Spirituality is framed in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone as something people turn to in order to find meaning in their lives. There are, of course, many different kinds of spirituality—a fact Wilson takes into account by portraying characters with wide-ranging belief systems. Bynum, for example, invests himself in old forms of African healing and mystical practices. Loomis’s wife Martha, on the other hand, devotes herself to Christianity, believing that faith in the Lord gives purpose to life. Although these two conceptions of spirituality seem to differ greatly, they both speak to a desire to impose meaning and order on life, which might otherwise seem chaotic and meaningless.
Bynum is a “conjure man,” a person who practices folk magic. He is presented as a shaman of sorts, apparently capable of “binding” people to one another spiritually. Doing this, he claims, is his life’s calling—his “song.” Even Wilson’s note about Bynum suggests that his spiritual beliefs give him a sense of order and meaning; “A conjure man, or rootworker, he gives the impression of always being in control of everything. Nothing ever bothers him. He seems to be lost in a world of his own making and to swallow any adversity or interference with his grand design.” That Bynum always feels “in control of everything” because of his practice as a conjure man illustrates the extent to which faith and spirituality can influence a person’s conception of their own life. Indeed, Bynum feels empowered and comfortable in his life because he has invested himself in a “grand design.” As such, Wilson implies that the idea of being part of something larger than oneself can help a person deal with adversity—even if this means being “lost in a world of [one’s] own making.”
The ways in which other characters participate—or don’t participate—in Bynum’s “grand design” suggests that people often approach spirituality in a pragmatic way. In other words, they invest themselves in certain belief systems because they think doing so will help them live productive, fortunate, and meaningful lives. Bertha is a perfect example of somebody who approaches spirituality in this way, as she combines Christianity with Bynum’s “conjure” rituals, supposedly doubling her chances of inviting good fortune. In the play’s opening scene, Seth critiques her for participating in Bynum’s folk magic, saying, “You around here sprinkling salt all over the place…got pennies lined up across the threshold…all that heebie jeebie stuff. I just put up with that ’cause of you. I don’t pay that kind of stuff no mind. And you going down there to the church and wanna come home and sprinkle salt all over the place.” By saying this, Seth points out that Bertha is mixing arguably contradictory belief systems, creating an amalgamation of superstition, Christianity, and folk magic. According to him, this is all nothing but foolishness, but Bertha disagrees. “It don’t hurt none,” she says. “I can’t say if it help…but it don’t hurt none.” According to Bertha’s outlook, then, a person doesn’t need to commit to just one system of belief. Spirituality, it seems, can be amorphous and still inform a person’s life, helping one achieve a sense of order, security, and meaning.
Martha, Herald Loomis’s wife, invests herself in Christianity, a more commonly accepted form of spirituality than Bynum’s “conjure” magic. For her, life is meaningless if a person doesn’t believe in God, follow the Bible, and devote themselves to Jesus Christ. When she discovers that Herald has strayed from the church, she says, “You got to open up your heart and have faith, Herald. This world is just a trial for the next. Jesus offers you salvation.” When she asserts that “this world is just a trial for the next,” she suggests that the only point of life is to prepare for heaven. This is an extreme example of how spirituality can give meaning to life; for Martha, religious belief eclipses all other considerations. Whereas Bynum believes each person must find their own “song”— specific to that person—Martha upholds that there’s just one calling for everybody, and people must “open up [their] heart[s]” to it. “You can’t just be alive,” she says to Herald. “Life don’t mean nothing unless it got a meaning.” For her, this “meaning” is to be found in religious devotion.
By showcasing how people organize their lives around spirituality, Wilson hints at the fact that humans often tend toward the fatalistic conception that certain things in life are predestined—part of a divine plan. Bynum, for example, has built his life around a spiritual practice that unites people who are “meant to be” together. The idea that two people are “meant to be” with one another implies a preordained narrative, something that ultimately superimposes a sense of order and significance upon a person’s existence. Similarly, Martha’s belief that everybody will pass into “the next” world when they die emphasizes life’s unavoidable end, an outlook that—despite its morbidity—gives existence the feeling of guaranteed direction. As such, people can take a certain amount of comfort in the idea that they know what will happen to them, especially since they might otherwise think of the future as chaotic and unpredictable. Both Bynum and Martha’s outlooks, then, suggest that certain events will transpire in the end no matter what. This idea, it seems, is soothing to the characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone because it helps them believe that they exist in a “grand design,” a notion that naturally adds meaning to their lives. In this way, Wilson presents spirituality as a deeply human practice of meaning-making—one that satisfies the natural desire to add order and value to existence.
Spirituality 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.
SETH: […] All that old mumbo jumbo nonsense. I don’t know why I put up with it.
BERTHA: You don’t say nothing when he bless the house.
SETH: I just go along with that ’cause of you. You around here sprinkling salt all over the place…got pennies lined up across the threshold…all that heebie jeebie stuff. I just put up with that ’cause of you. I don’t pay that kind of stuff no mind. And you going down there to the church and wanna come come [sic] home and sprinkle salt all over the place.
BERTHA: It don’t hurt none. I can’t say if it help…but it don’t hurt none.
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.
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.
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!
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.)