“Gin my cotton Sell my seed Buy my baby Everything she need” -Skip James, musician
Opening line of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson”
“MAMA: Oh—So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money. I guess the world really do change . . .
WALTER: No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.”
Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansbury, Act I, Scene II
I am trained in Theater performance and the concept of art imitating life has always been intriguing to me. Prior to studying identity theory in my M. Ed College Student Affairs program, I learned about it intuitively from my time spent in the pages of playwrights. Two plays that consistently strike chords in my being are Lorraine Hansbury’s Raisin in the Sun & August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson for their concepts of legacy, family, and the history of people of color in America. Both plays feature a character, specifically, a man of color, with an elusive dream. In the Piano Lesson, Boy Willie & Lymon dream of selling a family heirloom (a handcrafted piano explaining the history of the family) in order to secure a plot of land. They believe that this land will yield riches for them, and a symbolic place and space in the earth. Berniece, the matriarch of the family, refuses to sell the piano and therein lies the complication of the plot. Likewise, in Hansbury’s Raisin in the Sun, the Younger family awaits Mr. Younger’s life insurance check. This check is in the amount of $10,000. Mama is the primary beneficiary, yet everyone in the family has important opinions on the allocation of the funds (further schooling, a family home, etc.). Her son, Walter Lee, dreams of opening a liquor store with his friends Bobo & Willy. And just like Boy Willie in the Piano Lesson, Walter Lee believes that this will yield additional riches for the family for generations to come. In both plays, the matriarchs are primarily concerned with upholding and honoring the legacy of the family. In both plays, the principal male characters believe that some type of concrete, physical space (for one, land for farming… for the other, a liquor store) will allow them to yield profits for the unforeseeable future.
Though these plays were written decades ago, a similar plot is unfolding right now… with the children of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Two of his children, Martin & Dexter, are suing their sister, Bernice (who ironically holds the same name as Berneice from August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson) because she refuses to sell two family heirlooms: Dr. Martin Luther King’s Bible and his Nobel Peace Prize medal. Though the details are unclear, Martin & Dexter King are looking to sell these items “to a private buyer”, as cited in the LA Times. The LA Times also references Bernice’s response: “There is no justification for selling either of these sacred items. They are priceless and should never be exchanged for money in the marketplace.” And just like the old plays, the plot complicates…
What is it about the selling of life investments, of family heirlooms, to acquire material wealth? What kinds of strain does this create in families of color; so many precious things ripped from their histories, families, and legacies?
For may years, communities of color have been denied capital in a variety of systemic ways: denial of bank loans, socioeconomic poverty, red-lining, denial of employment opportunities, and the list could go on for the length of this piece. For many years, economic growth and equality has been a battlefield where we have searched to gain more ground. What happens when a window of opportunity opens… but in order to access it, you are asked to sell your birthrights, your family heirlooms, your ancestral history?
Can we compare Dexter and Martin to Boy Willie (The Piano Lesson) and Walter Lee (Raisin in the Sun)? In Theater, we (the audience) have the privilege of being invited into the internal landscape of the characters. We know what Boy Willie wants but more importantly, we know why he wants it. We know the psychology of his desire to sell the piano… a family heirloom that illustrates the story of his ancestors. In his mind, selling that heirloom affords his family the chance to reclaim / buy back the land that his family was enslaved upon. Perhaps, it affords the chance to claim a legacy of freedom that he wishes were weaved ages ago. Likewise, we know the psychology of Walter Lee’s desires. He believes the money offers the true freedom to his family (and implicitly, to families of color in America). Freedom, to him, is not as clear cut as ownership of self and of family. To Walter Lee, freedom can be funded…accessed through money. So, we grapple with this motif of freedom: does freedom come by grasping family legacy, or does it come through the selling of goods? A Raisin in the Sun, The Piano Lesson, and the King lawsuit all beg the audience to grapple with the question: as people of color in America, what things can you justifiably give up… in pursuit of a dream? In pursuit of greater freedom? In pursuit of wealth?
In this life-drama between the King family, we are not as privileged as we were as audience-members in a theatrical drama. We don’t know the psychology of Martin & Dexter’s desires to sell Dr. King’s Bible and Nobel Peace prize medal. And all that we know about Bernice is that these pieces are “sacred” and so, she refuses to sell them. Although we don’t know these things, the questions still remain: what do you give up? I mean what do you really give up… mentally, relationally, spiritually… when you sell symbols of your legacy in pursuit of a dream?
Image courtesy of Nuttapong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
A Raisin, A Piano, & A Bible: Reflections on the King Lawsuit by Jade Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.