Saturday, April 30, 2011

Defending Troy Maxton from Racial Discrimination in August Wilson’s Fences

August Wilson’s Fence (1987) presents Troy Maxson, as a character, that continues to face discrimination. The racist society in which he lives has classified him as nothing more than a servant to Whites as a trash collector in downtown Pittsburg. “At the same historical juncture, African American writers of the modern period, such as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, figuratively expressed the maddening effects of the American social environment on the African-American psyche” (Elam 614). The Pulitzer Prize winning play is set in 1957, a time when racism was more visible and African Americans were seen as hard workers who hoped for a better life.  In Fences racial discrimination is perceived as a monster that haunts Troy’s past and present. Wilson uses baseball as a metaphor to describe how one is to approach life. Baseball presents a great possibility for a come back win. He learns the game of baseball while in prison; he is introduced in the play years after serving time. Troy is considered a superior player by the colored league who could have succeeded in baseball within dominate white society; however, his race and age prohibit the chance for him to prove himself in the sport, an underlying explanation for his life of unjust poverty, racism, and discrimination. “When Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Troy had already turned 43. Being so far beyond his playing prime in 1947 that no big league team would sign him has always rankled him” and kept the American dream out of his grasp (Wolfe 56). In Troy’s defense racism is presented as a consistent dilemma in African American Playwright August Wilson’s Fences.
Commissioner
Racism has influenced Troy’s bitter attitude. “A Troy Maxson without grudges and grievances is beyond imagining. Wilson did well to take him from us when he did” (Wolfe 65).He possesses characteristics of a hero and is an ultimate hero and this paper will prove that. “No absentee husband or father Troy Maxson takes charge of his family’s welfare” (Wolfe 57). He is a provider and protector; he provides for his family by working at the sanitation company that supplies part of the income for his family. “His financial responsibility came to him from an otherwise tormenting father” (Wolfe 57). On Troy’s typical Friday/paydays he gives Rose (his wife) his pay check in return she gives him six dollars in street money. “Troy hands over his weekly paycheck to his wife, Rose, who manages their home. Troy and [Co-worker Jim Bono] tease each other and look forward to another weekend away from the mental and physical pressures of their jobs” (Shannon 95). Troy is far from perfect; like any other heroic character he has faults. To survive in Troy’s world is to continue and be willing to fight against the odds even if his battle is already lost.
Troy Maxson is a man who continues to fight the injustices of the world. For example, act one scene one initiates with conversation amongst two co-workers/friends, Jim Bono and Troy Maxson. It’s a typical Friday/payday as they drink Gin on the dilapidated front porch of Troy’s house as they engage in, “[man] talk” which consists of overflowing dialogue stemming of secrets, sports, death, and racism, while their wives prepare: “collard greens, chicken, and pigs feet” for supper (Wilson 5). To these men “drinking is the single most reliable source of entertainment . . . alcohol is a genuine elixir, granting instant relief from the mundane existence that each and every one of them led” (McMillan 23).  As rumors surface the reader learns that Troy has filed a complaint with the union for discrimination. “The madness of [Wilson’s male characters] results from symbolic or real confrontations with white power structures” (Elam 616). And there are chances that Troy might be getting dismissed from his job. He states that all of the white employees drive the truck, while all the blacks dump trash. “You think only white fellow got sense enough to drive a truck. That ain’t no paper job! Hell, anybody can drive a truck. How come you got all whites driving and the colored lifting?” (Wilson 2?) Only white men are trained to drive the trucks, which frustrates Troy. He solves his problem by filing a complaint to his union which convinces him to think that he will be fired when he is called to the commissioner’s office the following day; as a result, he is promoted to driver. Notice what he says about the white drivers. “You think only white fellow got sense enough to drive a truck. That ain’t no paper job! (Wilson 2?) The statement implies that black men are actually the labor force or the workers/ the doers. Notice the ending question that he poses on the white union bosses, “How come you got all whites driving and the colored lifting” (Wilson 2?) The question is courageous and according to Harry J. Elam, Jr.:
Rather than being the product of universal default, [his] madness is grounded in a specific gender, race, time, and place. With . . . madmen, Wilson both comments on and repositions black masculinity. Black masculinity has historically been perceived, through racist paranoia, as a site of deviance. Within fields of representation and social organization, black masculinity has been associated with bestiality, with criminality, with uncontrolled sexuality (622).
When Bono asks him did Mr. Rand know that he did not have a driver’s license, Troy replies, “Driving ain’t nothing. All you do is point the truck where you want it to go and keep from hitting the rest of them cars and things out there. Driving ain’t nothing” (Wilson 44). Owing to its boldness, Troy persuades the union into letting him drive, but he jeopardizes his job at the same time.
While white supremacists believed that black inferiority made black people inherently insane, more leftist-minded racial critics, both white and black, argued that conditions of oppression, racism, and restrictive prejudicial practices impressed on blacks a particular type of cultural neurosis (Elam 614)
A persistent theme in African American literature is tragedy. Most African American authors create tragedies (tragedic heroes) parallel to the Greeks.
August Wilson pays respect to Greek hero, King Oedipus, from the play titled Oedipus by Sophocles’s. King Oedipus is elected to be King of Thebes prior to the opening of the play. Later, a riddle is solved revealing the murderer of the former King of Thebes, King Laius. King Oedipus later learns that he has murdered him; in addition, he learns that Laius was his father and that he has married his mother, Queen Jocasta. “As with Oedipus and the stricken state of Thebes, the enemy is already ensconced within. The same qualities that have lifted Troy above his colleagues – his energy, his exuberance, and his daring - also taint and even reverse his gains” (Wolfe 60). Troy confronts racism by courageously speaking out against it on his job. The prejudiced system provides no alternative for him, other than to remain illiterate. “Protesting company policy, rather than hurting Troy, helps him. Despite being illiterate and thus unlicensed to drive, he becomes his firm’s first black driver” (Wolfe 59).  Protesting company policy makes Troy the firm’s first black driver, but this advancement also segregates Troy from his African American friends/co-workers, including Jim Bono, as a result, of Troy taking the position of driver he loses his best friend -Jim Bono. Now Jim Bono rejects to drinking on Friday nights with Troy; instead he plays dominos at Skinner’s house. The task of performing a white man’s job has come at a luxurious price for Troy—isolation/loneliness. For example, when Jim Bono stopped by for a quick visit to see Troy one afternoon he says to Troy, “Since you got your promotion I can’t keep up with you. Use to see you everyday. Now I don’t even know what route you working” (Wilson 81). Jim Bono is a true friend that is eventually betrayed by Troy. Jim Bono has followed Troy since their prison days. Bono mentions it by saying, ‘. . . follow this nigger, he might take me somewhere.’ I been following you too. I done learned a whole heap of things about life watching you” (Wilson 60).When Bono finds out about Troy’s infidelity he gives him good advice. Troy has a habit of looking off in another direction, but Jim Bono is the person that attempts to lead him in the right direction. Troy wanted to drive for the sanitation company, but that was not his priority. What he desires is equality among blacks and whites. Troy explicates his motive by saying, “All I want them to do is change the job description. Give everybody a chance to drive the truck” but instead it leads him down the dark road of isolation (Wilson 2, 3). Troy knows acquiring a license at 53 years of age is an impossible task, given the narrow-minded society in which he lives. Troy will not be able to pass any test written or oral on account of his illiteracy, and generational illiteracy is a problem that Troy has no control over. Neither Troy’s father, nor mother was able to read Wilson doesn’t tell us this, but it can be implied that the sharecropping family were uneducated people. Wilson attempts to end this cycle of illiteracy through Cory and Raynell [Troy’s children].
Even as [Troy] escape the present madness [he] embody the historical memory of primary ruptures, pains, and struggle within African-American existence, the legacies of forced separation from Africa, of the harsh Middle Passage, and of the terrors and pains of slavery (615-616).
The baseball rejection is another reason that causes Troy to protest discrimination through the play. He refuses to deal with anymore barriers.  “He drinks to dispel those demons of birthright, age, and, most important, discrimination” (Bogumil 34). There are no implications in Fences that other blacks were allowed to drive following Troy’s protest, and racism prevails. “He deceives, exploits, [and] betrays everyone close to him.  . . . He puts his employer at great financial risk in the event of an accident, and he jeopardizes his job by challenging company policy,” but notice his motive (Wolfe 65, 59). Troy’s motive can be compared to activist Martin Luther King assistance in the Memphis City Sanitation Strike of 1968. It can be compared to Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat on the bus; he is making a historical difference for African Americans by taking a stand against racism/discrimination rather other Blacks get to drive or not. Frantz Fanon, author of Black Skin White Masks, uses a psychological analysis to evaluate the black man and his lust for revenge on the white man: “There is a fact: white men consider themselves superior to black men. There is another fact: Black men want to prove to white men at all cost, the richness of their thought, [and] the equal value of their intellect” (10). Troy takes a position that he is not competent to do. He does not have a driver’s license, nor can he read, yet he wants the job, rather qualified or not. Troy has a deficiency compared to the white drivers. First—they can read. Second—they have sufficient education to obtain a drivers license, but society has restricted Troy’s resources.
White Fellow
Who is the devil in the eyes of Troy Maxton? The devil is nothing more than a cheat. To properly take care for his family Troy has to look at the evil grin of Jim Crow. Troy discloses that he has to pay extra interest for furniture. To further illustrate Troy’s furniture issue, author, Whitney Young informs that: “Many door-to-door salesmen [white men] sold materials that were misrepresented. They exploited the uneducated and the poor with long term contracts and extended payments” (Young 40). The door-to-door salesman of furniture that Troy refers to as the devil is the representation of the devil in Troy’s eyes. “Open the door . . . devil standing there bigger than life. White fellow . . . got on good clothes and everything” (15).  It is Troy that says he makes his ten dollar payments on time to the devil. “Send ten dollars a month to the address in the book and everything will be all right. Say if I miss a payment the devil [will] com[e] back and it’ll be hell to pay” (15). This is the only way for Troy to furnish his house. “I got an empty house with some raggedy furniture in it. Cory, [Troy’s younger son], ain’t got no bed. He’s sleeping on a pile of rags on the floor” (15). Troy is trying to build his American dream, but at a tremendous cost. Troy was on the battleground fighting his own war. He fights with death, and eventually does dies.
Gabriel
Gabriel Troy’s young brother was injured fighting in World War II. A bullet was logged in his head. Gabriel is aware of his handicap; he is not totally out of his mind. He is more aware of the world and it’s changing times than Troy. In Troy’s defense he takes his brother under his wing because that’s what a responsible brother would do.  He pays several times to get Gabriel out of jail, but Gabriel’s behavior is motivated by local youth acting out in public.
“Some kids was teasing him and he run them off home. Say he was howling and carrying on. Some folks seen him and called the police. That’s all it was” (Wilson 63).  He knows that the youth are tormenting him on account of his response behavior. Troy informs the reader that he has used Gabriel’s money to attain his house. “Troy has become so devastated by his own deferred dreams that nothing . . . [pleases him], matters to him. Above and beyond, getting the three thousand from Gabriel, Troy has charged Gabriel rent to live in the house that he has financed. “[Wilson] dramatizes a series of confrontations and revelations among family members that reveal the way racism scars a person’s conscience and then is passed on to subsequent generations” (Bogumil 38). Troy tries to get Rose to understand that if Gabriel did not have the plate in his head, they would not have a place to live and he sort of blames himself.  Rose attempts to convince Troy that he has done what was right by his brother by saying, “Ain’t no sense you blaming yourself for nothing. You done what was right by him. Can’t nobody say you ain’t done what was right by him. Look how long you took care of him . . . till he wanted to have his own place . . . (Bogumil 35, Wilson 27).  Troy’s pride is ultimately his down fall, as he accidentally signs a form to have Gabriel committed, as a result of being illiterate. Troy doesn’t feel the need to tell the judge that he can’t read. In the society in which Troy lives he feels the need to hind his illiteracy. For example, he hides it on his job and he hides it as he signs his brother’s jail release forms.
Certainly Wilson’s women are not hysterics, nor do they respond principally to the disease of racism. Rather, they react to the patriarchal system that constrains them. Within the limitations of this system, they exercise a degree of freedom (Elam 23).
Only a cold harder person could label Troy Maxson a villain. He is awarded by the state of Pittsburgh guardianships of Gabriel. He contributes a much needed home for his entire family, Gabriel included for a brief time. “Gabe’s disability is materially connected to the well-being of his family” (Elam 616).  Troy and Rose have taken care of Gabriel from the day he moved in, till the day he decided to leave. “Ishmael Reed is correct in noting that Troy never commits ‘the ultimate sin’ of deserting his family. Also to his credit is his honesty with money” (Wolfe 72, 96).Gabriel is aware that Troy has used his money to buy his house and he performs no objection towards Troy using his money or charging him rent. If there was a problem Gabriel would have protested on his own behalf, but what he does is move out because he wants to be independent- a man. Even Rose tells Troy that, “He over there ‘cause he want to have his own place. He can come and go as he please” (Wilson 47). Gabriel takes extra steps to ensure that Troy is not mad at him for moving out by saying, “Troy’s mad at me,” a statement in the form of a question, or “Troy, you ain’t mad at me, is you? Them bad mens come and put me away. You ain’t mad at me, is you (Wilson 46, 64?) Gabriel takes great pride in staying close to Troy and is just as much a guardian to Troy as Troy is to him, especially when Gabriel finds out that the Lord is coming for Troy. For example, Gabriel warns Troy by telling him that he has seen his name listed in St. Peter’s book. He tells Troy that heaven awaits him. “One morning St. Peter was looking at his book, marking it up for the judgment, and he let me see your name” (Wilson 26).Troy pays no attention to Gabriel and sends him off in the house to retrieve something to eat, but instead he goes off to sale his plums. Gabriel is competent in taking care of himself. He gets up and goes to work collecting vegetables, and lives independently across the street from Troy at a boarding house.
The nuisance comes into exists for Gabriel when he is bothered by local youths, and is arrested for disturbing the peace. Troy would never intentionally place his only brother in a mental institution or signed a paper to do so. Deep down in Troy’s heart he is a character that believes the world owes him something. Yes – indeed instead of Troy inviting himself to Gabriel’s money he could have set it aside for Gabriel’s health care, but for the time period it was not an option. “Gabe’s fate reflects the legacy of all the black servicemen who fought in World War II in the jingoistic belief that they were keeping America safe for democracy, only to come home after the war to increased discrimination, second-class citizenship, and anything but democracy” (Elam 616). Troy handled the situation the best he knew how.
For instance, Troy is financially responsible, even when he is psychologically destructive. But that destructiveness is a manifestation of Troy’s own abusive past and his fervent conviction that life offers no easy options or reliable breaks. (Bogumil 42)
 Troy responds to Jim Bono about getting Gabriel out of jail by saying, “All they want is the money. That makes six or seven times I done went down there and got him out. See me coming they stick out their hands” (58). Jim Bono grasps the idea that Gabriel’s demeanor was the result of serving in the war, and Troy should not have to pay to get him out. “Yeah, I know what you mean. That’s all they care about is that money. They don’t care about what’s right” (58). Jim Bono and Troy Maxson realize that society will everlastingly be in debt to Gabriel for his deed in World War II; yet Troy has to pay over and over to get him out of jail leaving no sympathy for Gabriel’s situation.
Cory
Cory [Troy’s younger son] is recruited by a college football team. Troy refuses to let football stand in the way of Cory getting a decent job, so that he want have to haul trash like his father.  Troy is let down with baseball which foreshadows him not letting his son repeat the same mistake. He attempts to explain the world of sports by saying, “What it ever get me? Ain’t got a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of” (Wilson 8). By act one scene three Cory has done the opposite of what his father has told him in order to stay on the team. He has quitting his job at the local grocery store A&P and lied to Troy in the process. Cory tries to get this father to realize the changing times in baseball, but Troy talks over him in defense of his awkward view of the world. “If they got a white fellow sitting on the bench, you can bet your last dollar he can’t play! The colored guy got to be twice as good before he get on the team. That’s why I don’t want you to get all tied up in them sports,” and Cory defines baseball by providing clear evidence of the changing times by saying, “The Braves got Hanks Aaron and Wes Covington.” Troy replies by saying, “. . . . Aaron ain’t nobody. . .” rather realizing that times have changed for the better in sports (Wilson 32).Wilson mentions the following in his essay titled, The Ground in Which I Stand in regards to Cory’s education: “African Americans who were offered scholarships seldom completed their educational opportunities. The sport of football want assist you, therefore the best choice is to get a job. Wilson supports Troy’s decision regarding Cory” (Herrington 68, Wilson 72). Troy blames the racist society in which he lives; therefore he refuses to let Cory waste time with football. “Madness enables these characters to mediate both figuratively and literally against discord, for harmony, and for communal and cultural change” (Elam 612). Troy tells Rose, “It’s the same now as it was then. The white man ain’t gonna let him get nowhere with that football” (8). Troy will forever owe an eternal debt to his son, as a result of racial discrimination in which black men are forced to suffer. August Wilson’s presents a mixture of personalities, attitudes, and ideas surrounding ordinary black folk going about their everyday lives. They are faced with obstacles or they are used to assist individuals who are at odds with life’s dilemmas and through abundant voices of African Americans the Black experience is exposed.



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