As ‘a scholarly study of literature connects or compares works from different genres by using one literary element’, this scholarly study will endeavor to follow this very principle by comparing and connecting the element of theme in the plays Piano Lesson by August Wilson and A Raisin in the sun by Lorraine Hansberry. More importantly the paper will highlight the fact that the African American background of the two authors has compelled them to draw the reader’s attention toward the conflicts born in the African American families because of the prevalent racial discrimination.
The two texts represent the race and ethnic issues faced by their characters and the authors view the issue of racism and the problems with different perspectives. The common theme is that the authors have chosen the African American characters to depict the reality of African American experience.
Like most of the other works in English literature these three wonderfully written works emphasize the importance of cultural society and draw attention to the black race specifically in the stories. All these works mention that blacks are discriminated and hate by the society and the black women have the feel of depression and they find it very difficult to stay happy in the society of white people. Feminism and the racism is the common theme of these three works.
These literary works are concerned with the rights of black people and their feelings of depression, sadness and misery have been represented through the characters in the plays. They have examined existing configurations and discrimination of communities, exemplifying dominant literary metaphors of race. These authors understood the need of telling the history and raise the voice for the rights of African Americans and for that they used their pens to accomplish the needs.
The time when when these writers wrote these plays there was “Black Power” or “Black Nationalism” going on that is the people had beagun to realize the discrimination, and many blacks wanted to discover and discuss their ancestors and African root, all the blacks especially the youngsters of that age and were standing to refuse and reject their American heritage because this heritage gave them only the injustice, pains, criticism and hate from the white people who always thought they are superior. (Wayne, 2010) these plays, are a tale set in America where whites are more privileged than black people.
Like other writers concerned with race representation, August Wilson’s main concerns was the true and exact representation of the African American experience. "The inability to repress, control, manipulate, and right the histories of race has repeatedly affected the social and cultural dynamics of African American life" (Elam, 2004). His argument was that only African-Americans should have the final word in accurately and completely describing the African American experience. What he called "foreign", which is non-African Americans representations of their experience is a big problem for him.
Wilson’s task, shared by many black American writers, is a commitment concurrently reactive / constructive representation of blacks and the representation of their history by the dominant culture.... In this sense, the communication of history becomes an essential ritual by which his characters achieve empowerment of self-knowledge, a tangible sense of self-worth and dignity (Morales, 1994).
Thus, in his ten-play cycle he wanted to present an interpretation of African American history by the man who was heir to the product of this history and therefore able to present a direct account of the results of this long history .
Wilson wrote that "blood memory" is a guide to its creation. The memory of blood - the idea that there are inherent experiences, some inborn knowledge that blacks remember simply because they are black - also has the potential to appear essentialized (Elam,2004).
According to Harry J. Elam, August Wilson’s blood memory was not a natural thing,
Rather it was a “…representation that dramaturgically blurs the lines between figurative and real….Central to Wilson’s dramaturgical project is the idea that one can move forward into the
future only by first going back” (xviii-xix).
Similarly Lorraine Hansberry, a young African American writer was much influenced by the wealth of literature generated during the Harlem Renaissance, which supported philosophies of pride, strength and resistance against white racism. The principles communicated by poetry, music and the literature of that period motivated black Americans to systematize and support each other to struggle for real and long-lasting social change. Literacy and education were of the highest importance after centuries of enforced illiteracy and were thought of as the first step towards the elevation of the race; Individual enlightenment was sought and fed by whole families, and communities, in a push to rise from the abyss of subjugation. A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry’s work of genius, was answer to the fundamental question posed by Langston Hughes in his poem about the deferred dream
“Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
The play represents a remarkable synthesis of ideas and experiences. As in the play, Hansberry explores the true story of the fight her parent fought against racism, but she grounds the play on reasons of history and the philosophy advocated by the intellectuals like Langston Hughes and Marcus Garvey.
Both these plays act as a window that reflects the African American experience of their time period. These plays help the reader to see into the past, and get an authentic sense of what the times were like for the characters.
Fully aware of the immeasurable damage done by centuries of misrepresentation, Hansberry in this play carefully constructed characters that were both authentic and archetypal. In the comfort and confines of their own culture, the Youngers discuss serious issues facing the country with the depth and application of their own experience. Audience witness the frustration Walter Lee feels at the mask of stereo typical black man he has wear every day as he is the driver of a rich white man. Their conversations happen organically as the whites try to interfere with the lives of characters. When Ruth, Walter Lee's wife, receives a phone call from the wife of the man her husband works, her voice is staid, monitored and impeccably polished. She is submissive, masking much of the world-wearied wisdom she displays in the conversations with her family. Walter Lee is also aware of the expectations of white people from black that is to be submissive and coward. When he considers abandoning the home his mother had bought in the white community of Clybourne Park, he imitates the tragic representation of black inferiority expected by the whites.
I’m going to look that son-of-a-bitch in the eyes and say—
“that’s your neighborhood out there. You got the right to keep
it like you want. . . Just write out the check and—our house is
yours.” …Maybe I’ll just get down on my black knees, “Captain,
Mistuh, Bossman. A-hee-heehee! Yassssuh! Great White Father,
just gi’ ussen de money, fo’ God’s sake, and we’s ain’t gwine out
deh and dirty up yo’ white folks neighborhood…”( Hansberry,2000)
Hansberry contrasted black life in the real world with the expectations of black-white behavior to shed light on both the strength and sacrifice of being black in America needed. This is a significant divergence of representing black life in white culture.
Similarly Wilson’s play The Piano Lesson is about a brother and sister who have inherited a family heirloom, a piano, on which body the faces of their Grandmother and father have been carved into by their great-grandfather, who were sold as slaves so the white landowner could afford the instrument. The brother, Boy Willie, wants to sell the piano to buy the land on which his family worked as slaves. The sister, Bernice, cannot bear to part with it.
“The central fact of black American life – the long shadow of slavery – transposes the voices of Mr Wilson’s characters, and of the indelible actors who inhabit them, to the key that rattles history and shakes the audience on both sides of the racial divide.” ( NY Times.)
Wilson like Hansberry also tries to reflect the African American bitter experience of life and the hope that this discrimination will end soon with the courageous struggle from the African Americans for their rights. As the character Boy Willie, the great-grandson of a slave, cries out: “That’s all I wanted. To sit down and be at ease with everything, but I wasn’t born to that. When I go by on the road and something ain’t right, then I got to try and fix it.” (Wilson, 1998)
The character’s vow to decide his own future echoes the vow of Wilson and all African-Americans who have struggled for equal opportunists. Mary Ellen Snodgrass, the author of August Wilson: A Literary Companion, writes that “The family heirloom in The Piano Lesson (1990), the old upright piano is a psychologically charged bas[e] relief illustrating the Charles clan’s progression from servitude to the Robert Sutter family to a hardy, enduring extended family surviving [slavery and] the Great Depression” (2004). Additionally the piano also represents the family’s’ strength and ancestral slavery history, and reminds the family of their past.
Apart from that the role of the female characters in both plays is that of binding force that keeps the family and the past values alive and meaningful. As it is Mamma and Ruth in A Raisin in the sun and Berniece in The Piano lesson who struggled to keep the family heritage and dreams intact.
In these works the authors have indicated and discussed the psyche of a black woman as well, the common theme is that they have presented what a black woman believes about herself and the society she lives in and what she is told about herself. Most black women feel that to be pretty or to be loved they must look a certain way, jsut like the girl Grace who goes on a date with Wille.
Hence it can be said that both African American writers represent the race and ethnicity in a profound way and they are successful in making the reader aware of the racism issues, the segregation of black race in the society and internal conflicts it led among the blacks. These works aptly describe the eras they were written in and the behavior of the white society towards the black people.