The Topic Of Relationships In The Tally Stick, Sonny's Blues, And The Piano Lesson

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At your current age, how would you describe the sum of your life? Would you include your relationships with friends or family? Humans were created as inherently social beings who are constantly striving to connect, interact, and become familiar with each other. Despite our instinctual desire for harmonious relationships, time has encouraged us to place focus and efforts into other things, rather than the creation of relationships. This leads to miscommunication and additional conflict which is represented within Ramsey’s “The Tally Stick”, Baldwin’s “Sonny's Blues”, and Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.

Within Jarold Ramsey’s expressive poem “The Tally Stick” the relationship of two individuals is explored in depth while being visually represented through a tally stick. Hand carved notches, arrowheads, and additional symbols are littered along the stick’s grain and hold significance of these individuals’ lives together. Over time, the stick has weakened and whittled down; the carvings embody the strength and patience found within their relationship. Ramsey reveals the memories tied to each tick mark, the most intricate carving representing the pair’s wedding day. As we form human relationships, our lives can be intertwined with others as “the grains converge and join” on the splintering stick. Reflecting, the narrator traces the stick’s texture with his thumb, allowing himself to rediscover the details of his past. Arrowheads, a symbol typically associated with acts of violence, are used to ironically represent the birthdays of their children. This intentional association suggests the purpose and direction an arrowhead holds and the guidance and experience children offer their parents. I have found that our family values are often a reflection of who we are and how we are raised. When we find ourselves capable of articulating and living out our instilled values, we are encouraged to be our most authentic self. Through reading “The Tally Stick” I was reminded of the significance of self-expression, problem-solving, growing from mistakes and developing the skills to foster strong relationships while living a fulfilling life.

While many individuals would consider family a central relationship within their life, Baldwin’s emotional short story “Sonny's Blues” redefines family as Sonny creates his own separate from the one he was born into. This piece emphasizes the importance of listening with an open heart to those you love. We often believe we know what is best for others, and because we love them strongly and want them to remain safe, we either do not or cannot, wait for them to open up and tell us what is happening within their hearts. Failing to listen to the wants and needs of those we surround ourselves with can become damaging to relationships as important pieces of communication can be lost. This correlates to the declining effort we place into our relationships, a consistent theme throughout “The Tally Stick,” “Sonny's Blues,” and Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. Unlike the narrator, Sonny’s brother, we must practice active listening; and attempt to reduce misunderstanding.

For me, the most conflicting area of the story is presented as Sonny begins to express his own relationship with suffering and explains his attempts of escaping this through drugs. He talks about the power of playing the piano and explains that sometimes he has no option other than to play. He tries to explain to his brother why he turned to drugs in the first place, but the narrator does not want to hear it. He blames the music for leading Sonny to heroin, and he tells Sonny how angry he is that he seems determined to end his life by being an addict. I want to empathize with Sonny and his brother as I am an older sibling myself and also an individual that strongly believes in the importance of artistic expression as a technique of healing the body and mind. I was disappointed with Sonny’s brother for failing to accept that people have different ways of working through things, and for not understanding that being a musician is not what turned Sonny into a drug addict.

It is apparent that misunderstanding and judgement have impacted the lives of the brothers, pain and sorrow plaguing their relationship. Sonny and his brother learn to cope with their pain, suffering, and desire for primacy from Harlem in different avenues. Sonny's brother desires to find a life outside his teaching career and wishes to live as Sonny does, careless and inattentive. Sonny lives life with avoidance and carelessness; he chalks up heroin to escape the caves of life in Harlem. The narrator tells many stories from their childhood to the time they are reunited as adults with the death of their parents adding to their distance. Sonny and his brother are both in deep search for a breakout from the filth and bareness of Harlem. In their own ways, both characters want to retrieve some of their past relationships to compensate for the hardship within their lives.

The story describes the characters’ intentions while they are riding in the cab, the narrator taking Sonny home. He discovers his own and explains, '…it came to me that what we both were seeking through our separate cab windows was that part of ourselves which had been left behind'. I find that this excerpt, as well as other flashbacks, brings us closer to understanding Sonny and the relationship between brothers; they both are desperate to find faded memories that are left behind of their childhood before the pain and misery entered their life.

Gripping to family history with hopes of reviving familial relationships is a theme shared between Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. The play follows the seemingly selfish intentions of Boy Willie, a stubborn man of action. His quest to make a mark on the world drives the action of the play, his interactions with his family frequently instigating conflict. He is determined to buy Sutter's land, where his family was originally enslaved. In order to achieve his goal, Boy Willie has decided that the family's historic piano is the fitting item to sell. The piano is in several ways symbolic of his family's struggles over the years and his sister Berniece thinks that selling it would be equivalent to selling their souls. It is easy to consider Boy Willie insensitive and Wilson even calls him, “crude.” Despite his first impressions, Boy Willie seems to care for his family’s history, valuing the memories of his ancestors throughout the play. He even takes the time to share elements of his family history with his niece, Maretha. This contrasts with Berniece’s parenting style, shielding her daughter from the potentially painful past. I found Boy Willie’s changing motivation interesting, eventually practicing active listening and allowing Berniece to keep the piano. As Berniece uses the piano to call to the family’s ancestors, an attempt to banish Sutter’s ghost, Boy Willie is convinced that the family heirloom has a value that it deeper than money or physical land. Although he does not accomplish his original goal, Boy Willie has managed to impact his sister’s view of the past. Berniece recognizes the importance of embracing the past as part of the family history, allowing the piano to bring her strength. Boy Willie reminds her of her internal strength as he leaves, saying, 'Hey Berniece…if you and Maretha don't keep playing that piano…ain't no telling…me and Sutter both liable to be back.' Wilson’s piece ultimately speaks to the significance of character interactions, including conflict, and the themes of family history and relationships.

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We live in a connected world. A world founded in family relationships, business relationships, community relationships and beyond. A relationship has little potential without connection, regardless of how we individually define what it means to be connected. We are to embrace our desire to connect, interact, and form fulfilling relationships. We should strive to overcome the temptation to place the entirety of our focus into other areas of our lives while fostering the relationships we currently hold. If we are able to adopt this mentality, we have the potential to avoid the miscommunication and pain that interrupts relationships. Allow yourself to struggle if it is to shape you; considering adversity’s positive influence on the characters within Ramsey’s “The Tally Stick,” Baldwin’s “Sonny's Blues,” and Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.

Essay 2: The Piano Lesson, How I Learned to Drive (Education of Maturation)

John Huston Finley, a former Professor of Politics at Princeton University, reflected on maturity; defining it as “the capacity to endure uncertainty” (Maturity). Each individual has a moral obligation to attain maturity and a sense of self as we age. Some mature early in life, while others never fully reach emotional maturation. Although maturity is not a natural consequence of aging, an individuals’ willingness to experience life while having the flexibility to adapt and change can support personal growth. We must also learn to respect the differences and perspectives of others, considering that maturity can be categorized as a discipline rather than a trait. It is ultimately a sign of intelligence, learning to properly respond to your environment with intentions of responsibility. Through Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, characters embody maturity and confirm it to be a discipline that is learned rather than acquired.

Within Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, Boy Willie introduces the play’s central conflict. His character drives the plot, shaping the dramatic structure of the play. His impulsive nature encourages a lofty goal of selling the family’s heirloom, a hand-carved piano, to purchase Sutter's land, where his family was originally enslaved. This, in addition to revealing stage directions, represents his brash character and childlike inclinations. In contrast to his tendency to seemingly disregard his family’s traumatic past, he is especially passionate regarding questions of race. He refuses to accommodate the current racial situation, declaring himself equal to his white peers. He insists that he is deserving of a higher quality of life, sparking his intentions of impacting the world around him. Willie seeks Sutter's land as a means of leveling the playing field with his white neighbor. Sutter’s land contrasts from the setting of the play’s action, Doaker Charles’ home which lacks warmth and vigor despite Berniece’s presence. Adding value to himself and attempting to add respect behind his family’s name, Willie is demonstrating emotional maturity. The Piano Lesson is a testimony to Willie’s personal growth and relationship with maturity as his environmental awareness increases throughout the piece. He begins to more successfully understand and manage his emotions, maintaining a calmer exterior; recognizing that vision and empathy have the potential to work for and against one another. Willie begins to take responsibility for his own happiness, creating goals and defining a flexible plan for individual and familial success. He additionally learns to respect boundaries, recognizing when it is appropriate to stop arguing. Allowing Bernice to keep the piano, Willie is accepting that the family heirloom has a value that it deeper than money or physical land. He has come to respect the perspectives of his family, relaxing his body language and tone, no longer indulging in comparisons of an alternative lifestyle.

As Boy Willie accepts change within himself, Li’l Bit embraces internal change and finds control within the chaos of her life. Despite this growth, the structure of the piece defies the natural process of aging. Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive presents Li’l Bit as a grown woman in her thirties and moves backward through her life. This intentional element of drama reveals the details of her relationship with Peck in a style that varies from her true experience. In the opening scene, Li’l Bit is seventeen and presents the audience with a bold statement claiming, “I am very old, very cynical of the world, and I know it all.” Questioning assumptions that typically connect chronological development and maturity, the piece redefines the significance of growing up.

Similar to Willie’s grasping of his moral responsibility, Li’l Bit begins to comprehend her potential for emotional development. Ultimately terminating the unhealthy relationship with her uncle that she has fostered for years, she acknowledges the events that originally drove her to him. Her name, a symbol, is suggestive of the kind of background she comes from, in which family members have nicknames with sexual connotations. She relishes in the attention that he gives her throughout the years, accepting gifts and posing for individual photoshoots. When she begins to develop, her mother and grandparents make her self-conscious, and children make her feel like and outcast at school, but Peck speaks to her sympathetically. We can ultimately conclude that the relationship is questionable; Peck’s desire for control overpowers his seemingly calm and careful demeanor. He appears gentle, depressed and clean of the standard “predatory monster” characteristics. His character, fascinating to Li’l Bit, likely increases her desire to care for Peck and defend him from rumors of scandal. In order for the audience to understand Li’l Bit’s decisions, they must understand that this is not a typical story of a one-dimensional abuse but represents the uncomfortable encounters of two damaged people. They must additionally recognize the nature of learning within her character and understand that their ability to predict her character is rooted within personal expectations and familiarity with dramatic character roles. Identifying Li’l Bit as the protagonist and understanding the limitations of time, the audience accepts Li’l Bit as far from “typical innocent victim” with little hesitation. The piece encourages the audience to sympathize with and in a way admire Li’l Bit while we are to interpret Peck in a negative light.

For Li’l Bit, learning to mature means understanding, rather than simply accumulating experience, and her process of understanding unfolds in a scattered timeline. Despite her young age during the earliest chronological scene, Li’l Bit is intellectually mature. She understands her situation more clearly than many adults would and conceals any blame she knows Peck deserves. Learning from her family to hold a mature perspective of sex at a young age, Li’l Bit allows knowledge to obscure her need for emotional growth. The most vital element of this growth requires her to distance herself from her family, especially from Peck. She eventually releases Peck’s presence, feeling grateful to him for the freedom of driving. Symbolically leaving the past behind her, Li’l Bit visualizes Peck in her rearview mirror. Her conscious decision to drive off distances her from the uncertainties she previously endured, proving her maturity within the eyes of Professor Finley. This release additionally satisfies the hopes and possible expectations of the audience, completing the cycle of plot and wrapping up the remaining details of the piece.

Although maturity does not directly correlate with typical education, learning and maturation are closely interrelated. Maturation often compensates for the gaps of change that learning presents an individual. Through Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, Boy Willie and Li’l Bit discover the significance of learning maturity for the protection of relationships, safety, and the increased potential for a rewarding life. Working to understand the impact they have on those around them, the characters embrace their emotional growth and recognize the substance found within their experience.

Works Cited

  1. “Maturity Is the Capacity to Endure Uncertainty.” The BMJ, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, 3 Dec. 2018,
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The Topic Of Relationships In The Tally Stick, Sonny’s Blues, And The Piano Lesson. (2021, September 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 24, 2024, from
“The Topic Of Relationships In The Tally Stick, Sonny’s Blues, And The Piano Lesson.” Edubirdie, 28 Sept. 2021,
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