A Lesson Before Dying is the story of the trial of Jefferson, an innocent man convicted of murder on the sole basis of his black heritage. Set in Louisiana during the racial tensions of the 1940s, the story chronicles Jefferson's trial and execution and their impact on the people surrounding the man himself. The novel's tone ranges from broadly cynical to vibrantly hopeful, encompassing the spirit of racial politics in America throughout the twentieth century.
The Piano Lesson, a play, is set in Pittsburgh in 1936, and shows a glimpse into the lives of the Charles family, particularly siblings Boy Willie and Berniece. The two have inherited an antique piano onto which their great-great-grandfather, a slave, carved stories of his life. Berniece wants to keep the piano, while Boy Willie wants to sell it so that he can use the money to buy the land where their ancestors toiled. The two's disagreement paints a poignant picture about the importance of a painful legacy.