August Wilson’s "Fences" and the American City

With the announcement that Denzel Washington would  be starring in one and producing all ten of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle, I thought it would be fitting to do a brief post on Wilson’s Fences. Plenty of scholars have focused on the failure of the American Dream and the integration of sports in the play; however, I do not want to focus on what Troy Maxson and other characters say in regards to this topic. Instead, I want to look briefly at the play’s paratext, the section before Act One, simply titled “The Play.” This note provides context for the play’s action, describing the Great Migration(s) that occurred during the early and middle parts of the twentieth century in America, and the section caught my attention the last time I read the play because it provides a microcosm of assimilation and the migration of African Americans and other immigrants into Pittsburgh during the mid-twentieth century.

“The Play” only consists of three paragraphs, but those paragraphs provide a glimpse into a transitional decade that began to see strides towards integration but fell short of the advances made by the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The opening paragraph describes European immigrants who entered Pittsburgh and “sprang on the city with tenacious claws” (xvii). Wilson describes the swarm of European immigrants in animalistic terms, as entities that get “devoured” by the city for its own sustenance and cause its belly to burst open. For these immigrants, the city, even though it ingested them, welcomed them with open arms, providing them with the opportunity to achieve the American Dream that each of them sought. Each person’s limitations only came from their own level of talent.
On the other hand, Wilson describes the African American migrants to Pittsburgh in a completely different light. Instead of welcoming them and basing their progress on their own talent, the city stifled them, causing them to defer their dreams in order to merely survive. “The descendants of African slaves” moved to the city from the Southern states, each carrying with them a desire to make something of themselves (xvii). Being rejected by the city, “they fled and settled along the riverbanks and under bridges in shallow, ramshackle houses made of sticks and tar-paper” (xvii). The North did not provide the escape that many desired; instead, it only presented the migrants with a newer version of segregation and subjugation. As a result, they started to steal and suffocate under the pressure. The dream to stand free did not arrive initially, and Wilson highlights this fact eloquently.
In the final paragraph, Wilson shows how European immigrants, after World War II, “solidified the industrial might of America” and how the war itself relied on “loyalty and patriotism as its fuel” (xvii-xviii). Here, Wilson only mentions the immigrants, not the migrants. They become pushed to the side, invisible. Their accomplishments during the war and in the building of the industrial cities gets supplanted by the white, European immigrants. What does this say? To me, Wilson shows even though African Americans had the same dreams as others, they did not receive the same opportunities. Their absence here speaks volumes to how society viewed, and to a certain extent still views, the work of African Americans in this nation.
This section reminds of works such as George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes and works that focus on the progress of immigrants in American society. Cable’s novel takes place immediately after the Louisiana Purchase in New Orleans. The Creole community has an easier chance of assimilating into the American culture compared to the Free People of Color. Their phenotype allows them this opportunity. One needs to only think of Irish, German, and other immigrants as well. Frowenfield is German in the novel, and the Creole society accepts him partly because of his whiteness. When teaching literature, I try to highlight that immigrants who appear white, not matter their nationality, have an easier chance to assimilate because of their whiteness. Wilson highlights this fact in three paragraphs before the action of Fences begins. While “The Play” may appear in a playbill or program, no one speaks it in the play.
Make sure you check out my other posts on the Great Migration: “Migration and African American Literature Syllabus” and “Henry J. Lewis’s ‘The Great Southern Exodus.'” What do you think about all of this? What texts would you use with students to highlight and elaborate on what Wilson argues here? What other plays by Wilson do you use when discussing migration? Let me know in the comments below.

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

 

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