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Universal Longing and Particular Pain: Fences and Classical Christian Education

January 17, 2017
By Jason Smith

{by Jason Smith, Dean of Faculty and Instruction}

I didn’t receive a classical Christian education.

In 2002, when I left my job at Enterprise High School to teach at Providence, I was seeking an opportunity to do something I wasn’t totally prepared for. I remember teaching 9th through 12th grade English. At night, I would sit down at my desk and have four books stacked. One by one, I would read, underline, make notations, and rehearse what I was going to say the next day. By reading the texts, looking up others’ thoughts, and learning from conversations with students, I began to receive an education that changed my life and is still changing my life. (Tenth grade humanities teacher Jamie Smith recently remarked, “It’s like building a bridge while you are crossing it.” Amen!)

Some of the most profound preparation I did included reading classic literature, especially The Iliad and The Odyssey. Homer’s epics had (and continue to have) a powerful impact on me. The characters, the settings, and the stories are so foundational to Western literature, they have seeped into my skin and become a part of the way I see the world.

A recent example occurred over Christmas break.

My daughter and I met former and current students at the cinema to see Fences. August Wilson’s play, the basis for the film, is an American masterpiece. The story captures the particular plight of the African-American experience in 1950s Pittsburgh. Rose, Gabe, Bono, Lyon, and Cory’s lives reflect our country’s painful past with intense and memorable specificity; however, in respect to Wilson’s genius, while he truthfully explores race, this work also transcends situation and setting because of the characters’ timeless humanity. The Maxson’s struggle cannot be understood outside of their experience of their particular world; but once you enter into it, you realize that their aspirations and ideals, their hopes and dreams, are what many Americans universally desire.

An example of this particular and universal appeal is captured in Denzel Washington’sperformance of Troy Maxson. He is ferocious, defiant, tender, glorious, and tragic. He is heroic. And he is hurtful. His larger-than-life stories of athletic exploits and nights spent wrestling the devil hint at his mythological status. Like another wandering hero, Odysseus, he can outfox anyone and navigate the perils of a hostile world—all while traveling towards home (except Troy’s battles, unlike the Greek hero, are with the effects of white supremacy). When reminded that he came along too early to cash in on his athletic prowess because of the color barrier in baseball, Troy says, “There shouldn’t have been no such thing as too early!” And everyone who has ever felt the fateful, harsh, and limiting hand of time and place nods in agreement. In keeping with another classical allusion, part of Troy’s nobility (and tarnish) is the fact that he refuses to accept limits. Given the stacked odds against African-American men in the 1950s, you can’t help but empathize with his unassailable doggedness, even if you know it may be his undoing. He is Icarus flying toward the sun.

Late into the film, when Troy admits his fatal flaw to Rose, your gut wrenches. You want more for him and his family. My eyes welled with tears along with Rose (perfectly portrayed by Viola Davis), learning that part of her payment for 18 years of loyalty is Troy’s infidelity. Fence or no fence surrounding the Maxson home, we learn one of the greatest threats to the family's viability comes from the inside. And this is when it hit me, Troy is like another Troy. Yes, that one—Virgil’s launching point for The Aeneid’s tale. Troy, the man, possesses all the glory of the ancient city. His foundation, a home with Rose, is a glorious assertion of civilization; but his ruin and legacy are similar to the city of Troy’s famed history: that, while battling outsiders, he loses a costly battle on the inside.

Troy’s story is bigger than just one man seeking the American dream. In the tradition of classical myth, depicting the theme of home, Fences places the African-American search for a home, for humanity, and for dignity, among a country that has not been welcoming and squarely in the river of the most memorable and powerful stories ever told. These whispered connections with the great literature of the past suggests that this story, this man's life, and his family should share the same cultural space as our foundational tales. I couldn't agree more. The Maxson's particular pain should be memorialized and given respect. The Maxson's universal longings should be shared. 

So here I am.

Sitting in my living room, contemplating one of the great figures of American theater, and making connections between a play written by an African-American playwright in 1987 and an epic poem composed by a Greek author in 500 B.C. And believe it or not, this process helps a 46 year old white guy from the Southeast United States in 2017 make some sense out of the lives of others and his own. I confess that there are pains deep down in the text of Fences I will not understand because of my privilege. But I am so thankful to August Wilson and Denzel Washington for connecting the story of the Maxson family with the world at large. Fences has so much to teach all of us.

Did August Wilson intend such connections?

I am not sure (but I bet he did). However, I do know one of the blessings of a classical Christian education is to hear the different melodies of the human story, and while leaning in to listen to each one more closely, discover that many of us are singing a similar song that stretches across cultures and time periods. Sure, we are definitely different: but in some ways, we are beautifully and mysteriously the same. Being reminded of our shared humanity invites us to bear witness to the particular struggles of each other. What a gift it is to encounter great art. What a greater gift to encounter it as a classically educated person connecting with the Great Conversation.

As Denzel Washington recently stated in an interview, "For the first time, for me as an African-American, it's my voice. Yet the themes are universal — the father-son relation, the husband-wife relations. The themes are universal."

Event Facility Time Notes
Sunday - August 29, 2021
Monday - August 30, 2021
Tuesday - August 31, 2021
Wednesday - September 1, 2021
Thursday - September 2, 2021
Friday - September 3, 2021
Saturday - September 4, 2021