Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 762 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 507 words.)