I was invited to New York City Friday evening for an advance screening of the screen adaptation of Fences — August Wilson's iconic play. Afterwards, the cast — including Denzel Washington (who also produced and directed the film) and Viola Davis — took part in a panel discussion about the story the film told, August Wilson's genius, Pittsburgh (where each of Wilson's plays took place), and the importance of bringing these characters and their specific truths to light.
Fences, of course, is set in the 1950s and revolves around Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old man whose entire existence is a struggle and whose every moment is a fight. There are frequent moments of levity in Troy's life, but even those are clouded by, engulfed with, and sometimes a direct response to racial and societal adversity. He is the pipe and America is the pressure. Left to pick up his pieces are his wife (Rose), his two sons, his brother, and his best friend while each of them are also fighting against and existing within the same forces he is.
Fences is about one family in the Hill District. Well, one man in particular and how his actions affect the people closest to him. But Wilson's work continues to resonate because his plays are snapshots into the lives of our parents and grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Troy Maxson isn't every man, but the world that shaped him — hardening and tempering him — is the same world our ancestors existed in. And our existence today is proof of their perseverance. That their struggles weren't for naught.
This took a level of strength and endurance and pugnacity that few of us today have had to possess. When Kendrick Lamar starts "Alright" with "All my life I've had to fight" there's a bit of accepted creative hyperbole there. With Troy (and Rose) Maxson, however, that proclamation is literal. And its with this context that those "I'm Not My Grandparents" shirts (and the sentiment behind them) are so fucking disrespectful. And not only disrespectful, but wrong as fuck too.
Now, I do get why they exist. America just elected a man who seems intent on doing exactly what he said he was going to do during his campaign. To quote Charles Blow, "it would be hard to send a clearer message to women and minorities that this administration will be hostile to their interests than the cabinet he is assembling." And this has apparently given quite a few closet racists and basement bigots the confidence to be themselves. The message the shirt is attempting to convey is "you better not try that shit with me."
But this message can be communicated without disparaging the legacies of those who fought like a motherfucker — with words and protests and faith and actual fists — in an America that was much, much, much more hostile towards them than the one we currently exist in. To paraphrase Dr. Regina N. Bradley, a better and more appropriate shirt would say "These are my grandparents' hands. Catch 'em if you want to."