“But then I ask the question: How many men must die before we can really have a free and true and peaceful society? How long will it take? If we can catch the spirit, and the true meaning of this experience, I believe that this nation can be transformed into a society of love, of justice, peace, and brotherhood where all men can really be brothers. ” -Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Since the beginning of early civilization, differences in races and cultures have been a part of society. Along with these differences, there evolved a hatred against what was not considered ” the norm” .
For many years, prejudice, especially in the form of racism, has sparked many hate crimes and wars. Over generations, people have devised strategies to combat these injustices in the most effective way possible, whether it be civil or violent ways of protest. August Wilsons Pulitzer Prize winning play, ” The Piano”, is set in the early 1930s at a time when racism was spreading like wild fire. The play takes a close look into two dynamically different approaches to overcoming prejudice in America.
Although their strategies differ greatly, both Berniece and Boy Willie both find ways to combat the problems associated with living in a racist culture. Slavery is still fresh in the minds of many blacks and whites during the 30s and so are many harsh feelings. Berniece and Boy Willie tackle the racism of their time in the same way their parents did. Bernices personality is very similar to her mothers, Mama Ola. She chooses to avoid conflicts over racism whenever possible, even if it means keeping quiet about subjects that should be addressed. She finds it easier to ” lay low” than to create a situation.
Berniece views the history of the piano with the same disdain and sorrow that her mother held for so many years. In one of many heated arguments with Boy Willie, Berniece says,
” Mama Ola polished over this piano with her tears for seventeen years… seventeen years worth of cold nights and an empty bed. For what a piano?… To get even with somebody…. and what did it ever lead to? more killing and more thieving. “
When Boy Willie speaks, one can almost hear the vigor and determination of his father, Papa Boy Charles voice. He, much like his father, believes in the theory: “by whatever means necessary. Boy Willie is willing to do whatever it takes and remove whoever stands in his way; and that includes getting rid of any white man that poses a threat against his dreams.
Boy Willie is very proud that his father gave his life to steal the piano, with the carvings of his familys history, from Sutter, the man who enslaved his great grandmother and his grandfather. Papa Boy Charles believed that his family would always be slaves as long as Sutter still had ownership of the piano. Boy Willie tells Berniece that she should tell her daughter, Maretha, about the story behind the piano so that she can be proud of her grandfather. You ought to mark down on the calendar the day that Papa Boy Charles brought that piano into the house… throw a party… have a celebration. ” Although their points of view are similar to their parents, they are very opposed in their strategies for dealing with racism. At a time when racism is at its peak due to unresolved issues on both sides, the future for blacks in America seems bleak. Although slavery has ended, brutal attacks against blacks still exist and many are worse off financially than they were as slaves. Berniece looks at her lifestyle from a realists point of view with little optimism.
She sees no chance of growth for blacks and expresses this when she says, ” Im going to tell her [Maretha] the truth… you at the bottom with the rest of us… thats just where she living. ” Berneice believes that blacks are at the bottom of life and they may never overcome their situation. Although she believes that blacks can find success; she feels that successs is limited to the boundaries in which blacks are born. She follows the idea that some blacks refer to as ” the house negro mentality”. This nickname was coined for those slaves who were comfortable with their lifestyles because they saw nothing good that could come from freedom.
Berniece believes blacks must gratefully take what is handed to them and work with what they receive. If they become to greedy they may wind up with nothing. Surprisingly, Boy Willie chooses to be optimistic in spite of his surroundings. In a world that tells him that there is no future for people of color, Boy Willie is an idealist. He sees a future for himself beyond the color of his skin and is determined to go out and grab it. He also knows that he cannot wait for white men to drop success on his lap; he has to get it himself. Despite his sisters opinions, Boy Willie does not see himself at the bottom but instead at the top of society. … Im living at the top of life. I aint gonna just take my life and throw it away at the bottom… Im in the world like everybody else. ” He further stresses this opinion when he says, ” how a person views himself is how he will live”. Boy Willie tells Berniece that if a person chooses to believe he is at the bottom and there is no future; that is how he will live – at the bottom with no future. He also believes that he is the same and deserves just as much as any white man. He sees himself as an equal and perhaps, better off than some white men.
Boy Willie refuses to believe that white men are somehow better than him or deserve more than him. Boy Willie and Berneice definitely differ in how they handle racist situations and the injustices committed against them. Berniece chooses to battle racism in a more submissive way. She sees only the pain and heartache that can result from taking a stand against prejudice. Her father died trying to prove his manhood to white men and she sees nothing good that can come from speaking out. Speaking out can only make the living situation for blacks worse in Berneices opinion.
Boy Willie takes a more militant approach to battling racism. Boy Willie is bold and outspoken and does not care whose feet he steps on to get his point across. He is fearless and perhaps foolish when he says, ” a nigger that aint afraid to die is the worst kind of nigger for the white man”. Boy Willie is willing to fight, or even kill, any white man that stands between him and freedom. He tells Wining Boy that no white man could ever mistreat him because he refuses to be mistreated. He treats people the way they treat him. No stranger to jails, Boy Willie shows complete disregard for the laws of the land.
He feels that the law only applies to him when it is convenient and satisfies his needs. He feels that the law was not designed for him but against him, and unless it fits his purposes he will not abide by it. Boy Willie refuses to allow anyone to rule over him in any manner, whether that man is black or white. In the play, ” The Piano Lesson”, August Wilsons characters offer two popular ways used by blacks for surviving in a racist culture. In one case, the character of Berniece choose to live in silence in order to avoid any repurcussions that would result from speaking out.
Boy Willie chooses to fight any man that steps in his way and tries to prevent him from finding the oppurtunity and freedom that he deserves. Although some forms of their strategies are effective; in the long run, they are both terribly wrong. By choosing to live in denial about the way blacks are treated; Berniece is actually allowing this kind of abuse to continue. Unless people speak out when they are unjustly treated, no change can ever occur. One must look within himself to find the courage to stand up for what he believes in despite what backlash may incur. Berneice is definitely safer in comparison to Boy Willies ideas.
His behavior and ideas are brash, foolish, and self-destructive. His hateful ways can offer no solution to the present state of racism. By choosing to be headstrong, the only achievement he may receive for his actions is death. Violence and outright disobedience is never a recipe for peace. The Reverend Martin Luther King,Jr. probably best understood the importance of devising a strategy that could combat racism and bring about peace among all races. Through the means of peaceful protest, teaching, understanding, and love; people, the world over can look towards a future of peace.