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The drama is part of Wilson's historical cycle in which he wished to chronicle the struggle of African- Americans decade by decade. In the case of the drama, Wilson is documenting the struggle for African- American identity in the 1910s. This is a time period in which African- American identity was "muddled." On one hand, African- Americans were firmly grounded in the idea that slavery was abolished. The condition that had defined so much of their identity had been removed. Yet, at the same time, the chains of enslavement were still experienced. The idea of "Joe Turner," as emphasized in the song, is that African- Americans, like Herald, were being taken into enslavement. At the same time, African- American migration to the North was embraced by so many that there was not even any potential for questioning as to how it would impact African- American identity. Seth notes as much in the drama: "Word get out they need men to work in the mill and put in these roads … and niggers drop everything and head North looking for freedom.’’ At the intersection of the challenges between the past and present, Wilson is able to illuminate how African- American identity is such a challenge.
For the characters in the boarding house, who they are and what shall they do becomes the critical issue in forming their identity. How they "find their song," as Bynum would put it, becomes the critical struggle in their being. Wilson wishes to illuminate this condition for the audience. African- American identity in the wake of slavery ending, the Great Migration starting, and in a time period in which the nation, itself, was experiencing massive shifts in its own identity made it very challenging for many African- Americans to fully understand who they are. It made the discovery of their "songs" to be a challenge. For Wilson, the search for identity is a delicate one in which the very essence of being cannot be sacrificed for elusiveness in the future that does not exist. African- Americans might have been "on the move," but through the drama, Wilson makes the argument that being "on the move" means nothing if there is no direction to such activity: ‘‘See, Mr. Loomis, when a man forgets his song he goes off in search of it … till he find out he’s got it with him all the time." Bynum's words to Herald about he will strive to find his song is applicable to the condition of African- Americans in the time period, who Wilson sees as struggling to find theirs. This becomes the fundamental message out of the drama.
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