M. Bryan Strain
Nathan Straight, PhD
21 September 2012
Comparative Analysis: Wilson’s Fences, Washington’s The Atlanta Address, and Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk: Is the Fence a Protection or Corral?
Is the fence a protection or a corral? If you ask a teen, it’s a corral. If you ask a parent, it’s a protection. If you ask a farmer, it’s both. August Wilson writes a wonderful play, Fences, that clearly illustrates the farmer’s point of view. However, the fences are not built around animals, but men.
Wilson’s play shows both sides of the issues surrounding the African American civil rights movement. In 1895 an African American man, Booker T. Washington delivered what is now called The Atlanta Compromise Speech. As I read this speech from a modern perspective, I became angry. It began at the third sentence. “I but convey to you, Mr. President and Directors, the sentiment of the masses of my race…” (Washington). I would be upset if an elected official had the audacity to make such a claim today, but Washington had a purpose. He sought to reconcile the racial tensions in the post-slavery south. He convinced whites to give unwanted land, hard jobs, and other table scraps to the struggling race. He offered pseudo-slavery to the whites, and in exchange the African American’s would not try to exercise many of their rights.
Wilson created a character in his play, Troy Maxon, to illustrate Washington’s purpose. The stage is set in 1957 just before the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Troy was a talented baseball player. The play doesn’t tell you exactly what happened to Troy’s baseball career, but Troy believes it ended because his skin is black. He now works standing on the back of a garbage truck emptying trash cans as the truck slowly passes down the street.
Troy has two sons by different women. His oldest son, Lyons, is a musician and a dreamer. He is married and his wife works, but he has a habit of borrowing money from Troy. Troy’s tone is always one of status. He talks down to every character we meet in the play. In the beginning his friend Bono, idolizes him. When Lyons comes to borrow money, he tells him he knows people and offers him a job. Lyon’s refuses because he believes he will become a great musician. Troy says, “What’s the matter, you too good to carry people’s rubbish?” (Wilson 1115). Troy talks down to people as if he is at the pinnacle of society and he is a garbage man.
Troy’s younger son Cory, is a football player. He is doing well enough to get the attention of a college recruiter. Troy is so jaded by his own baseball misfortune that he forbids and sabotage’s Cory’s chance at a football career and college education. Like Washington, he continues to preach to his sons the virtues of menial work.
Troy’s son’s represent the attitudes of men like W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois wrote a respectful but critical opinion of Washington’s compromise. He agrees that Washington gave his race a place to start in working with whites. The price, however, was too high. “Mr. Washington’s programme practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races” (Du Bois). He goes on to say, “manly self-respect is worth more than lands and houses, and that a people who voluntarily surrender such respect, or cease striving for it, are not worth civilizing.”
In Wilson’s play, Troy’s wife Rose prays for a fence around her yard in a hymn. She wants the Lord to protect the things her family has. After Troy fathers a child by another woman, Rose realizes that times have changed. Ironically, as Troy’s life begins to fall apart he finishes the fence his wife used to nag him about. It’s too little too late. His wife, sons, and even best friend no-longer respect him. The fence wasn’t built fast enough to keep the important things in, and the only thing he wants protection from now is Death
Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk.” 1903. Bartleby.com. Bartleby.com, Inc. Web. 21 September 2012.
Washington, Booker T. “The Atlanta Compromise Speech.” 1895. History Matters. George Mason University Center for History and New Media. Web. 21 September 2012.
Wilson, August. “Fences.” Literature: A Portable Anthology. Eds. Janet E. Gardner and et al. 2nd Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1987. 1105-63. Print.