black cinema than it was about seeing something new. However, there was something about seeing it as a film that reminded me of why Wilson’s work speaks directly to Black folks.
Most people know it is a post World War II story about a garbage man whose dreams of a major league baseball career were thwarted because he was a man before his time. The frustration of not being able to move up in life, provide for his family, and not wanting his own son to pin his hopes on a similar dream as a football player casts Troy Maxson as an angry and bitter middle aged Black man. It also made Troy one of the more recognizable characters in Black urban life.
Sitting in the theater I realized how much like my own father Troy Maxon was. Troy worked a horrible job, made a meager living, took his pay home to his wife every Friday, lived in a rundown home but took pride in it because it was his home, and was hard on his young son. So much of Troy’s disappointment with life was rooted in the all-encompassing fact of racism in his life. He left home as a 14-year-old after a violent dispute with his own father. The move to the north fell far short of the promised “freedom” many Blacks in the south imagined. Daily life was about hustling to make a living and the one relief from this “going nowhere” life was the pint of gin he shared with his co-worker and friend, Mr. Bono.
My own father ran away from his home in South Carolina at the age of 12. A sharecropper’s life was the only thing that stretched out before him and he and an older brother believed they could have a better life in the north. Troy Maxson made his way to Pittsburgh. My dad made his way to Philadelphia to join some of his older siblings. He was met with the same disappointments as Troy—low-paying jobs, strict segregation, and limited opportunities for advancement.
The people who suffered most from the oppression that Troy felt were his family. He dealt with his son with the same ruthlessness as his father dealt with him. And, despite struggling side by side with him to make a life, his wife Rose experiences an ultimate betrayal. Troy has an affair with another woman who becomes pregnant. Through 2016 lenses Black women probably watch this drama declaring to themselves that they would never stand for what Rose Maxson did. But, when you consider the tenuous circumstances the Maxson family exists under you realize they are stuck! Neither Troy nor Rose can leave. Somehow they have to make their relationship work and in the midst of this their son Cory is steadily building up the same anger his father exhibits.
Many Black people have grown up in family circumstances that mimic the Maxsons. Life is hard and any unexpected expense—medical, household, legal—places a family at jeopardy. The “good” times are manufactured by the people who enter our lives. “Fences’” Mr. Bono was the same as my dad’s friend, “Uncle Ashbury.” He was the foil or straight man for my father’s tall tales. My dad struck the same kind of fear in our household as Troy Maxson struck in his. It was not until I was an adult did I understand that the little West Philadelphia house was the ONLY thing my father controlled in this world and he ruled it with an iron fist. It was his house, his telephone, his electricity, his television, and his food. My mother did her best to soften his hard edges. She put up with a lot but realized she was one of the “lucky” Black women. Her husband kept a steady job (often 2 or 3), bought her a house, owned a car, paid the bills, and didn’t complain too much about her regularly, “running down to the church house.”
The Black people of Wilson’s “Fences” are the unacknowledged Black heroes and heroines of the American narrative. They are not the criminals, drug addicts, pimps, and prostitutes who dominate both the Hollywood depictions and the nightly news. They are the hard-working laboring class that seemingly has no place in the annals of sociology. They are not really “interesting” because their lives are so ordinary. They go to work, they pay their bills, and they raise their children. What those outside of their experience fail to recognize are the years of pain and frustration they tolerate and the high price each subsequent generation pays as it attempts to construct fences to blot out the hurt and ugliness of systemic racism that shapes our lives.
Stay Black and Smart!