Joe Turner's Come and Gone

by August Wilson

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What is the significance of the title Joe Turner's Come and Gone?

The title of the play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, is a reference to the blues song "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" by W.C. Handy. The song is about Joe Turner being freed from slavery, but he then has no place to go. Therefore, it represents Loomis' experience as a slave and after being freed.

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Quite simply, the significance of the title is in the title of a blues song with the same name:  "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."  Even though Joe Turner is not a character in this play, he is important in understanding these African-Americans in their quest for identity after slavery in that Joe Turner was the master who enslaved Herald Loomis.

We are introduced to the song (and the connection to the title of the play) "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" in the middle of the play when Bynum and Seth sit playing dominoes.  It is Herald Loomis who comes in and gets angry at the singing of the song.  Bynum pipes up and says that he knows Herald Loomis used to be one of Joe Turner's slaves and should remember the song.  This sparks a reverie by Herald Loomis about his enslavement to Joe Turner for seven long years.  After Loomis is released, Loomis has lost everything he holds dear:  his wife has left and his daughter has, too. 

In conclusion, the reader must understand that this song (and Loomis' experiece) is important both literally and metaphorically.  Loomis' story is important in itself in that Loomis is an important character; however, the story is also a metaphor for the entire slavery experience and the general African-American search for identity after the Civil War ended.  This, of course, continued into the 1900s which is when this piece of literature is set.

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What message is the author trying to convey in Joe Turner's Come and Gone?

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...

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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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