When I first read the play "Fences" by August Wilson, it was 1993 and I had been given a second book contract to write a companion volume to my first book, "I Know What the Red Clay Looks." The companion volume would be with black men writers, and I gave it the title "Swing Low" -- an homage to the Negro spiritual, of course, but also because at that time, I very much thought about black maleness as the missing quantity in my life (I was adopted by a white family at birth, and reunited with my white birthmother when I was 11). When I thought of what that missing quantity might sound like, what I heard was a dark, honeyed hum -- a chariot chorus in the distance, coming to carry me home to the black identity I was still then creating.
"Fences," the title being a central metaphor throughout the play for walls and difficult choices, integrity and conviction, tells the story of a black family in 1950s Pittsburg led by patriarch Troy Maxson, a tragic hero whose life of highs and lows can perhaps best be summed up in this passage, with Troy trying to explain himself to his wife:
Woman ... I do the best I can do. ... I give you the lint from my pockets. I give you my sweat and my blood. ... We go upstairs in that room at night ... and I fall down on you and try to blast a hole into forever. I get up Monday morning ... find my lunch on the table. I go out. Make my way. Find my strength to carry me through to the next Friday.
It's an extraordinary passage, a phenomenal piece of writing, but the reason I was so moved by it back then was because at the time, I was involved with a black man about whom I desperately needed to believe was a kind of modern day Troy Maxson -- his infidelities and shortcomings assuaged by his raw charm and charisma, his unapologetic black manliness in a cruel world of racial disparity. Coincidentally, right around that same time, I met my birthfather, my sole (then) living black relative, who had been described to me by my birthmother only once and like this: "Basically, he was a dog."
Sitting across from me at the Au Bon Pain in Cambridge, Mass., not far from the Salvation Army where he was then living, my birthfather did not really send out a "dog" type vibe. His potbelly tested the zipper of his natty red nylon tracksuit, as his forehead gleamed with sweat and his eyes fell swollen and sad. He was angry that he'd never had the chance to know me --taken away as I had been, just like children during slavery -- but grateful for the sudden revelation that I was the reason God had put him on the Earth. He wanted me to call him "Pops" five minutes after we met, and asked sheepishly after my birthmother, who had made it vehemently clear that she wanted nothing to do with him or our meeting. Again, I drew the comparison to Troy Maxson -- only my birthfather was more like the embittered, disenfranchised Troy.
The next time we met, I brought my boyfriend, who had, in the prior months, managed quite handily to get another woman pregnant (which he denied until said woman showed up at my apartment with a very big belly). It was around Christmas, and my birthfather had brought gifts that he could not possibly have afforded. We sat in a booth at the far corner of a dark Middle Eastern restaurant, with me wedged in between these two men whose mere physical appearance held so much power. A few months later, my boyfriend went to the hospital to be at the birth of his first son. That same week, my birthfather told me he was suing the government, and that Abraham Lincoln was actually a black man. I realized then that these were not the men from my chariot choir, and that drawing comparisons between them and Troy Maxson did not make them, or me, any more black -- or any less in need of being held accountable for their own individual behavior.
When I received the news of my birthfather's death last summer, I was vacationing with the family I have gone on to make, which includes my son, who I take heart in knowing will be part of a new generation of black men that can look today for role models not just in literature, but in the Oval Office -- a generation of black men that has the opportunity to veer from stereotype, and walk on higher ground. And still, despite the hope, as a parent raising a black son in a country very presently immersed in the horrific beauty of racial change and evolution, I am careful to remind him that there are still fences.