Wilson, Fences

August Wilson’s Fences allows the ordinary objects of domestic life to acquire a larger symbolic significance in their dramatic use. The play uses these symbols to dramatize a crucial moment in African-American history: the 1950s, when the great advances of the Civil Rights era are taking place, but when an audience might very well question what tangible effect they had on the lives of actual African-Americans. In presenting the story of Troy Maxson, Wilson’s story predominantly dramatizes a story about justice: arguably, all of the symbols relate to this central theme.

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The chief symbol that encapsulates the play’s central themes of justice is, of course, baseball. Troy Maxson — in his fifties at the time of the play — is presented as having been a magnificent baseball player in his youth: Troy’s friend Bono suggests only “two men ever played baseball as good as you. That’s Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson.” (Wilson 9). Wilson, however, is relying upon an audience to know the crucial role in which baseball in the American mid-century played out the public drama of African-American civil rights. For a start, the fact that Babe Ruth’s name remains more famous than Josh Gibson reminds the audience that baseball was a segregated sport, with separate playing leagues for black Americans. For an audience to know who Josh Gibson was would require knowledge of the best players in baseball’s so-called “negro leagues.” However, the play also uses baseball to refer — in a surprising way — to the most famous race-related baseball event contemporary to its action, which is the breaking of baseball’s color line with Branch Rickey hiring Jackie Robinson to play for a white team. Jackie Robinson’s example is, of course, popularly regarded as an example of long-delayed justice for African-Americans, as it was dramatized very recently in the Hollywood film 42. However, Wilson crucially does not use Jackie Robinson as a symbol for justice, but as a vehicle whereby Troy Maxson can argue about the limitations of justice:

TROY: I done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson. Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn’t even make! What you talking about Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody. 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. (TROY takes a long drink from the bottle). (Wilson 10)

Troy’s trash-talking about Jackie Robinson here is well within his characterization in the play, with its levels of self-aggrandizement and provocative tale-telling, but Wilson is making a crucial point here. Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line in baseball came too late for a man of Troy’s age. Troy cannot relate to the younger athlete’s increased opportunities with a sense of solidarity or vicarious joy: he can only reflect, somewhat bitterly, on the illogic of the original injustice he suffered. This is a play that wants to make it clear that the advent of civil rights for blacks did not have some miraculous effect on black Americans, overwhelming them with gratitude. In reality, the astonishingly belated concession of these civil rights by white America is more likely to provoke Troy’s mix of resentment, frustration, and anger. There is not much for Troy to do here apart from state the obvious truth, and then have another drink.

This is why football also becomes a crucial symbol in the play, related to baseball — part of the importance of football here is that Wilson is dramatizing history itself. The centrality of football to American life is something that would emerge after the action of the play — the action of Fences takes place between 1957 and 1965, roughly, while the first Super Bowl would not occur until 1967. Football, in other words, is not a sport in which there were ever negro leagues, and it would overtake baseball as the most popular sport in America — and one in which a preponderance of players were black — at around the time of Troy Maxson’s death. As a result, football stands out as a symbol of the future that Troy will never get to experience — and his refusal to sign the papers giving permission for his son Cory to be recruited for a football scholarship shows the suprising way in which injustice perpetuates itself. White America has been unjust to Troy Maxson — Troy will turn around and be unjust in turn to his own son, falsely extrapolating from his own experience. It is Cory’s own black father who will insist he “quit the football team. You’ve got to take the crookeds with the straights” (Wilson 37). But we are meant to understand this as the resentment of a man who was forced by society to “take the crookeds” and insists upon inflicting “the crookeds” on his own family at a moment when society seems to be realigning itself more towards justice.

However the most overtly symbolic aspect of the play is also the one which most clearly connects the purpose of Wilson’s symbolism to ideas of justice. This is Troy’s war-wounded brother Gabe, whose traumatic brain injury has left him with the delusion that he is the embodiment of the Archangel Gabriel on earth: “he carries an old trumpet tied around his waist and believes with every fiber of his being that he is the archangel Gabriel” (Wilson 24). In religious symbolism, Gabriel’s trumpet sounds to announce the Last Judgment — in other words, the moment when a perfect divine justice intervenes on earth, and presumably rights all wrongs eternally. (Because of this symbolism Gabriel recurs frequently in African-American spirituals, and even in 20th century white cultural material that references this black tradition, like Cole Porter’s “Blow Gabriel Blow,” The Marx Brothers’ “Gabriel Blow Your Horn,” and Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures.) Gabe in Fences is, of course, aware of this tradition — although his way of phrasing it seems like this idea of a promised future divine justice is a way of sidestepping the struggle and conflict which might establish justice in the present day. As Gabe phrases it: “ain’t gonna be too much of a battle when God waving that Judgment sword. But the people’s gonna have a hell of a time trying to get into heaven if them gates ain’t open” (Wilson 47-8). In other words, the justice that Gabe awaits on the Day of Judgment is one in which there will be no “battle,” because God is omnipotent. In the play’s astonishing conclusion, Gabe does blow his trumpet to demand Troy’s admission into heaven: “It’s time to tell St. Peter to open the gates. Troy, you ready? You ready, Troy” (Wilson 100). Of course, this moment — set up in the play’s opening moments — is a pure anticlimax as Gabe, who has been waiting years to do this, has a broken trumpet and does not know how to play. In some sense, it is the perfect metaphor for the way in which the long-delayed racial justice of the civil rights era affected a man like Troy Maxson: anti-climactically, as a vast disappointment. Except Gabe is then forced into himself to find some kind of ritual expression — a dance — of the divine intervention that fails to materialize, and Wilson’s sublime but ambiguous stage direction indicates that it does materialize: Gabe “finishes his dance and the gates of heaven stand open as wide as God’s closet” (Wilson 101).

What Fences uses its symbolism to dramatize is the complexity of a real African-American life like Troy Maxson’s, blighted by the personal experience of injustice in an age that is remembered historically for the late advent of justice. Baseball and football are used as a powerful symbol for the injustice Troy suffered, but also the injustice that he (through his own injury) inflicts upon his own son in consequence. The scholarship that Troy refuses to endorse for his son seems like an expression of a father’s resentment. The garden that Troy carefully cultivates and hopes to fence off seems like a deliberate response to the injustice of his own parents’ experience as sharecroppers, cultivating land that was not theirs for diminishing financial returns. But finally the trumpet of the injured Gabe — whose war experience is itself a profound symbol of racial injustice, when we consider that he was permanently disabled while fighting in World War Two for a U.S. Army that had not yet been desegregated by President Truman — is intended as a symbol of a transcendent or divine justice. The fact that we hear nothing when Gabriel blows is seemingly ambiguous: either the advent of real justice is anticlimactic, or a symbol that real justice has not yet arrived. But we are meant to believe that, in death, Troy’s baffled bitter life actually might somehow be comprehended in full, and his status as both a victim and a perpetrator of different types of injustice can be weighed in the balance, until our own sense of history redeems him.

Works Cited

Wilson, August. Fences. New York: Plume, 1986. Print.