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One of Wilson's primary expressions in the drama is the search for African- American identity. In the time of the drama, African- Americans were in the midst of a massive search for their "song," or identity. Slavery had ended, and there was a muddle as to what African- American identity was. Joe Turner occupies a major role in this on both literal and symbolic levels. As the song goes, Joe Turner still enslaved African- Americans even though slavery had been abolished. On the literal level, this helped to contribute to a challenging notion of identity because what was to be abolished still exists. On a symbolic level, Joe Turner represents that identity is an element of challenge in the modern setting, something that individuals must actively seek and forge in the midst of challenging elements.
For August Wilson, the search for African- American identity in the early 20th Century was set amidst a sea of obstacles. The ghost of slavery, the immediacy of the Great Migration North, as well as the reality of Joe Turner helped to construct a situation in which African- Americans were mired in the search for identity. The individuals featured in the drama were fundamentally challenged in this search for identity. As Bynum phrases it, the need to "find a song" is incredibly challenging for the characters in the drama.
This search for identity was further inhibited by the massive element of separation that impacted African- Americans. Herald and Martha endure separation, making the search for identity that much more challenging when families are broken. Bynum introduces the concept of the "binding song" early on in the drama. This idea of finding individualsindividuals who have been bound is part of what Wilson wishes to convey to the audience in terms of how the search for identity is challenging in the historical context of African- Americans. The need to "bind" one's "song" to another is complicated when physical separation in the form of Joe Turner or modernity is a reality that has to be navigated. In presenting the multiple layers to African- American identity formation, Wilson is able to express a historical and psychological condition of complexity and intricacy.
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