What is the sense of identity felt by Boy Willie and Berniece?

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The sense of identity felt by Boy Willie and Berniece is focused on their family's accomplishments. This is expressed for Boy Willie in his pursuit of the land in Mississippi where his family was held as slaves. For Berniece, it's expressed in the piano itself.

Boy Willie connects to his past and his family's history by pursuing ownership of the land in Mississippi, where they were enslaved. However, he doesn't have enough money to purchase it. He insists on selling the piano that Berniece has had for years.

The piano was owned by the man who owned the Charles family. In fact, two members of the family were sold to pay for the piano. Papa Boy Willie—the husband of the woman sold—later carved the piano with scenes and portraits of the Charles family before they stole it from the slaveowners. Boy Charles died trying to get away from the slaveowner who was pursuing him for the theft.

To Boy Willie, the piano is just an object with sentimental value. To Berniece, it's something that her family created, fought, and died for. She sees it as disrespectful to their identity as the Charles family to get rid of it. When Boy Willie decides to sell it anyway, ghosts of the slaveowners and ghosts of the Charles family interfere, and he eventually comes around to see the piano as Berniece does—as a symbol of the family's history and identity.

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Both Boy Willie and Bernice have a strong sense of family identity that is closely connected to the family’s former enslavement. They are both proud of their ancestors’s actions in resisting slavery and commemorate those who were sold and highly aware of the difference in their lives, as they had never been forced to be slaves. Their distance from that condition owes much to the courage and sacrifice of their father, Boy Charles.

Boy Willie sees land as the most powerful symbol of their liberation, against which all else pales. Specifically, he wants to own the land on which their ancestors had been forced to live and work. Feeling that the land is already morally theirs, he wants it to be legally his as well. While he understands his sister’s pride in their father’s actions, he is insensitive to her feelings about the piano itself. This fundamental lack of comprehension is symbolized by his non-Solomonic suggestion to cut it in half.

For Berniece, her identity is highly invested in her role as the guardian and protector of the piano, and by extension of her father’s spirit. She is offended that her brother not only proposes to disregard her wishes but also that he cannot see how vital her role has been in preserving their family identity. Her attitude toward the piano as an embodiment of spirit is corroborated by Doaker, who understands that the Sutter ghost has started playing it. Berniece’s self-understanding grows as she begins to treat the piano as an instrument, not just a memory talisman, and learns to play it.

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Boy Willie and Berniece are divided in their relationship to the recent past and their family history.

Boy Willie identifies himself as being very similar to his father, who was known as a stubborn and proud man. We can see Boy Willie’s pride in a number of his longer speeches where he defines himself in defiance to any inferiority cast upon him by virtue of color and explains his aims to become a land-owner.

Boy Willie is very much involved with his own history and seeks to conquer it in some ways. Berniece, however, attempts to sever herself from the past which is perhaps the reason for her stalled adult life.

Berniece refuses to play the piano, a symbolic denial of her past, and refuses to move forward in her relationship with Avery. She is described as being in mourning for her husband who has been dead for three years when the action of the play takes place.

In a way, we can say that these two characters encapsulate perfectly the larger themes of the play which are related to issues of coming to terms with the past. Boy Willie and Berniece each move to a new relationship with their histories, but begin at opposite ends of the spectrum with one being fully wrapped up in the past and the other attempting to deny the past entirely.

 

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