Historical Legacy of Slavery in Modern America





Historical Legacy of Slavery in Modern America


August Wilson’s works embody the struggles of black Americans in the home of the brave and land of the free. The author acknowledges the power of art to stimulate social change and eventually received recognition for his consistent contribution to black literature and the theater, winning two Pulitzers for his play as “Fences” and the “Piano Lesson”. Wilson analytical style of writing laid emphasis on the factual accuracy of his accounts while still leaving room for interpretation. The playwright documents the tribulations of the blacks across the decades. The majority of this plays are personalized to mirror personal trials he overcame. For instance, there is a perpetual depiction of male figures in his plays as absent. A more direct analogy is represented by troy’s failure to be admitted into the football league despite his obvious talent. In the same fashion, he was kicked out of elementary school, as his essay was to articulate for a black raising concern of plagiarism. The setting of all his plays in Pittsburg was to the same effect. Wilson uses his plays to depict intergenerational conflict among his characters as they interpret history from different worldview. The older generation appears lost in a world in the cusp of change, aliens in the new land. They are disoriented thus, incapable of ushering the next generation to the new beginning. The unwillingness to elder generation to change exposes the junior characters to repeat the mistake of their fathers. Music is employed as a tool of passing on nostalgic themes to the next generation. In “Fences”, “Jitters” and the “Piano Lesson” Wilson denotes in perpetual bondage of the characters across the decades perpetuating historical legacy of oppression of Blacks by the white elite.


In “Fences” as well as the “Piano Lesson”, the author illustrates the consequences of bondage mentality to the characters and their vicious cycle of history they perpetuate. Set in the pre-civil rights era, “Fences’” main protagonist Troy Maxson frustrates the ambitions of his son Cory to be a successful athlete as his experience ingrained limitations in his mindset (Fences 23). Troy believed that as a black man it was better to have a steady income at a grocery shop rather than hinging one’s fate at the hands of their former masters. It follows that he coerced his son to remain in the AP & P store. Cory appeals to his father of the presence of successful black American sportsmen, but Troy is unconvinced. Akin to his father before him, respect can only be earned through violence; thus, he threatens not to pursue the matter any further. Eventually, Troy repeats the mistakes of the only role model he knew. He adopts both the negative and positive attributes of his father; he is a violent womanizer and a responsible father in the same line.

“Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you.” (Fences 29)

Troy utilizes fence to isolate himself by betraying his wife and usurping the decisions of his at the same time he strives to protect his family. He cheats on his wife Rose with Bethany earning the disrespect of his son. Subsequently, he attempts to hit Rose leading to a physical altercation with Cory. Like his father, the Boy becomes a prisoner of the past when he refuses to attend his Tory’s burials. In the “Piano Lesson”, Boy Willie is equally a prisoner of his past fated to chance over a family heirloom rather than forged path toward the future. Willie believes that the whites despite being freed slaves hold considerable influence over his life especially if they maintain ownership of the piano. Willie is disoriented in light of his newfound freedom thus opts to operate in familiar terrain (Shannon 65). On the other hand, the characters are right as the systems were skewed to limit the socioeconomic mobility of black Americans within certain parameters. As the future at the mercy of the whites remains uncertain, the characters veer toward stability.

Thrust into a competitive society the black Americans represented in Wilson plays are forced into illegal activities to survive. In Wilson’s plays, he tries to change whites’ perception of the black people by appealing to the similarities between the two races. Blacks face challenges similar to the white majority they aspire to excel in providing for their family (Piano Lesson 34). They have a dire need for connection. The distorted family line augments the need to identify cultural roots as preserved using the Blues and the carvings on the piano. Music serves as a reprieve to the otherwise grim reality for blacks. For instance, Lymon in “Fences” and Boy Winnie on the “Piano Lesson” are relatively insulated from the realities the other characters are facing courtesy of artistic endeavors. As such, they treasure any traditional heritage they are left. Wilson illustrates that elites are frustrating the efforts of blacks to meet their daily needs as humans by reenacting slavery scenarios. For instance, the whites leverage Tory’s illiteracy to deceive him to sign away his brother (Wilson and Lyons 19). In the “Piano Lesson” and the “Fences”, a majority of the characters have served a prison sentence, Troy, Gabriel in “Fences”, booster in jitney to Willie and Lymon in the “Piano Lesson”. The blacks are denied opportunities for economic mobility in the midst of the poverty the blacks like Willie Boy resort to thievery not because they are innately malicious but towards satisfying the needs that the formal systems have denied them access. Willie Boy steals the piano to buy the land his father cultivated without corresponding reward. His father Boy Charles similar to troy’s father were sharecroppers, property-less peasants living in slave-like conditions. The play’s characters akin to the average white American desire to leave a legacy to the next generation. Wilson plays emphasizes the layers of obstacles that blacks have to navigate to acquire things that white take for granted.

The history accuracy of Wilson’s plays is only surpassed by the universal application of its themes. The incarceration of the youth in his plays draws a parallel to contemporary American society. Today, the government uses the law to reenact slavery like systems for black young people who are condemning them to a life of crime (Martin and Downing 73). Once the individuals are branded as felons, they are stripped of all the federal rights, from employment to public housing. Like booster in “Jitters”, former felons face impediments in reintegration into society, as everyone is quick to reference their past indiscretions. Though passed in post civil right period, “Jitters” illustrate the difficulties that the average African American faces in earning a living. They utilization of “Jitters”, unlicensed taxis, personifies blacks attempts to circumvent the legal constraints towards earning a living. The themes of adultery represented by Darnell in “Jitters” and Troy in “Fences” depict the dysfunctional families that characterize modern black America. Another character in “Jitters” Rena highlights of the struggles by raised a single mother. The premise of this problem is traced to the legacy of slavery and the current incarceration of the African American youth.

The hill district in Pittsburg is the preferred stage for Wilson’s plays. “Fences”, “Jitters”, and the “Piano Lesson” depict the back struggle in the various decades to settle into the north following their escape from the South and the slavery-like conditions of the failed reconstruction. The plays depict the resilience of the back people, their humanity by portraying the character flaws of protagonists from their immorality to violent strikes. The slavery-like conditions that persist in modern society do not pass the author’s pen. Wilson addresses the problems such as mass incarceration of blacks that persist in contemporary society, the economic impediments that condemn the majority of black to poverty and crime. Wilson implies that crime reduction well materializes when the government and society strive to resolve the litany of historical injustices perpetrated against the black race. The major themes such as the intergenerational conflict emerging to different approaches to the uncertain future are used to develop the play’s characters. Wilson implies that the toddy’s back America do not address their shortcomings they are destined to repeat the past. Similarly, the Pulitzer winner is reiterated that the times have changed and though the dreams of blacks are yet to be actualized in totality there are new opportunities that should be leveraged.


Works Cited

Martin, Basil, and Michael Downing. “A Short Biographic Sketch and Annotated Bibliography on August Wilson.” Making Connections: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Cultural Diversity 15.2 (2014): 65-79.

Shannon, Sandra Garrett. The dramatic vision of August Wilson. Howard University Press, 1995.

Wilson, August, and Bonnie Lyons. “An interview with AUGUST WILSON.” Contemporary literature 40.1 (1999): 1-21.

Wilson, August. Fences. Samuel French, Inc., 1986.

Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. New York: Plume, 1990.


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