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The Piano Lesson


Act II, Scene 5

Summary Act II, Scene 5

Throughout the play, Willie asserts that there is no difference between him and the white man. At the same time, he remains painfully aware of the disparities between them. He thus plays both sides of a paradox, insisting, for example, that he lives in the world like any other man, that he lives at the top and not the bottom of life, and that he his heart beats like any other's while at the same time striving toward becoming the white man's equal.

Boy Willie's first speech relates his discovery of the "power of death." As he notes with respect to his father, this power is the only one left to a black man denied property and the tools to build something for himself. The power of death—that is, the power to kill as well as risk one's life—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." 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. As only the power of death ensures his recognition, Boy Willie believes in the justice of an "eye for an eye," refusing to temper his violent rage with Christian homilies.

Willie also fantasizes about becoming the white man's equal in the purchase of land. Once again he invokes the memory of his property-less father, staring emptily at his strong, useless hands. As a landowner, Willie will become the white man's neighbor, stand next to him and talk about cotton, the weather, and whatever else they like.

Willie is all too aware that he has been born into a "time of fire," and that the world would rather do without him. For Willie, Berniece accepts this world, teaching her daughter that she sits at the bottom. He, on the other hand, will mark his passing on the road: "Just like you write on a tree, 'Boy Willie was here.'" The trope of the mark refers to Willie's paternal heritage, to the fathers before him who left their mark on time. Willie Boy leaves a literal mark on the piano that records the family's history. Boy Charles' theft leaves a mark on the calendar, creating a new Independence Day. Again, the gendered politics of this vision are not innocent, with the men appearing as the makers of history and the women as their mourners.