Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is a play characterized by transience. Because they’re temporary boarders without permanent homes of their own, all the people living in Seth’s boardinghouse embody the human desire to wander and search. New faces arrive without warning, while prominent characters like Jeremy set off to find a new life before the play has even ended. That this sense of rootlessness runs throughout the play aligns with the historical and cultural moment of 1911, when the first several generations of free African-Americans gradually migrated northward with the hopes of establishing new lives in cities unmarred by slavery. Unfortunately, this journey didn’t always lead to stability and freedom, and many of those who undertook it found themselves moving continually from town to town, searching for a better life or a secure job. By highlighting various characters’ states of restlessness, Wilson shows that they yearn for something more—something that’s currently missing in their lives. After a legacy of 400 years of slavery in America, Wilson’s characters are searching desperately for a foothold in the world, trying to establish lives for themselves in what for them is a still shifting and settling new world order. Interestingly enough, this effort to go off looking for independence often becomes an end in and of itself, and many of the people who move through Seth’s boarding house wind up traveling for the sake of traveling, searching for the sake of searching. As such, Wilson portrays transience as a temperament shaped both by history and by a grass is always greener mentality.
Many characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone see travel as a way of running away from undesirable circumstances. The audience largely experiences this in a secondhand way, glimpsing the effect of abandonment on people like Jeremy, Mattie Campbell, Herald Loomis, and Molly Cunningham, who have all had lovers disappear on them. After hearing Mattie tell Bynum that her longtime lover left her, Jeremy says, “Had me an old gal did that to me. Woke up one morning and she was gone. Just took off to parts unknown. I woke up that morning and the only thing I could do was look around for my shoes. I woke up and got out of there. Found my shoes and took off. That’s the only thing I could think of to do.” This is an interesting moment because Jeremy’s story reveals the cyclical nature of travel-related escapism. His “old gal” left him because—presumably—she no longer loved him and thus didn’t want to live with him anymore, thereby fleeing and escaping circumstances she no longer found desirable. This is rather common, but what’s notable is that Jeremy responds to this by doing the exact same thing—upon waking up and discovering his lover has left, he decides to run away, too. In doing so, he demonstrates the knee-jerk reaction many people have when something goes wrong: they immediately evacuate, setting off for new lives in an attempt to outrun sadness, adversity, or hardship.
Jeremy isn’t the only character in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone to exemplify the cyclical nature of migration and transience. Indeed, this migratory impulse is passed down through generations, manifesting itself in the conversation young Zonia and Reuben have about their blossoming childhood love. After they kiss for the first (and then second) time, Reuben says to Zonia, “You my girl, okay?” Zonia agrees, and then Reuben says, “When I get grown, I come looking for you.” Children who aren’t surrounded by wanderers would most likely draw a different conclusion about their future than Reuben draws in this moment—they would assume that now that they’ve kissed each other, they’ll be together forever. However, the majority of the adults in Reuben and Zonia’s lives drift from place to place, some of them searching for old lovers. As such, it’s only natural that Reuben would think telling Zonia he’ll “come looking for [her]” is the ultimate expression of love. Likewise, this suggestion must not sound out of the ordinary to Zonia, who is herself traveling with her father from town to town in search of her mother. In this way, Wilson illustrates how a sense of rootlessness can develop at a young age, creating entire families of people who are likely to live much of their lives on the road. In turn, the audience begins to understand how this transient mentality is historically shaped as it moves from generation to generation.
Although many characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone use migration to escape hardship, there are, of course, other reasons why people lead lives of transience. Indeed, economic incentives coax people north, and they pass through Seth’s boarding house on their way to find new work. Regarding this, Seth remarks, “Ever since slavery got over with there ain’t been nothing but foolish-acting niggers. Word get out they need men to work in the mill and put in these roads…and niggers drop everything and head North looking for freedom. They don’t know the white fellows looking too. White fellows coming from all over the world. White fellow come over and in six months got more than what I got. But these niggers keep on coming.” In this moment, Seth speaks pessimistically about the wisdom of migrating for economic purposes, suggesting that the fantasy of prosperity blinds black migrant workers to the harsh reality of the new post-slavery world—a world in which white people still triumph over black people. Nonetheless, the promise of economic prosperity remains a compelling reason for people to move, as evidenced by what Jeremy says when Seth criticizes him for willingly giving up his job; “Don’t make me no difference. There’s a big road out there.” This is exactly the kind of thinking Seth calls “foolish.” Jeremy’s apathy about losing his job aligns with Seth’s notion that people too often “drop everything” upon hearing even the slightest suggestion of new possibilities.
The final reason for migration presented in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is embodied by Bynum, a man who used to travel from place to place not because he wanted to run away from something or find new work, but because he wanted to find happiness and a deeper sense of meaning. In order to do so, he wandered, searching out something that would help him understand himself and the nature of his discontent. He articulates this sentiment to Loomis in the play’s final act, saying, “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. […] Then one day my daddy gave me a song.”
The fact that Bynum “didn’t know what [he] was searching for” is a perfect example of how the human tendency to desire abstract things mixes with historical circumstances to lead someone to travel the roads looking for some kind of existence that might provide him with empowerment or individuality. In this moment, Bynum acknowledges that “something was keeping [him] dissatisfied with life”—this is most likely because he was a black man trying to eke out a satisfying life in a country that built itself upon black oppression. But Bynum’s discontent is also more individual than this; his dissatisfaction was, it seems, a true existential crisis. This is why finding his “song” helped him come to terms with himself and his life. Of course, this “song” is his defining element, the essence of his identity and the reason for his existence—or at least this is what he believes. Regardless of his song, though, Bynum’s story suggests that perhaps all the other characters are also searching for this same thing: some essential element that will fill a void in their lives, a difficult thing to find, considering that this void is both the product of history and abstract existential yearnings. Whether the characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone tell themselves they’re looking for love or financial stability, they’re most likely hoping to find something like Bynum’s “song.” Unfortunately, though, not everybody has a life-defining spiritual experience like Bynum’s, and so the majority of the characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone are condemned to go on wandering and wandering, hoping always for some bright new promise.
Migration and Transience ThemeTracker
Migration and Transience Quotes in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
From the deep and the near South the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, they arrive dazed and stunned, their heart kicking in their chest with a song worth singing. They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope, marked men and women seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles and the fiery blasts of the coke furnace a way of bludgeoning and shaping the malleable parts of themselves into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.
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.
Jeremy just young. He don’t know what he getting into. That gal don’t mean him no good. She’s just using him to keep from being by herself. That’s the worst use of a man you can have. You ought to be glad to wash him out of your hair. I done seen all kind of men. I done seen them come and go through here. Jeremy ain’t had enough to him for you. You need a man who’s got some understanding and who willing to work with that understanding to come to the best he can. You got your time coming. You just tries too hard and can’t understand why it don’t work for you. Trying to figure it out don’t do nothing but give you a troubled mind. Don’t no man want a woman with a troubled mind.
You get all that trouble off your mind and just when it look like you ain’t never gonna find what you want […] you look up and it’s standing right there. That’s how I met my Seth. You gonna look up one day and find everything you want standing right in front of you.
These niggers coming up here with that old backward country style of living. It’s hard enough now without all that ignorant kind of acting. Ever since slavery got over with there ain’t been nothing but foolish-acting niggers. Word get out they need men to work in the mill and put in these roads…and niggers drop everything and head North looking for freedom. They don’t know the white fellows looking too. White fellows coming from all over the world. White fellow come over and in six months got more than what I got. But these niggers keep on coming. Walking…riding…carrying their Bibles. That boy done carried a guitar all the way from North Carolina. What he gonna find out? What he gonna do with that guitar? This the city.
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. Then he carried me further into this big place until we come to this ocean. Then he showed me something I ain’t got words to tell you. But if you stand to witness it, you done seen something there. I stayed in that place awhile and my daddy taught me the meaning of this thing that I had seen and showed me how to find my song. I asked him about the shiny man and he told me he was the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way. Said there was lots of shiny men and if I ever saw one again before I died then I would know that my song had been accepted and worked its full power in the world and I could lay down and die a happy man. A man who done left his mark on life. On the way people cling to each other out of the truth they find in themselves. Then he showed me how to get back to the road.
The roots is a powerful thing. I can fix it so one day he’ll walk out his front door…won’t be thinking of nothing. He won’t know what it is. All he knows is that a powerful dissatisfaction done set in his bones and can’t nothing he do make him feel satisfied. He’ll set his foot down on the road and the wind in the trees be talking to him and everywhere he step on the road, that road’ll give back your name and something will pull him right up to your doorstep. Now, I can do that. I can take my roots and fix that easy. But maybe he ain’t supposed to come back. And if he ain’t supposed to come back…then he’ll be in your bed one morning and it’ll come up on him that he’s in the wrong place. That he’s lost outside of time from his place that he’s supposed to be in. Then both of you be lost and trapped outside of life and ain’t no way for you to get back into it. ’Cause you lost from yourselves and where the places come together, where you’re supposed to be alive, your heart kicking in your chest with a song worth singing.
I can’t promise anything but we been finders in my family for a long time. Bringers and finders. My great granddaddy used to bring Nigras across the ocean on ships. That wasn’t no easy job either. Sometimes the winds would blow so hard you’d think the hand of God was set against the sails. But it set him well in pay and he settled in this new land and found him a wife of good Christian charity with a mind for kids and the like and well…here I am, Rutherford Selig. You’re in good hands, mister. Me and my daddy have found plenty Nigras. My daddy, rest his soul, used to find runaway slaves for the plantation bosses. He was the best there was at it. […] Had him a reputation stretched clean across the country. After Abraham Lincoln give you all Nigras your freedom papers and with you all looking all over for each other…we started finding Nigras for Nigras. Of course, it don’t pay as much. But the People Finding business ain’t so bad.
BYNUM: What you waiting on, Herald Loomis?
LOOMIS: I’m waiting on the breath to get into my body. I can feel it. I’m starting to breathe again.
BYNUM: The breath coming into you, Herald Loomis. What you gonna do now?
LOOMIS: The wind’s blowing the breath into my body. I can feel it. I’m starting to breathe again.
BYNUM: What you gonna do, Herald Loomis?
LOOMIS: I’m gonna stand up. I got to stand up. I can’t lay here no more. All the breath coming into my body and I got to stand up.
BYNUM: Everybody’s standing up at the same time.
LOOMIS: The ground’s starting to shake. There’s a great shaking. The world’s busting half in two. The sky’s splitting open. I got to stand up.
(LOOMIS attempts to stand up.)
My legs…my legs won’t stand up!
JEREMY: It didn’t make no sense to me. I don’t make but eight dollars. Why I got to give him fifty cents of it? He go around to all the colored and he got ten dollars extra. That’s more than I make for a whole week.
SETH: I see you gonna learn the hard way. You just looking at the facts of it. See, right now, without the job, you ain’t got nothing. What you gonna do when you can’t keep a roof over your head? Right now, come Saturday, unless you come up with another two dollars, you gonna be out there in the streets. Down up under one of them bridges trying to put some food in your belly and wishing you had given that fellow that fifty cents.
JEREMY: Don’t make me no difference. There’s a big road out there. I can get my guitar and always find me another place to stay. I ain’t planning on staying in one place for too long noway.
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.
(LOOMIS slashes himself across the chest. He rubs the blood over his face and comes to a realization.)
I’m standing! I’m standing. My legs stood up! I’m standing now!
(Having found his song, the song of self-sufficiency, fully resurrected, cleansed and given breath, free from any encumbrance other than the workings of his own heart and the bonds of the flesh, having accepted the responsibility for his own presence in the world, he is free to soar above the environs that weighed and pushed his spirit into terrifying contractions.)