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The Heritage of Slavery

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The Drama of King Shotaway (1823), by William Henry Brown, is reputedly the first play known to have been written by an African American, and it was about a slave uprising on the island of St. Vincent. The American history of slavery has had a profound effect on everyone to some degree, but it is those Americans descended from slaves who, understandably, feel it the most. Modern drama has not been shy in provoking African Americans to recognize the nature of their whole history in America as being heavily impacted by the heritage of slavery, mostly with the double view of ensuring that others recognize the institution for the inhumanity and horror that it was, as well as encouraging those with slavery in their past to claim this experience as part of their cultural identity.


The lesson of the piano in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is rooted in the heritage of slavery. Slavery, to Wilson, is a key historical period in the African American sensibility and should not be ignored or forgotten. The African American response to their experience of disinheritance, colonization, and oppression exhibits an incredible resilience of spirit in the very fact that they survived. Just as Jews celebrate their emancipation as a race from Egypt every year at Passover, Wilson believes African Americans should have a similar celebration to remind them of this part of their history. He sees too many African Americans running away from the history of slavery, and insists that it must be squarely faced.


Despite layers of symbolism and a ghostly manifestation, Wilson’s play is largely realistic, drawing in its audience with detailed characterizations and gentle humor. Imamu Amiri Baraka’s Slaveship , by contrast, is a revolutionary drama that is far more confrontational, though it offers many of the same lessons as Wilson’s does. The major difference lies in Baraka’s anger and vio-   lence, which has produced a fiercely uncompromising play, purposefully written and designed to upset white audiences and unite African Americans to demand better treatment. Slaveship shows white audiences the source of the rage many African Americans feel at the way they have historically been treated. With little plot and hardly any discursive dialogue, Baraka creates a mood to convey the horrors and repercussions of African American enslavement through a series of symbolic actions and tableaux. The play is a highly ritualized account of the history of African Americans, told in order to provoke a rebellion among living African Americans, who, Baraka believes, still need to cast off the psychic yoke of slavery and claim both heritage and rights from a white society that continues to restrict and enslave its ethnic groups.


Mulatto , by Langston Hughes, is an earlier piece that deals with another aspect of slavery through its exploration of the problems caused by miscegenation. Many white slave owners, to improve their workforce or out of sheer physical desire, slept with female slaves and fathered numerous children. The practice often continued past emancipation, since many former slaves had no means of escaping the plantations that offered them their only source of income. The offspring from these relationships were considered as much slaves or servants as their mothers, but were set apart as “mulattos” and found themselves caught between the world of whites and African Americans, accepted by neither one. Mulatto was Langston Hughes’s first full-length play. Remarkably, it ran for a year on Broadway and went on to tour, despite only sporadic interest during the 1930s in African American drama. In form, it is a typical melodrama of the period, but its impact is increased by its forthright approach to what would have been an inflammatory contemporary issue.


The Piano Lesson centers on the Charles family and the wrangling between siblings Berniece and Boy Willie over a piano that represents the family’s history of enslavement. As the play opens, Boy Willie comes up from the South with his friend, Lymon, to sell a truckload of watermelons and with hopes of selling the family piano to raise funds for a land purchase back home. His sister Berniece, who has moved North to escape the past, will not allow him to sell the piano. The house is haunted by the ghost of Sutter, whose family had owned Berniece and Boy Willie’s ancestors in the days of slavery. In order to exorcise this ghost, a decision must be made about the piano, and what evolves is a compromise between the siblings in which the family’s history takes precedence.


Berniece and her two uncles, Doaker and Wining Boy, all gain greater self-worth and renew their spirits by reconnecting with their historical and cultural heritage. Being African American to Wilson has little to do with the color of one’s skin: it is more a state of mind and a way of viewing the world. He sees too many African Americans as ready to accept negative white assessments of their culture, and insists that they need to define that culture for themselves. Integral to that definition is an embrace and understanding of their own history   in America. The catalyst for their learning is the central conflict between Boy Willie and Berniece over the piano, which represents an argument over whether to honor their slave ancestors or put the family’s past enslavement behind them.


Boy Willie’s desire to sell the piano can be viewed as a desire to be free of the past, but this desire is also his way of honoring his ancestors and building on their heritage. For him, selling the piano is not a denial of the past, but a validation. Berniece, on the other hand, wants to keep the piano, but refuses to pass on its full legacy to her daughter, or accept it into her own life, which does no honor to her family ancestors. Berniece ignores her family legacy, teaching her daughter, Maretha, white community values rather than those values by which her African American family have lived and died.


The opening description of the Charles house tells us that something is wrong because of its “lack of warmth and vigor” (xvii). The people who inhabit this house are not living fully and exist in a kind of deathly stasis. Boy Willie comes to wake the house up, literally and metaphorically. His hollering and bombast will force them to reengage with the world and the past from which they have set themselves apart. Though in his thirties, Boy Willie retains all the vitality and enthusiasm his youthful name implies.


Frustrated by his willingness to work and the lack of opportunity he has been given to do so, Boy Willie’s determination to own land stems from a need to ensure that he has work for the future that will benefit him and not whites. He will not settle for the exploitative sharecropping into which his father had been forced. The play’s epigraph makes clear Boy Willie’s dream and plan for the future: “Gin my cotton/Sell my seed/Buy my baby/Everything she need” (ix). The lyric underlines the importance of tilling your own land. Owning Sutter’s land will give him a firmer economic and social footing.


The piano symbolizes the Charles’s history of slavery and freedom, and this is something they need to own. Owning the piano strengthens the family; allowing someone else to own it will weaken them all. Boy Charles, Boy Willie’s father, knew this, which was the reason he stole the piano in the first place: “Say it was the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter had it … he had us. Say we were still in slavery” (45). For Boy Willie to sell the piano to the whites to gain his land acts as a metaphor for assimilation and all its dangers. To play the piano is to claim and possess it, and everything for which it stands: the blood and suffering of the Charles family as well as their strength and spirit.


The piano was first claimed by Boy Willie’s great-grandfather, who, in defiance of its white owners, carved his entire family history into the wood. That claim was reaffirmed when Boy Willie’s father and uncles stole it from the Sutters. They did this, significantly, on Independence Day, making the act a strong statement of the family’s complete independence from the Sutters. Boy Willie takes this claim one step further by trying to claim the original family property from Sutter’s heirs. But Boy Willie must learn that it is neither wise   nor necessary to sell off any part of your heritage, and it is better to progress by other means.


Sutter represents the role of whites in African American history. His great weight conveys the opulence and greed of a man who has fed off the labor of African Americans for years. But Sutter has fallen, quite literally, as he tumbled down the well. Sutter’s time is passing; he is dead, and although his ghostly presence objects, he cannot cover up the decline of his family’s control. His brother lives up North and is willing to sell his Southern heritage to “the enemy,” in the form of Boy Willie. One of his sons has moved North and the other is an idiot, thus indicating the decline of white power in the South.


The rise of the ghosts of Yellow Dog shows the contrasting growth in power of African Americans in the area. The demise of Sutter and other whites points to an African American ability to wreak vengeance and acts as a warning to whites to behave better in the future. All this should make the way easier for African Americans to take control of their lives in the South, if only they can build the motivation to do so, as Boy Willie intends. Boy Willie’s family history has been one of resistance to white control, and it is unsurprising that he chooses the same path.


The repetition of names in the Charles family indicates a strong connection to past generations, but it is a connection Berniece denies. She does not want her peaceful but empty life disrupted by her brother’s noise and energy. She resists the life Boy Willie brings into her household, making him unwelcome and devaluing and denigrating all he does. She sees his independence as troublesome: “He don’t want to do nothing unless he do it his way” (77). Such independent behavior in an African American is sure to create trouble in the white community, and Berniece prefers the easier road of capitulation.


Berniece is fearful of her heritage and of her own color, and she transmits this self-effacing fear to her own daughter, Maretha, encouraging her to conform to white expectations, teaching her to be quiet and unassuming, greasing down her hair to make her look more like a white girl. She conveys no inkling to the girl of her true African American heritage, refusing to pass on the family history and any trait she associates with African American life. Boy Willie sees her treatment of Maretha as stripping her of a valid identity. He believes that Maretha needs to be given a sense of her family in order to be able to build a pride in herself. This will allow Maretha to become a viable and valuable member of the African American community. Rather than view his color as limiting, Boy Willie sees it as liberating. He uses his family history as a source of strength and pride, unlike Berniece who sees that same past only as a source of shame and anguish.


However, despite his strength, Boy Willie cannot win the battle against the ghost alone—he needs the help of his sister and the support of his family. A lesson the piano teaches them is that they must be united before they can turn their former bondage into a full sense of freedom. The piano leads brother and sister to join together against their real enemy, Sutter, rather than fight each other. Berniece creates a song that draws on her past and her heritage to chase off the ghost. Her playing releases the piano’s spirits, as it acknowledges and embraces their presence; they rally to strengthen both her and Boy Willie, and the ghost is defeated. Since Berniece has rediscovered how to use the piano, Boy Willie is content to leave it with her as he heads back South. The play closes triumphantly with Berniece singing “Thank you” in celebration of her reconnection to her past, her family, and, through these, a stronger and more fulfilling life in the present.


Slaveship offers a selected history of slavery and its repercussions, beginning with the roundup of men, women, and children in Africa to be brought to America for sale. We witness the indignities and horrors of their sea voyage, their sale on the auction block, and life on the plantations where they mostly worked. The Reverend Turner tries to lead a revolution, but the whites are given advance warning from Tom, another slave, and the Reverend is hanged and the rebellion squashed. Baraka takes us through what he sees as a misguided embrace of white religion, up to the violence of a black nationalist uprising that leads to the beheading of the integrationist African American Preacher and restores to a people long deprived of such, a sense of community.


Slaveship tries to provoke its audience to action, to embrace Baraka’s vision of the African American as warrior rather than subservient underdog. Baraka believes that by showing African Americans their African origins and the indignities their ancestors survived during the Middle Passage and subsequent slavery, he may help them to rediscover a pride in their race and view the future with more dignity and purpose. White audiences are purposefully alienated—the first section of the play is mostly shrill, and predominantly in Yoruba—to allow them to better understand the alienation Africans felt being forcibly taken away from all they knew and transported to a foreign land.


Baraka intends for the play to arouse the maximum disgust in those who watch it. He creates an environment that includes the audience, eliminating any sense of separation between stage and audience. To involve the audience, actors crawl around in chains, howling, beneath the banked seating, run through the aisles, and toss a dead baby to an audience member. The seating encircles a re-creation of the steerage of a slave ship, with cramped living conditions, with a three-foot ceiling, no lighting, and slaves chained to the floor. We are not told what happened as much as visually shown the horrendous, claustrophobic conditions these people faced, which is a far more visceral and troubling experience. We watch as these people are dehumanized, stripped of their language and their freedom, separated from partners, friends, and children, and cramped into a stinking living space many would declare unfit for animals. Baraka even includes a pregnant woman, who is forced to give birth in such squalid surroundings.


Conditions are brutal, underscored by continual moans and cries, and demonstrated by various beatings, the torture and rape of Iyalosa, the force-feeding   with funnels of those who refuse to eat, and the callous way the sailors mock their “cargo.” The voices of Captain and sailors are tape recordings, to emphasize the dehumanization that occurs to those who dehumanize others. Those aboard, referred to as “black gold” by the Captain (190), have been taken away from everything familiar: land, people, heritage, even sunlight and fresh air. It is little wonder that as they struggle to survive, some become reduced to less than human behavior, with Dademi strangling herself and her child in despair, and Lalu, a former tribal leader, sexually attacking young Imani. At the slave sale we see them further treated like animals, one woman having her breasts exposed to make the sale, and the auctioneer calling the women “heifers” (205).


Yet a spirit and a tribal identity prevail, though grounded in revenge, as evidenced by the early resistance of men like Akoowa and Akano, who cannot break free but pray to black gods for weapons to fight the “Devils. White beasts. Shit eaters” (195). Most of the slaves resist when brought aboard the ship, and later the men break through the wall that divides them from their womenfolk and restore some of the unity they have lost. After chanting in Yoruba, they seem strengthened by hearing their own language, even in a song of sorrow. On the plantations, under the guidance of Reverend Turner, a rebellion is attempted, which is brutally quashed by the whites, who learn about it in advance from a fellow slave, Tom. By turning slave against slave, the whites rule all the more easily by fracturing the slaves’ sense of community.


On arriving at American shores two contrary identities emerge—the resistant warrior character who has been evolving on the voyage and is sworn to resist whites; and the caricatured “Southern coon,” an Uncle Tom figure who bows and scrapes to appease the oppressor and ingratiate himself. Tom’s self-deprecating, broken English, filled with compliments for the “bosses” and declarations of how happy he is with his condition while he sings and dances, is repulsive: “Yassa, boss, yassa massa Tim, yassa, boss I’se as happy as a brand new monkey” (200). Tom’s routine is alternated with a warrior dance and a women’s dance celebrating African roots. While Tom is a mask many African Americans wore to survive, it is one that destroys any sense of self and creates self-hatred. Through the warrior figure, Baraka declares the possibility for African Americans to recognize their life force and potential for power, and become heroes rather than clowns.


Baraka is as concerned with how whites have pressured African Americans to quietly accept their own enslavement as he is with the injustices of slavery itself. Slavery is both disturbing and ironic, taking place in a land supposedly built on liberty and freedom. Baraka insists that the exploitation and betrayals have not ended, largely because whites still refuse to accept culpability for what was done, which is one reason he omits any references to emancipation. One of the institutions he sees as attempting to restrict African Americans is the Christian church, so Tom becomes the foolish Preacher, mouthing gibberish and scratching his rear end, while persuading his parishioners to integrate and forget their African history.


In response to the Preacher’s insistence on nonviolence, Akano issues a battle cry and leads the enslaved in a song of rebellion and self-identification: “When we gonna rise up…. When we gonna lift our heads and voices/Show the world who we really are” (210). Atowoda further boosts their spirits by claiming that their African ancestry makes them descended from “The first man to walk this star” (210), while Iyalosa performs a Yoruban ritual. As the Preacher vainly cries for help from a white Jesus, he is killed by this inspirited group, indicating a victory over a religion that has sought to contain their justified rage. A Black Power banner is raised, which the cast salute, as they ask the audience to dance with them as the head of Preacher/Tom is tossed to a Yoruban chant. Thus Baraka displays the potential power that comes with an African American tribal identity and solidarity—the power to cast aside forever the yoke of slavery.


Mulatto is set in the South in the post-World War I era. Black housekeeper, Cora, has lived with white plantation owner, Colonel Thomas Norwood, for years, bearing him several children. Cora persuades the Colonel to educate their “mulatto” children so they might get good jobs up North, but he refuses to acknowledge them as his legitimate offspring. When Bert, their youngest child, was seven, the Colonel severely beat him for calling him “Papa” in front of whites. Bert has grown up angry and rebellious, refusing to accept his identity as a black man, seeing himself as white. Cora worries that Bert’s behavior will ruin their relatively comfortable situation, and the Colonel worries about how changing racial attitudes in the North might affect his plantation. He finds Bert’s attitude offensive to a point where he threatens to kill him. Bert and his father try unsuccessfully to connect, end up fighting, and Bert kills the Colonel. Trying to escape, Bert is cut off by a mob and returns to the house where, to the mob’s annoyance, he shoots himself rather than be caught.


The play comes out of the dilemma Hughes expressed in an early poem “Cross,” which illustrates the mulatto’s inner conflicts regarding “being neither white nor black.” The injustices suffered by Bert and Cora, and, indeed, all blacks in the rural South, are forcefully presented, but with Bert and Cora’s development the play goes beyond mere thesis drama. It is Bert’s stubborn pride (ironically inherited from his father) that brings about his downfall and death, more than his unhappy, untenable situation. He keeps insisting that people see and treat him as white, but this is simply not possible in such a society, as well as being an unfortunate negation of his entire African American heritage. Cora knows this, which is why she is so anxious to get her children educated, even at the cost of virtually prostituting herself, so they might be able to go North and live freer lives. In contrast to Bert, Cora shows patience and dignity as she waits for her son to realize the totality of his tragic situation.


However, Hughes also allows us to sympathize with the Colonel, who does struggle against his own prejudices. He wants his children to be educated and is proud of their success, but does not want blacks in general to be successful.   He cannot let go of what he sees as the perfect dream of Southern plantation life, when blacks knew their place and big money could be made by exploiting this subservient population. But his time as a privileged plantation owner is passing, as African Americans are gradually throwing off the psychological detritus of slavery and becoming too independent to work under the terrible conditions or for the poor pay he offers.


Although Bert looks nearly white, neither his father nor the town can see him as anything but black, so they cannot acknowledge the kinship Bert desires. Bert is almost lynched just for complaining to the white, female post office clerk about a damaged parcel. Bert is caught in a dilemma: he cannot be white but he does not want to be black, so he ends up hating both—and hating himself. Bert’s suicide indicates a new understanding, and can be seen as a final act of courage and self-determination. Cora provides the voice of reason; she understands the necessary compromises of life for blacks in the South and sees the future belonging to mixed children like hers, and her words of hope continue to ring, despite the tragedy enacted through her son.

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