It is the late 1950s, and Troy Maxon has his own ideas for uplifting black folk. To some, he might seem coarse and rude, and to others, he might seem noble and poetic. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for those who experience Troy, the way he uses language has much to do with beauty. The illiterate son of a sharecropper, Troy learned to play baseball in prison, but was too old to be a real star. In his early 50s, he supports his wife and son with his salary as a sanitation worker. Troy is the central character in August Wilson’s Fences, the play that earned Wilson a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award.
In 2013, I spent seven months studying the role of Troy with an acting coach. My initial motivation was to use my acting studies as a bridge back into playwriting. I am writing plays again, but something else happened. Speaking Troy’s language became a way of speaking my own, the language of working-class Baltimore. Criticizing his wife Rose’s fondness for playing numbers, Troy’s voice is one I know well: “That’s two nickels you done thrown away.”
When my Aunt Hilda thought something was amiss, she would say, “There’s a dead cat on the line somewhere,” and she was talking about more than the failed efforts of fishermen.
Just as I recount the words of my aunt by framing her speech with an observation written in more formal English in that passage, we writers who have been educated beyond our beginnings may struggle for ways to observe what we know is inside of us, to find that tonal center. I found it in studying a character who is much like the people I have known, which means my own self. It means memorizing his speeches and saying them out loud. The words come out of the body and then reenter the body. Through that process, we can find a way home.
A woman from a poor Portuguese family once explained how getting an education made her feel distanced from her family. The answer to feeling more comfortable with ourselves and to being more productive as writers is to listen. If we are fortunate enough to visit the people who still live in those places we know, that is perhaps a ready-made remedy, but if not, we have the words already captured in the works of the writers who have gone before us. Take excerpts from fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry or plays and recite them. Treat them as if they are prayers and as if the answer to those prayers is a trip home on a train called language to where you can claim the deed on an important piece of the mind’s real estate.
When you sign the deed and claim that place in the language of your origins, respect it, and it will respect you.
Afaa Michael Weaver is the recipient of three Pushcart Prizes for poetry. His most recent book, The Government of Nature, won the 2014 Kingsley Tufts Award.