Boy Willie Charles and his friend Lymon arrive at the Pittsburgh home of Berniece, Boy Willie’s widowed sister. The two men have driven to Pittsburgh from Mississippi in a truck full of ripe watermelons. When he arrives at his sister’s home, Boy Willie announces to Berniece an ambitious plan that will require her cooperation: He wants to buy a parcel of land in Mississippi on which the Charles family’s ancestors served as slaves and sharecroppers. Boy Willie has saved some of the money he will need to make the purchase, and he intends to sell the watermelons in his truck to raise more. For Boy Willie to acquire enough cash to make the purchase, however, Berniece must agree to sell the old piano sitting in her living room and split the proceeds with her brother. Although the piano has been in Berniece’s possession since she moved to Pittsburgh, Boy Willie claims half ownership of the instrument.
Berniece strongly opposes the sale of the piano, which is imbued with symbolic value. Doaker and Wining Boy, Berniece and Boy Willie’s uncles, detail the complicated history of the instrument. The piano was originally acquired in 1856 by Robert Sutter, the man who owned members of the Charles family. The piano was an anniversary gift from Sutter to his wife, Ophelia. Lacking cash for the purchase, Sutter acquired the instrument by trading two Charles family slaves, Mama Berniece and her nine-year-old son Walter. Papa Boy Willie, Mama Berniece’s husband, wished to memorialize Mama Berniece and Walter. An expert wood sculptor, he obtained Ophelia’s permission to carve their portraits and other memorable Charles family scenes into the wood of the piano.
The piano remained with the Sutters after the emancipation of the slaves, but on July 4, 1911, members of the Charles family stole the piano from the Sutters’ home. The group included Doaker, Wining Boy, Berniece and Boy Willie’s father, and Boy Charles, the grandson of the woodcarver and Mama Berniece. Boy Charles maintained that as long as the Sutter family had possession of the piano, the Charles family was still spiritually enslaved; by stealing the instrument, Boy Charles believed he would finally liberate his family from the Sutters. After the theft, Boy...
(The entire section is 916 words.)