Summary and Analysis: Act I, Scenes 3-4

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1456

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New Character
Molly Cunningham: an attractive young woman looking for a temporary place to stay

Summary
It is the next morning, Sunday. Seth and Bertha are getting ready for church. Seth complains that he can’t persuade some local men to financially back him in the tinsmithing business he wants to start, making pots and pans. Bertha tells him to quit wasting time and that the sermon won’t wait for him to finish talking. Jeremy enters the kitchen waving the dollar he won at the previous night’s guitar contest. He asks Seth if he can invite Mattie to Sunday dinner. Then he asks if Seth would permit Mattie to move into the boardinghouse to live with him. Seth reminds him of the increase in money Jeremy will have to pay, but ultimately agrees. Bynum overhears this exchange and attempts to offer Jeremy some advice about women. He says a man can’t just grab hold of a woman and jump into bed with her. A man ought to recognize that when he looks at a woman, he is looking at a whole world, a way of life. If a man realizes this, then the woman can make something out of him, just like his mother did when he was a child. Bynum tells Jeremy that it is foolish to see a woman walking down the street and instantly decide to take up with her. A smart man knows that, like water and berries, a woman can provide all he needs in order to live. Bynum says that Jeremy must learn to see the whole woman and all she can offer him, not only the potential for a physical relationship. Jeremy is too young to heed this advice, for just at that moment, a good-looking young woman, Molly Cunningham, knocks on the parlor door and enters. Jeremy’s heart jumps out of his chest at the sight of her. Molly asks to rent a room for the week until she can catch the next train to Cincinnati. When Seth agrees to board her, she informs him that she’s the kind of woman who likes some company, who doesn’t like to be by herself. Seth tells her that his is a respectable house and that he will not tolerate any riffraff, or fussing and fighting. Molly agrees to Seth’s conditions and exits the room, with Jeremy watching her go. Smitten, Jeremy tells Bynum he thinks he knows what Bynum was talking about.

Scene four takes place later Sunday evening. All the residents of the house except for Herald are sitting around the kitchen table, having finished their communal dinner of fried chicken. Mattie has moved in with Jeremy, and she politely compliments Bertha’s cooking and asks if she can help Bertha with the dishes. Bynum sits comfortably half asleep after the big meal. Seth hollers at him that he wants to “Juba.” Bynum thinks this a good idea and begins to drum on the table, while Seth pulls out his harmonica and begins to play. According to the scene direction, the Juba is a call-and-response dance reminiscent of the Ring Shouts of African slaves. Ring Shouts derived from the meshing of Christian doctrine with African spiritual traditions. In this Juba, Bynum calls the dance, while the others clap hands and shuffle and stomp around the table. The song mentions the Holy Ghost, and Herald overhears this (from another room, off-stage) and bursts in, enraged. The Juba stops abruptly as Herald shouts at the dancers. He tells them the Holy Ghost will come and burn them up. He asks why God became so big. Then he begins to mimic their dance. Seth starts after him, telling him he’s lost his mind. Herald turns on Seth and says the he’s seen some things that he doesn’t have the words to describe. Herald walks toward the front door to leave and is thrown back, collapsing from a vision. Bynum talks him through the vision: Herald says he sees bones rising up out of water. The bones are walking on top of the water, marching in a line, and then begin to sink down. A wave comes up and washes the bones onto land, and the bones become black people’s bodies, laying on the shore. Herald becomes one of the bodies, laying there and waiting. In the vision, the wind blows breath into Herald’s body, and as the breath enters his and the others’ bodies, everyone stands up and begins to walk. Though in the vision Herald is compelled to stand up, in real life he finds himself unable to stand. Still inhabiting the vision, Herald insists that he must stand up and get on the road, but his legs will not move.

Analysis
In scene three, we learn that while Seth may have benefited from being born in the North to free parents, he still encounters racism on a daily basis. This is demonstrated in his failure to persuade a couple of local white businessmen to loan him the capital to start his own business. Meanwhile, Bynum’s conversation with Jeremy hints at the misunderstandings that occur between men and women. Arguably, the tension between the sexes during this period of increased mobility and loss of identity was a consequence of slavery, a time when families—husbands and wives, parents and children—simply could not count on being permitted to stay together by the white people who owned them. Mattie has experienced loss and desires cohesion in a relationship. Jeremy, however, does not attend to Mattie’s emotional needs; rather he has a weakness for a pretty face and a willing body. Just when Jeremy has decided to live with Mattie, he meets Molly, whom he falls for instantly. Jeremy’s ready attraction to Molly demonstrates how quickly he would abandon Mattie, and this speaks to the difficulties that single and kin-less black women encountered. Bynum urges Jeremy to respect the women he goes around with, as he would respect his mother. Unlike Mattie, Molly is another traveler, and she represents one possible way of being a black woman on her own in a free world. She is independent and self-aware, and she does not apologize for her desires for companionship, although some folks may view these desires as improper. Mattie seems to be the weaker woman, decidedly more dependent on men and longing for some stability in her romantic relationships. In contrast, Molly is more self-assured, self-reliant, and comfortable with transient or temporary relationships; she is just passing through, following her own path.

The two most significant elements of scene four are the Juba and Herald’s vision. The Juba is a hybrid African American song and dance that results from the mixing of Western and African traditions. As such, the Juba represents the possibility of new, hybrid identities that African Americans can claim: the former slaves are still African, but they are also American. It is as if the Juba participants have access to both Christianity and African spirituality. The Juba also functions to bring the different residents of the boardinghouse together, even temporarily, as a community. Recreational and spiritual practices such as the Sunday dinner and the Juba are ways that alternative family-style communities are formed during this period of increased mobility.

Herald’s vision symbolically details the horrifying process by which the African slaves lost their cultural identities. First, they cross the ocean, many of them dying on the way. This crossing was called the Middle Passage and was notorious for the numbers of Africans who died—from illness, overcrowding, or less frequently through mutiny or other acts of rebellion—and whose bodies were tossed into the sea. In Herald’s vision, the horrors of the Middle Passage are represented by the bones rising up out of the water. Then the bones, the African slaves, arrive on the shores of America and are subjected to slavery. In Herald’s vision, the bones become flesh but are immobilized. That is, they are bodies, but they are not fully alive. This immobilization represents the dehumanizing conditions of slavery. When in the vision the black bodies begin to breathe and stand up, this evokes the liberation of the slaves. Herald’s inability to stand up and walk, to go on the road with the others, indicates that he has not been mentally or spiritually liberated from the conditions of slavery or forced labor. He does not participate in the Juba, or join in any of the boardinghouse community-building practices or events, because he has not yet grasped his ability to forge a new identity as a free man; he is not ready to relate to others as an equal.

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Summary and Analysis: Act I, Scenes 1-2

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Summary and Analysis: Act II, Scenes 1-3