What
do you think of when someone mentions the American Dream? Well, the American
Dream is a belief that has been around for a long time and it is the belief
that success will always be achievable for the people that work hard and truly
deserve it. The African American playwright, August Wilson, wrote a play titled
Fences, which just so happens to be a criticism on the American Dream
and the impact it had on the African Americans prior to the Civil Rights
Movement. Wilson shows exactly how unattainable this dream was for them during
this time-period while emphasizing on the institutionalized racism and
discrimination in this country at that time, which could have caused
psychological trauma. Because of this, so many people would give up on that
hope or that dreams, which is also shown in Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem. A
Dream Deferred.” While closely analyzing this idea of
the unattainable American Dream for African Americans shown in Wilson’s play
and having your dreams be deferred in Hughes’ poem, it shows how these both
could be related towards each other by the psychological impact that comes from
living in a country with institutionalized discrimination and racism.

            First, a little backstory on the
American Dream and exactly who wrote about it. Horatio Alger was born in 1832;
he wrote about the stereotypical “rags to riches” stories in the late 19th
century. It was actually because of his writings that led to people in America
believing in the American Dream, “the myth that anyone could work hard and
become rich, a ‘self-made man'”, during a time when the United States became
more industrialized which made it “harder for people to control their own
fates” (chemknitsblog2). In Scott Minerbrook’s article, “Blacks Locked out of
the American Dream”, he explains how “buying a home is not only part of the
American Dream, it is essential to grasping it” and how studies have shown that
“blacks who tried to move away from the disadvantages of city living often
find themselves resegregated” (Minerbrook 24). So if this is the case, then how
are people of color expected to achieve this American Dream? It’s obvious that
the main character, Troy, faces discrimination and racism which shows a bigger
problem at that time in America, but in the overall play it’s important to look
for what Wilson actually thinks is the American Dream. We can see Troy’s dream
was obviously to play professional baseball and even though he doesn’t achieve
that dream, he does somewhat attain a different achievement of being the first
African American garbage truck driver. He achieves economic stability which was
an important part of the 1950’s American Dream and by doing this, he very
clearly overcomes whatever society had expected of him. Also, it shows how
after his promotion, Troy finally finishes building his fence: “Bono: ‘Yeah,
Rose told Lucille you had finally built your fence… So I figured we’d call it
even'” (Fences 78); the fence that Troy finally finishes is an actual
physical representation of the American Dream. Due to his stable job and his
now white picket fence, it shows how he did in fact get some sort of version of
the conventional American Dream; even if it wasn’t exactly what he had in mind
for his dream. Bette Howard, a director and sound designer for the production
of a version of Fences, said, “I feel that you have to always trust yourself;
because dreams do come true- in some form or another. The dream may not be
exactly the way you would like it to come true” (Howard, cited in Andrews 23).
This is exactly what had happened in Fences. It wasn’t at all what he
had wanted or expected, but it is what ended up happening. Wilson does show how
even past all of the discrimination and racism in the play, which was in the
United States in the 1950’s, people of color were still able to achieve some
sort of the American Dream.

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            Even though people of color were
still able to achieve some sort of the American Dream, it wasn’t what they
wanted. Yes, things did get better for African Americans as time went on, but
during this time in the 1950s the version of the American Dreams they got was
more like something they were settling for. Times were very different back then.
Minerbrook says how, “It’s… the persistent feeling of being unwelcomed. It’s
racism with a smile” (Minerbrook 27). Of course, this “racism with a smile” is
kind of a perfect description for this time-period because it was when
segregation was still a thing, but things were supposedly “getting better.”
People were polite, but would be disrespectful at the same time, which in my
opinion could really mess with anyone’s mind. Especially since “segregation
makes oppression easy and efficient” (Minerbrook 28); African Americans had
been oppressed for so long that it could most definitely be a reason for their
American Dreams being either unattainable or settling for a less than version.
Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem”, shoes the psychological impact of having your
dreams be deferred, based on the racism and discrimination that was taking
place during the time that Hughes wrote this poem. Even though this is an old
poem, the words that he wrote will forever be powerful and have significance
even in today’s world. Hughes wrote this poem in 1951, when the Civil Rights
Movement was slowly beginning to come into play. In the last line of the poem,
“Or does it explode?” (Poetry Foundation, line 11), Hughes shows the metaphor
that he was trying to show throughout the whole poem. He is saying how a
postponed dream, a dream deferred can cause violence or emotional reactions or
even psychological issues. The state of the country was much like how it was in
Fences, filled with discrimination and racism. The was a lot of racism
that ended up tainting Troy’s achievements and in turn ends up tearing apart
his family. The discrimination that Troy had faced when he played baseball can
be shown here: “the colored guy got to be twice as good before he get on the
team” (Fences 36). This is the reason why he tries to protect his son
because he doesn’t want him to feel all of that pain, but this ruins their
relationship instead. Troy tries but he feels as if he has been standing on
“first base for eighteen years” (Fences 67) because his own dreams have
been lost, but he doesn’t realize that he is keeping his son from trying to
fulfill dreams of his own. The feelings that Troy has is what makes him ruin
his relationship with Rose too. He tries “to live decent… to live a clean…
hard… useful life” (Fences 66) despite all of his broken relationships
and the struggles he has faced. But as Wilson ends up showing, the belief if
the American Dream has some long-term effects on Troy and his family.

            In Fences, Wilson successfully shows
the idea of the unattainable American Dream for the African Americans of
time-period. This play took place at a time when America’s pastime had finally
become integrated but with this being the 1950s, there was still a lot of
racism and discrimination. Susan Koprince wrote, “In Fences the national
pastime is stained by racism…” (Koprince 352); while Wilson did write about the
racism and discrimination shown in the 1950s, he also brought to light the
discrimination that had still been taking place, even in baseball. Wilson took
a traditionally white sport, at the time, and revealed the worst in it at this
time, so that he could show the ugly experiences that the African Americans of
this time-period went through. The fact of the matter is that Troy and his
family were living in a dominantly white country and “to white supremacists,
all blacks are underclass criminals. To… more… people…, all blacks are victims
of economic oppression” (Nachmann 9). But in reality, its either neither or the
latter. Bono, in Fences, says “Some people build fences to keep people
out, and other people build fences to keep people in” (Fences 6). The
white picket fence in this play could actually represent how the United States,
at the time, kept African Americans shut out and away from the American privileges,
this is obviously including the American Dream. Wilson wanted to show that the African
American dream was very different from the “regular” American Dream that the rest
of America had at this time.

            Due to all of the of the racism and discrimination
that African Americans faced, it led to a lot of stereotypes about people of color
and even if racism exists today, at least it isn’t as bad as it used to be back
then.  Both Fences and “Harlem. A Dream
Deferred” show this racism and discrimination; by doing so, it shows how it all
just added to the psychological trauma that people could have gone through. 

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