Joe Turner’s Come and Gone takes place in 1911, 48 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which legally liberated all slaves in the Union. Even though the play’s characters exist in a post-slavery America—and have for nearly 50 years—their lives are still influenced by the nation’s racist past and present. In particular, Herald Loomis and Jeremy’s everyday lives are directly impacted by the prejudiced and inhumane precedent set by slavery. By showcasing the tangible ways these characters continue to be affected by the legacy of slavery, Wilson suggests that acts of profound bigotry and dehumanization have long-lasting effects. As such, the characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone continue to re-live the horrors of slavery on a daily basis, proving that just because this crime against humanity is over according to the law doesn’t mean it has stopped harming the African Americans who inherited its traumas.
The characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone process the effects of racism in different ways. For instance, Jeremy acknowledges injustice without letting it break his spirits. A young black man at the mercy of white police officers and white employers, he frequently has to face racism and poor treatment, but he does so with an optimistic, cheerful attitude. When he first appears onstage, he has just been incarcerated for the night by the police because some officers wanted to confiscate the two dollars he and his friend earned from their employer. Despite this injustice, Jeremy manages to remain in good spirits, seemingly unwilling to let such virulent racism ruin his optimistic outlook on life. Wilson’s initial note about him reads: “About twenty-five, he gives the impression that he has the world in his hand, that he can meet life’s challenges head on. He smiles a lot.” This disposition is at odds with the adversity with which he’s forced to contend, but he keeps smiling nevertheless, an attitude that allows him to “meet life’s challenges head on.”
However, not everyone in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is able to deal with racism by defying structures of black oppression with a sense of unshakeable optimism. Indeed, people like Seth often choose to ignore bigotry altogether in order to lead stable lives. Whereas Jeremy’s high-spirited willingness to reject racism interferes with his working life, Seth is more likely to acquiesce to the demands of white people for the sake of leading a prosperous life within the bounds of a racist society. When Jeremy explains that his white employers fired him because he refused to pay them fifty cents, Seth asks, “Boy, what kind of sense that make? What kind of sense it make to get fired from a job where you making eight dollars a week and all it cost you is fifty cents.” In response, Jeremy says, “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?” What’s interesting about this exchange is that both men espouse different ideas about how to deal with the realities of life in racist, post-slavery America. A pragmatic man who prizes stability, Seth is so preoccupied with making a living and attaining economic security that he thinks only in financial terms, ignoring the injustice of Jeremy’s situation. This is why he asks “what kind of sense that make?”, since, speaking strictly in terms of numbers, it doesn’t make sense to sacrifice eight dollars for the sake of fifty cents. On the other hand, when Jeremy says, “It didn’t make no sense to me,” he reveals that he’s looking at the situation not in terms of money, but in terms of principle: for him, it doesn’t make sense to subject himself to unfair treatment just because he’s black. Unfortunately, this determination to not acquiesce to racism leaves him jobless. Nonetheless, he retains his positive attitude, an exuberance for life that doesn’t align with the harsh reality of the racist world in which he lives. In contrast, Seth’s tendency to view unequal treatment as a fact of life allows him to create a comparatively stable life for himself. As such, Wilson presents two ways of dealing with racism in post-slavery America: either a person stands up for himself and thus shoulders the unfortunate consequences, or he accepts the limitations placed upon him and does what he can to succeed within them. And although these ways of responding to racism differ, they both require a person to compromise, illustrating how nobody in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone exists uninfluenced by America’s history of racism.
Wilson further emphasizes the long-lasting effects of slavery by spotlighting Herald Loomis’s experience as a free black man captured by Joe Turner, a white man who rounded up groups of black men and forced them to work for him for seven years. Loomis’s time as one of these men completely derailed his life, splitting up his family and stripping him of his humanity. He explains to Seth and Bynum the circumstances of his capture, saying that he was snatched while preaching to a group of gamblers; “I stopped to preach to these fellows to see if maybe I could turn some of them from their sinning when Joe Turner, brother of the Governor of the great sovereign state of Tennessee, swooped down on us and grabbed everybody there.” The fact that Joe Turner is the Governor of Tennessee’s brother is significant because it illustrates the extent to which the American government still tacitly condones racial abuse. Joe Turner’s affiliation with the government suggests that although the laws have changed since the time of slavery, even the government has hardly shifted away, in practice, from the systematic dehumanization of black people. Indeed, the nation has a legacy of racism that isn’t easily dismantled, a legacy still bringing itself to bear on the characters of Wilson’s play.
It’s worth noting that even Selig—a supposedly friendly acquaintance of Seth and his boarders—operates within a tradition of prejudice and racism, since the only reason he’s a “people finder” in the first place is because his ancestors made their name bringing Africans to America, and later tracking down escaped slaves for plantation owners. By presenting the clearly observable ways this history of racism still manifests itself in 1911, Wilson emphasizes the fact that all his characters have habituated themselves to a racist world order. This is in keeping with the play’s name, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone—after all, Joe Turner is technically no longer in Loomis’s life, but his presence lingers because of the terrible aftereffects of his actions. In turn, Loomis’s inability to forget Joe Turner—along with Jeremy and Seth’s respective attempts to deal with racism—suggests that America can’t simply pick up and move on from its own racist history. This is further supported when Bynum sings an old blues song he learned in the South, the lyrics of which revolve around the phrase, “They tell me Joe Turner’s come and gone.” That this refrain has worked its way throughout the South is a testament to just how much the figure of Joe Turner has entered the national consciousness, suggesting that Herald Loomis isn’t the only person still living a life shaped by the horrors of racism and its turbulent related history.
Racism in Post-Slavery America ThemeTracker
Racism in Post-Slavery America 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.
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.
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.)