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Rose, in the Midst of Changes
In the course of an enduring history of segregation in the United States, there 1950’s was one of the times when African Americans actively fought for equal rights. Many African American men, such as Martin Luther King Jr. who is famous for the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56), played a crucial role. African American women, who were under a dual burden, were also going through changes, although not as visible as men’s. August Wilson, an American playwright, wrote Fences in 1986, which portrays an African American family living in 1950’s. Rose, one of the main characters, is the wife of Troy, who is a black garbage truck driver. Rose has to support her talkative but authoritative husband who always complains of his failed dream as a baseball player and grudgingly blames segregation for his failures. She has to act as a mediator in the conflicts between her husband and her son. She even has to put up with Troy cheating on her and later even asks her to raise the out-of- wedlock child. Rose matches up with other African American women in the 1950’s because she sacrifices herself, she is not sexually protected, and yet she is independent.
Rose is sacrificial, like other black women. Even though movements for African American’s rights were ongoing, many black women’s rights were still vulnerable. Sacrifice was a deep- rooted characteristic in African American women due to racism and sexism. Rose’s tasks are endless. Not only is Rose a housewife doing laundry and preparing meals, she is also a caregiver and problem solver for nearly everyone in the family. Rose acts as a mediator every time when Cory, who is born between Rose and Troy, is in conflict with his dad and when their first son Lyon, who was born from Troy’s previous wife, is in bad terms with his dad. She is also concerned with and takes care of Gabriel, Troy’s brother who is mentally retarded after an accident in the army. Despite all her hard works as a mom and a wife, Troy tells her that he was seeing another woman. Then, Rose angrily says to Troy, “I done tried to be everything a wife should be. Everything a wife could be.” (2.1.235-236) Even when Troy brings the baby born by the woman he is cheating with, and asks Rose to take care of the baby, Rose accepts to raise the baby. Rose is not alone in her sacrifices as a woman. In his paper, “Mammies and Matriarchs: Tracing Images of the Black Female in Popular Culture 1950s to Present.”, Sewell probes the popular culture of 1950’s to look at the imagery of black women. Most women described by the pop culture are seen as “constant source of help” (Sewell). Rather than as individual women, black women of 1950s, like Rose, were regarded as mothers and wives who had to devote their lives to their family.
Rose’s sexuality is not protected, like other black women in the 1950’s. Rose is not raped or sexually abused outside her home in the play, unlike many black women. Nor does Troy sexually abuse Rose. However, Troy’s attitude and speech toward Rose indicates that Troy does not respect Rose’s sexuality. It seems that Rose has no power over her sexual life, and Troy is the one in control. In the presence of his friend Bono, Troy frequently disclosed parts of his sexual life with Rose, which needs privacy without the consent of the other party. Troy puts his arm around Rose and says to Bono, “Don’t you come by my house Monday morning talking about time to go to work… cause I’m still gonna be stroking!” He continued his conduct even though Rose rebuked him saying, “Troy! Stop it now!” (1.1.536-543) This does not happen once. Troy again in front of Bono said, “Is supper ready woman? Me and you got some business to take care of. I’m gonna tear it up too.” Rose responded, “Troy, I done told you now!” (1.4.437-439) One might see this as just playful jokes that mean nothing. Yet, Meyer Leyser in her paper, “Strange Love”: Searching for Sexual Subjectivities in Black Print Popular Culture during the 1950s, analyzes several articles, letters and other print cultures to look at the subjectivity and the distorted image of African American women’s sexuality. In 1951 a paper written by unnamed author, titled “Sexual Habits of Negro Women” claimed that African American women are “extraordinarily sensual. Other printed pieces insinuate that black women were more sexually deviant and not sexually respectful (Meyer). This indicates that sexuality of black women in the 1950’s was often distorted and not protected as Rose’s sexuality was disrespected by Troy. This contorted image of black women’s sexuality does not end as mere images. These can indicate potential sexual abuse or harassment done to black women. One usually thinks of white male as a sexual aggressor toward black women. However, between 1951 and 1960, out of twenty six sex-crimes in Chicago on trial, nineteen cases, which is 73 percent, included African American victims testifying against African American defendants except for one case (Flood). As the study showed, African American men’s not respecting the sexuality of black women has close relationship with sex-crimes. Therefore, Rose and other African American women’s sexuality were not respected and protected in the 1950’s.
Despite her sacrifices and sexual vulnerability, she was as independent as other African American women. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “independent” means not subject to control by others; not requiring or relying on others; showing a desire for freedom. After Troy revealed that he was having an affair, Rose clearly showed her desire for freedom. This could be seen when Rose cried out to Troy during their argument, “I got a life too. I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot with you. Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me.”(2.1.326-330) Even though she has been putting up with her life, her suppressed wants for freedom were finally exploded. Desperate wants for freedom do not only apply to Rose. According to Feldstein Ruth in her writing, ““The World Was On Fire”: Black Women Entertainers And Transnational Activism In The 1950s.”, the female activist-entertainers among whom is Maya Angelou, “drew attention to unequal relationships between blacks and whites and to relationships between men and women.” The black women shouted for freedom as wives and as African Americans via entertainment (Feldstein 1-2). In an economic sense, many African American women were independent as well. In his paper, Craig W. Heinicke focuses on the changes in the labor force of African American married women in the South from 1950 to 1960. His observations tell that while the labor force participation rates of African males dropped from 79.3% to 73.9%, the female labor force rose from 37.1% to 39% between 1950 and 1960 (Heinicke). This “independence” of black women indicates the shifting change of women in the 1950’s which was the time right before the passionate activism of blacks. Rose was a black woman in the midst of those shifting moments, shifting from a sacrificial housewife to an independent woman.
In conclusion, as a remnant of racial and gender inequality, Rose, along with other African American women, was sacrificial in her family and her sexuality was not respected. However, at the same time, they were, or were becoming independent women. Women spoke for their freedom inside and outside their home. Some of them were even financially independent. In the mainstream transition, visibly led by black male activists during the 1950’s, women were also changing. As Rose portrayed the black woman both before and after the changes, she is a typical African American woman in the 1950’s.
Feldstein, Ruth. ““The World Was on Fire”: Black Women Entertainers and Transnational Activism in the 1950s.” OAH Magazine of History 26.4 (2012): 25-29. America: History and Life with Full Text. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. http://ezp.tccd.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=31h&AN=82109157&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Flood, Dawn Rae. “”THEY DIDN’T TREAT ME GOOD”: African American Rape Victims and Chicago Courtroom Strategies during the 1950s.” Journal of Women’s History 17.1 (2005): 38,61,210. ProQuest. Web. 2 Mar. 2016 http://ezp.tccd.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/203247419?accountid=7079
Heinicke, Craig W. “One Step Forward: African-American Married Women in the South, 1950-1960.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 31.1 (2000): 43-62. America: History and Life with Full Text. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. http://ezp.tccd.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db
Meyer, Leisa D. “”Strange Love”: Searching for Sexual Subjectivities in Black Print Popular Culture during the 1950s.” Feminist Studies 38.3 (2012): 625,657,784. ProQuest. Web. 29 Feb. 2016 http://ezp.tccd.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezp.tccd.edu/docview/1283329491?accountid=7079
Sewell, Christopher. “Mammies And Matriarchs: Tracing Images Of The Black Female In Popular Culture 1950S To Present.” Journal Of African American Studies 17.3 (2013): 308-326. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Mar. 2016. http://ezp.tccd.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=89411308&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Wilson, August. Fences. Literature Craft and Voice. 2nd ed. Eds. Nicholas Delbanco and Alan Cheuse. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. 1489-1530. Print.
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