Joe Turner's Come and Gone

by August Wilson

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Themes and Meanings

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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 disorientation arising from the experience of enslavement. The slaves at emancipation had been robbed of their African heritages; Loomis, three years after the end of his time as an indentured servant, or latter-day slave, still seeks a starting place.

The boardinghouse to which his quest has brought him is not merely a neutral setting for the action. It is a rich, though unobtrusive, symbol. In addition to Loomis and Zonia, three other residents pass through in the course of the play. Others have come and gone before these, among them Martha Pentecost, the woman for whom Loomis is looking. The boardinghouse, then, suggests an image of people in transit, searching, restless, moving forward on hope.

The boardinghouse itself suggests stability as well as movement. Certainly, it represents stability to Seth Holly. The son of free Northern parents, Seth has property and a sense of who he is and where he belongs. However, his attachment to his property and his obsessive accounting for time and money threaten, in spite of Bertha’s softening and humanizing influence, to harden into a posture of reaction and indifference. He is unable to see, for example, the limits on his own freedom imposed by the indifference, hostility, and contempt of the white men to whom he turns for loans. He does not seem to understand the full implications of his business association with Rutherford Selig, whose forebears were also “People Finders”—finders of runaway slaves for slave owners.

Bynum’s situation is different still. His residency at the boardinghouse seems to be permanent, and it is perhaps permanence, rather than mere stability, that he represents. He is a conjure man, and, while Seth regards his activities as mere mumbo jumbo, Bynum stands for the survival of the African heritage that the slaveholders had thought to suppress. In one sense, at least, he is most certainly a binder, a binder of the present to the past. Thus it is fitting that Bynum leads the juba, one of the many rituals of ultimately African origin with which he is associated. It is also fitting that Bynum, through a pattern of call and response, leads Loomis through the enunciation of his vision. The vision of bones walking on water offers a complex recapitulation...

(This entire section contains 762 words.)

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of the experience of being brought into slavery, a kind of memory that reaches back beyond the individual’s personal memory. When Loomis recognizes Bynum as one of the “bones people,” he is acknowledging in Bynum the incarnation both of the experience of slavery and of the triumph over that experience through the workings of the spirit.

If Bynum represents a link between past and present in the African American community, he is also instrumental in Loomis’s finding again the song he has lost, enabling Loomis to affirm at last his personal freedom. As Loomis thus breaks the inner grip of slavery through his act of self-assertion, Bynum sees that Loomis is “shining.” As Bynum knows, Loomis’s shining implies the vindication and justification of Bynum’s life. Given what Loomis has been through, his shining also confirms the healing and creating power of the heritage to which Bynum gives flesh and blood presence.

Themes and Meanings

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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 say his good-bye, but Bynum teaches Loomis that what he was really looking for was his “song,” his unique identity, his own sense of dignity and self-esteem. This theme is strengthened as Loomis is contrasted with other black characters who look to the wrong remedies for their suffering. Seth Holly is looking for entrepreneurial freedom—the opportunity to compete equally with the white man for a fair share of the so-called good life. August Wilson suggests, however, that economic power is not the essential need for black people. When Jeremy quits his job rather than pay protection money, Seth ridicules Jeremy’s choice, asserting that a job with some money is better than none at all. Seth’s willingness to sacrifice dignity for money demonstrates an exaggerated respect for economic power.

Jeremy is similar to Seth in that he longs for a fair chance to compete with whites, but Jeremy’s competitive arena is much more frivolous. He wants only a fair chance to win honky-tonk guitar contests. His shallow pursuit of gratification is further indicated when he leaves with Molly—Jeremy wants most simply to possess as many women and see as many places as possible. Loomis is the metaphorical herald of true black needs because, although he himself is unaware of it, he is looking for the real solution: a personal identity, his own “song.” Bynum says that “people cling to each other out of the truth they find in themselves.”


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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 over no low-grade sheet metal.’’ In addition, Seth can do math quickly in his head, he demands payment in advance from his tenants, and he is shocked when Jeremy quits his job after refusing to pay an extortion fee. Says Seth: ‘‘What kind of sense it make to get fired from a job where you making eight dollars a week and all it cost you is fifty cents. That’s seven dollars and fifty cents profit!’’ Seth is also very disparaging toward his African heritage, calling the African rituals that Bynum performs ‘‘old mumbo jumbo nonsense.’’

Bynum represents the other extreme, people who attempt to maintain a tight hold on their African heritage. An African rootworker, or conjurer, Bynum has the ‘‘Binding Song,’’ a power that binds people together so that they can find each other. At one point in the play, Herald says that Bynum is ‘‘one of them bones people,’’ referencing Herald’s vision of his African ancestors. In between these two extremes, there are people like Bertha, a Christian woman who also performs traditional African rituals. Says Bertha to Seth: ‘‘It don’t hurt none. I can’t say if it help … but it don’t hurt none.’’ Some, like Mattie, choose to find their identities in motherhood, searching for a man to make them complete, while others, like Molly, choose to live the single life.

When Bynum first meets Herald and asks him where he and his daughter are coming from, Herald says, ‘‘Come from all over. Whicheverway the road take us that’s the way we go.’’ This was true for many African Americans at the time. Later, Bynum refers to one of the causes of this mass migration, when he is discussing the individual situation of Herald. Says Bynum: ‘‘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.’’ Herald wanders, unknowingly searching for his identity. However, Herald is not the only character who wanders in the play. Bynum has wandered his whole life, and Seth notes that this is a common trend: ‘‘I done seen a hundred niggers like him. He’s one of them fellows never could stay in one place. He was wandering all around the country till he got old and settled here.’’

This migratory trend has been passed down to the new generation. Jeremy, one of the younger tenants, does not care when he loses his job. As he tells Seth: ‘‘There’s a big road out there. I can get my guitar and always find me another place to stay. I ain’t planning on staying in one place for too long noway.’’ He lives with Mattie for a while, but feels tied down. When he finds Molly, a fellow traveler, he thinks he will be happy with her, and tries to encourage her to come with him. Says Jeremy: ‘‘Don’t you wanna travel around and look at some places with Jeremy? With a woman like you beside him, a man can make it nice in the world.’’ Likewise, Mattie keeps searching for her lost man, Jack Carper, who she thinks will make her whole once again. Still, she notes that this strategy is not working for her, saying that ‘‘I ain’t never found no place for me to fit. Seem like all I do is start over.’’ The trend of searching for a lost mate continues even with the youngest generation, as demonstrated by the two children, Reuben and Zonia. When Reuben finds out that Zonia is leaving, he tells her that she is his girl and says: ‘‘When I get grown, I come looking for you.’’

Racial Exploitation and Discrimination
Throughout the play, the African-American characters are exploited or discriminated against in various ways by white people. In the American South, this was fairly common at the time and some, like Martha, left to avoid intense racial discrimination. When Herald finally catches up with Martha, she explains why she migrated to Pennsylvania. Says Martha: ‘‘Reverend Tolliver wanted to move the church up North ‘cause of all the trouble the colored folks was having down there.’’

However, discrimination and exploitation also happened in the North. Jeremy gives two examples where this happens to him. Jeremy relates an example where some white policemen came up to him and one of his co-workers after they had just bought a drink. Says Jeremy: ‘‘Asked us if we was working. We told them we was putting in the road over yonder and that it was our payday.’’ However, even though Jeremy and his co-worker have a valid occupation, the police still ‘‘snatched hold of us to get that two dollars.’’ The local police use their power to steal money from any black men that they find on the street, even if they are not vagrants. Later in the play, Jeremy is the victim of extortion. As he notes to Seth and Molly, at Jeremy’s job, a white man goes ‘‘around to all the colored making them give him fifty cents to keep hold to their jobs.’’ Jeremy refuses to pay, is fired, and notes the unfairness of the white man’s actions: ‘‘He go around to all the colored and he got ten dollars extra. That’s more than I make for a whole week.’’

Even Selig, who is a business associate of Seth’s and who is welcomed in the boardinghouse with free food, comes from a family that has exploited African Americans. As Selig notes, ‘‘My great-granddaddy used to bring Nigras across the ocean on ships.’’ In addition, Selig’s father ‘‘used to find runaway slaves for the plantation bosses.’’ Selig’s people-finding business, on the other hand, is viewed as a positive endeavor by most of his African-American customers. However, this business is itself built upon the businesses of his forefathers because if there had not been any slavery, there would not be a mass of dislocated African Americans trying to find their families. Selig himself notes this to Herald: ‘‘After Abraham Lincoln give you all Nigras your freedom papers and with you all looking all over for each other … we started finding Nigras for Nigras.’’


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