Identity in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is portrayed as a combination of internal and external forces. Most of the considerations regarding this phenomenon are expressed by Wilson in his stage directions, or by Bynum, who has an abstract conception of what it means for somebody to truly honor his or her own personhood. According to him, everybody has a “song” inside—an idea that ultimately casts selfhood as something intrinsic and interior. At the same time, however, a person needs to not only tune into this “song,” but also “harmonize” it with the outside world, as Wilson himself suggests in one of his character descriptions. Although the play never resorts to any straightforward or didactic explanations of this abstract concept, Wilson’s treatment of selfhood suggests that, above all, a person’s happiness and sense of “self-sufficiency” depend on finding ways to be true to him- or herself. To do this, people must acknowledge who they are, and then be that person even when the world makes it most difficult to do so. If a person can do this, Wilson implies, he or she will gain personal agency and empowerment. In other words, the process of forming a strong identity requires taking into account both internal dispositions and external factors, an endeavor that sometimes means carving out a place for oneself in the world.
Bynum speaks about having a “song” as if it’s the equivalent to having an identity, establishing that a person’s “song” defines who they are in the world. In Act One, he describes an encounter he had many years ago with the spirit of his dead father, when he first learned about what it means to have a song; “My daddy called me to him. Said he had been thinking about me and it grieved him to see me in the world carrying other people’s songs and not having one of my own. Told me he was gonna show me how to find my song.” The fact that Bynum’s father must show him “how to find [his] song” suggests that, although this internal force is definitive of a person’s identity, it isn’t immediately apparent. In other words, even though this “song” is seemingly so intrinsic to a person, it must be found. As such, the audience comes to understand that the characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone are involved in a process of becoming themselves, developing their identities, and searching for their fundamental natures.
For many characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the process of becoming oneself is difficult not only because it requires them to tap into deeply entrenched personal dispositions, but also because it requires them to reconcile their senses of self with the external world. When Wilson describes Herald Loomis in a stage note, he asserts that he is “a man not driven by the hellhounds that seemingly bay at his heels, but by his search for a world that speaks to something about himself. He is unable to harmonize the forces that swirl around him, and seeks to recreate the world into one that contains his image.” Wilson portrays Loomis’s inability to “harmonize the forces that swirl around him” as a tragic flaw, one that keeps him from successfully finding “a world that speaks to something about himself.” Nonetheless, Loomis tries to force himself into this unaccepting world, determined to “recreate” it into a place where he belongs. Considering that Loomis is a black man living in a deeply racist country, it’s easy to understand his desire to change the world into one that doesn’t reject him based on his skin color. He wants “a world that speaks to something about himself,” and so he’s tasked with making it himself—an empowering but challenging endeavor, rooted in a deeply human desire.
Unlike many of the other characters, Loomis understands that he must “harmonize” his internal “song” with the external world (though for the majority of the play he seems unable to do so). This is clear when he expresses his need to see Martha, his wife, for whom he’s been searching since having been set free by Joe Turner. “I just wanna see her face so I can get me a starting place in the world,” he tells Bynum and Seth. “The world got to start somewhere. That’s what I been looking for. I been wandering a long time in somebody else’s world. When I find my wife that be the making of my own.” Loomis’s desire to make the world his “own” is not only proactive, but denotes a certain sense of self-possession not shared by other characters. Although Bynum understands what Loomis is going through, Seth is unnerved by Loomis throughout the play, and constantly suspicious of him. This is because Seth himself takes an entirely different approach to harmonizing his inner “song” with the external world. Rather than trying to “recreate” the world, he acquiesces to it, ignoring racism and prejudice so that he can exist harmoniously in his home environment. Again, this is markedly different from the way Loomis goes about forming his own identity. When he finally sees his wife, he says, “Now that I see your face I can say my goodbye and make my own world.” When Loomis sees Martha’s face, he understands that returning to live with her would mean falling into a life she has made in his absence, a life that doesn’t take his existence into account. As such, he has decided to say his “goodbye” and move on with his life, determining to “make [his] own world.” In other words, he comprehends that for his internal “song” to “harmonize” with the external world, he can’t simply acquiesce to Martha’s life, in which he no longer belongs. Instead, he must forge his own circumstances, creating a context with which he can “harmonize” his internal “song.”
Wilson ultimately frames Loomis’s approach to finding a stronger sense of self as admirable. Loomis symbolically chants at the end of the play: “I’m standing! I’m standing. My legs stood up! I’m standing now!” This, Wilson writes in a stage note, is the image of a man who has finally created a “song of self-sufficiency.” As such, Wilson implies that recreating the world so that it accords with a person’s inner song is a valiant feat of independence and self-assuredness, one that renders a person “free from any encumbrance.”
Identity Quotes in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement which informs their sensibilities and marks their conduct as they search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble, to give clear and luminous meaning to the song which is both a wail and a whelp of joy.
Now, I can look at you, Mr. Loomis, and see you a man who done forgot his song. Forgot how to sing it. A fellow forget that and he forget who he is. Forget how he’s supposed to mark down life. Now, I used to travel all up and down this road and that…looking here and there. Searching. Just like you, Mr. Loomis. I didn’t know what I was searching for. The only thing I knew was something was keeping me dissatisfied. Something wasn’t making my heart smooth and easy. Then one day my daddy gave me a song. That song had a weight to it that was hard to handle. That song was hard to carry. I fought against it. Didn’t want to accept that song. I tried to find my daddy to give him back the song. But I found out it wasn’t his song. It was my song. It had come from way deep inside me. I looked long back in memory and gathered up pieces and snatches of things to make that song. I was making it up out of myself. And that song helped me on the road.