All the siblings in The Piano Lesson are ambivalent toward the piano, which is strongly connected with their enslaved ancestors’ painful experiences. Berniece, however, stresses the importance of keeping the piano, in part because those ancestors’ faces and life events are carved in the piano and she can feel their spirits in it. More generally, she understands its role in helping them remember the past. Selling the piano, she reasons, will not remove those painful memories, because whatever money they would gain from the sale would still remind them of the past.
Doaker explains the piano’s history to Lymon, beginning with the time when Robert Sutter traded enslaved people for the piano. Bringing the story up to the recent past, he recounts how he and two other men, including Berniece’s father, Boy Charles, took the piano from the Sutters’ house. Several white men who searched for the piano found Boy Charles in a railroad car, which they burned, killing him in the fire. Doaker’s reasons that she will not give it up also supports her stake in having it: “Berniece ain’t gonna sell that piano. Cause her daddy died over it.”
Boy Willie, Berniece’s brother, reasons that with the money from the piano, he can buy the Sutters’ land. Berniece tells him that such a transaction will not improve his situation. She understands the true value of the piano.
“Money can’t buy what that piano cost. You can’t sell your soul for money. It won’t go with the buyer. It’ll shrivel and shrink to know that you ain’t taken on to it. But it won’t go with the buyer.”
Berniece's right to the piano is finally established through her bravery in confronting the past. Avery brings a Bible to the house to help Berniece by getting rid of Sutter’s ghost. Despite his best efforts, he concludes that the task is beyond him. Berniece, who has avoided playing the piano because of the strong feelings it evokes, realizes that she must play to get rid of Sutter’s ghost. The stage directions read:
BERNIECE realizes what she must do. She crosses to the piano. She begins to play. The song is found piece by piece. It is an old urge to song that is both a commandment and a plea. With each repetition it gains in strength. It is intended as an exorcism and a dressing for battle.