August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Piano Lesson,” set in 1936, revolves around a sibling conflict over a piece of property: Berniece Charles wants to keep an heirloom piano that was first acquired when white slaveholders sold her great-grandfather in the 19th century; now it is owned by her freed family. Her brother Boy Willie, on the other hand, wants to sell the piano and use the money to buy land.
The conflict is emotionally and ethically fraught: Should the family keep the piano as a reminder of its history and the past? Or sell it, to symbolically move on from that tortured history and turn past wrongs into practical gains?
For Sandy Alexandre, an associate professor of literature at MIT, the play is an example of the complicated relationship black Americans have with material possessions — the subject of a new book she is developing. Contrary to stereotypes about blacks prizing flashy, dispensable goods, Alexandre says, African-American literature is filled with complex psychological and historical meditations about what it means to own property in a country where blacks themselves were once property.
“I think literature tends to short-circuit that language of crass accumulation that we often find unfairly imputed to black people and their relationship to material possessions in popular culture,” Alexandre says.
It is also a case, Alexandre suggests, where literature reveals larger truths about life and produces moments of social connection that would otherwise escape us.
“What I love most about literature is that it facilitates empathy for, and acceptance of, other people,” Alexandre says. “It’s a space of virtual intimacy between human beings that creates the circumstances to enable actual intimacy in the real world. Life is big, messy, and sprawling. But a literary narrative organizes life and makes meaning out of it. There is something precious in that — in being able to hold the value of such meaning in your hand and eventually in your mind.”
Alexandre’s specialty is historically grounded literary scholarship that digs into America’s turbulent past. Her first book, “The Properties of Violence” (University Press of Mississippi, 2012), examined black American literary depictions of nature, property ownership, and dispossession alongside their relationship to lynching in the United States. For such scholarship, Alexandre received tenure this year at MIT — where she delights in teaching and connecting with students, as well.
“As a teacher, especially in the context of MIT, one has to be ready to answer the question of what’s at stake in literature,” Alexandre says. “To have an answer for students, to feel like you have gotten through to them and had an impact, is very satisfying — and also a nice reminder to myself that the strong belief that your subject matters helps to enchant the teaching.”
School and more school
Alexandre says she never imagined becoming a scholar until she had nearly completed her undergraduate degree, when a supportive professor urged her to consider graduate school. She grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, with parents who had immigrated from Haiti. Her father was an electrician and her parents kept a strict Catholic household, speaking predominantly in Creole.
“When I was young I did not anticipate that I would ever be a literature professor,” Alexandre says. She did, however, spend a lot of her time absorbed in books — from the Bible to “Gulliver’s Travels” and James Herriot’s stories about animals and their owners. “I did a lot of reading as a way of retreating into another world, as well as my own, mostly because I was, and still am, pretty introverted,” Alexandre explains.
After graduating from Erasmus Hall High School, Alexandre was accepted at Dartmouth College, which she attended at the urging of a guidance counselor. “I needed to be in a place that would discipline my attention, and Dartmouth was that place; it was a great education,” Alexandre says.
Near the end of her undergraduate years, a literature professor strongly suggested that she consider applying to graduate school. After taking a year off to work and study for her GREs, Alexandre enrolled in the PhD program at the University of Virginia, to the surprise of her parents, who were hoping she would become a doctor or a lawyer.
“When I told my mother I was going to graduate school, her response was, ‘Didn’t you just graduate?’” Alexandre recalls with a laugh. Still, at that point she knew she preferred to pursue a career that would allow her “to acquire skills that made me passionate about teaching, and about conceptual problems that deal with literature and culture.”
Created in history
At Virginia, Alexandre developed her dissertation, which became her first book, after deciding to write about blacks and nature generally. As she soon realized, the history of lynching kept influencing the texts she was studying.
“What the history kept telling me is there is something about the violence inflicted on black Americans, and popular images of dead black bodies in trees, that impinges on that relationship between representations of blacks and nature,” Alexandre says. Moreover, she adds, the study of literature often requires thinking in historical terms.
“These cultural works are not created in a vacuum,” she says. “They’re created in history, in time, so they are necessarily in conversation with that history.”
Circling back to her current book project, Alexandre cites Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” as another classic in which material possessions convey a weighty sense of history. In the book, the main character comes into possession of, among other things, a chain link from a friend who spent years on a chain gang.
“There’s something about these objects that the ‘invisible man’ encounters that allows him to feel, despite his many doubts, like he does indeed exist in the world, that he does matter, in both senses of the term,” Alexandre says. Those possessions, again grounded in a fraught history, “are helping to ground the protagonist as well, helping him feel like he is present in the here and now, and giving him a sense of possibility for the future. We learn something about the way objects can be germane to a healthy and stable sense of identity.”