What Carol's Daughter, Shea Moisture, and The Piano Lesson Taught Me About Legacy
It took me a long time to get it, and I'm not sure why. It's hard for me, you know? I was raised by children of the Civil Rights Movement who were raised by children of the depression, who were raised by the sons and daughters of slaves.
I should get it. But I can admit that until I recently saw a scene from August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, I did not get it. But I do now. I get it now.
Let me back up a bit. In recent years, high-profile black Entrepreneurs like Lisa Price of Carol's Daughter, and Sundial Brands have faced serious criticism for selling their companies to larger and white(r) corporations. These actions can feel like betrayal to the throngs of loyal Diasporians across the world who look to these brands not only for our hair care, but also for a sense that we can still operate from a "for us, by us" mentality even at the highest levels of business.
To be sure, the backlash to these decisions has been both heartfelt and harsh. Lisa Price speaks of simply having to disconnect from Social Media during the breaking of her company's sale story. The people behind Sundial Brands have also taken major public scrutiny for their decisions. More than anything though, these sales cause us to think about the seemingly binary choice that major black companies must make. Do we sell our visible, profitable black brands and use the money to build generational wealth? Or do we hold on to those brands, like The Ford or Hilton families, and keep our hands on the companies we've worked to establish?
For some, it feels like a no-brainer. If we sell and put our companies in white hands, then we've given up our chance to establish economic legacies. Our story ends when we sign over control to Unilever or L'Oreal. For others though, the windfall that comes from being able to sell creates the kind of "old money" wealth that, frankly, many Black Americans could only ever dream of. So then, what do we do? How do we respond to the opportunity to cash out of the businesses we bleed for, and what is the real cost?
For me, this is where The Piano Lesson comes in. In the play which is set in 1936, Boy Willie travels from Mississippi to his sister Bernice's home in Pittsburgh to convince her to allow him to sell their centuries old Family Piano, and use the profit to buy the land that his family once worked as sharecroppers. The piano carries serious sentimental value, and in many ways carries the very spirit of their ancestors, mostly through the presence of word carvings on the face of the instrument. Boy Willie sees the sale of the piano as the only way to finally achieve freedom from the financial and spiritual bondage that his family has carried since slavery. Bernice, on the other hand, seems to understand the much deeper significance of the piano and its' importance in the family. For Bernice, what will be gained in the sale of the piano does not outweigh that which will be lost. And in watching the exchange between Boy Willie and Bernice, I finally got it.
Sure, we can always sell the piano and gain the financial advantages that come with it. We'll have the money, then we'll have Old Sutter's Land, then we'll have the money from the crops we grow there, and so on. But what will we give up to get that land? What will we lay aside in order to grasp financial "freedom"? In The Piano Lesson, the spirits of the ancestors are called when Bernice plays the piano. In our businesses, our ancestors fill the very efforts we put to use when we build up our companies. As has been said, we Black Entrepreneurs are indeed our ancestor's wildest dreams.
So, when I get to Heaven, and stand before my oldest known relative, Caleb Ruff, I want to tell him that I took what I had and shared it with my children. I want to be able to tell Great x4 Grandpa Caleb that I held on to what he left for me and built on top of it. I want to tell him that I didn't cash in his legacy, and that back down on Earth, my kids are still playing the family piano.
It took me a long time to get it, and I'm not sure why. But now, I get it.