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The Piano Lesson

August Wilson

Important Quotations Explained

Act II, Scene 5—Part II

Key Facts

Gin my cotton Sell my seed Buy my baby Everything she need

For Wilson, music functions as an allegory for the lesson on legacy. The play attempts to dramatize its uses. Appropriately, the play begins with an epigraph from Mississippi blues musician Skip James that exemplifies how musical traditions might encode a family's history. On the manifest level, the lyrics refer to Boy Willie's entrepreneurial dreams. Indeed, he recites similar lines to Doaker and Lymon when describing his plans to start a farm. By dint of a double entendre, however, these lines also become a cryptogram—or piece of writing in secret characters—for a traumatic past. The two middle lines ("Sell my seed/ Buy my baby") evoke the memory of slavery and the traffic in human flesh, the trauma at the heart of the piano's history. Thus, music encodes the legacy of the familial suffering.

That's when I discovered the power of death. See, a nigger that ain't afraid to die is the worse kind of nigger for the whiteman. He can't hold that power over you. That's what I learned when I killed the cat. I got the power of death too. I can command him. I can call him up. The white man don't like to see that. He don't like for you to stand up and look him square in the eye and say, "I got it too." Then he got to deal with you square up.

The young Boy Willie's discovers the "power of death" when he finds himself unable to resurrect his dog through prayer and, as a result, goes out and kills a cat. This power is not only the capacity to kill. It also requires the risk of one's life. Willie believes that this power—again, the power to risk one's life and kill another—is the only one left to a black man denied property to build something for himself. More importantly, it makes the black man the white man's rival. As Willie declares: "See, a nigger that ain't afraid to die is the worse kind of nigger for the white man." With the power of death, he can look the white man "square in the eye and say, 'I got it too.' Then [the white man] got to deal with you square up." As he notes later, Willie is all too aware of the fear the sound of a "nigger's heart beating" can inspire. By discovering the power of death, Willie undermines the distinction master/slave that haunts the difference between white and black, a distinction in large part founded on the master's capacity to kill his servant. The power of death makes both players masters engaged in a struggle to the death, masters who are willing to murder and die in a battle for recognition. Also note the trope of the eye and being dealt with "square up."

BOY WILLIE: 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. (He exits.)

BERNIECE: Thank you.

The struggle with Sutter having ended, Willie leaves the women of the Charles household with the charge quoted above. He states that if they do not continue playing the piano, he and Sutter are liable to return. Thus, the maternal line—already established in the play as the bearer of grief and mourning—is left with the responsibility of channeling the dead and maintaining the family's connection with its origins. These elliptical remarks also establish the allegorical nature of the struggle that has just come to pass between Willie and Sutter, a struggle across generations and across the grave over the family's legacy, the piano, and the avenging of past crimes. Willie functions here as almost a sort of revenant, embodying the ghosts of the past, and engaging in a battle between the Charles and the Sutters, the white and the black that spans time.

When my mama died I shut the top on that piano and I ain't never opened it since. I was only playing it for her. When my daddy died seem like all her life went into that piano. She used to have my playing on it (...) had Miss Eula come in and teach me (...) say when I played it she could hear my daddy talking to her. I used to think them pictures came alive and walked through the house. Sometime late at night I could hear my mama talking to them. I said that wasn't gonna happen to me. I don't play that piano cause I don't want to wake them spirits.

This passage elaborates Berniece's relation to the piano. Berniece played the piano for her mother alone: when she played, her mother could hear her father speaking to her. Thus, the young Berniece—associated with a sort of maternal legacy—appears as a sort of priestess, the role she will decisively assume in the final scene in the exorcism of Sutter's ghost. In some sense, this speech establishes her duty in maintaining the family legacy. Berniece is the link to the ancestors, the means by which the living can invoke and implore their imagined origins for aid.

When Miss Ophelia seen it (...) she got excited. Now she had her piano and her niggers too Boy Charles used to talk about that piano all the time. He never could get it off his mind. Two or three months go by and he be talking about it again. He be talking about taking it out of Sutter's house. Say it was the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter had it he had us. Say we was still in slavery.

This excerpt from Doaker's account of the piano's history reveals the various meanings it takes on for the Sutters and Charles. Initially bought with slaves, the piano first exemplifies the interchangeability of person and object under the system of slavery. This traffic in human flesh reaffirms a white kinship network at the expense of black ones—the piano is an anniversary present. Carved by Willie Boy to placate Miss Ophelia, the piano's wooden figures indicate the interchangeable nature of slave and ornament for the master: as Doaker notes, "Now she had her piano and her niggers too." The slave is the master's gift and accessory.

Under Willie Boy's hands, however, the piano also becomes the physical record of the family's history. Thus Boy Charles understands the figures not as ornament but as narrative. As Doaker recalls: "Say it was the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter had it he had us. Say we was still in slavery." Owning the family's history becomes tantamount to owning its members. Sutter's ownership of the family's story keeps the Charles' family in bondage.

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