Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1927
It is morning again, and while Bertha busies herself in the kitchen, Seth rants about Herald. He wants to force Herald to leave the boardinghouse. Bertha tries to argue with him, but to no avail. Jeremy has gone off to work, building the new road. Molly, Bynum, and Mattie enter the kitchen for breakfast. When Herald comes downstairs, Seth informs him that he can’t have any carrying on and that Herald and Zonia have to leave. Herald refuses to leave, asserting that he has already paid for the whole week, so he will stay until Saturday. Seth gruffly consents, and Herald stalks out of the house. Molly asks Bynum if he’s one of those "voo-doo" people. Bynum explains about the Binding Song and the power it gives him to bind people to one another. He tells Molly that his father had the power to heal people by singing over them. Molly declares that that kind of thing is too spooky. Offended, Bynum leaves for work. Mattie says that she, too, must go to work, ironing and cleaning at Doc Goldblum’s. Molly tells Mattie that she never wants to iron another person’s clothes or do anyone else’s work. She asks Mattie if Jeremy is her man, implying that Mattie wouldn’t need to work if Jeremy was taking care of her. Mattie tells Molly that she and Jeremy are just keeping each other company for a while. Molly says that she doesn’t trust any men; she never met a man who meant anyone any good. She says she won’t be tied down with any babies and that she loves no one but her mama. Mattie leaves for work.
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Right after Mattie exits, Jeremy enters, having been fired from his job for refusing to pay an extortion fee to a white man who was demanding that all the black laborers pay him. Seth can’t understand why Jeremy wouldn’t just pay the fee and keep his job, but Jeremy says that the sudden fee made no sense to him and that he can always find a new place to stay and a new job. Jeremy sees Molly, then, and asks her to go away with him. Molly points out that he is already with Mattie, but Jeremy tells her that he was just keeping Mattie company because she is lonely. He tells Molly that she is not the lonely kind, that she knows what she wants and how to get it, and that these qualities make her the type of woman he wants to travel with. He tries to persuade her by talking about how much money he can make in guitar contests. Molly informs him that she will not work, she’s not up for sale, and she is absolutely not going South. Jeremy assures her that she won’t have to work, and the scene ends with their implicit agreement to go off together.
As the second scene opens, Seth and Bynum are sitting in the parlor playing dominoes. While he plays, Bynum sings the song “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” The song lyrics are written from the perspective of a woman whose man has been taken away by Joe Turner to work in a chain gang. Bynum explains this to Seth, who is irritable as usual. Herald walks through the parlor and into the kitchen, where he sits eating a plateful of yams with his hands. Bynum continues singing the song. Herald asks Bynum why he is singing that particular song and tells Bynum that he doesn’t like that song. Seth pounces on another opportunity to remind Herald that he must leave if he starts any disturbances in the house. A conciliatory Bynum offers to sing a different song, but Seth tells him to hush up. Bynum starts talking about farming and says he reckons that everyone has had to pick cotton at some point. Seth reminds Bynum that his father was born free, so he never had to pick cotton. Bynum then asks Herald if he ever worked at farming or picking cotton. Bynum says that he can tell just by looking at Herald that he’s done that kind of work. Bynum can look at a person and see his song written on him, but when he looks at Herald, he sees a man who has forgotten his song. Herald has forgotten how to sing his song and hence has forgotten who he is and what is his role in life. This is how Bynum can tell that Herald used to work on Joe Turner’s chain gang and that he has lost his song and now is searching for it again. Herald initially rejects Bynum’s observations, insisting that he is not a marked man. But when Bynum just responds by continuing to sing the Joe Turner song, Herald tells his story. In 1901, Joe Turner caught him along with a group of men. Herald had been out walking on a road just outside of Memphis when he was grabbed. Turner took Herald away when Herald's daughter was a small baby and kept him for seven years. When Herald was finally freed, he returned to the place where he and his wife, Martha, had been sharecroppers, but Martha had left her daughter with her mother and had disappeared. Herald tells Bynum and Seth that he and Zonia have been looking for Martha for the past four years. Herald just wants to see his wife’s face, to get a starting point for finding his place in the world. He says that he has been wandering for a long time in somebody else’s world and that it’s time he found his wife and made his own world. Herald asks Bynum what would a big man like Joe Turner want with him? Bynum tells Herald that men like Joe Turner just want to steal other men’s songs. Joe Turner made Herald forget his song, Bynum tells him, but Herald still has his song. He just needs to recall how to sing it. While Bynum is saying all this, Herald recognizes Bynum and tells him that he must be one of the bones people from his vision; that is, Bynum is himself a former slave.
The next morning’s scene opens in the kitchen again with Bertha working in the kitchen as usual. Bynum and Mattie sit at the table. Bynum reassures Mattie that the good luck charm he gave her works but that sometimes good luck is hard to recognize. Bynum goes upstairs and Herald enters. Bertha warns Mattie not to get too involved with Bynum’s practices and not to fret over the loss of Jeremy. Bertha says that she knew what was coming when she first met Molly. She guessed that Molly was the type of woman to run off with Jeremy, but Molly is just using Jeremy to keep from being alone. Bertha also tells Mattie that Jeremy was too immature for her and that Mattie needs a man with some understanding to him. Like Bynum had done, though in different words, Bertha also reassures Mattie that her time is coming. When Seth and Bertha exit the kitchen, Herald and Mattie begin to chat. Mattie tells Herald she hopes that he will find his wife. Herald explains that he wishes to find her so that he can find his starting place in life and a world that he can fit in. Mattie admits that she has never felt like she fits in, either, but that she believes that a person must start from where he finds himself. They talk about losing their partners, Martha Loomis and Jack Carper. All this time, Herald has become drawn to Mattie. He tells her that she has become part of his mind and that he knows she is also thinking of him. He approaches and touches her awkwardly but gently, but he finds he has forgotten how to touch a woman.
Scene one elaborates on the contrast between the characters of Mattie and Molly to the extent that they function as foils for each other. Foil is a literary term that is applied to any character who through contrast emphasizes the distinctive characteristics of another character. Mattie appears to be dependent, lonely, longing for long-term companionship, and somewhat static in that she doesn’t appear to be the traveling or migrating type. Molly appears to be independent; she claims she doesn’t need a man or a job. She is more self-confident and self-sufficient. Whereas Mattie is trusting, Molly asserts that she does not trust anyone except God. The two women appear to be opposites, each illuminating the contrasting qualities of the other. However, in some ways, Mattie seems to be the more stable woman, holding a job and paying her own way, while Molly refuses to work, and seems to decide to run away with Jeremy only after he promises her she will never have to work. Mattie remains capable of love, although she has had her heart broken in the past; in contrast, Molly announces that she doesn’t love anyone but her mother. For all her strengths, Molly seems to need to be financially taken care of, while Mattie is financially independent (whether or not she wants to be).
Herald’s story about being kidnapped, separated from his family, and forced illegally to work on a chain gang reveals that even after slavery was ended, black people were still forced to live and work in dehumanizing conditions. Through this experience, Herald has lost his identity—his song. Bynum relates to Herald’s loss because Bynum lost his identity in the same way. Just as Bynum’s father helped restore Bynum’s identity by giving him his song, Bynum is trying to enable Herald to recover his song and his identity.
Interestingly, Mattie is a main focus of this act, and she is also the character to voice the greatest wisdom. Jeremy has run off with Molly, leaving Mattie behind. Scene three begins with Bynum and Bertha each in their own way attempting to help Mattie be at peace with her more recent loss. Each counsels her to be patient, that something good will eventually happen to her if she will wait for it and have the insight to recognize it when it comes. Bynum’s and Bertha’s counsel should be seen as foreshadowing; that is, the beginning of the scene prepares the reader for the end of the scene, in which Herald appears to be the “good luck” for which Mattie has been waiting and hoping.
Herald’s awkward attempt to court Mattie follows Bynum’s and Bertha’s counsel. But at this point in the play, Herald is still lost to himself, and the recovery of his identity and song—and his ability to truly see and love another woman for herself—remains impeded by his search for his lost wife. Herald holds to the conviction that he must find Martha in order to find his way in the world. Mattie expresses the wiser notion that a person must start from where he finds himself. In other words, Herald must see himself, re-examine his situation, and begin to find his fit in the world from that place, rather than chasing after another person or basing his identity on the search for his wife. It would appear that many of the other characters in this play—Jeremy and Molly, for instance—might benefit from this advice as well.