Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762

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.

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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 of the experience of being brought into slavery, a kind of memory that reaches back beyond the individual’s personal memory....

(The entire section contains 2559 words.)

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