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).
Blackness and Race Relations ThemeTracker
Blackness and Race Relations Quotes in Fences
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.