Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is set in Pittsburgh in the fall of 1911. Slavery is almost half a century in the past, but it lives vividly in the memory of African Americans. The end of slavery, moreover, has not meant the end of enslavement. There is still Joe Turner. In exploring such realities of history and memory, the play powerfully develops the themes of movement, stability, and permanence, especially as these engage the relation of the individual struggle for personal freedom and meaning to the promise of community and heritage.
The enslavement of Herald Loomis by Joe Turner has both metaphorical and literal significance. As metaphor, Loomis’s enslavement refers to the African American experience of slavery. Loomis is torn arbitrarily from his family, as countless Africans were torn from their communities and forced into slavery and as many slaves were torn from their families. Loomis’s search for Martha recalls the quest for reunion that was the story of many African American families in the years following emancipation.
At the literal level, Loomis’s experience underlines the limits to African American freedom in a society that had theoretically abolished slavery long before. He is a victim of an arbitrary power that can turn against any African American of his generation, especially, but certainly not exclusively, in the South.
At both levels, Loomis’s story expresses the sense of rupture and...
(The entire section is 762 words.)
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Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is a play about African Americans cut adrift by slavery from their African past. Now technically free, they wander aimlessly without roots, looking for solace but often mistaking or not knowing what they really need, which is a sense of self-esteem and personal identity.
Bynum is the one character who has this quality, and he attempts to help others find it. Bynum says that every person has a “song,” a unique identity and purpose in life; some people, he says, cannot find their song, or forget it, or let someone else steal it. Bynum explains that in his vision on the rural road, he saw his Daddy, who showed him that Bynum’s song was the “Binding Song,” that his role in life was to bind people who belong together. Bynum’s confidence in his identity and purpose in life is unshakable. From the first scene in the play, Seth is openly skeptical and scornful of Bynum’s magical powers, but Bynum’s response is a cheerful insistence that he will know his song has been accepted “and worked its full power in the world” when he sees his second “shiny man.” Bynum’s magic does indeed work, for it reunites Martha and Zonia and helps Herald discover his own song, binding him to it for life and freeing him from the indignity he feels over his enslavement by Joe Turner.
Until the end of the play, Loomis thinks that he is simply looking for his wife so that he can turn his daughter over to her and...
(The entire section is 507 words.)
The primary theme in the play is the search for identity. Although Herald Loomis believes he is searching for his lost wife, Martha, the African conjurer, Bynum, lets him know that Herald is really searching for his song or identity. Herald has forgotten his song as a result of his seven-year enslavement by Joe Turner, a notorious Tennessee plantation owner that illegally enslaved free African Americans to work for him. Bynum tells Herald that Turner captured him, not just to work on his plantation, but to try to steal Herald’s song. Says Bynum: ‘‘Now he’s got you bound up to where you can’t sing your own song. Couldn’t sing it them seven years ‘cause you was afraid he would snatch it from under you.’’ Herald’s plight is representative of many African Americans in this time period who felt cut off from their African heritage as a result of the crippling effects of slavery.
The various characters in the play represent a cross-section of the different options that are open to African Americans trying to find their identities. At one extreme there are people like Seth, an African-American man who was born free in the North. Seth devotes his life to making money, embracing capitalism like many other American businessmen. When Selig tries to overcharge him for some inferior materials, Seth lets him know that he is not going to be fooled. Says Seth: ‘‘Don’t come talking that twenty-five cent stuff to me...
(The entire section is 1290 words.)