'Fences' and Barack Obama

On March 18, Barack Obama gave a speech on race in America. For all of its eloquence and insight, it was born out of the exigencies of the moment, set in motion by the ubiquitous film clips of his pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright, delivering sermons seemingly saturated in anger, directed at America's domestic and foreign policies.

Though reactions to Obama's speech, "A More Perfect Union," varied, the consensus was that he had delivered a thoughtful explanation of why he denounced Rev. Wright's comments but would not condem the man. His comments also included a landmark analysis of why, because of race, the American dream, for many, continues to be deferred. In other words, we remain an imperfect union, challenged still by our declarations of equality and inclusiveness.

Implicit in the speech was the hope that a national dialogue about race might begin. But then that has been a promise that continues to be unfulfilled.

Recall not too long ago Don Imus, referring to a women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos" on his radio show, soon followed by a ground swell of outrage. Briefly the media were awash in discussions of racism and stereotyping and the damage such insidious and one dimensional attitudes inflict on others. And then the Imus brouhaha faded as did the public concerns about race in America.

And despite Obama's speech, despite that the first black man is approaching his party's nomination for our nation's highest office, we still seem incapable of engaging in a genuine, attitude changing dialogue about race and the insidious and divisive nature of racism. A rigorous discussion about abiding prejudices formed in the crucible of slavery and carried forward by Jim Crow laws &

which only served to perpetuate segregation long after the war between the states was concluded and slavery abolished &

seems ever elusive and beyond our grasp.

And the remnants of slavery and segregation still define us. As a result America has evolved into a nation of two peoples, separate, and, in so many ways, unequal. Blacks and whites live in worlds apart. And truth be old, black culture can, to whites, seem remote and impenetrable, distinguished not simply by skin color, but by language and point of view. The black church in America, which has been much discussed of late, is but one example.

Of course, the words of Obama, and the antecedent speeches of Martin Luther King, have attempted to bridge the racial divide reminding us that out of many, we are one.

But perhaps a dialogue has been ongoing, if not on the political stage then certainly in the arts. For what is literature, painting, drama, film, music and sculpture if not a call for the audience to engage, to reframe perspectives. The works of black writers and playwrights &

Romare Beardon, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Maya Angelou and August Wilson &

have offered windows into the black experience, expanding and elucidating the human condition.

And no one has done that better than the noted playwright August Wilson whose play "Fences" is currently in production at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Wilson wrote, "Here in America whites have a particular view of blacks. I think my plays offer them a different way to look at black Americans."


"Fences," set in the 50s, captures the joys, struggles and profound regrets of an urban black family whose lives are still framed by Jim Crow. The central character, Troy Maxson, husband and father, is haunted by unfulfilled dreams and scarred by what he perceives as the white man's abiding racial prejudice and overt discrimination. His anger and disappointment ripple outward, affecting all who are close to him.

Yet, as the play unfolds it transcends race and begins to construct a tapestry that is universal. We understand truncated dreams. We recognize that our lives may not resemble all that we had hoped for. To live is to compromise. And to look back is to acknowledge hopes unfulfilled and roads not taken. Who among us hasn't stared into the late night darkness and grieved for what might have been?

In "Fences" what might have been is a central truth. And it is a truth for blacks that is compounded by the burden of history and racism. Troy was a gifted baseball player. But he realized that his talent came too early, before baseball was integrated, when players of color played in the marginalized Negro League. He is now a city garbage collector who longs for what he could not achieve because of race. It is a bitter reality, a reality that has twisted his soul and distorted the prism through which he views his life.

August Wilson said, "I do not write particularly to effect social change. I believe writing can do that, but that's not why I write." But it is all but impossible to see one of his plays and not be nudged to contemplate social change and race in America, and wonder about the meaning and texture and composition of the black experience.

Wilson did go on to say, " looking at Troy's life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man's life is affected by the same things &

love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives."

There it is. Wilson could have been describing the subtext of Obama's March 18 speech or describing the import of his campaign or the transcendent wish of King. In the end, we are talking about choosing a leader who is black but who we pray should also be judged by the content of his character and not, as King once said, by the color of his skin.

That represents the discourse about race that America needs to have and yet forestalls.

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