What is the significance of the way the family acquired the piano in The Piano Lesson?

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The Charles family stole the piano from the Sutters, the family which had owned them as slaves prior to Emancipation. The piano had originally been obtained by selling two members of the Charles family, and so in appropriating the piano, the Charleses are effectively taking back something paid for with the sweat of their indentured labor. In its own small way, the piano is a kind of reparation for all those years of exploitation and suffering. The fact that the Charleses have their portraits intricately carved into the wood of the piano gives them an added sense that the instrument is somehow a part of them just as they are a part of it.

The Charleses venerate the piano as a historical relic that tells the family story through the years of slavery and emancipation. The significance of stealing the piano is that the Charleses, like African Americans in general, need to appropriate their history for themselves, taking it out of the hands of those who had written it. In that sense, the piano, and the manner of its acquisition by the Charles family, symbolizes African Americans taking possession of their own history and their own experience.

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The short answer here is that the family acquired the piano as a legacy.  The piano is obtained by the family after the Civil War, when the Charles family ends up being sharecroppers for the Sutter family.  The belief was that if the piano continues to remain in the hands of the Sutters, the psychological and emotional connotation is that the family remains in slavery.  In the attempts to wrestle their own past from "the other" and to appropriate their own past and future, the family retains control of the piano.  This act, itself, carries with it a set of further painful memories as Papa Boy Charles is killed by a lynch mob.  Accordingly, the family acquires the piano and its narrative is filled with the hurt and pain that past narratives involve.  The significance here is that the family obtains the family in a manner that seeks to control their own narrative.  Papa Boy Charles believes that the ownership of the piano is significant in being able to put the past in its context and seek redemption for the present and the future.  He believes that if the family owns or controls this object of slavery, their own condition of the present and future can be accomplished.  His death only adds to the pain of the family and also implies that the past cannot be "owned" or "controlled."  Wilson is seeking to bring about an understanding of the horrific pasts that dominate the lives of those who are the descendants of slaves, but also those who experience pain and horror in their own past.  In this, Wilson might be suggesting that seeking to obliterate or control the past is secondary to making sense of it and understanding it in its proper context in the hopes of making the present and future better than the past.  It is here where there is significance in the family's ownership of the piano.

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