Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Dover Publications, Inc, 1994.

Summary of Work
This book starts off where Tom Sawyer ended: Huck has come into quite a bit of money after he and Tom discover a robber’s gold stash, and the money is put in the bank for him; he is adopted by the Widow Douglas, who is kind but overbearing and lives with her sister. Huck dislikes his situation, particularly because he has to stay clean, go to school and church, and have proper manners. Tom talks him into staying with Douglas, but then when Huck’s dad comes, drunk, into town and demands Huck’s money from the bank, things change. Judge Thatcher tries to help the widow get custody of Huck, but there is another, new judge in town who is slowing the process because he believes that Huck’s father has natural rights and shouldn’t lose those. The judge makes an effort to rehabilitate him, but those efforts fail and Huck’s dad goes around harassing him for months until one day, when the Widow Douglas tells him to stay away from her home and his son, he kidnaps Huck and hides him in a cabin across the river.

He locks Huck in, goes and gets drunk, and continually comes back to beat him. Huck plans his escape because he is worried that the beatings are going to just get worse: he fakes his own death by spreading pig blood all over the cabin and hiding on the island in the middle of the Mississippi. The whole town searches for his body in the river, and Huck watches; then he runs into Jim, a runaway slave owned by Widow Douglas’ sister. He ran because he had heard she was going to sell him downriver, and he did not want the horrible treatment he had heard of on those plantations, and he didn’t want to be separated from his family. Huck and Jim decide to team up, but Huck does have some misgivings about helping a runaway slave. There is a flood on the river while they are on the island, and they capture a loose raft, and loot the house that is also floating down the river. They come across a dead body, but Jim refuses to let Huck get a close look at it, especially not the face.

One day on the shore, Huck learns that people have seen smoke coming from their island and are pretty sure it is Jim, and they are coming to get him for the reward, so they decide they must leave the island and float downriver. They want to go down to the Ohio River and then get Jim up to the free States via a steamboat. They travel for several days and encounter a group of robbers on a steamboat that has wrecked, and they are able to steal goods from the robbers. But when a fog kicks up, they miss the mouth of the Ohio and encounter slave catchers, where Huck is again stricken with misgivings about aiding a runaway slave and calling Jim his property. Still, he makes up a lie about his father having smallpox on the raft, and the slave catchers are so worried about catching it that they stay away. But Jim and Huck are unable to get back to the mouth of the Ohio, so they continue downriver, where a steamboat hits their raft and they get separated.

Huck ends up with the Grangerfords, southern aristocrats feuding with another family, the Shepherdsons: a Grangerford daughter elopes with a Shepherdson, and it causes an all gunfight, where many of the family members die. Huck gets caught in this feud, but Jim shows up just in time and he takes him to his hiding place and shows him the repaired raft, and they again start out on the river. They then rescue men being chased by bandits; Jim and Huck quickly learn that these men are in fact con men posing as aristocrats, but they are unable to rid them from their company. The men pull off several cons as they stop at small towns on the river, among them pretending to have converted a man in the Indies to Christianity and taking up a collection to help get the “missionary” back in the field. They also pull off a con where they pretend to put on a large show for money but only put on a small one, which angers the town for being taken for nearly $500.

Then they try to pull off a large con: they pretend to be family to Peter Wilks, who just died and left his inheritance to them; they fool the nieces in town and they are able to get money, but people in the town are skeptical and Huck decides to let people know about the scam. He steals the gold that the con men have gotten and has to hide it in Peter Wilks’ coffin, and when he goes to tell the oldest niece, the real Wilks brothers enter town; the con men barely escape, and Huck and Jim think they are free of them, but just as they are about to leave, the con men come to the raft and force their way back on. They then sell Jim on the statement that there is a large reward offered for him that the farmer can cash in on, and Huck has to free him. As he enters the property, he is called after by the name of Tom, and he discovers that Jim has been sold to Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle. Tom had been on his way to visit them, and so they mistook Huck for Tom, and so Huck goes along with it, and when Tom comes, he pretends to be his younger brother, Sid.

When Huck tells Tom about the situation he and Jim are in, Tom concocts a plan to free Jim, and he, as is his usual, creates wild obstacles and fantasies surrounding the situation even though Jim could be easily freed. Tom planned on paying Jim for playing along with the game he created, but when Polly shows up and clears up Tom and Huck’s identities, all that changes. They learn that Jim’s owner had died and had felt so bad about possibly selling Jim that she stipulated he be set free in her will. Huck worries that his father has probably stolen all his money. Jim then reveals to Huck that the body they found in the floating house had been his father’s, and that Jim is worried about the body being found again. Tom’s Aunt Sally offers to adopt Huck, but Huck wants to move out West to get away from everyone who wants him to be civilized.

Discussion of Work
This story fits into the Bildungsroman category, as readers watch Huck develop from completely childish mindsets to more adult ones, particularly when it comes to race and moral issues. the way Huck views Jim is particularly telling of the attitudes of the day: Huck knows Jim is property, and therefore cannot be seen as a human being with rights who deserves freedom. Much of Huck’s moral misgivings come from this belief; he worries about the consequences of lying and thievery and yet allows Jim to remain free not only because he does not want to go back home, but because the longer he is with Jim, the harder time Huck has imagining him as property. The longer he is on the raft, largely free from society and its rules and structures, he is able to consider alternative modes of belief. However, when he reaches land and decides to help Jim escape, those same rules and societal structures are placed on Jim and Huck once again, and the sense of Jim as human begins to fade. Huck goes along with an elaborate concocted plan that wastes time when he could just easily go in at night and free Jim. Jim’s life becomes a prop or a bargaining chip with which he can impress his friend Tom. Jim’s beliefs are regularly made fun of in both the beginning and end of the book with his belief in witches and magic, and Jim as less intelligent even in comparison to the largely uneducated Huck is very apparent.

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! Random House, 1936.

Summary of Work
This work is a frame narrative, with Rosa, the sister-in-law to Thomas Sutpen, telling the story of the Sutpen family to the Compson boy because she hopes he will write the story down, and he believes that it will show why God let the South lose the war, because of the infamy of people like Thomas Sutpen. Quentin Compson, the grandson of Sutpen’s friend General Compson, is getting ready to go to Harvard when he is summoned to talk with Sutpen’s sister-in-law, and she tells him about how Sutpen destroyed his own family and hers as well.

In the mid 1800s, Thomas Sutpen buys a hundred square miles of land in the Jefferson, Mississippi area from an indian tribe and clears the land, builds a home, and plants cotton. Many see him as some sort of barbarian or demon, because Sutpen often holds fights between the slaves, and he often participated in them. He marries a local merchant’s daughter, Ellen, and soon he becomes a member of the planter aristocracy and has a son and daughter. The children do not change Sutpen, who still hosts fights and participates, and one evening the children view it, Henry in terror, and Judith in fascination. Judith is angry to have to leave the scene, and Ellen realizes that Judith has her father’s temperament. Upon her death bed, she asks her sister to look after Judith, even though Judith is older than Rosa.

Quentin’s father confirms this story, stating similar details, but including that upon deciding to marry, he went to church, left town, came back with a bunch of finery for his home, and then went to court Ellen. However, the men of the town, believing that Sutpen had gotten his money from criminal activity, found him after he had proposed to Ellen and arrested him, and Compson and another friend had to get him out of jail. Two months later he was married. Ellen was dismayed on her wedding day, and of a hundred people invited, only ten people attended the wedding, and on the way out of the church, the couple were hit with rubbish as they walked. When Quentin asks about why Rosa is telling this story, Compson tells him that she was raised by an aunt after her father killed himself in order to not go to the war, and she hated her father for her mother’s death. Rosa was the one who came back to try and save Judith from the Sutpin fate, and she sought to do that by perhaps marrying Sutpin, she just twenty years old at the time. According to Compson, she was taking care of Judith and Clytie, Sutpen’s daughter by a slave girl, when Sutpen came home from the war.

Compson also explains to his son that before Rosa moved to the Sutpen home, she went sporadically to the Sutpen home with family members, and as Sutpen became the richest planter in the country and therefore became socially accepted, her sister Ellen first started taking her on fancy shopping trips and hosting parties, and then slowly became estranged from Rosa. It was also at this time that Sutpen was taking off to new Orleans in search of Charles Bon, his son by a black woman, although at the time people did not know it. As Compson tells it, the word about Bon being Henry and Judith’s half brother came from Sutpen’s slaves rather than from a family member. Rosa was largely left in the dark, unaware of the blood relation of Judith’s fiancee Bon until much later, and after the war when the Sutpen plantation was largely ruined and they didn’t know who was alive and who was dead, she at first refused to come to the plantation because she was uncertain of the situation.

That evening, Compson continued the story, handing Quentin a letter that Bon had written many years previous to Judith. He then talks about how Henry, Sutpen’s son by Ellen, goes to college at the University of Mississippi and becomes friends with Charles Bon, bringing him home for Christmas one year. Charles falls in love with his sister Judith, and he asks her to marry him, but by this time, Sutpen has realized that Charles is his son, and Judith’s half brother, and so they cannot marry. This is particularly important because his wife from that time was an octoroon, and he had abandoned her and the child afterward. The situation was one that he became entangled with her when he was at an octoroon ball, a space for octoroon women to attract wealthy white men as either husbands or benefactors. Henry is outraged when his father tells him, refusing to believe that Charles could have known this and still decided to ask his sister to marry him. Henry, in that outrage, gives up his birthright and runs to New Orleans with Charles, where they enlist in the army to fight in the Civil War for the Confederacy. Bon quickly rises to the rank of lieutenant, and he is regularly talking to Henry about the situation; Henry tells him not to write to Judith because he hasn’t decided if it is okay for him to marry her yet, and he also has sexual feelings for Bon, and is conflicted about the incest. Sutpen also fights in the war as a colonel, and he finds his son to tell him again that Charles is his half brother and that he is also a black man. When Sutpen explains Charles’ race, Henry goes to find Charles and murder him before he marries Judith, and he does murder him at the gate of the Sutpen plantation.

Rosa tells Quentin that when Sutpen returned, he went right about rebuilding the plantation, not even surprised or upset about Bon’s death and Judith’s reaction. He hardly recognized Rosa, and she soon found herself engaged to him. However, when he found the plantation to be unsalvageable, he insulted her so badly that she left the plantation and lived off of stealing food from her neighbor’s gardens, refusing to accept help. She also says that she thinks that someone other than Clytie is living in the manor there at the plantation, although she is not sure whom it is.

When Quentin goes back to Harvard, he tells his roommate Shreve the story, including the later years of Sutpen’s life. Sutpen becomes an alcoholic and has an affair with a teenage girl, Milly. Milly gets pregnant, and after the birth of their daughter, who dies along with Milly, Wash Jones, Milly’s grandfather, murders Sutpen. Judith dies of yellow fever along with other members of the family, and Clytie raises the son of Charles Bon, found in New Orleans after he visited his father’s grave. His son is strange and works what is left of the Sutpen land.

Mr. Compson also told Quentin about how he learned Sutpen’s actual life story from him when they were hunting for a fugitive architect who had run away from Sutpen’s plantation. Sutpen was from a poor family and quickly learned he wanted money and land, and so set out for the Caribbean and made his name in the sugar plantation business, and he married a plantation owner’s daughter. It was only after they had a child together that he learned of her African blood, and so he left with twenty slaves and built the plantation. When Sutpen’s son came back to haunt him, he had a choice: remain quiet and let his dynasty continue on or speak out. He chose to speak to Henry, and when the word brother failed, he determined that the word race would not, and he was correct. After that, he could never rebuild his dying legacy. When he left Milly with her child in a stable, that was when Wash Jones lost his mind, killed his granddaughter and great granddaughter, killed Sutpen, and then went around killing others with a scythe until he was arrested.

Quentin Compson can’t stop thinking about the story, and he and Shreve speculate on the other people’s perspectives of the story, particularly Charles Bon’s. The evening after he and Shreve speculate, he can’t sleep as he remembers going back to the plantation with Sutpen’s sister-in-law, and there they unexpectedly meet Henry, who is an old man waiting to die. They go back to get an ambulance to go get Henry, but before they can get in, Clytie, the child of Sutpen and a slave woman who is now an old woman herself, burns the house down and kills them both before they can get him, which brings the Sutpen family legacy to an end. In the end, Quentin, obsessing, tries to tell himself that he doesn’t hate the South.

Discussion of Work
The plot line of this work, quickly summarized, would seem rather simple and make for a short story: man moves to the South, builds a plantation, marries and has children, his past comes back to haunt him, and it destroys the entire family. And yet, the story is not that straightforward, because we are not getting the narrative from the main character, Thomas Sutpen. Instead, we are getting the story through a pieced together history which includes plenty of speculation both from the people telling the story and the people it’s being told to. Narrative is obscured by its nonlinear telling, with certain pieces  of information being given either earlier or later in the story, leaving the reader to piece together the full tale both on their own and with Quentin, who is the most akin to the reader.

Miscegenation is the main issue of the work, of particular importance because of its placement in the US South. Sutpen seems less than human, dangerous, or animalistic throughout the work, more so as he ages. As the story is told of his strange relationship with his slaves, he occupies a liminal space between white and black, even though he is a white man. As the narrators detail it, Sutpen himself goes into decline the moment that he marries an octoroon, because he has been legally intimate with her and has a legitimate son by her; it is this miscegenation that leads to potential incest. Still, the issue of miscegenation is by far of greater importance not only to Sutpen and his son Henry, but to everyone who is telling the story. The obsession with race, even to the tracking of the “one drop” of black blood, makes clear to readers that Faulkner is showing them that the South’s racial prejudice and obsession is what leads to the Southern aristocracy’s downfall more than any other failing in their society. Even the black community members in the story feel this, as Clytie is the one who burns down the house, and Wash Jones is the one who goes on a killing spree after Sutpen leaves his granddaughter. Black people are still objects to Sutpen, as they are to all the white people in the community, and the inability to see them as human beings leads not only to their downfall, but to the destruction of the black people’s humanity: constantly treated as animals or subhuman, they can only tolerate the South for so long before they snap and destroy themselves or are destroyed by the white community surrounding them.

 

Susan-Lori Parks, Topdog/Underdog

Parks, Susan-Lori. Topdog/Underdog. Theater Communications Group, Inc, 2001.

Summary of Work
Lincoln has just come home from work to see his brother, Booth, practicing a poor 3-card monte. Lincoln works at an arcade, dressed up as Abraham Lincoln, whiteface and all. He takes a lower pay rate because he is a black man, but is happy for the work. His wife, Cookie, left him, and he is living with his brother now. The home has no electricity or plumbing, but it is a place to sleep. He is the sole support to pay the rent. His brother steals things to live on.

Booth tells Lincoln that he wants to go by a new name, and Lincoln asks what, but at first Booth won’t tell him. Lincoln says whatever it is to make sure he can pronounce it or he won’t ever be able to get a job. This prompts Booth to tell him that his new name is 3-card, because he’s going to be the best 3-card monte dealer in town. Lincoln tells him that he had better practice more and start small and learn one thing at a time. Booth responds that he would learn faster if Lincoln would teach him.

Lincoln used to be the best 3-card monte dealer in town, bringing in thousands each month, but one day when he ignored a feeling that he was going to get shot and then his friend got shot during a hustle, he determined to never touch the cards again, believing that if he did it would lead to his death. He may have lost everything, but now he has the chance to be a new man. He tries to get Booth to see that there is that same opportunity for him. Booth, however, is intent on getting his woman, Grace, back. He tells Lincoln that he stole a diamond ring and that he’s going to get her to forgive him for his infidelity and marry him. He also tells Lincoln that he needs to move on because the lodging for him was only supposed to be temporary.

The next day, Lincoln comes home upset; the arcade is looking at cutting jobs, and since Lincoln has only worked there for eight months, he knows that he’ll be among the first to be fired. Booth has stolen a set of suits and gives Lincoln one in an attempt to cheer him. He also tells him to practice his act and build it up some so that he can’t be replaced by a wax doll. He needs to practice falling and jolting around a little when he gets shot in the arcade game to liven things up so he’s indispensable. Lincoln asks Booth to help him practice, but Booth says that he’ll help him when he gets home if Lincoln waits up, and that he should get into his costume to practice while he’s away. Lincoln does so, and practices once or twice, but then gets drunk and passes out in the chair he sleeps in.

When Booth gets home from his date, he tells Lincoln that he had sex with Grace and she didn’t make him use a condom. He also says he gave her the ring and she begged him to marry her. Lincoln calls him out on it and says that he knows he didn’t have sex with her because Booth went in the other room to look at dirty magazines. Booth gets angry at him and just says that he has an insatiable sex drive and that it’s too expensive to hire whores. He does try to help Lincoln a little, but then Lincoln accuses him of being a saboteur rather than an aid. Booth again tries to convince him to start running the 3-card monte hustle and to help him learn to run it so they can make more money together. Lincoln again asserts that he’s done with that life. Still, the cards call to him.

Later in the week Booth has stolen a whole apartment’s worth of things in order to impress Grace for a dinner, and he tells Lincoln to get out of the house and that he’ll have to move out because Grace will be moving in when they get married. Lincoln says he’ll get out tomorrow, but that he wants to sit in the house. He’s lost his job. He was let go and replaced by the wax dummy of Lincoln. It is 3 AM and Booth is trying to convince himself that he hasn’t been stood up, but Lincoln finally gets him to realize it. They talk about their childhoods as they look through the photographs they have in an album, and they wonder if their parents had it all planned out to leave them. Both of their parents slept around, and Booth saw his mother’s infidelity and Lincoln saw his father’s, even sleeping with one of his mistresses. They talk about how their mother, when she left, gave Booth five hundred dollars, and when their father left, he gave Lincoln five hundred dollars. Each of them were told not to tell the other that they had that money. Both of them are miserable, and after Booth and Lincoln eat, they remove everything off the makeshift table, revealing the cardboard card playing surface. As Booth goes to bed, Lincoln again picks up the cards.

The next morning, Booth sees Lincoln with the cards, and Lincoln tries to teach him about the game and the process of the hustle. When they go out again, Lincoln goes and starts hustling again, earning five hundred dollars in a day and feeling like himself again for the first time rather than a man in another man’s clothes. He comes in the home to tell Booth, but he doesn’t see him so he sits and counts his money time and time again. But Booth is there and comes out and tells him first that it had been a mistake and that Grace thought their date was the day after, not last night, so it was a misunderstanding. He gets Lincoln to admit what he did, and he tells Lincoln to try it on him again. Lincoln lets him win the first time, and then Booth says that it’s not real because there’s no money bet. So Lincoln puts his money down, but Booth says it’s still not real because he hasn’t matched the money. He goes and gets the money his mother had given him all those years ago. Lincoln is genuinely surprised Booth still has that money. He asks him if he’s sure he wants to play it, and Booth insists. He lets Booth win the first round, but then he loses the second, and Lincoln gets all the money.

Lincoln laughs but consistently insists he is not laughing at Booth. He tells him how the first rule is the rule that Booth never learned: that a competitor is beat the moment they step up to the table in a hustle. Booth, furious that Lincoln is trying to open his money and take it from the knotted nylon, tells Lincoln that he actually killed Grace. Lincoln, surprised and now worried, offers the money back to Booth, but he won’t take it. He keeps talking to Lincoln, telling him that he’s lost everything, and how dare he laugh at him and try to steal his inheritance from him when he squandered his. He pins Lincoln in the chair and puts a gun to his head. Lincoln tries to tell him to calm down and that he can have his money and it’s okay, he didn’t mean it. But Booth shoots him and kills him. He then realizes what he’s done, and he cries, holding Lincoln in his arms, realizing he has now lost everything.

Discussion of Work
The setup for this play is interesting, particularly because of the way the script itself is written: there is very little stage direction, the setting and time is labeled “here” and “now,” and there is direction on how to speak specific lines and how to add pauses in the space of time (the pauses are marked by the characters’ names in bold with no text underneath them). Much of the language is written in dialect form and hyphenated during the 3-card monte speaking sequences. I am unsure why it is written this way, other than to perhaps first ensure that this play is timeless—that it could happen anywhere and to any set of black men—and to second more firmly place the work within a black literary tradition.

The play explores the limited opportunities for black men in the cities, or anywhere, and what they end up resorting to in order to survive. Even the family unit that they very briefly experience first in childhood and then in adulthood falls apart due to the inability for them to meet societal and personal expectations. From stress from broken families to lack of opportunity for a career to poor living conditions, these men may never have a chance. And the ones who try to change their situation are drowned out by the actions of those around them who feel that they cannot change and that the only option in life is criminality to survive. Consequently, they all hoard what is most important to them, whether that is memories of love or if it is money. All of these issues also inevitably lead to violence, which bursts in Booth when he loses what he finds most precious, not just his money, but his memories of his mother that are tied to that money.

The brothers also act as a symbol of America: Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth and what they stood for. Lincoln stands for hope and a push toward progress for all in America, not just white people. The fact that Lincoln “whites up” to play the role of Abraham Lincoln speaks to Abraham Lincoln representing all men, not just white men. Lincoln inhabits a dual identity. Then, Booth is the frustrated man who feels that his world is falling down around him and that the only way to beat the system is to destroy anyone who gets in his way to having money or opportunity. His killing of his brother, then, is a re-enactment of the shooting, but also a re-enactment that indicates the failed hopes of Abraham Lincoln: while he had good intentions, it was just too naive to believe that white people would ever let black people have an equal footing in America.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.

Summary of Work
Cora is a slave girl on the Randall plantation in Georgia. Her mother, Mabel, ran away and was never found, and she had been left alone as a young girl. Her grandmother, Ajarry, had a plot of land that she used to garden and had passed on to Mabel. Cora determined she should keep that space as well, and when a man tried to put a doghouse on it, she tore it down with a hatchet. She was considered pariah there from then on, and placed in the Hob, the lodging cabin for the women who were considered odd or wrong in some way.

On a celebration for a slave man’s birthday, a slave named Caesar approaches her and asks if she will make a run North with him. At first she thinks he’s crazy or trying to trick her, but after being beaten for protecting a slave boy from the plantation owner’s drunken brother Terrance and then learning that her master is dead and Terrance has taken over running the plantation, she agrees to go with Caesar. As they try to leave, Lovey, a young slave girl, runs after them and insists on going. They make it through the swamp and are in the woods when they are ambushed by slave catchers. Lovey is caught, but Cora and Caesar escape, critically injuring a young boy of 12. When they get to town where there is a station master for the Underground Railroad, they learn that the boy they hurt is likely to die, and there is a mob looking for them.

They escape to South Carolina, where they are given new names and life stories, and Cora, now Bessie, first works for a family and watches the children, and then is hired to work as an actor in the museum for American History. She acts out African life, then the passage on a slave ship, and finally plantation life. She feels awkward and ashamed over it, but learns that she has the power of staring and forcing white people to realize that she can look at them just as they can look at her, but perhaps her gaze has more power. Caesar works at a factory, and they get to where they are comfortable with life and decide to stay, even though there are many trains that would take them farther north. Cora enjoys learning to read and having her own money and a bed to sleep in as well as a black community to enjoy. However, soon after making that decision, Sam, the barkeep who is also the station master, warns them that they shouldn’t get too comfortable: there is talk of forced sterilization of black people. Cora knows this, having gone to the doctor previously and felt like she was going to be forced to choose their “birth control” method.

Not long after Sam’s warning, Cora overhears that there is a slave catcher named Ridgeway searching for a pair of runaways who murdered a boy. This scares her, as she knows who Ridgeway is: he’s a famous slave catcher who wasn’t able to catch her mother, and he has a vendetta against her because of it. She runs to Sam, who is at the bar, and he tells her to go hide in the house at the platform, and he’ll try to get to Caesar. However, before Sam gets home, the slave catchers get there first and burn his house down, leaving Cora trapped. She doesn’t know how long she starves for before there is a small train coming down the line. It passes without stopping and she runs after it until it stops. It is a maintenance train, and she learns that the Georgia line is shut down and that the trains to this station have been cancelled, so he cannot help her more than drop her off at the next station, which is in North Carolina.

That station is technically closed as well, and black people are being hunted and lynched and placed on the “freedom trail” to rot in the trees for miles and miles. The station master hides her in his home for months because there is no way to get her out. She witnesses a lynching and it sickens her, and every week there is a town picnic with this ritual. Watchers regularly check houses, but she is well hidden in the attic. She spends time reading and gets better at it, and although she has read the Bible, she prefers almanacs. Then, one day, she accidentally tips over her chamber pot and she worries that the housekeeper, who is not one of the abolitionists, might have heard her. Nothing happens. Then she gets sick, and the man’s wife brings her down into a bedroom to help her get better and they send the housekeeper away, claiming that the husband has a disease that’s very communicable and they can’t have her getting it or being in the house, doctor’s orders.

That Friday when the picnic comes, the wife of the station master tells her that she can stay in the room and rest as long as she stays away from the window. She is grateful until their home is unexpectedly raided by watchers and she is discovered hiding under the bed. Ridgeway has led them. The station master and his wife are tied to the tree and presumably burned to death, and she is plunged into bondage again. They are going to Missouri to catch another slave before they head back to Georgia: Ridgeway hadn’t expected to find her but had just wanted to capture whoever was there with the Underground Railroad. He talks to her, and when they get another slave man, Jasper, they are constantly hitting him because he won’t stop singing. Ridgeway ends up shooting him and splattering Cora with his blood.

They stop in Tennessee, which has been largely destroyed by yellow fever and fires, and Ridgeway and his black freeman, Homer, make her put on a new dress and go to dinner with Ridgeway. A black man sees her in chains and in the nice dress and shoes and won’t stop staring. After they eat and she uses the outhouse, they go back and travel again, because their other companion refuses to stay where he thinks there is yellow fever. That night, the man grabs Cora out of the cart and cage in order to have sex with her, but Ridgeway is on to him and stops him. During the fight she considers running, but doesn’t. Then, three black men show up with guns and a fight ensues to set her free. Homer escapes, the other man dies, and Ridgeway is badly beaten and chained in the forest.

She escapes again on the Underground Railroad to Indiana, where she works on the Valentine plantation: Valentine is a biracial man who looks white and was able to inherit land from his father, which he sold and then moved further West to buy another plantation where he could harbor fugitive slaves and work with the Underground Railroad to ferry people further north if they desired. Cora stays there, asking people if they have seen her mother. No one has, and Cora goes on hating her mother for leaving her. She also feels guilty about all the people who have died for her: station masters, the 12-year-old boy, Lovey, Caesar, and possibly Sam. Meanwhile, she learns how to read and write much better than she had, and she lives a very free life in comparison to what she had done previously. Sam shows up one day, and she is thrilled to learn that he is alive. He is going to head West after one last job for the Underground Railroad. She falls in love with Royal, one of the men who saves her. One evening, he takes her to an old house and they go into the cellar; he shows her the old station there that is no longer in use. He doesn’t even know where it leads. He wants to show her because she has been on the railroad so much and had such a complicated journey. Royal is always helping with the Underground Railroad, and he brings her almanacs when he can. His last gift to her is the next year’s almanac. She lets him kiss her and she tells him about her life, apologizing when she gets to the part where she was gang raped. He tells her she shouldn’t be sorry for anything, but that those men who have done these things to her should.

One evening during a plantation debate meeting (they are regularly held with special guests and feasts), there is a raid. The white townspeople, who have built around the plantation, hate that there are prosperous black people next to them, and they hate them more because they know that there are fugitive slaves there. The white people combined with many slave catchers start shooting into the church and first kill the speaker whom they hate, and next Royal when he goes to aid him. Cora holds Royal in her hands as he dies, and he tells her to run to the station he showed her and live free. One of the Valentine sons tears her from Royal’s dead body to get her out of the gunfire, and when she gets out, Ridgeway and Homer catch her. Homer was dressed like a plantation worker, and had been in the meeting. She fights them but is put in chains again, and Ridgeway forces her to tell him where the Underground Railroad station is. She shows him, ashamed that she is revealing the secret to a slave catcher. Thinking of Royal’s trust in her, she grabs onto Ridgeway and shoves them both down the stairs, to the dismay of Homer. The fall breaks Ridgeway’s femur bone and has it sticking out of the leg, and his head also cracks his head open. Cora also is injured, but nowhere near as badly. Homer goes to Ridgeway and forgets about Cora as Ridgeway asks Homer to write down some things.

Cora gets the cart going and rides away down the line until she can go no further and has to sleep. In the morning she is too sore to maneuver the cart and so walks the rest of the way. She comes out in the woods, but she isn’t sure where she is. She cleans herself in the river and takes some water, and then sits by a road. There, three carts pass her, and a black man is in the last one. He offers to take her with him to the West, and she accepts.

This novel also has vignettes throughout it that tell about the lives of individual characters, including Mabel. Mabel made it through the swamp before she felt guilty about leaving her daughter. She knew she could make it back before the alarm sounded, and she determined to head back, happy with her little taste of freedom. But on the way back she gets bitten by a poisonous snake and dies on a patch of moss in the swamp.

Discussion of Work
This novel is a form of abolitionist narrative: a commentary on slavery and on white supremacy, but also a commentary on the courageous and honorable acts of a few white people and what good that it does. Cora, the main character, spends a lot of time wondering why white people who have good and prosperous lives would risk everything for her and other black slaves: everyone she asks tells her that she should know.

Whitehead also refuses to eliminate historically accurate language from his novel, using racial slurs and other oppressive and racist epithets in his work as dialogue: the linguistic choices may seem unnecessary to some, but it adds an important layer of authenticity to the work to display the horrors of the slave trade and plantation life as well as the extreme dangers and fears that came with being a fugitive slave. It allows for a more historically accurate novel, as this may be said to be historical fiction as well as abolitionist.

Whitehead experiments with nonlinear narrative as well, putting in biographical narratives to break up the main narrative. He often does this at times when the tension is high: when Cora has just been caught or when there is rising tension about her safety. The discussions of the white plantation owner Terrance Randall is particularly jolting, because it includes detailed descriptions of how he had slaves tortured and killed for running away. These details do not come altogether directly with the biographical narrative of the Randalls, but come as a combination of the biographical narrative and the main narrative of the story. While at first the choice to break up the narrative in this way may be frustrating for readers, what it highlights is that no matter who’s story is being told, the horrors of slavery were the same everywhere, and affected everyone it touched, white or black person.

One particularly important scene is where Cora learns the power of her gaze. It is reminiscent of bell hooks’ discussion of the black gaze on the white subject; she states that it is unnerving for white people because they never think of black people as agents that can look upon them, but objects to be looked upon. When they discover that black people can look at them, it upsets their supremacist attitudes because they are forced to realize that even enslaved or without full rights, they are capable of being active agents and of asserting their power for either agency or freedom, or both. This also happens regularly throughout the novel with dance. The slaves put on a specific dancing show for the masters, which is almost mocking in its attitudes, in order to please their owners. But when the masters are away, their dancing completely changes in its form and tone, becoming a way to express their freedom to move their bodies in some small way and to engage with their community. The black dancing body has the same power, then, that the black gaze has, but with a slight difference: white people aren’t always aware of the parody or mocking going on with the dancing, meaning that it gives a momentary power reversal where they have power over their masters, mocking them and judging them and asserting freedom and agency without ever being reprimanded or punished for it.

Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. U of Missouri P, 2001.

Summary of Work
This autobiography of Langston Hughes’s life details some of his life experiences from his early twenties into the end of his twenties and the beginning of the Great Depression. When he was a child, his parents split, and he lived with his mother for a time. He remembers having his parents try to get back together in Mexico, but that was the year of the great earthquake in Mexico City, and so his mother got scared and they went back. He was sent to live with his grandmother in Kansas and to go to school, and she was a proud woman who would never do service jobs for white people to earn a living. When she died when he was just before his teenage years, he went to go live with his Aunt. During this time his Aunt took him to a Christian church, where they were praying over people to be saved. Everyone had gone up but him, because he believed he would get to see Jesus in the flesh, and he did not want to be dishonest about coming to Jesus. Finally, filled with guilt that he is the only one who hasn’t been saved, he comes to the front at the alter, and his Aunt is overjoyed. That night, he cries over having lied. His mother remarried, and he liked the man. Hughes was elected the poet for his school (it was integrated) because people made assumptions that all black people had rhythm and could dance, so they must be able to write poetry. He wrote his first poems there. He admits that his entire life, he rarely majorly edited poetry once it was down on the page. He also admits that most of his poetry and other work was written when he was miserable or unhappy rather than when he was happy.

In his late teenage years, his biological father wrote to him that he wanted him to come down to Mexico. His mother was upset about it, but he went anyway. There, he found out that his father was considered very American because all he cared about was money, but he was wiser than other Americans that came to Mexico because he was interested in keeping and saving his money. He hated Mexicans and many black people, and all poor people. Hughes was fairly miserable his first year there, because his father was always trying to force him to hurry places, and because he had to do bookkeeping and was no good with numbers. He got so angry at his father that it made him physically ill and he couldn’t eat for weeks, which landed him in a hospital that cost his father $20 a day to keep him there. After he was feeling better, his father sent him back to the US.  But the next time he went down to stay with his father, he spent more time to learn Spanish and became better friends with the Mexicans in town. A German woman also stayed with them (she later became his father’s wife), and she made the space more pleasant. His father expressed that he wanted to send him to college somewhere in Europe and have him come back to Mexico to be an engineer, but Hughes said he wanted to be a writer and did not want to go learn things he was no good at. His father told him that writers made no money and that if he was going to pay for college, Hughes would go where he wanted him to. He would also not be allowed to leave Mexico until he agreed to his father’s wishes.

So in order to escape, Hughes started tutoring Mexican children so they could speak English. Word spread that he was good at his job, and soon he was able to raise his rates and take on as much work as he wanted. He also got offered two jobs at colleges to teach English, and he took both jobs because scheduling worked for him. While working these jobs, he is lucky to narrowly escape death because a man who the German woman’s relation was working for thought that the German girl was sleeping with Hughes, and he, enraged, came to the house, shot the girl in the head three times, and went in search of Hughes to kill him, but couldn’t find him because he wasn’t home. The girl miraculously survived, and the man was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Hughes had made quite a bit of money, and he started thinking that he did want to go to college, but in NYC at Columbia. He and his father fought about it, but eventually his father agreed to send him there. On the train to New York City, he was mistaken as Mexican and when he said he was black, white people in the South would not serve him. He remembered the struggles of living as a black man in the US, and contemplated why it was so difficult for white people to interact with black people in the US when it was so easy for them to do so in other countries. He spent a year at Columbia, only to find he really disliked college, and so he quit and started looking for a job. But his father at that point had cut him off, his mother was looking for work and struggling, and he could not find a job that would take him, even if it were available, because he was a black man. He finally found a job working at a shipyard, and in the meantime he was having some of his poetry published by Crisis magazine. Alain Locke wanted to meet him and he had met several major figures of the New Negro movement, but he told Locke no because he was nervous and because he knew that Locke wouldn’t be able to get his way around the docks very easily and it could kill him if he weren’t careful. Before Hughes sets off to sea on his first voyage, he tosses all his books from college into the ocean, ridding himself of their weight both literally and figuratively.

Hughes set sail to Africa eventually and landed in many ports to find that the Africans did not consider him a black man because his skin was more brown than black. This astonished him, and he also saw the terrible effects of colonialization. He recalls having to watch a prostitute and a young girl coming on board in hopes of receiving money, and receiving no money but being forced to have sex with all the men on board who were interested, which was a group of about 30 men. He tired of this type of exploitation as well as the economic exploitation. As they were about to leave, he bought a red monkey, and many of the other soldiers did as well. There were adventures on the ship with those monkeys getting loose and winding up drowned or in missionaries’ beds or in the masts, but eventually all were caught. There were also many more antics and debauchery, and all the men were fired upon returning to the US. Hughes made his way to Cleveland, where his family was staying, and found himself penniless in order to make it there with the monkey, named Jocko, who he had bought for his younger brother. His mother was very upset to have it in the home, but his stepfather and brother liked it, so the monkey stayed. Then his stepfather’s mother came to town, and his mother had an ally to protest about the monkey. Then when his stepfather had the monkey out on the town one night and it got scared and destroyed the carpeting of a pool table, it cost them 25 dollars to have it replaced, and his mother was furious. Not long after Hughes left to go back to sea, she sold the monkey.

His second voyage, he got off to stay in Paris, but found himself unable to get a job because he was not a musician, dancer, or performer. He makes friends with a Russian dancer who got sick and whose company had dissolved, and who had no money. They share a cheap room, and she finds a job before he does. He finally gets a job as a doorman and then, through someone who liked his poetry, found a job as a dishwasher and then a cook. When the club he is working at goes nearly bust, they tried to fire the head cook, and he brought out a knife and threatened everyone, and they let him stay. And when they tried to fire Hughes, he threatened them again, so he got a job as a waiter. During his time there, he saw many fights and other antics. The Russian lady got a job at La Havre, and she leaves him, very sad. He then falls in love with a girl named Mary, who is very well-to-do. But when her father finds out what she’s been doing, first she is very chaperoned, and then she is forced to leave. Soon after that, he spends some time with Alain Locke, who is in town, and then when one day he is waiting on a famous poet, he shares his work. The poet “discovers” Hughes, and then he became wildly popular and many people came to the club looking to get a photo with the poet. He has more poems published but is never paid for them.

When the club had to close down for refurbishment and because of lack of business, he goes with some Italians to see Italy. He has enough money to enjoy his time, and Locke is also there and takes him to Venice and they enjoy their time. However, while in Genoa, he has his passport and all his money stolen, and the US embassy and consulate refuse to help him, so he lives homeless and in poverty, unable to get a job that will pay him enough to either get back to France or to find safe passage to America. He finally gets passage as a workman on a ship bound for NYC, and he is nearly kicked off in Spain for being late back to the ship, but he makes it back to the US with a quarter more than he had in France when he first landed. He makes his way to Washington, where his relatives are, and they want him to work in the Library of Congress, but it has too many needed qualifications and Hughes needed work, so he started working doing wet wash laundry for twelve dollars a week. His mother and the relatives had a dispute, and so he found them different accommodations, and they struggled to make ends meet. Carl Van Vechten contacted him and helped him publish a book of poetry at this point, but the elitist community would not welcome him or his mother because they were poor.

He makes his way back to Harlem in hopes of going to college, but he can’t get a scholarship. He talks of meeting Van Vechten and Jean Toomer, who could pass as white and refused to be labeled a “Negro Artist” much to critics’ dismay. He also met Zora Neale Hurston, who he had a good relationship for years until a dispute over a co-writing project. He speaks of Vechten and his parties, the decadence of the Harlem Renaissance and how the area was a victim of its own image. Hughes finally makes a bit of money off of some poetry, works as a personal assistant for a time, gets patronage to go to college at Lincoln, and visits and explores the South and takes a short voyage to Cuba and Jamaica, which he liked very much and would have kept doing if he hadn’t had to go back to college. During his final college years, he wrote a survey of the issues of the color line at Lincoln college, where all white professors taught a nearly all black student body. The founder of the college came up to him at graduation to tell him that as time passed, he would see that there was no way for him to do what he did in founding the school unless he could have had white patronage and made concessions. Hughes disagreed with him.

Around this time, he also received patronage to write and finish his novel Not Without Laughter, which he wishes would have been better because it is about the best of his family members. He receives a major literary award for it. He tries to write other things, but the white patron dislikes his work, and finally they part ways, and it makes him sick like he was with his father. He remembers all the decadence and security he experienced and remembers seeing the other people in the street starving because of the depression, and he remembers the disgust the white chauffeur had over being forced to drive a black man places. He went to the doctor to see what was wrong and spent a lot of money doing it, was told first he had a Japanese tape worm, and then told by a white doctor that he had no such thing. Then he got tonsillitis and had to have them out, using up the last of his money from the Park Street patron. After that, he immediately got better from his illness brought on by anger over the patron. It is during this time that he had his dispute with Hurston over the play they had been working on, and while it had been in production, it had to be shut down over the dispute. After that he went to Haiti and decided that he would make money writing for a living, and at the time of writing the autobiography, that is what he had done successfully.

Discussion of Work
This book gives an adventurous story about Langston Hughes’s life during his twenties. Its major dealings in terms of themes that cut across works of African American writing are the color line, economic oppression and poverty, travel narratives, and artistry, particularly writing and music. Hughes regularly comments on the struggles of being a black man, particularly when it comes to finding housing or a job. While he knows that other races are discriminated against, he knows they also have an easier time finding work, which makes all the difference. And he struggles with the knowledge that many of the black elite are not interested in changing the situation because they feel that there can be no progress unless they tell the white people what they want to hear. He states that while the Harlem Renaissance was happening, the majority of the black communities in America felt nothing change in their situation or economic or social standings. Economics and travel go hand-in-hand for Hughes, who travels in order to get money, which he can never keep as he comes back to the US, or even as he simply travels from one country to another. Job opportunities do not change, and while he doesn’t experience the same type of color prejudice, he does experience it in that the natives of the countries he visits dislike him for being a threat to their jobs.

Artistry is the other large portion of this narrative. He shows several of his poems and discusses when he wrote them and why. Much of his work was strongly influenced by blues songs and structures, which can be seen throughout much of his poetry with the AAB writing format, just as many blues lyrics are written. He also talks about how dance and music were a rich part of many black people’s lives, specifically citing the many rent parties and house parties he went to, some of which were certainly to help pay people’s rent, but others which were just hosted to be hosted. He provides several examples of printed up tickets for these events. He states that these parties were the spaces where he liked to be because black artistry was not put on display for racist white audiences. His understanding of what it is to be a black man or a black person in general is changed and given more value in an all-black space.

However, he also discusses the problems that come with the assumptions that all black people have rhythm and can dance and sing: he could not dance or sing, and those were almost the only jobs available to him in Europe and even in the US. The stereotype led to success for some, but not for long for many: once they were injured or could no longer work or could not work the grueling schedules or create enough new material, they often died in poverty. It ultimately narrowed black people’s options and avenues for success, even as it provided a rich culture and outlet for many. In discussion of his own work, he also talks about how a narrow view of what black artists should create doomed his work Fine Clothes to the Jew because critics and general public readers alike felt that the dialect and blues structures should not be used in his art: white people saw enough of that elsewhere, and writing was supposed to highlight the best to show people that black artists were capable of high art. The strict rules placed upon what a black artist could write or create further limited what people read, and who could be successful in the field of art.

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,

2003.

 

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.

August Wilson, The Piano Lesson

Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. 1990 Plume, 2013.

Summary of Work
Boy Willie and his friend Lymon go North to visit Boy Willie’s sister Berniece and to sell a truck full of watermelons. They intend to take a family heirloom, a piano, from her so they can sell it to buy land that was previously owned by the family who had enslaved their family. Sutter, the landowner, was said to have died by the hands of ghosts. But Berniece won’t sell the piano, even though she won’t play the piano either. The piano has been in their family for over a hundred years, when the first Boy Willie carved the faces of his son and wife into the piano after the Sutters had sold them to buy it. He also carved their family history from Africa forward into the wood. Decades afterward, the boys of the family—Wining Boy, Doaker, and Boy Charles—decided to steal the piano rather than let it remain with the Sutter family. The family history carved into it represented the family’s soul, and they could not leave it in the hands of their former slavers. They got the piano, but not before Sutter caught up to them and burned Boy Charles and for traveling hobos alive in a train car. Boy Charles and the hobos became ghosts and avenged themselves on white bullies. The piano went to Boy Charles’ wife, Mama Ola, and when she died, she passed it on to both her children.

Berniece is being courted by a preacher named Avery, but she won’t give him the time of day. Lymon gets through her rough nature, however, and it causes him to have doubts about Boy Willie’s plans to steal the piano from her since she won’t willingly give it to him. As Boy Willie and Lymon try to move the piano, they encounter Sutter’s ghost, who has been haunting the space and the piano in particular, and Lymon and Boy Willie are thwarted in their plans. They determine that the only way to be able to do anything at all with the piano and to be able to live in the house, they must perform an exorcism. They call the preacher Avery to come perform the exorcism, and the ghost Sutter appears. Boy Willie starts to attack the ghost, but nothing is working. Everyone is losing. In desperation, Berniece decides to try to exorcise the ghost through playing the piano. She starts playing the piano, and it summons her ancestors who are carved into its wood; they attack Sutter’s ghost and it flees.

Having played the piano, Berniece has a change of heart about it and the history it holds, believing even more strongly that it cannot be sold, but must be allowed to be a living representation of their family history and ancestry. Boy Willie finally accepts that he will not be able to sell the piano, and he leaves the house.

Discussion of Work
In retelling and centering a marginalized black history, August Wilson seeks to show the importance of family heritage and family history as a powerful form of resistance to white oppression. The piano itself is the living embodiment of that history, housing the spirits and images of the family genealogical line from Africa forward to when Boy Willie carved the piano. Since Voudon so strongly relies on knowing one’s ancestors in order to retain balance and peace between the worlds of the living and the dead, the piano, when not played, becomes a forgotten artifact, and therefore a forgotten family. The imbalance leads to the struggles that Berniece and her brother, Boy Willie, have in their lives.

The effects of slavery are very apparent generations down the family line. Many men, promised 40 acres and a mule to be able to work their land with, never had that dream realized when they were emancipated. Boy Willie’s desire to sell the piano for that land then becomes rooted in the historical significance and economic power of black people holding land as reparations for centuries of enslavement. Yet the sale is not just of a piano, but a selling of family history and legacy, something that even not fully understood or appreciated, Berniece cannot let him do. The conflict is then set up as more than just the sale of a piano, but the conflict of remembering family heritage and yet still finding ways to move forward and succeed. This conflict is embodied in Sutter’s ghost, who haunts the space. Sutter, the ghost of white supremacy, oppression, and ownership, cannot be ousted until the family heritage is claimed, and a selling of the piano is simply a strengthening of Sutter’s ghost, because it allows him ownership over the family once again by owning the family spirits and genealogy. As long as the piano stays in the hands of the black family, no one owns them; they are free from ownership in death.

The imbalance is corrected upon the physical use of the piano, a release of all the cultural and family heritage and knowledge upon the white oppressor. The music coming from Berniece’s piano playing, much like the blues, carries with it all of the knowledge of survival and living that are necessary to avoid a second enslavement. Berniece accepts her role as matriarch of the family at the point she starts playing the piano; she becomes the family griot that holds the authority of the family line. Boy Willie recognizes this change in her, and while he still dreams of economic success through land ownership, he comes to recognize how important Berniece’s role of preservation is to their family line.

James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and

Other Writings. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2007.

Summary of Work
The unnamed narrator of this novel starts out discussing his life from early childhood. Raised by a single mother in Georgia, they soon move to Connecticut and he starts going to public school there. He shows talent as a piano prodigy, and enjoys time with his white friend “Red.” He finds himself fascinated with the black students in his school, particularly “Shiny,” the very dark black boy who is the smartest kid in the class. While in school one day, the principal comes into the classroom and asks the white students to stand. When he stands, he is asked to sit down, and this is how he discovers that he is, in fact, an African American. He confronts his mother about it, who tells him that she is African American and that his father is a white man of acclaim. He does get to see his father one more time (he had occasionally visited them in Georgia), and the meeting is awkward. He sends his son a piano, and then never visits again. The narrator devotes himself to learning music and reading, and has a short crush on a violinist.

The narrator still struggles with race, and he and his mother have a long talk about it, and she will never criticize his father even though he left her, married a white woman, and won’t acknowledge his son. Still confused about how he should feel, he continues school, graduates, and then starts thinking about college, Shiny’s graduation speech still fresh on his mind. He raises money for college through his music, and is thinking about going to an Ivy League school when his mother unexpectedly dies, and he decides to return to Georgia and enroll in Atlanta University. However, when he gets to Atlanta, he has all of his money stolen and rather than go to the Dean to talk about it, he decides not to enter college and find work all around the South. He starts working in hotels in Florida and then ends up working as a cigar maker and a reader (a person who reads books and newspapers aloud to the cigar-workers). While there, he starts thinking of the different types of black people, and decides that there are the very poor and desperate black people, the middle class of domestic servants, and the educated.

He decides that he is of the educated class, and so when the cigar factory shuts down, he heads to NYC with some other men. They go to a gambling house, and the narrator becomes addicted to it. He is also introduced to ragtime music, which he ends up learning to play in order to make ends meet because he needs employment and he feels he might as well be employed at the club. His playing catches the attention of a rich white man, who starts inviting him to play for dinner parties at his house. Soon he is employed by the white man full time, and he finds himself with more free time. He meets a rich white widow, and he starts flirting with her, but her black companion gets upset and jealous and ends up shooting the woman in the head, killing her. The narrator worries he will be implicated in the death, and he tells his employer, who offers him the opportunity to escape with him to Europe.

He takes the offer, and their first stop is Paris. The narrator takes time to learn the language through reading newspapers and he falls in love with the city. Then, they head to London, which he finds charming as well, and then they head to Germany to visit two cities. In Berlin, he hears ragtime turned into a classical concert piece, and he desires to head back to America and start composing music. The white man tries to talk him out of it, saying that he could be a successful man in Europe and pass as white, whereas he will find all sorts of problems waiting for him in America if he goes back and claims his black blood and heritage. But the narrator does not listen to the white man, and goes back to the South to look for inspiration from the black community.

He spends time in churches, talking to doctors, teachers, and others in the black communities in Georgia, thinking upon the differences between Northerners and Southerners as well as what black people spend their time ruminating on or obsessing or passionate about, particularly when that topic is race. Then, one evening in Macon he witnesses a lynching and burning of a black man, and it scares him so badly that he determines that since he can pass as white, he will in order to avoid the same fate. He goes back to NYC and after some time unemployed, manages to find work at a business college, where his Spanish speaking skills come in handy and help him move up into a better career position. He builds a fortune through real estate, and life seems to be going perfectly for him, until he falls in love with a white woman, and he is forced to confront the issue of his race again.

The narrator determines that he wants to marry this woman, but also decides that he must tell her about his race first so that he is entering the situation honestly and so she can make her own decision. When he tells her, it breaks her heart, and she doesn’t answer his proposal and leaves NYC for the summer. He remains in agony over not knowing how the situation will end or what she will say to others or what she will do, but she comes back in the Fall and accepts his marriage proposal. They start a family, and they all live happily because both him and the kids pass as white. However, tragedy strikes when his wife dies in childbirth during the birth of their second child. Raising the kids alone, he determines that he is happy for the most part that he chose to pass as white, especially to help his children. But still, he wonders if he didn’t sell his birthright for something worthless or of less worth in the end.

Discussion of Work
The main, and obvious, exploration in this work is that of passing. What does it say about race that people can pass as white? It brings to light the fact that we tend to stereotype race as one specific skin color or look, when in fact skin color within cultural groups is quite diverse; it also, much like in Nella Larsen’s Passing, reveals just how much race is a social construct that works against specific minority groups in order to allow for the power structures of white supremacy to rule. Themes of identity are also very important to this novel, as it is the realization that his constructed identity in childhood was not reality that drives the struggle he has with his biracial identity; he belongs in neither space fully, because he identifies with neither culture fully. The theme of identity allows readers to explore the nature of decision-making processes about identity and race as well: many of the narrator’s actions stem from his belief (founded in the reality of a society that believes if a person has any African American blood, they are black and cannot be anything else) that he can only accept one portion of his family heritage. He struggles to choose between his mother’s heritage and his father’s, fully recognizing that socioeconomic privilege comes from one, where oppression and lack of opportunity comes with the other because of the racism in the USA.

Outside of his own community, he can pass as white, but he struggles with a moral question whenever he considers taking that privilege: is it right to lie to people about my heritage in order to gain economic and social privilege, and if I do, am I betraying the black race? In a society that often robbed black people of economic freedom by denying them jobs, paying them unfair wages, and by forcing them into poorer neighborhoods which were not kept to health and safety codes and had higher crime rates, being black became a social status that severely limited economic prosperity. For black people who had light enough skin to pass as white, there was real incentive to deny their heritage in favor of the privileges inherent in whiteness: while black people were limited in the colleges they could attend, the professions they could enter, and the places they could live, white people could enter any college, take any job they were qualified for, and live where they could afford.

Such disadvantages and privileges based on race weren’t simply apparent to the black people in the US, but also to the white people. Johnson’s narrator describes the way white people discuss the Negro Problem as not just a passing conversational topic, but an obsession, a dangerous subject that if unaddressed, would lead to intermixing of the races and destruction of white superiority and purity. It was economically and socially essential for white people to find solutions to this racial problem, to create racial separation and barriers in order to keep the white political patriarchy in power. Allowing blacks the same privileges as white people would introduce more competition into the markets, both economic and social, and potentially reverse the political, social, and economic hierarchy that whites had enjoyed sitting at the top of for centuries in America.

The narrator highlights this hierarchy and the efforts to maintain it as he interacts with a variety of people from different races, culminating in the philosophy of the Millionaire: there is no helping an entire race, only individual people, and that if a black man looks white enough, he should do what’s best for him, and assume whiteness rather than struggle his whole life to inevitably fail in the quest for equal rights for his race. The Millionaire, basing his belief in economic and social class knowledge, highlights what is possibly the most important discussion that needs to be had about race in America: how economics and social class influences the way marginalized groups are seen and treated, how they are limited in their ability to prosper economically and socially because they are seen as a threat to the majority race. The shame the narrator feels about his defection to the white race in order to gain social and economic prosperity should make readers consider that whiteness is privilege, both economic and social, and that turning our backs less privileged groups will not make the problem disappear.