Embracing the Past and Understanding the Present

by: Mariah Moghadam

As the large waves pushed against the side of the cargo ship, the Africans located in the belly of the cargo ship were shackled and huddle together in attempt to keep warm. The heat from the radiating sun beamed down on the cotton fields of the South, where a young black boy looked down at his blustered and bleeding hands that look to have belonged to an older man. At night, the cool wind carried the tunes of the slaves heading to their freedom from the Underground Railroads. Police carrying large water hoses stormed the streets in attempt of stopping the protest that the Colored Community was demonstrating for equality. Presently, in the White House, an African American is setting in the Oval Office as the President of the United States. Throughout history, the African American community has come a long way, and their struggles will never be forgotten as long as there are people like August Wilson in the world. Fences, by August Wilson, is about an African American man by the name of Troy Maxson and his struggles due to the changes in society that ultimately causes his downfall. August Wilson’s tragic play, Fences, can be observed through different historical approaches. One of these historical approaches is called multiculturalism, and by using this specific approach one can come to realize the importance the past has on the present.

Multiculturalism historians “focus on groups that have been underrepresented in course of history” (Wilson, Edwin 14). They focus on the minority, because their influences are little noted in history and literature. They do this by examining a cultures’ ideological and political perceptive. They can do this by looking into the author’s life and review the time period of which the story takes place or what decade it was rewritten in (Wilson, Edwin 14). The usage of these historians in theater is extremely important and vital in keeping the history alive. Multiculturalism historians help the reader understand the plot, character, and the character’s actions. It makes the storyline and characters more relatable, making the audience feel some type of emotion. Thus, leading the audience on a ride of hate and love. At the end of the experience, the audience is left with a satisfaction that the life they are living was or is not as bad as they thought. August Wilson does all this in his plays, especially Fences. Wilson believed in the importance that the past has on the present, and uses these concepts in his literary works. By looking into his past, one can understand his way of writing.

On April 27, 1945, August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His name was originally August Frederick Kittel. However, his father, Fredrick Kittel, a white German, was never truly in his life. Thus, Wilson took his mother, Daisy Wilson’s surname. Wilson identified more with his African American side, rather than his white German side. Awhile after his father left, his mother married David Bedford. Once Bedford died, the twenty-four year old Wilson realized that his stepfather did care for him (Elam).

From looking at Wilson’s family life, one can compare it to the family life and relationships seen in Fences. Wilson’s biological father and stepfather were represented as the masculinity in the play. The father and son figure in the play are not in good terms, much like it was in Wilson’s life. The relationship of Troy and his son Corey was filled with tension and misunderstanding. Troy represented David Bedford, Wilson’s stepfather. They both were former athletes, who were unable to make to the big times. They both were ex-convicts. Troy was convicted for fifteen years, because he killed a man during a failed robbery; while, Bedford was convicted for twenty-three years, because a murder occurred in an attempted robbery. Their occupations were also similar. Troy worked as a garage man and Bedford worked in a sewer subdivision (Elam). In the end of the play, Corey realizes that everything his father did to and for him was only to make him stronger, so he may survive and make something positive of himself, much like Bedford did for Wilson.

In the ninth grade, an event occurred that changed Wilson into the man that he would later become. Wilson saw the unjust that African Americans went through first hand, when his white teacher accused him of cheating a twenty-page paper he did on Napoleon Bonaparte. Apparently, Wilson’s writing was too good for an African American to produce. His white teacher gave him a failing grade. This incident leads to Wilson dropping out of school; however, did not hinder his learning. Wilson would go to the library and read a multitude of literature, especially the literature in the “Negro Section” of the library. Since he read literary works by African Americans, Wilson sought to become a writer as well. Wilson started his literary journey with writing poetry. In 1965, he developed the Center Avenue Poets Theatre workshop. At the age of 19, Wilson moved out of his family’s home, and moved into a basement apartment that was located in Pittsburgh’s Hill area. This area was filled with various types of artists (Elam).

During his time in the Hill area, Wilson took odd jobs and wrote whenever he could. In the late 1960s, Wilson became a dramatist, and with the change dealt with the African American culture/population, he cofounded Pittsburgh’s Black Horizons Theatre with his friend, Rob Penny. Pittsburgh’s Black Horizons Theatre was part of the theatre movement of the 1960s to 1970s (Elam). This movement allowed more opportunities for African American artists.

Amiri Baraka, Romare Bearden, Julius Borges and the blues inspired Wilson. Amiri Baraka was a playwright and poet that helped with the African American theater revolution that took place in the 50s and onward. Wilson’s theatre performed Baraka’s plays on its stage. Baraka’s literary works inspired Wilson, because it dealt with cultural politics (Shannon). Wilson thought if he dealt with this same concept through his literary works, then it might help change society for the better (Elam). Wilson used the ideology of the Civil Rights Movement to show change and discrimination in his play. An example of discrimination in Fences was when Troy wanted to become a major lead baseball player and was unable to because of his ethnicity. Troy believes that the world is the same as it was when he was a kid, meaning that African Americans will be rejected and treated cruelly in society. In the start of the play, the audience finds out Troy is fifty-three years old, and slavery was banned seventy year (Wilson 17-18). Thus, making it possible that his grandparents and his parents were slaves. The immoral actions that were done to his family most likely scarred him as a person. For instance, Troy stated, “Open the door…devil standing there bigger than life. White fellow…” (Wilson 1.15). This shows Troy’s feeling toward the white society to the audience. Later on, Troy declares that he hates it when African Americans make fools of themselves. For instance, Troy talks about a restaurant owned by a black man,

A Negro go in there and can’t get no kind of service. I seen a white fellow come in there and order a bowl of stew. Pope [African American owner] picked all the meat out of the pot for him…Negro come behind him and ain’t got nothing but potatoes and carrots. (Wilson 1. 23)

This shows the audience that Troy does not want to give into the white society and deprive his race. Growing up during harsh segregated times made Troy mentally hard, only allowing him to give so much love.

The artist Romare Bearden inspired Wilson, because of how his collages displays and provokes meaning of different varieties from the past and the present (Shannon). Much like how Wilson displays history in his writing. For example, Raynell’s character in Fences brings the past to the present. Raynell is the love child of Troy. She represents a past infidelity; however, a redemption in the present. To Corey, Raynell is pure and not tainted by their father. She is an important figure in the play, because she symbolizes historical importance by the ideas of legacy and continuation (Elam). For example, before heading to Troy’s funeral, she reminds Corey of their father’s song about his dog-named Blue. Corey realizes that their father was not a completely terrible man, but a man who went through a lot, and that the continuation of his lineage may not have to have such a life and that their future could be better. As well as, the year that Raynell was introduced in the play was 1965. This year was the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, a time of struggle that lead to better opportunities for African Americans (Elam). Thus, Wilson was trying to convey to the audience a beckon of hope for the future generation.

Both Julius Borges and Blues had a similar effect on Wilson and were expressed simultaneously in his work. Julius Borges, a writer, inspired Wilson, because of his ability to use the abstract and the spiritual together in his plots. Out of his inspirations, Blues seems to be the number one. This genre made a profound impact of the writer’s literary life. He first discovered Blues while listening to Bessie Smith’s record called “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jellyroll Like Mine.” Wilson believed that Blues interacted with all social experiences from cultural to political to spiritual. Blues derived from the time of slavery. The slaves would express themselves through singing, such as expressing their pains and sorrows of being mistreated (Elam). Music was an expression of their diaspora, and something no one can take away. Wilson brought in the spiritual and the musical side to Fences with Troy disabled brother, Gabriel. At the end of the play, Gabriel attempts to open heaven’s gates to allow Troy’s soul through, so he may finally have his peace. His trumpet was unable to make any noise for it did not have a mouthpiece, so he began to dance and shout. The stage notes state,

He begins to dance. A slow, strange dance, eerie and life giving. A dance of atavistic signature and ritual… He begins to howl in what is an attempt at song, or perhaps a song turning back into itself in an attempt at speech. He finishes his dance and the gate of heaven stand open as wide as God’s closet. (Wilson 2.101)

Having seen this play at Wells Theatre a few years ago, the movement and rhythm the actor playing Gabriel moved to can be seen as both ritualistic and mesmerizing. As well as, invoking a spiritual and scared moment for the audience, who were seating quietly in awe, because they could feel the pain that was bring produced on stage through the actor’s voice and movements. Both the actor playing Gabriel and the character that Wilson created were embracing their heritage by bring the past to the present. To Wilson, Blues was a portal to the past, showing the existence and survival of the African American lineage.

The prologue in Fences sets the scene in an historical perceptive. The play takes place from 1957 to 1965. This time period is extremely important to the history of African Americas, because they were fighting for equal rights. The location of where the play takes place holds a significant importance to the time period as well. The Maxsons live on the out skirts of the city of Pittsburg. Working hard in the city allows one to succeed; however, even with hard work and drive, the African American community could not flourish. African Americans were not welcomed in the cities. The descendants of African slaves migrated North to the cities for new and better beginnings with equal opportunity as the whites, but were discriminated against and were rejected. Thus, they moved and settled along the rivers. To make income, they resorted to strenuous work, such as cleaning houses or working in factories. If they were desperate for cash, then they would steal (Wilson 17-18). The only thing that kept them going was their determination in obtaining the American Dream.

In 1931, James Truslow Adams came up with the concept of the American Dream. Adams stated,

The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. (“American Dream”)

America is a place for dreams to come true. No matter the race, no matter the background, and no matter the class, the American Dream can exist and be made possible. The American Dream deals with social, economical, and political systems that will lead to the success for every individual living in its perimeter. This is one of the biggest themes in Wilson’s play.

Hope for the future generation is cohesive with the American Dream that each generation will excel higher than the generation before them, and that anyone of any ethnicity is allowed to achieve greatness. The American Dream was all Troy wanted to achieve. However, he does not succeed in obtaining it, because of his skin color. He wanted to be a major lead baseball player, but could not for he was discriminated against. Not achieving this ideology allowed Wilson to further this character and the plot along. Troy became a tough and depressed man, because of it. He distanced himself from his family. As well as, cause a strain between his relationships with his son, Corey.

The relationship between father and son can be seen as a repeated cycle in the play between Troy and his father, and Troy and his son. Troy’s relationship with his father was not a good one, because his father was a cruel man. Troy did not want to be like father, so he left home at a young age. However, Troy’s relationship with his son was not as bad, yet they still had issues. Troy believed that his children were his job and responsibility. He acted this way towards them, so they may become better than him and make something of themselves. He knew the world was cruel and was not going to treat them kindly, so he did not either. When his son Corey asked him if he could play football for college, so he might have a proper education, Troy was completely against the notion. He wanted Corey to get a real job and work his way up, because it was unlikely for his son to achieve his dream in sports. He even told his wife Rose, “I don’t want him [Corey] to be like me! I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get” (Wilson 1.39). Thus, Troy pushed Corey further away from him each scene they appeared in together to the point that Troy tells Corey to leave and he does. However, when Corey returns home for his father’s funeral, he is a changed man, and realized his father’s motives after speaking with his mother. Rose tells Corey, “Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t…and at the same time he tried to make you into everything he was” (Wilson 2.97). In the end, both of the cycles show each of men finding their own identities that are separate, yet the same. Wilson wanted to bring in the fact that the past is what shapes the present.

Storytelling was part of the African American culture. Storytelling could be performed musically and in spoken words. Wilson had his characters express themselves in this way (Elam). Gabriel used music at the end of the play when he wanted to open the heaven’s gates with his trumpets for Troy’s soul to enter, believing he was the angel Gabriel, but the trumpet would not make any noise. Troy expressed himself through his tall-tales. For example, his wrestling matches with death. Troy stated, “Death ain’t nothing. I done seen him. Done wrestled with him. You can’t tell me nothing about death. Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside” (Wilson 1.11). This shows Troy’s ability to tell a story that expresses a meaningful theme that death comes with life and one should not worry about it, because it is part of the cycle.

August Wilson’s plays, especially Fences, will remind important and continue to circulate throughout society, because of what his literary works represent. His literary works reconstruct and reexamine the decision in which African Americans made in the past that are seen in the present, by focusing on their experiences and every day life. Wilson focuses on the idea the past has a great impact on the present. The setting is in a historical contexts that allows Wilson explore the emotions of his lineage (Saunders). When asked if his writing was autobiographical, Wilson stated,

I’ve got a 400-year autobiography. That’s what I’m writing from. There’s a whole bunch of material. You never run out of stories. [Nonetheless] I’m definitely a part of the story. I claim all 400 years of it. And I claim the right to tell it in any way I choose because it’s, in essence, my autobiography–only it’s the story of myself and my ancestors.

Wilson believed that his writings should represent the African lineage in America, because there was not a great deal of literature about the African American experience. As well as, there were not any well-developed roles for African Americans to play in theatre (“August Wilson…”). However, now there is, because Wilson started the path for other African American writers to develop literature for their culture (Shannon). Wilson made it possible for African Americans to see themselves as part of an community, not just their community, but America’s community (Parks). Wilson created African American characters that were detached from their lineage and individual identity, which were in search for their spirituality and culture. The only way for them to reconnect is to look into their past, which then enables them to move forward (Saunders). Wilson spoke to his audience in a way that they too had to look into their past to understand their present.

Another reason why Fences will continue to be performed and read in classrooms is because August Wilson taught a multitude of life lessons in the play. The symbolism of the title holds a greater meaning. The idea that it represents fences among the races, fences to hinder people from entering, fences hindering people from leaving, and unsuccessful efforts at keeping life fenced in (Shafer). Various messages that were taught can be seen as universal and still valid today. Spiritual understanding causes social awareness. The fact that history is important; as well as, it needs to be remembered and embraced. The characters are seen as voices of the cultural, past and present. The play teaches the audience about oppression, family issues, human relationships, finding identity, and daily struggles. In the end, the most important lesson from August Wilson’s literary works, especially Fences, is to not forget who you are and where you came from.

Observing August Wilson’s tragic play, Fences, through the historical approach of multiculturalism, one can fully understand the significance the past has on the present. A multiculturalism historian pay close attention on the minority groups in society. Looking into Wilson’s past, one can understand his writing style. Amiri Baraka, Romare Bearden, Julius Borges, and the music style of Blues influenced him. Each of his influences was evident in his writing. The historical perceptive were seen through the ideologies he used in his play, such as the American Dream and the Civil Rights Movement. Wilson wanted to enlighten people of the past and how it shapes the present. In a way, he wanted to tell his audience that it was okay to embrace where you came from.

Work Cited

“August Wilson, Broadway’s Bard of Black Life.” All Things Considered 2 Oct. 2007.

Artemis Literary Sources. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

Elam, Harry J., Jr. “August Wilson, doubling, madness, and modern African-American

drama (1).” Modern Drama 43.4 (2000): 611+. Artemis Literary Sources. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

Parks, Suzan-Lori. “The light in August: an African spiritual strength born of adversity

undergirds August Wilson’s 10-play cycle; An interview by Suzan-Lori Parks.” American Theatre Nov. 2005: 22+. Artemis Literary Sources. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

Saunders, James Robert. “Essential ambiguities in the plays of August Wilson.” Hollins

Critic 32.5 (1995): 1+. Artemis Literary Sources. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

Shafer, Yvonne. “Breaking Barriers: August Wilson.” Staging Difference: Cultural

Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama. Ed. Marc Maufort. Peter Lang, 1995. 267-285. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter and Timothy J. White. Vol. 118. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Artemis Literary Sources. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

Shannon, Sandra G. “Blues, history and dramaturgy: an interview with August Wilson.”

African American Review 27.4 (1993): 539+. Artemis Literary Sources. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

Wilson, August. Fences: A Play (Plume). E Rutherford, NJ: Ladybird, 1995. Print.

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre: History of the Theatre. New York:

McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print.


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