The Piano Lesson
Slave Narrative in The Piano Lesson by Wilson
Devon Boan suggests that Wilson’s plays were more thematic than theatrical, as they were centered on the reconstruction of the blacks by challenging the history represented by the dominant culture, the white supremacists. The Piano Lesson by Wilson essays the communal and familial historical slave legacy, and calls for a response of a question that how should one utilize the past?
The parallel antebellum slave narratives runs between a brother and a sister, Boy Willie and Berniece, who have differing views pertaining history. Boy Willie has pragmatic views as he is stuck in a cyclone of a literal and a metaphorical slave narrative from which he desperately needs a flight to freedom. He is in a pursuit of self-realization, and his success is dependent upon the abolishment of the family’s slave narrative. There is an ongoing struggle of myth and reality between the sibling’s views. Their views are a form of a call and response structure, as their narratives are linear, yet evolutionary. It is pertinent for the “survivor” Boy Willie to improvise the economic and social conditions of the family, but for that the family myth must be dismantled. There is another dichotomy present between the past and the present. The identity crisis is intertwined with the past, yet it is equally important to dismantle the past to escape from the restless wandering in the present.
There are three phases of a slave narrative, the eclectic which requires an affidavit, the integrated which requires validation through oral traditions, and the generic phase. Berience is going through the integrated phase where she integrates her identity with the past, whereas Boy Willie is experiencing the generic phase, as for him the narrative stands on its own. It is evident that for Berniece, past matters more than the present, yet we see it as an example of selective reverence, as during the final showdown, she desperately wants Boy Willie to kill Sutter’s ghost, which could be symbolized as the white supremacy. On the contrary, Boy Willie pragmatic self realizes that he doesn’t want to be a runaway slave. Therefore, he chooses not to get stuck in the call and response cycle, but sing and create his own song of identity, choice and freedom.
Slavery in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and in The Piano Lesson
Was the lasting effect of slavery in America over by the 1930s? In The Piano Lesson, August Wilson illustrates that blacks in America, specifically in the 1930s, are still haunted by the poverty that slavery left them in. There are many similarities and differences between slavery in the 1840’s in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and slavery in the 1930’s in The Piano Lesson.
The Symbol of Strong Bonds
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain uses the raft that Jim and Huck are sailing on across the Mississippi River as a symbol that the relationship between them is unbreakable as they are escaping to freedom. As Twain writes, “Jim and me was pretty glad to see it. It took away all the uncomfortableness and we felt mighty good over it, because it would a been a miserable business to have any unfriendliness on the raft; for what you want, above all things, on a raft, is for everybody to be satisfied, and feel right and kind towards the others (Chapter 9, page 5).” Huck and Jim were able to work their little fight out on the boat which gives Huck some relief. Huck and Jim friendship is so strong that they can work things out even out on a crowded raft. Similarly, in The Piano Lesson, August Wilson uses the piano as a symbol of the Charles’ family bond that the family holds within themselves and is worth everything to them. In both, Twain and Wilson use the raft and the piano respectively, to represent themes of the story. The raft with Jim and Huck on it represents the strong bonds of friendship, and the piano represents strong family relationships.
Additionally, in both The Piano Lesson and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn we see the theme of religion (specifically Christianity) playing a key role. Huck is always being told to go to Sunday School and Church. Even though Huck does not like civilization, the book still emphasizes Christianity and the religious life as the proper way of living. In The Piano Lesson Christianity is felt in the play, mostly through Avery, a black minister who is trying to grow his congregation.
The Rights of Black People
Prior to the Civil War, the time period that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn takes place, it was unthinkable for a black person to buy land. Throughout the novel, Jim, who has no rights, is consistently on the run and is always scrapping for money. On the contrary, it is evident from The Piano Lesson that although blacks were still suffering from slavery, it was still very different than when they were actually enslaved. August Wilson is trying to show this through Bernice, a single, black woman who owns the house that the movie takes place in. A single, black woman owning a house was unthinkable in the 1840s.
Additionally, another difference between the piano lesson and Huckleberry Finn is how the main characters in each values their family relationships. We see In Huckleberry Finn that Huck really doesn’t get along with his father and his father even kidnaps him once he finds out about the large sum of money. As it says “Pap he hadn’t been seen for more than a year, and that was comfortable for me; I didn’t want to see him no more. He used to always whale me when he was sober and could get his hands on me; though I used to take to the woods most of the time when he was around”. This is showing that Huck wanted absolutely nothing to do with his drunken, lost father. However, in The Piano Lesson the whole opposite thing occurs. Bernice refuses to sell the piano because of the family bonds that the piano represents. We see that Bernice and Huck have a totally different representation of what family means to a individual.
Many people believed that slavery was a thing of the past in the 1930s. However, The Piano Lesson shows us that slavery was still very much present. Although slavery is illegal in the United States, racism is unfortunately still very much a part of the American experience.
Social Injustice of Gender Bias and Discrimination in The Handmaid’s Tale and in The Piano Lesson
Gender is an inevitable thing that people cannot change about themselves making it impossible to escape the cruel injustices that we face on a daily basis. Gender bias and discrimination exists all over the world, not only in the United States. In the novel, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, she writes about a dystopian society called the Gilead in which women are deprived of their rights and live under male domination simply because they are women, and therefore are only meant for a position with no opportunity or power. The play, The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, focuses on the lives of the Charles family who are African American and their heirloom with a family history under slavery. The main theme in this play is the conflict about the piano between the brother and sister. Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to be able to buy a land where his ancestors were slaves, but Bernice insists on keeping the piano in memory of their great grandmother and son whose faces are carved on the piano. Gender bias and discrimination refer to the socially constructed preference for one gender over the other. As a social problem, gender bias can appear in various contexts such as: the educational system, the work environment and economy, within families, and in religions. Research shows that gender bias and discrimination disproportionately affect women, mainly because of the patriarchal system embedded within the social structure of a given society. The cultural and social obstacles have impacted and shaped the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale and the play The Piano Lesson through the social injustices of gender bias and discrimination.
Gender bias has consequences on certain social roles in society, depending upon who fills the role. For example, female dominant roles in nursing, childcare, or stay at home parenting are considered less masculine and are therefore viewed as less valuable in society. In the novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, the society views women as less than men and society treated them as powerless. In the society of Gilead, men were equated with roles of power and women with domestic servitude. The consequence of gender bias is depicted within Gilead as men are named according to military rankings and women are used solely as tools of reproduction. According to the novel, “Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing” (Atwood 135). In the society of Gilead, men hold all the power and not women because they think women are useless and that they do not have the ability to hold any power. Likewise, “Where the missing Girl” of Explorations in Economic History explained the same issue. The consequences of gender bias impacted European societies in that parents seemed to have treated their sons and daughters differently throughout childhood. Research found that during the 19th century, the livings standards of girls, relative to boys, seemed to have deteriorated when they grew up, especially in economic conditions.
Domestic chores also probably led to greater deprivation for older girls. Additionally, research shows that in Spain in 19th century, women faced severe discrimination in many amounts by being legally subordinated to their fathers and husbands; women were expected to remain within the domestic province. Gender bias also involves other kinds of mistreatment towards girls. According to research, “A glimpse of the existing son preference can be discerned from a popular proverb: ‘Wish I had a boy, even if he becomes a thief” (Beltran, Francisco, and Domingo 3). In a male oriented society, males receive more preferential attention than females. Additionally, it appears that boys being breastfed longer than girls might have resulted in a greater likelihood of girls falling ill. The influence of family intervention favoring male infants is important. Furthermore, gender bias can affect females in their daily lives. The resource “Women’s Inheritance, Household Allocation, and Gender Bias” shows how families avoid giving away their rightful land. This is because they believe that they saved this land for dowry payments when their daughter gets married or as an investment in education. However, the main issue is when parents realize that their children’s education quality is low or poor, they take their sons out of school to train them in farming or nonfarming related skills, thereby increasing their future earnings potential. On the other hand, parents keep their daughters at home to do house chores or train them for house parenting because parents believe that daughters should do house chores and sons should do outside work. Additionally, in India, the ancestral property passed down through generations, could only be inherited by sons (Bose and Das). Furthermore, research has found that Indian parents require money as a dowry for their they are close to a marriageable age. Thus, gender bias is a global societal problem, which impacts females. Another research, “Gender bias and the female brain drain”, shows that gender differences are the cause and consequences of female brain drain. They found that bias is a significant portion of the gap between male and female emigration rate. Researchers observed the outcomes of gender bias such as females getting less opportunities in the economic field than men even if women are highly skilled or have a higher education than men because of their gender. Additionally, they show how host countries have access to the legal work status of female immigrants than male immigrants because family visas have allowed more women to migrate by also forbidding them from working, leaving them to seek informal work in less-skilled occupations. Whereas, eliminating family visas would allow them to find a better job based on their ability, as well as increase incentives for families to invest in educating their daughters (Bang and Mitra). Indeed, in all societies, women have been impacted by social injustice through confronted gender bias, which makes them different.
Gender discrimination is still existing all around us. Gender discrimination is generally discussed as pertaining to women. There is an unfair imbalance between males and females; males have much more superiority than females as males are prone to be higher than females. There’s an inequality between genders because males have better opportunities within everyday life. It affects society negatively because it causes an imbalance for females, making them seem like they do not have the ability to do what males can do. However, the gender prejudice displayed in the play, The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, shows how a single mother, a character named Bernice, faced gender prejudice because society told her that she cannot be independent unless she has a man by her side. She is a thirty-five-year-old woman who was still in mourning for husband, Crawley. At this point, she refused to re-marry because she constantly thinks about her husband. She is running for her family and take cares and supports her daughter, but society says she is not because a woman cannot be independent by herself.
According to Bernice, “You trying to tell me a woman can’t nothing without a man. But you alright, huh? You can just walk out of here without me- without a woman- and still be a man. That’s alright. Aren’t nobody going to ask you, “Avery, who you got to love you?” That’s alright for you” (Wilson CH. 25). At this point, the female character faced gender discrimination in that society makes her dependent on men. Gender discrimination can affect a person physically and mentally. Research shows that “perceived gender discrimination is related to women’s poor mental health outcomes” (Kim and Hansol 1). Additionally, gender discrimination is one of the social stressors of being a woman that negatively impacts mental health such as higher lifetime prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders. Researchers tested a moderated mediational model involving married Korean working women’s perceived gender discrimination, self-esteem, believed just world, and depression. The study showed two hypotheses. First, married working women who perceive higher levels of identified discrimination reported lower self-esteem and this was significant only when the level of believed just world-self was high. Second, self-esteem meditated the relationship between perceived gender discrimination and depression at high levels of believed just world. The Women’s Studies International Forum states that, “In particular, the finding regarding the indirect effects of self-esteem provides support to racism-related stress model in that stress related to perceived discrimination has negative effects on mental health outcomes through low self-esteem” (Kim and Hansol 145). Research has found that the harmful effects of felt discrimination on psychological well-being and low self-esteem is a negative consequence of identified discrimination. However, in the face of discrimination, it would be tough to maintain high self-esteem. This is because of sociometer, which emphasizes the social nature of self-esteem or an internal gage of others’ evaluation of the individual. For example, gender discrimination could damage females’ self-esteem when conceptualized as social devaluation and disapproval messages against females. Society thinks males are capable to do things in everyday life than females, which negatively affects the lives of females. Atwood spoke in her novel that in the society of Gilead, women are forbidden and are self-restricted as women cannot hold a job, bank account, own property or their own identities, read, or write. The society cracked down on women’s rights because they think women cannot do outside work and they believed that women are only able to do house chores and produce children.
However, they treated them unequally to make them useless by breaking their rights. In the society, all people should be treated equally, but the Gilead is treated by differently. The narrator states that, “It’s strange now, to think about having job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man” (Atwood 173). She also states that, when her bank account froze, “But I’ve got two thousand dollars in the bank, I said, as if my own account was the only one that mattered. Women can’t hold property anymore, she said. It’s a new law” (Atwood 178). In this situation, the narrator remembers losing her job and how her debit card suddenly stopped working. All of a sudden, women were second class citizens. However, when the Gilead took control of society, all women were eliminated from opportunity. At that time, it does not matter if these women are highly educated or not in this society. This same issue came up in the research, “Gender bias and the availability of business loans”. “Gender bias and the availability of business loans” by Michael Fay and Williams Lesley, their experiment shows how women are confronted with gender bias when two experiments were carried out with significant differences in response to female and male applicants who were observed in both experiments. In experiment one, both sexes were equally likely to obtain a loan, but education was considered a more important factor for the female applicant than for the male. In experiment two, the female applicant was less likely to obtain a loan than the male applicant. The author of this journal said, “The results support the widely held perception that women can experience gender discrimination when seeking start-up capital” (Fay and Lesley). The social construction of differential gender roles in western culture makes it more likely that discrimination is unconscious. Thus, in both positions, women were confronted in gender discrimination that impacted them in their career. In the novel, the society cracked down their rights by eliminating them from job positions and freezing their own bank accounts likewise, in the experiments, women were not able to obtain a loan even if they were more educated than men. In both societies, women are viewed as less than men, which creates differences between males and females. Furthermore, in the novel, the author shows that women are not only less than men, but society also categorized all women based on their societal standard.
The novel and the play show that women are confronted with gender bias and discrimination, which can impact the women of both societies. Society sees women by their gender and defines who they are and how they are treated in both societies even they do not have any choices or any rights. Social injustice and obstacles have impacted gender bias and prejudice where women are object to lower class in all around the world, which is associated with low self-esteem and negatively impacts a woman’s career. These social obstacles are a global crisis and people cannot control their gender as that is something unchangeable.
- Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. N.p.: Anchor, a Division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2017. Print
- Bang, James T, and Aniruddha Mitra. “Gender Bias and the Female Brain Drain.” Applied Economics Letters, vol. 18, no. 9, 2011, pp. 829–833.
- Beltran Tapia, Francisco J, and Domingo Gallego-Martínez. “Where Are the Missing Girls? Gender Discrimination in 19th-Century Spain.” Explorations in Economic History, vol. 66, 2017, pp. 117–126.
- Bose, Nayana, and Das, Shreya see. “Women’s Inheritance Rights, Household Allocation, and Gender Bias.” The American Economic Review, vol. 107, no. 5, 2017, pp. 150–153.
- Fay, Michael, and Lesley Williams. ‘Gender bias and the availability of business loans.’ Journal of Business Venturing8.4 (1993): 363-376.
- Khera, Rohan, et al. ‘Gender bias in childcare and child health: global patterns.’ Archives of disease in childhood 99.4 (2014): 369-374.
- Kim, Eunha, and Hansol Park. “Perceived Gender Discrimination, Belief in a Just World, Self-
- Esteem, and Depression in Korean Working Women: A Moderated Mediation Model.” Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 69, 2018, pp. 143–150.
- Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. Plume, 1990.
Family Heirloom Concept in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson
Hauntings of the Past, Needs of the Present
Throughout The Piano Lesson by August Wilson siblings Bernice and Boy Willie argue over who should get ahold of a precious family heirloom. The piano. However, despite both of them inheriting it from their father obviously only one of the two can have it. It seems that Boy Willie taking the piano to sell it as it would result in more dynamic result for the family overall. As opposed to Bernice whom intentions would result in a very static outcome, of basically nothing happening besides her teaching Maretha to play the piano.
Bernice’s primary reasoning for keeping the piano is because she finds it to have a high sentimental value, even telling Boy Willie that, “Money can’t buy what that piano cost. You can’t sell you soul for money.”(Wilson 878). She also uses the piano as a way of clinging to the past, similarly to how she refuses to marry Avery repeatedly citing that she’s busy and has too many other things to be worrying about (Wilson 889). It is obvious that Bernice dwells on the past not only regarding the piano when after being denied marriage again Avery says “What is you ready for Bernice? You gotta drift along from day to day. Life is more than making if from one day to another. You gonna look up one day and it’s all gonna be past you. Life’s gonna be gone out of your hands– there won’t be enough to make nothing with. I’m standing here now Bernice–but I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna be standing here waiting on you.” (Wilson 889). While Bernice’s reasoning behind her desire to keep the piano are sound on a sentimental level, keeping the piano around has no legitimate practical use. The piano’s lack of use while heavily implied is backed up when Boy Willie says that Docker told him Bernice “ain’t touched that piano the whole time it’s been up here.” (Wilson 878).
Boy Willie’s intention for the piano are to sell it in order to obtain the remaining portion of money that he needs to purchase some land down south. This is very similar to Walter from A Raisin in the Sun’s plan to buy a liquor store using his late father’s life insurance check. While these situations are similar and both men seem to be acting on a whim, one thing is obvious. That being that Boy Willie’s play is far more thought out and involves far more variables. For example, Boy Willie has other plans to get money if Bernice ends up not letting him have the piano. Also, he had already had discussed terms for buying the land with the current owner unlike Walter who was just kind of just figuring it out as he went. Lastly, he doesn’t have business ‘partners’ like Walter did, so he could be assured if he got the money he would pay for the land himself with no possibility of having his money taken. This shows that while like many other African American men at the time, Boy Willie was trying to make a respectable name for himself and help his family, he also put more forethought into it that others doing the same.
While it may seem as though Boy Willie is being selfish and not considering Bernice’s reasons for wanting to keep the piano, due to his seemingly blunt nature. This perception if set aside however, when he tells Bernice that if she’d been giving lessons or simply playing it herself he wouldn’t be demanding she sell it. He then goes on to compare her keeping the piano to him letting the watermelons in the back of the truck sit there and rot as opposed to selling them (Wilson 878). This shows that while he does care about his sister, he also cares about the family as a whole and how their lives could change if he gets this land.
Despite Bernice having deep emotional ties to the piano, it is apparent that Boy Willie should be able to selling it. This is because Boy Willie’s plan to buy land with the money would help the family financially as well as reputation-wise. Especially in the time period they are in where African Americans were not yet considered as equals to their white counterparts. Also not only would it benefit the adults in this situation, but Maretha. Maretha, Bernice’s daughter, would benefit the most from the family becoming wealthier and having more resources available to them. This is the case because since she is still young, 11 years old, she won’t have been as affected by the poverty and racism the enveloped their lives. This is important because most of the history of the piano revolves around racism and poverty. And also most of the arguing between Boy Willie and Bernice comes from the history behind the piano, but also from Bernice’s skepticism of the man selling Boy Willie the land and Boy Willie’s thoughts on the piano’s history within their family.
Therefore, it is clear that Boy Willie should be able to do as he wishes with the piano. While Bernice also has sound reasoning to keep the piano, they are solely based on slightly selfish sentiments. Whereas Boy Willie while incorporating some sentiment to reason with his sister is being logical, due to the fact that his intentions for the piano would eventually be prosperous to the entire family for generations to come.
Music Theme in James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues and August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson
The Hope And Perseverance that Music Strengthens Within a Family
Music plays a significant role in many people’s lives, specifically ones that lack aspects like the capability of true freedom, expression of identity, comfort to be one’s true self and exert self love, and unity within each family. Families like these are oppressed by society and tend to be unfortunately, dominate among African American families. It is agreed that throughout our history of the United States of America, African Americans were not allowed the same rights and were scrutinized for their skin complexion in many ways. Due to the hardships of being discriminated against, many families and individuals turned to music, which, in return, strengthened their perseverance and hope. Their determination regardless of the obstacles, and their desire for opportunities and certain outcomes is shown through the music they play and the significance of these songs. Great examples of this shown through a play and short work which are placed in the time period of the 1930s to 1950s. These examples include the play, “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson and the short story, “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. Both works show an underlying theme of music and its relation to people and how it affects them.
Beginning with the short story, “Sonny’s Blues”, an important aspect of Sonny’s life was music. Growing up, he was a misunderstood kid and was very different from his logical, rule abiding brother. Due to this, he went astray and started to run along the path of music and drug use that his brother, and parents did not really accept due to their family’s past experiences. However, music was the only way Sonny was able to express himself, build a sense of comfort and relief within himself, and be kind of accepted as the person he is regardless of the actuality of their true character. Although his brother, our narrator, describes these people as drug addicts and don’t find himself feeling positive about the audience’s intentions, he sees that these people are most than their bad decisions, especially to Sonny. This group of people accepts Sonny and listens to him express his true feelings as he is on stage playing not only jazz but, blues. Throughout years of misunderstanding and avoidance, Sonny’s brother didn’t start to understand the person his brother was until he watched him perform and interact with his musician friends. The narrator describes this situation stating,
“Here, I was in Sonny’s world. Or rather: his kingdom… Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until he did. Yet there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth,” (Baldwin 44-47).
This passage shows although Sonny realistically may have less opportunities and stability in the life he chose, however, the music he plays enables a sense of freedom and expression that he cannot usually partake in. For once, Sonny’s brother listened to his story before judging it. Sonny’s expression of himself through music, disregarding the negative backlash of being a “drug induced” musician and outside pressures of racial prejudice, shows his perseverance and how he decided to handle his conflicts differently than his brother.
Siblings, Berniece and Boy Willie, from the play, “The Piano Lesson,” also have their own beliefs on music. Although they may dispute about the significance of the historically valuable piano that has their family’s history carved into it, the significance of music within their family is without a doubt important. Music plays a crucial part in this family’s life although, most of them time they are not conscious to it. It connects them, it allows them to express themselves and their emotions, and it is used as a release and to relieve tension. There are many examples of this throughout the play. For example, after the men of the play start to lightly dispute about Sutter’s land, Boy Willie started to sing,
“O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal oh-ah/O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal well [LYMON and WINING BOY join in.] Go ’head marry don’t you wait on me oh-ah …BOY WILLIE: Come on, Doaker. Doaker know this one. [As DOAKER joins in the men stamp and clap to keep time. They sing in harmony with great fervor and style.]” (Wilson 20).
This excerpt shows one example in which music helps connect the family. As they are starting to disagree, they change the mood by Boy Willie singing and everyone else chimes in. This shows the unity and connectedness of this family which is one aspect that builds a feeling of hope and perseverance among the individuals. This also shows how they relieve conflict and tension. As things get tense, individuals may find comfort in “singing the stress away.”
Music helps people cope with issues or situations one otherwise wouldn’t have the ability to do. As times were tough, specifically for African Americans, they turned to music to express their voice that wasn’t being heard. However, music has the capability of doing so much more. Not only does it allow freedom of expression but it helps build unity and even relieve conflict. The music introduced to the readers of those two works, both had a truly bigger importance than explicitly stated.
Boy Willie and His Relationship with the Piano in The Piano Lesson, a Play by August Wilson
Songs of Pride, Chords of Power
“The Piano Lesson”, written by August Wilson, utilizes the relationship between past, present and future to convey a deeper message of power through ancestry. The key symbol in this story is an old classical piano engraved with carvings of the Charles family. Boy Willie a current day member of the family wants to sell the piano in order to purchase Sutter’s land. The slave master who had owned their family and has passed away. Boy Willie’s relationship with the piano demonstrates the past, using the piano as a method of rebellion and strength. The present, remembering who you are, where you came from, and the idea of self-worth. And the future, with hopes of building off of what his ancestors left him.
The two most prominent opposing characters in the play are Boy Willie and Berniece. This is because they have two very different ideas of the past and what it represents. Berneice looks backwards and see’s the struggles her mother went through when their father was not providing for them. Contradictory, Boy Willie sees rebellion and strength in the African carvings crafted on to this European instrument. Music has always been used as a form of rebellion especially in the African-American community, so the idea of carving into a European instrument sends a strong message to him. Boy Willie definitely identifies with the dream of freedom and power, while Bernice is looking more toward blending into White culture as a way of gaining status and power. Berneice is teaching Maretha how to play piano in a more classically European manner, while Boy Willie wants her to break from the conformity. “Boy Willie sits and plays a simple boogie-woogie.”(pg.21) The boggie-woggie is an African-American style of music that broke from the conformity of standard European classical music. Boy Willie tries to teach Maretha how to play by example and she asks for sheet music. This demonstrates again Boy Willie’s dream of freedom and rebellion, as the music he is playing is without boundaries or limitations.
A scene from the screen adapted version of The Piano Lesson shows Boy Willie and Lymon paying the preacher Avery a visit at his job in the bank. Boy Willie takes the elevator up to the second floor along with the obviously confused and uncomfortable White people. This sends a very strong message of where he stands presently on his personal ideas of self-worth and pride. “They treat you like you let them treat you. They mistreat me I mistreat them right back. Ain’t no difference in me and the white man.”(38) He is unfazed by the mean glances that he receives having stepped out of his “assigned” status position in society. He will stand just as tall and proud as any White man. This idea of gaining pride from the past and remembering who you are is demonstrated through the piano as well. Boy Willie tries to explain the past to Maretha and again directly opposes Bernice who does not want Maretha to know about the past for fear that it will bring her, in the White people’s eyes, to the level of other African American people. Of course this is ridiculous as Maretha is Black and cannot hide from the consequences that came with it during this time. This is why Boy Willie wants to install in her some sense of self-worth without compromising who she truly is and where she came from. “You ought to mark down on the calendar the day that Papa Boy Charles brought that piano into the house…Have a celebration! If you did that she would have no problem in life. She would walk around here with her head held high… That way she know where she at in the world.” (pg.91) Boy Willie wants Maretha to know about the past and the struggles her ancestors overcame so she knows that where she comes from is strong and has power. That she has that very same strength and power within her. Like the African slaves that were brought to the America’s and stripped of their culture and sense of empowerment, without a sense of self you are lost. Boy Willie feels that teaching Maretha about the past will make her a stronger person presently and help her in the future.
The reason Boy Willie explains that he want to sell the piano is so he can use that money to buy Sutter’s land. He believes that the piano was giving to them so they could make something out of it. To build on what their family left them, otherwise what’s the use of it? Berniece wants to hold onto the piano because to her it represents the struggles that her mother went through and selling it would be a dishonor to the years Mama Ola spent toiling over it and begging Bernice to play something for her. Because the past is gone and the present is happening, the only thing he can look forward to is the future. “The only thing that make that piano worth something is he carvings Papa Boy Charles put on there. That’s what make it worth something. That was my great-grandaddy. Papa Boy Charles brought that piano into the house. Now I’m supposed to build on what they left me.”(pg.51) Boy Willie plans to make sure that he has something to give and contribute to his parents legacy. To him the piano is more of a metaphorical depiction of the past. But to Bernice it’s much more physical. “You ain’t taking that piano out of my house. Look at this piano. Mama ola polished this piano with her tears for seventeen years. For seventeen years she rubbed on it until her hands bled. Then she rubbed the blood in mixing it with the rest on the blood on it.”(pg.52) The two dreams oppose each other in meaning but are both very powerful in their own ways. Boy Willie tells Bernice that if she were making money off the piano then he would think differently about it because he wants to see the future being made out of it. A future that can help new generations find some worth in themselves and what their parents left for them.
Boy Willie’s relationship with the piano is about finding power and success for the future. He see’s his ancestors struggle as a source of freedom and strength and wants Maretha to feel that way too because she represents the future. His need for freedom shows in the way that he rebels through song and music. And his hopes for reclaiming his slave owners land is symbolic of reclaiming his past. Boy Willie’s ideas of self-worth and pride come from his ancestors which are displayed on the piano and through his characters interactions with it during the play.
A Song of Remembrance: The Importance of Berniece’s Choices
August Wilson uses his play The Piano Lesson to explore the turmoil inside the homes and hearts of many African Americans in the 1930s. Many African Americans are torn between being proud of their heritage, which is blackened with the enslavement of their ancestors, and putting the past completely behind them and ignoring their horrifying past. Wilson uses Berniece, an unconventional African American woman, to exemplify both sides of the struggle between remembrance of one’s past and the disregarding of it to focus on the future. Berniece’s ultimate acceptance and appreciation of her heritage is the only force powerful enough to stop the chaos that unfolds in her life.
The Piano Lesson is a play dominated by men, with the exception of Berniece, who cannot decide if she should dismiss her African American heritage completely or celebrate her ancestors. Many other African Americans in the 1930s are in the same predicament as Berniece. They are physically free from slavery but are still discriminated against and do not know whether they should be proud of their past or ashamed of it. As one of the only females in the play, Berniece is very representative of women in the 1930s and of women in the African American community. She is forced to raise a daughter alone after her husband is killed during a skirmish with the police; an incident she blames solely on Boy Willie. Berniece and Boy Willie do not get along and she fervently denies his attempts at selling the family piano. On the surface it appears that she has a strong connection to the piano due to its significance to her heritage. When Boy Willie tries to convince Berniece to get rid of the piano she replies, “Look at this piano. Look at it. Mama Ola polished this piano with her tears for seventeen years” (Wilson, 52). She does not appreciate the piano for its musical value but wants to keep the piano out of respect for her ancestors.
Although Berniece wants to keep the piano, she does not want to celebrate her heritage and acts as though it is something to be ashamed of. Boy Willie tells her that she “ought to mark down on the calendar the day that Papa Boy Charles brought that piano into the house… and every year when it come up throw a party” (Wilson, 91). Boy Willie adds that her daughter, Maretha, would be able to hold her head high in life if they celebrated their past but Berniece dismisses the idea. In the beginning of the play Berniece tells Maretha, “Don’t be going down there showing your color” (Wilson, 27). This statement clearly implies that being colored is something to be ashamed of and should be hidden. Berniece also refuses to touch or play the piano and does not like discussing its past. However, she still fervently insists on keeping the piano and cannot bear to see it sold to another family.
Berniece is very unconventional for a woman in the 1930’s. She is very independent and intends to stay that way. When her boyfriend, Avery insists on marrying her she rebukes him by saying “You trying to tell me a woman can’t be nothing without a man. But you alright, huh? You can just walk out of here without me -without a woman- and still be a man” (Wilson, 67). Although she still misses her husband, she is content to raise and support a child without the help of a man. This idea is more common today, but in the 1930s this would have been a very unusually thing. The way that the other men of the play interact with Berniece suggests that her opinion is respected and she is a very hard headed woman. Were she not, Boy Willie would have marched right into Doaker’s home and took the piano without a second thought to Berniece’s opinion. Instead he tries to convince Berniece to let him take it. He does not use his superior male status to overpower her stance.
Ultimately, only Berniece’s acceptance of her heritage is able to stop the turmoil and chaos in her family. Sutter, a member of the family that used to own Berniece’s family, appears to the characters as a ghost and haunts their home. To get rid of him, Avery tries to bless the house and Boy Willie screams at him to leave. Berniece sees that these tactics are not working and sits down at the piano she refused to touch for years and begins to play. She calls to each of her ancestors “I want you to help me” (Wilson, 107). The passing train and Boy Willie’s yells quiet down as she sings and the family feels Sutter’s ghost leave. She then shows her gratitude by singing repeatedly to her deceased family, “Thank You” (Wilson, 107). Berniece’s embracing of her heritage is the only way that peace is restored to the household. She finally sees how important it is to be proud of her ancestors, especially since hers overcame so many struggles at the hands of their slave owners. Boy Willie sees this acceptance and stops fighting her for the piano.
Role of History and Past in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson
Afro-American writers made the political choice of speaking up for themselves by articulating their thoughts, when they veritably vowed to own their legacy and their values. The average African-American who had not only been divested from his history and heritage, but also had been dissevered from the mainstream social life, was addressed by Wilson in the subsequent words, “the preservation and promotion, the propagation and rehearsal of the value of one’s ancestors is the surest way to a full and productive life” (qtd. in Pease 3). August Wilson’s play The Piano Lesson is a piece of literary articulation that outlines the psychological impact that the white supremacist social order had on the black surrogates for many generations. It explores how the dismantling of the black subjection, which according to Orlando Patterson resulted in the “social death” of the blacks, pushed them to experience “natal alienation and the sense of kinlessness” (qtd. in Pease 5). Amidst all of this, history and family legacy were elements that played a munificent role in helping the African-Americans to connect themselves with their roots and celebrate the true spirit of freedom.
Wilson, in his play, focuses on the abject turmoil that an individual has to face as well as an inner battle that has to be fought by him when he stands at the crossroads where on one side, having a past and how to best put it to use is the question he has to deal with, and on the other side, he is afflicted with the haunting trauma associated with the same past.
Initially, in the play, it seems like there is a notable struggle between change and tradition, and that past or history is only restricted to the character of Berniece, who ardently vows to cling to it by not wanting to sell the piano, whereas Boy Willie, it seems, is more inclined towards acquiring change for himself and getting rid of his family’s past by being hell-bent on selling it. But gradually towards the end of the play, Wilson makes it clear that both, Berniece and Boy Willie, are warmly affiliated with their past and their family’s legacy— the only variance lies in the way that both display the impact that their past has on their mental sensibilities.
The argument over selling the piano that takes place between Berniece and Boy Willie, conceptualizes the inner battles they fight within. It hints at the idea of the piano itself symbolizing the past of the Charles family— a past which consumes Berniece, deeply entrenching her in the memory of her ancestors under slavery; and providing Boy Willie with a motivation to use his family’s past as a tool to build a future for himself, for avenging his ancestors (by buying Sutter’s land on which his ancestors toiled to death). In both cases, their past is still closely tied to them even after generations, and determines the nature of their futuristic plans and prospects with regards to their lives.
Wilson maintained how he felt the Africans had “acculturated and adopted white values” (qtd. in Rudolph 565). This acculturation was Wilson’s main concern; as a result of which he focuses on the idea of infusing within the Afro-Americans a sense of claiming their roots, their identity, and their past. The centripetal element of the family’s past—the piano— engenders the motivation for the Afro-American audiences, to not be apologetic towards their history and their legacy, no matter how ugly it is.
The idea that Berniece and Boy Willie had never physically met their great grand ancestors, yet consciously connected with their ghosts, shows how strongly Wilson reinforced the idea of having some vestige of roots to hold on to— thereby portraying the idea of surrogate family ties with ghosts from the immemorial past (Pease 7).
The past, as represented in the play, lies in a seamless relationship with morality that governs social and political orders that the Afro-Americans were a part of. The way the ancestors obliged the living to relive their deaths in the play, is wholesome as an idea to determine how Wilson formed affinities between the Afro-Americans and their past. Reinforcing this idea, Wilson states, “The message of America is ‘Leave your Africanness outside the door’. My message is, ‘Claim what is yours’” (qtd. in Bissiri 99).
The scene in which Boy Willie would argue that he stands in his grandfather’s shoes, establishes his ideology of not wanting to ignore his legacy, rather he embraces it with open arms. Similarly, at the end, when Berniece finally plays the piano and symbolically celebrates her ancestors, she experiences a shift from the prognostic attachment to her past to a positive and a warmer attachment to her past. This also emphasizes on the true spirit of freedom being achieved by Berniece who until now was snagged between whether or not to celebrate it. Wilson portrays how at the end, it is the past and the memory of the ancestors that lives on through the ones living—which highlights that one’s bonds with his past and his roots can never be completely curtailed or snapped.
In a nutshell, through the strong representation of the idea of past and legacy in The Piano Lesson, an individual is not only made cognizant of how one’s roots are essential to his being, but also how his affinity with his past is what helps him discover his ontological and epistemological self in a world where he might face rigid “disidentificatory” postures by those around him.
Bissiri, Amadou. “Aspects of Africanness in August Wilson’s Drama: Reading The Piano Lesson Through Wole Soyinka’s Drama.” African American Review, vol. 30, Indiana State University, 1996, pp. 99-113.
Pease, Donald E. “August Wilson’s Lazarus Complex.” Criticism, vol. 51, Wayne State University Press, 2009, pp. 1-28.
Rudolph, Amanda M. “Images of African Traditional Religions and Christianity in ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ and ‘The Piano Lesson’.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 33, Sage Publications, Inc, 2003, pp. 562-75.
The Piano as a Symbol of Conflict and Healing
August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson provides the narrative of the Charles family as they encounter both the challenges of the present and struggle to come to terms with the grief and suffering of their family’s past. Throughout the play, the family’s piano is a central symbol that comes to embody the family legacy with its deep-rooted meaning and connections to the past. It is also a source of conflict between the siblings, Berniece and Boy Willie, as they argue about how best to use the piano. In this ongoing struggle between the two, Wilson develops Berniece’s character as one that is inextricable from the notion of legacy, thereby invoking her as the symbolic link to the family’s past and present. As the piano evolves from a symbol of conflict and divisiveness within the family to one of unifier and healer, Berniece is the one to convey and carry on its lessons.The piano initially represents the conflict and suffering that define much of the Charles family’s history of enslavement. Purchased by Robert Sutter in exchange for two of his slaves, the piano immediately becomes linked with the trauma of slavery. More importantly, the nature of the transaction reinforced the objectification of slaves – equating their value to that of an inanimate object. Another example of the piano’s association with suffering is a memory Berniece relates during an argument with Boy Willie:‘Mama Ola polished this piano with her tears for seventeen years. For seventeen years she rubbed on it till her hands bled … she rubbed and cleaned and polished and prayed over it …seventeen years’ worth of cold nights and an empty bed. For what? For a piano? For a piece of wood?’ (52).Rather than focusing on the piano’s monetary value, as Boy Willie does, Berniece sees it as a source of grief and hardship for her mother. The imagery of a teary eyed, battered Mama Ola accentuates the depth of grief that Berniece associates with the piano. Berniece’s lamentation also underscores her role as a link to the family’s past; Boy Willie, on the other hand, seeks to distance himself from the past. As Berniece learns of Boy Willie’s intention to sell the piano, the central question of ownership surfaces and initially portrays the piano as a source of conflict. Whereas Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to achieve his goal of buying Sutter’s land, Berniece refuses to part with the family heirloom – she sees it as a critical way to maintain a connection with the past. Boy Willie sees the piano as a disruption to the family that could serve to further his goal of landownership; he loses sight of the ancestral memories the piano carries. In a characteristic argument, Berniece tells Boy Willie that “‘Money can’t buy what that piano cost. You can’t sell your soul for money,’” suggesting that the piano contains the Charles family’s soul (50). The piano moves from being symbol of divisiveness to one of unity in the final scene, in which Berniece and Boy Willie reconcile their differences. During the exorcism of Sutter’s ghost, Boy Willie struggles against Sutter until Berniece begins to play the piano and calls upon the Charles ancestors for assistance. Through this incident Berniece again assumes her role as the link between present and past; she also recognizes, now, that the piano’s value to her lies in its symbolism – not its material existence. Boy Willie acknowledges the importance of sustaining the piano as a symbol when he says, in a show of familial solidarity, “Hey Berniece … if you and Maretha don’t keep playing on that piano…ain’t no telling … me and Sutter both liable to be back” (108). Initially the piano divides siblings, but it ultimately helps Berniece and Boy Willie find common ground. As Berniece embraces her role as preserver of family, she imparts on Boy Willie a sense of appreciation for the piano’s symbolic importance. Boy Willie becomes prepared to pursue his own ambitions more strongly rooted in an understanding of his origins. While the piano emerged out of the trauma of slavery, it comes to symbolize unity and family legacy.