August Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Wilson, August. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Plume, 1988.

Summary of Work
Set in Pittsburgh during the Great Migration, the play’s central focus is on the characters living and coming and going from the boarding house Seth and Bertha Holly run, a boarding house they inherited from Seth’s father, a Northern free black man. Bynum, a boarder at the house, is performing a sacrificial ritual on a pigeon in the backyard when the play opens, and Seth is upset because he doesn’t approve of the voudon rituals being done at his house. Still, Seth sits and watches Bynum while he waits for Rutherford Selig to drop in. He buys metal from Selig to make pans with, and then when Selig returns, he sells the pans to Selig for him to then sell to other customers. While Seth would love to start a pan selling business, he cannot because he cannot obtain the capital needed to start it unless he offers his home as collateral, a price he is not willing to pay.

When Selig comes by and sells metal to Seth, Bynum comes back in. He hires Selig to find the “shiny man,” because he knows Selig can track and find anyone. But when Selig asks for more details about the man so he can actually go about the task of finding him, Bynum refuses, saying only that he had a mystical experience where he saw a shiny man who led him to his father, and then Bynum’s father taught Bynum a song that gave him the power to bind people together (hence his name). Selig leaves with the information, and those present are doubtful that Selig will be able to find such a person given Bynum’s description.

After Selig leaves, Jeremy Furlow, another boarder, comes back from jail. Seth warns him that he will not allow him to stay in the home if he keeps up his behavior, but Bynum offers Jeremy the idea of entering a guitar contest. Jeremy states that he doesn’t like the idea because of a bad experience, and instead starts talking about perhaps meeting a woman that isn’t desperate and clingy as a way to solve his problems. Just then, another boarder, Mattie Campbell, comes looking for Bynum to have him bring her beau back, but he tells her that she needs to learn to let him go. Seeing the situation, Jeremy starts flirting, and they decide to go out on a date.

When those two exit, Harold Loomis enters with his daughter, Zonia. They are looking for his wife, Martha, and they need a place to stay for a time. When Bynum hears about the situation, he tells Harold he should talk to Selig, because he can find anyone. But Seth is worried about the situation because Harold is agitated; Seth thinks he knows who Harold’s wife is: Martha Pentecost. He doesn’t say anything and decides to mind his own business. Still, Bertha and Seth start talking about the situation, and they decide that Martha had in fact come to stay at their boarding house years previously when she was looking for Bynum, and that she had moved out to go with the church to another town about a year previous. When Selig comes to do his regular business with Seth, Loomis pays Selig to find Martha.

Meanwhile, things are going well between Jeremy and Mattie, and he asks her to move in with him. But then Molly Cunningham comes to the boarding house in search of a room to rent, and Jeremy becomes infatuated with her, threatening to destroy his relationship with Mattie.

That evening, the whole household except Harold are conversing and they get patting juba. Jeremy brings down his guitar to accompany the rhythmic clapping, patting, and dancing. Harold comes in furious, shouting at them to stop, but becomes paralyzed suddenly, having seen a vision because of the religious power present within the history of the juba dance. Bynum acts as a mediator, helping Harold to reveal the vision of bones rising out of the water and walking on top of the water, then sinking to create a wave that washes up the bones onto the shore. The bones become African Americans. Harold is one of the bodies that has been washed to shore and given flesh once again, and Bynum tries to get him to stand and walk. Harold cannot, and he collapses.

Seth, scared by the behavior, tells Harold that he must leave, but he tells Seth that they are paid up through Saturday, and they will not be leaving until then. Molly is also downstairs complaining to Mattie about having to work for other people. She doesn’t understand why Mattie is working if she’s with Jeremy and he can support her. As Mattie leaves, Jeremy enters, having lost his job for refusing to pay a white man what he asked. He is upset over the exploitation of not just himself but of all black workers, but Seth tells him that he needs to get over it and go back to work because he needs the money. Jeremy, not listening, grabs his guitar and says he will go on the road to find a better situation. He starts flirting with Molly after that, and he convinces her to leave town with him for a better life.

In the afternoon, Bynum is singing a song about Joe Turner, the white man who illegally enslaved African-American men to exploit their labor. Harold hears the song and tells him to stop singing it because he doesn’t like it, and Bynum uses it as an opportunity to learn about Harold’s past. He tells Bynum that Joe Turner is the man who kidnapped him and forced him to work for seven years, stealing him away from his newborn child and his wife. During those years, Martha left his daughter with her mother and disappeared, and he has been looking for Martha ever since he got out of bondage.

Mattie, meanwhile, is upset over Jeremy’s leaving, and Bertha tells her she should just forget about him. Harold is attracted to Mattie but is unable to talk to her about it. Zonia is playing in the backyard, and she meets a neighbor boy named Reuben. They talk about how Zonia and Harold are looking for Martha, her mother, and as they are playing, Reuben talks about his friend Eugene, and how he always kept these pigeons, the ones that Bynum keeps using for ritual sacrifice. He has come to free the pigeons, because it is what Eugene had asked him to do, and he feels he must do it to honor Eugene.

On Saturday morning, Zonia and Harold are scheduled to leave, but Martha arrives just in time to catch them. She and Harold talk about their lives and her decision to leave because of how difficult her life had become after he had been imprisoned. Harold tells Zonia that she must now go with her mother, and Martha thanks Bynum for his help in the process. Then Loomis gets angry at Bynum, blaming him for his life and his predicament, and he slashes his own chest in frustration as he mocks Martha’s religion. Then he walks out. Mattie realizes that she is bound to Harold, and she runs after him, and Bynum finally recognizes Loomis as his “shiny man.”

Discussion of Work
This work tells stories about several important historical narratives in African American history: re-enslavement and oppression, migration, and religion, music, and dance and their interconnectedness. The play’s name itself centers the play around the re-enslavement and forced labor of African American men. Readers and viewers alike are forced to see and contemplate the oppression and disadvantage that black people of that time had: if they aren’t re-enslaved like Loomis was, they are disallowed to build businesses and progress, exploited and unfairly compensated for their labor, and forced into less than favorable economic situations. The unfavorable and oppressive situation in the South leads to a migration North in hopes of better treatment, only to find similar hardships once there.

Yet despite all this hardship, the play demonstrates how important it is to understand that for all the economic poverty and oppression, there is a rich cultural life that is lost when only looking at the economics and social politics of the time. Martha represents the Christian influence and importance of the Church in black life, and Bynum represents the still powerful and relevant religious beliefs evolved in the African Diaspora. The two are not opposites of each other, as white Christianity would have us believe, but intertwined and both important in the religious understanding of the characters. Bynum serves as a practitioner who can not only bind people’s souls together (like Martha’s and Zonia’s), but can walk people through difficult portions of their lives and bring them understanding through his suggestions. Dances like the juba, which were originally sacred in origin and then moved into the secular sphere, still have both functions in the African American cultural experience and understanding. The dance then becomes the central turning point scene for the entire play.

Response for Future Use in Dissertation
August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone lives and dies by the songs within the souls of its characters. The song in Bertha’s soul is a home full of laughter and love; the song in Seth’s soul is order, propriety, and creation; and the song in Bynum’s soul is the religious power of binding people together, and bears the great responsibility of helping people find their way in this life and the next. Each of these individuals play an important part in helping Herald Loomis, a man who has lost his song, and therefore his purpose in life, come to understand that his life will only have meaning if he finds his song, his desires and drives, within himself again.

Herald Loomis is a wanderer, a man whose life experience and values are difficult to grasp at any given moment in the play. While from the very beginning he states that he and his daughter are looking for his wife, readers feel uneasy about the reasoning behind this search. Loomis does not move, does not seem to be searching for his wife, but instead waiting for her to arrive; he does not engage in conversation with the others at the boardinghouse, eats his meals alone, and rarely speaks to his daughter except for to tell her to behave. With no growth or movement in his body, and no music in his soul, he seems a dead man in comparison to everyone around him[1].

The Juba scene, then, can be said to be the turning point of the entire play for Loomis, because it is at that point that he realizes he is a dead man, and must do something about it. Juba, as music and dance, is closely related to the Ring Shout, and utilizes religious themes while participants shout, chant, and move in a circle as they dance different movements. Juba needs no instruments: the rhythm of Juba is often patted on the body, as well as on readily available objects. The music for Juba quite literally comes from the movement of the body, offering a direct connection to religious figures through the medium of drum-like music. While the context of Juba does not always have to be religious, in this scene, it is apparent that Wilson intends it to be a religious ritual of spiritual awakening.

Our main cue to know this will be a spiritual awakening is that Bynum, the conjure man of the group, calls the dance, and the others participate in the creation of the music. Wilson writes stage directions for the actors to “include some mention of the Holy Ghost,” and that “It should be as African as possible, with the performers working themselves up into a near frenzy” (52). We are meant to recognize the religious connotations as these characters lose control of themselves and give themselves up to a higher power, which Bynum calls upon through his chanting as he presides over the group. Yet the spirit coming to visit the participants is not a Loa or an Orisha, as might be expected, but a soul Bynum needs to help free from the bondage of past slavery.

Loomis loses his mind as he comes into the room, screaming that the Holy Ghost will burn them up, and then dancing around the room with his pants down as he speaks unintelligibly, as if taken over by spirits. As he gains enough control of himself to try to leave the room, he has a vision of himself, all bones rising up out of the water, sinking down, and then being pushed by a wave onto the beach, the bones now covered in flesh, waiting to be brought to life and stand, yet unable to (53-5). Bynum guides him through this journey, pushing him to realize that he is accountable for his lack of movement, and he must find a way to put himself together and move forward with all the other black figures he sees moving along the beach. “I got to stand up. Get up on the road,” he says, but when he tries, he collapses, his legs unable to bear his weight (56). The change has begun for Harold Loomis and he knows it needs to happen, although he has been resistant to it. His soul has been dead for too long, and he cannot stand up, because he is not strong enough, and he must start to slowly rediscover his soul’s song in order to move again.

Bynum from then on meddles with Loomis through music, singing the song “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” to pull out the story he knows is the story of so many men: taken prisoner for no reason, forced to work in a chain gang, and set loose seven years later, having lost song, spirit, and all material goods in life. Still, Loomis refuses to recognize his value, his calling, and his song. It is not until the very end when not Bynum, but Loomis’ wife Martha, coaxes Loomis’ song out of him as she quotes scripture to him and he, in musical form, responds to each line of scripture she quotes.

Wilson states in the stage directions that what Loomis has learned is his song, “the song of self-sufficiency” (93), and having found that song, he finds himself freed of all his past as he accepts responsibility for himself. Once he came to understand how his song was meant to respond to the call of life’s experiences, he learned how to get up, walk, and respond to life’s challenges, joys, and beautiful moments. The call and response of blues music allows Loomis to reconnect with life in a way that no other medium had allowed him to after the trauma of enslavement. Blues music, then, is the key to processing, coming to terms with, and moving forward from the injustices of life as a black man in the racist South, and a prejudiced America.

[1] Delroy Lindo, at the 10th Anniversary August Wilson Conference in Washington, DC, spoke of the genuine struggle it was for him as an actor to feel he could find the motivations for Herald Loomis. He said that while the director felt that Lindo was a good fit to play the role, Wilson, never satisfied and always looking for the best actors, kept auditioning for the role of Loomis until just before opening, hoping that there might be someone who could capture his character better. But he did not tell Lindo he was doing so; Lindo only found out through the director. Frustrated at the difficulty of the character and angry at Wilson for seemingly not trusting him with the role, he worked harder. Yet he said he never found the motivations in rehearsals. It was not until he got on stage to perform that he felt he had understood and become Herald Loomis. The power to perform in order to find oneself, then, cannot be overstated for this character.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Barnes and Noble Classics,



Summary of Work
In this nonfiction work, W.E.B. Du Bois discusses the problem of the color line in the United States through a series of essays that describe personal experiences black people have had, particularly in the South. He coins two terms that become of major importance in discussions of race: double consciousness and the Veil. The first term is meant as a representation of African-Americans being forced to live double lives because of irreconcilable, conflicting identities they have in the US: these being black identity and American identity, coming in that order. The Veil refers to black people living behind a curtain or veil from which they experience their own lives and the lives of the rest of Americans. They can see out to understand other people’s lives, but others cannot understand them or see their lives. His first essay describes how from the time of Reconstruction forward, black people realized that they would be treated differently based on skin color. Discussing the color line through Jim Crow, he states that there was the idea that the Freedman’s Bureau and education would be a panacea that would bring equality to African Americans, but with social barriers still in place, there would be no way for them to progress and overcome oppression, especially oppression in the South.

He also gives a strong critique of Booker T. Washington and his ideas about social progress: particularly about needing to accept a subordinate position, not focus so much on having the same level of education as white people, and not wanting political equality either; social peace was more important than social progress. While certainly Du Bois believed that Washington had done good in his work at Tuskegee, he thinks that Washington has done more damage than good because many black people are no longer willing to stand up for what is theirs and it is harder for black people who want to stand up to make any progress.

Du Bois also describes his time as a schoolteacher in the rural South, and he realizes the struggles of teaching in spaces where children have no opportunities and must work in the fields. When he returns years later, he finds that industrialized life has taken over the area, and that many of the students he taught are dead or sharecropping, not doing anything that would help better their lives. He then talks about how in Atlanta, Georgia, the point of life has become money and physical possessions, which has made many black people forget about what is important in life. He also says that with industrialization came a new form of slavery, because black people were trained for new jobs and how to be submissive in those jobs.

In discussion of this, Du Bois specifically mentions the problems of the justice system in the South, particularly in specific counties in Georgia. He states that the police in the South were primarily used to keep track of and manage slaves, and that hasn’t changed. Black people are arrested on the slightest offenses and then put in the peonage system and worked to death. Many black people are assigned this fate, and it makes the communities down there afraid and feeling trapped. It is not easy to escape the injustice of the law because the counties and states in the South all use the same labor system to make the South rich, and so they together hunt down the black people trying to leave the area. He also mentions the problems of the lien-system of sharecropping and states that it is essentially a form of slavery, and that the 40 acres and a mule dream that many African Americans had is completely erased from hope and reality. Very few black people are able to get land, and when they pay the white landowners for it, many times they are cheated and robbed.

Du Bois also recounts the death of his son in the book, and states that while he was happy when his son was born, he was also worried about him because he knew the challenges he would face. When the child died, he was sad but also somewhat relieved because he knew his son never had to experience the racial prejudice and live behind the Veil like he and all other black people had to. He then discusses the life of Alexander Crummell and tells about his struggles to deal with segregation once he became an educated priest and how he travelled the world to fight for what was right, even though he never felt fulfilled or satisfied. He also talks about a young man named John Jones who gets an education and returns home to find that he cannot be satisfied when he sees the inequality that was not so much visible in the North. He starts teaching, but under the direction that he is not to teach anything about social equality, and when the Judge hears that Jones is teaching about the French Revolution and it is causing people to not call white people sir or ma’am, he gets angry and shuts down the school. On the way back, he sees the judge’s son trying to sexually assault his younger sister, and he hits him with a branch and bloodies him up and knocks him out. He tells his mother he is going to leave and before he can, he is lynched.

The last chapter of the book focuses on the sorrow songs. Mostly spirituals, they describe the struggles and hardships that many black people faced. Christianity was the most important thing to preserve the ideals of redemption and salvation, especially when it came to some preservation of Obea belief systems. The songs carry with them vital information for the community as well as messages and hope for the future. This chapter has the most mixed media with song lyrics and song notations throughout the chapter. The book itself has a few lines of poetry and a line or two of musical notation to begin each chapter.

Discussion of Work
This work contributed to an important discussion about racial problems within America in the 1900s and forward. The concepts of the color line, the Veil, and double consciousness still play an important part of discussions of race and social equality today. One of the important discussions that I think is rarely had about the tensions between Washington and Du Bois is that Du Bois was not wholly against Washington, even though he was a strong critic. There were pieces of Washington’s work that he admired, and they both agreed on the importance of education, even if they disagreed about what should be taught and how the black race was to become educated.

One of the most important parts of this work which needs more time spent with it is the discussion of the peonage system. Having done field work about the peonage system and the effects it had on black communities only to have the US government refuse to publish the government committee’s findings and then destroy Du Bois’s work, he was very upset and concerned about the US’s huge efforts to cover up the fact that many black people were still enslaved through unjust judicial systems and corrupt cops in the South. Douglas A. Blackmon’s work Slavery by Another Name discusses this issue in depth, but the fact that Du Bois does more than simply reference it, but talks about it across chapters of his work, more fully describes the fear these people lived in.

One pitfall of this work is Du Bois’s very open prejudice toward Jews, especially if they are Russian Jews. He proclaims that many of the black man’s struggles come from greedy and unjust Jews cheating black people out of house and home and livelihood. The statements serve to highlight the racial tensions between the two minority groups, both of which were discriminated against in the US. The word Jew was later changed to immigrant by Du Bois in later publications of the work, indicating that perhaps either he overcame much of this prejudice or that it was brought to his attention that his prejudice was undermining his own argument (I’m not sure if this is discussed somewhere in scholarship or history, because I haven’t looked it up yet).

With all this discussion of race and social ills, it is telling that Du Bois also includes a whole chapter on the sorrow songs, a mix of spiritual and blues, although largely focused on the spirituals. While the title of the chapter is The Sorrow Songs, the songs themselves carry messages of hope to the next generation, indicating that music is a very important communication device in the community. It also indicates that Du Bois sees the music and the things connected with the music as retainers of not just hope, but the potential for social progress.

Maya Angelou, The Complete Poetry

Angelou, Maya. Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry. Random House, 2015.

Summary and Discussion of Work
This book is a compilation of all of Maya Angelou’s poetry. There are three main themes that I find running through Angelou’s poetry: black history, the passage of time, and feminism/black feminism. Her work also readily pulls from the black musical tradition of work songs, gospel songs, and the blues to structure her poetry.

For instance, “Times-Square-Shoeshine-Composition” demonstrate the caller shouting his pride at his work with the “(pow pow)” (34) as the response to those calls. “One More Round” and “Pickin Em Up and Layin Em Down” have the same form, with the refrain taking the form of a work song. Many of her poems about black womanhood take the sound of the female blues singer lamenting the loss of a lover who has either died, left her for someone else, or left to travel to different towns. Even if the format is not a blues format, the thematic elements are there to call to female blues singer song traditions. The gospel songs are felt in her poems such as “Just Like Job.” That particular poem calls to an important part of African American Christian beliefs, as Job was the prophet who endured the worst of life and persevered, receiving all that was his and more for his long-suffering and faith in the Lord.

One very important poem in the collection is “Still I Rise,” which takes a blues-like form in its poetic structure and repetition of the title’s phrase. It, like much of her poetry, is revealing of Angelou’s life experience, which tells of being continually forced into the dirt but not losing her fighting spirit and keeping hopes alive for a better future. This poem has the question “Does my sexiness upset you?” (159) written within it, calling attention to the black female body and the stereotypes and concerns historically surrounding black bodies, particularly black female bodies. Many other poems within the collection in some way or another also discuss the black female body and its structure, highlighting Angelou’s comfort and confidence in who she is that befuddles others, both black and white. She discusses how a fear of one’s own body can lead to being alone and dying, and how bodies have been taken captive through slavery in the past.

She focuses poems on the events of Civil Rights, of slavery, and of black-white relations, emphasizing the struggles, the failures, the trespasses, and the understanding or misunderstandings about how race relations work, particularly in the South. The collected poetry feels, as it is structured, like a continuation of her autobiography cycle, but also including the biographies of those deceased, news reels or memoirs of those living with her in the present, and prophecies of what is to come for future generations.

Her work is far more formally structured than the works of other poets I have read for my comprehensive exam lists, taking formal rhyme schemes and African American musical formats. None of her poetry contained within the collection is more than a few pages long at maximum, most being a page or less in length. However, the poems seem to relate across theme within each book of poetry in the larger collection: black womanhood and relationships, both familial and romantic; history, Civil Rights, and black-white relations; and personal struggle and triumph combined with religious fervor and music.