Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The complex relationship between black literature and history

August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Piano Lesson,” set in 1936, revolves around a sibling conflict over a piece of property: Berniece Charles wants to keep an heirloom piano that was first acquired when white slaveholders sold her great-grandfather in the 19th century; now it is owned by her freed family. Her brother Boy Willie, on the other hand, wants to sell the piano and use the money to buy land.

The conflict is emotionally and ethically fraught: Should the family keep the piano as a reminder of its history and the past? Or sell it, to symbolically move on from that tortured history and turn past wrongs into practical gains?

For Sandy Alexandre, an associate professor of literature at MIT, the play is an example of the complicated relationship black Americans have with material possessions — the subject of a new book she is developing. Contrary to stereotypes about blacks prizing flashy, dispensable goods, Alexandre says, African-American literature is filled with complex psychological and historical meditations about what it means to own property in a country where blacks themselves were once property.

No comments:

Post a Comment