Fences

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Blackness and Race Relations Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Blackness and Race Relations Theme Icon
Practicality, Idealism, and Race Theme Icon
Manhood and Fathers Theme Icon
Family, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Mortality Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Fences, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Blackness and Race Relations Theme Icon

Set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, Fences explores the experience of one black family living in the era of segregation and a burgeoning black rights movement, exposing, at the heart of its characters’ psychology, a dynamic between the inner world of a black community and the expanse of white power around it.

The fence which Troy gradually builds in front of his house serves as a symbol of segregation, as well as the general psychological need to build a fortress where a black ‘inside’ or interior can set itself off from the white-dominated world around it. From one angle, the fence represents the geographical effects of segregation in general: the fencing-off of blacks, the creation of ethnic insularity in certain neighborhoods, and it is a monument to this basic social division effected by white economic and political power. Yet Troy also builds the fence himself; it’s largely his own creation, though Rose initially tasks him with building it. Rose wants the fence in order to set her and her family off from the outside world, to protect a private interior of their experience—lived, black experience—from an outside world threatening to invade it, and from the divisive effects which white power inflicts upon society. While the latter divides with the aim of controlling and limiting black prosperity and influence, the division effected by Troy’s fence is one of protection and an affirmation of the world within it.

Throughout the play, we also see how its characters are forced to define their world in terms of how it’s limited by a racist system of white social and economic power. We see that Troy’s workplace, for instance, is organized according to a racial hierarchy privileging whites, since exclusively white men are hired to drive the company’s garbage trucks, while black men are only hired as garbage collectors. Further, much of the characters’ speech relies on pointing out their status as people of color in order to describe their position in relation to white power.

Wilson’s play therefore, in part, concerns itself with depicting how racism governs and structures the everyday lives of its characters, in order to expose—through the concrete experiences of one family—racism’s many effects on the black American community of the 1950s at large. The meaning behind and need for the fence, and the play’s exposure of a black world in many ways defined by its oppression, are a scathing condemnation of the division and pain inflicted by white power. Fences gives a palpable reality to the abstract mechanisms of racism and white power—it reveals the pain of, as well as the aspirations and opportunities withheld from, its black characters. Through framing pain as being at the heart of almost all its characters’ lives, Wilson reveals the psychological complexity and intensely tiresome and tasking nature of navigating a racist world divided principally between white and black. At the same time, he reveals how that division divides blacks themselves through the pain it inflicts upon them (such as Troy’s conflict with Cory over his desire to play football, since Troy’s parenting is informed by his past experience of discrimination in the world of sports).

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Blackness and Race Relations ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Blackness and Race Relations appears in each Scene of Fences. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Blackness and Race Relations Quotes in Fences

Below you will find the important quotes in Fences related to the theme of Blackness and Race Relations.
Act 1: Scene 1 Quotes

I ain’t worried about them firing me. They gonna fire me cause I asked a question? That’s all I did. I went to Mr. Rand and asked him, “Why?” Why you got the white mens driving and the colored lifting? Told him, “what’s the matter, don’t I count? You think only white fellows 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?” He told me “take it to the union.” Well, hell, that’s what I done! Now they wanna come up with this pack of lies.

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Jim Bono
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

Troy speaks these lines to Bono, at the beginning of the play, as the two participate in one of their Friday night payday rituals of drink and conversation. Here, we see the firmness of Troy’s conviction in facing the inequality at his workplace, where only white men are hired as drivers, and black men only as the actual garbage collectors. This willingness to protest seems to suggest that standing up to everyday racism is a fundamental part of Troy’s character, since filing a complaint through his union could very well get him fired. Further, Troy’s deed attests to his extraordinary confidence in himself, since he’s presumably the first at his company to file such a complaint.

Though it’s clear that Troy is certainly a vocal opponent of white power and racist coercion, his primary motivation for filing his complaint seems to be self-gain—to simply attain, for himself, a job as a truck driver. Once he achieves this, he stops there—he doesn’t advocate for his fellow black workers. This speaks to the hypocrisy which runs like a crack through Troy’s character in many other forms throughout the play; though Troy is willing to defend the principle of equality in the name of himself, and though he does achieve some degree of it at work, he fails to defend it for those around him.

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I told that boy about that football stuff. The white man ain’t gonna let him get nowhere with that football. I told him when he first come to me with it. Now you come telling me he done went and got more tied up in it. He ought to go and get recruited in how to fix cars or something where he can make a living.

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Cory Maxson, Rose Maxson , Jim Bono
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Troy speaks these lines to Rose in the first scene of the first act, when he and Bono are engaging in one of their Friday night payday get-togethers. Rose enters their conversation for a bit, and informs Troy that Cory’s been recruited by a college football team.

Troy’s disdain for a career in sports stems from his experience playing baseball when he was younger. Despite being a very talented athlete, his hopes of playing professionally were cut short due to racial discrimination—black players simply weren’t given a chance in the major leagues, where skin color was favored over objective talent. Troy’s opinion about what counts as a viable future for Cory, therefore, is shaped by his own past, by a different era in history than the one in which Cory grew up, where—though race relations are still overwhelmingly far from equal and just—there are more opportunities for young black men than there were in Troy’s time. Troy, however, doesn’t think this, and refuses to see it. He stays stuck to his ‘outdated’ view of society, insisting that pursuing sports will only bring Cory disappointment and an unstable lifestyle. To prevent this, Troy advocates—however stubbornly—that Cory pursue a standard trade that will earn him what he imagines would be a steadier, more dependable living. Thus, the conflict between Troy and Cory over football can be explained as a war between two drastically different views of history, society, and race relations.

Act 1: Scene 3 Quotes

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. Man on the team and what it get him? They got colored on the team and don’t use them. Same as not having them. All them teams the same.

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Cory Maxson
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Troy speaks these lines to Cory, in the third scene of the first act, after Cory tells him that a college football recruiter is going to pay Troy a visit to get his signature, which would grant Cory permission to join the college team.

Troy severely disapproves of Cory’s ambition to play football, believing that the world of sports hasn’t changed since when he played baseball (with the hopes of becoming professional). Since Troy’s hopes were cut short due to racial discrimination, and since he believe the status of race relations in sports hasn’t evolved at all, he thinks that Cory’s sports dreams are foolishly impractical, idealistic, and not rooted in social reality. It would make more sense, in Troy’s mind, for Cory to go out and practice a standard trade, like auto-mechanics.

Troy’s comment about benched white players not being able to play well follows from his premises that black players are always benched while whites are favored on the field, and that, in order for a black player to get time on the field, they have to be twice as good. If a white player is benched, therefore, they must be exceptionally unskilled.

I don’t care where he coming from. The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway. You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade. That way you have something can’t nobody take away from you. You go on and learn how to put your hands to some good use. Besides hauling people’s garbage.

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Cory Maxson
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote—spoken by Troy to Cory after Troy mentions that he’s heard from Rose about Cory’s recruitment to play college football—demonstrates that, perhaps on some fundamental level, Troy truly does intend only good things for his son, even though he often fails to show it. Troy, certainly not silent on the matter of white supremacy and racial discrimination, is firmly convinced—based on his experiences of discrimination when he tried to play professional baseball—that the world of sports will not be hospitable for his son, a young black male. And, while it’s easy to pass Troy off as a pigheaded man who only wanted to make life for his son as difficult as his own has been, and to prevent Cory from excelling in ways he was never able to, it seems, here at least, that Troy genuinely thinks he’s doing Cory a favor by standing in the way of his career in sports.

This speaks to the fact that August Wilson doesn’t seem bent on portraying Troy as, in-and-of-himself, a bad person—as a bad father whose parenting decisions aren’t informed by any valid experiences. Rather, Wilson seems concerned with conveying Troy as an unfortunate byproduct of historical forces which have molded him to think about the world the way he does, and which were ultimately out of his control. Wilson is therefore able to show how the racism experienced by previous generations of black fathers informs the way they raise their children—it informs a father’s vision of the society in which he’ll raise his child, regardless if race relations have evolved and are now different than the view afforded by his outdated perspective. Thus racism from the past gets recycled, indirectly onto new generations, who must grapple with the dichotomy between their own vision of contemporary society and the less current vision of their parents.

Like you? Who the hell say I got to like you? What law is there say I got to like you? Wanna stand up in my face and ask a damn fool-ass question like that. Talking about liking somebody. . . . I go out of here every morning . . . bust my butt . . . putting up with them crackers every day . . . cause I like you? You about the biggest fool I ever saw. . . . It’s my job. It’s my responsibility! . . . A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house . . . sleep you in my bedclothes . . . fill you belly up with my food . . . cause you my son. . . . Not ‘cause I like you! Cause it’s my duty to take care of you! I owe a responsibility to you! . . . I ain’t got to like you. Mr. Rand don’t give me my money come payday cause he likes me. He gives me cause he owes me.

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Cory Maxson
Page Number: 37-8
Explanation and Analysis:

Troy speaks these lines to Cory in the third scene of the first act, after Cory asks Troy why he’s never liked him as a son.

Troy’s harshness and fundamental lack of any loving qualities as a father come to a pinnacle here. Troy insists that his duty as a father is simply a contractual one—that he’s responsible out of sheer contractual obligation, like a job, to provide for Cory, hence why Troy compares their relationship to the one he shares with his boss, Mr. Rand. For Troy, his duty to provide for his son isn’t born out of love, admiration, or any higher moral, emotional, or psychological forces. Fatherhood is not a duty or labor of love: it’s just a basic labor which, as if decreed by some law, he’s required to do. Therefore, insofar as it’s only Troy’s obligation to meet certain requirements as a provider, he needn’t go beyond them—he needn’t do such things as actually treat his son with kindness, or show him compassion.

Troy’s appeal to duty as the fundamental familial bond, as opposed to anything psychological (like love), shows how he views his relationship to his family in terms of the minimum amount of participation that’s required of him. This narcissistic view is what allows him to go off, have an affair with Alberta, and not question his conscience.

I don’t want him to be like me! I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get. You the only decent thing that ever happened to me. I wish him that. But I don’t wish him a thing else from my life. I decided seventeen years ago that boy wasn’t getting involved in no sports. Not after what they did to me in the sports.

Related Characters: Troy Maxson (speaker), Rose Maxson
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Troy speaks these lines to Rose when she enters the yard after Troy spoke to Cory about his duty as a father. Cory’s exited the yard to go to the A&P store, in an attempt to get his job back (which he gave away because of the time commitment required by football). Troy says this in response to Rose’s comment that Cory is only trying to please Troy, to be like Troy, and that Troy should therefore ease up on his son.

We see here, once again, something of a decent, perhaps noble motivation behind Troy’s approach to parenting Cory—behind such decisions as not allowing Cory to play college football. Troy just wants to prevent Cory from repeating his own life—a life of many hardships and struggles, one of which was his failed attempt to become a professional baseball player in the face of racial discrimination. Though Troy only seems to communicate with Cory in a harsh, angry tone, he explains here that he only wants to prevent his son from wasting his time pursuing a future—a career in sports—that’s simply not accepting of black men.