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Critical Essay #2
In the following essay, Anderson explores how Wilson's play illustrates that "in reclaiming the self by recovering the past, the individual becomes capable of constructing a future."
A character in August Wilson's play Joe Turner's Come and Gone tells a story about how he was "cure[d]" of playing in guitar contests. Called out to play his guitar for an unspecified prize offered by a white man, Wilson's character does his best to demonstrate his skill against his two black opponents until he realizes that the white man is tone deaf and cannot distinguish the quality of each man's music. All three players finally substitute volume for skill, and the white judge, unable to declare a winner, pronounces "all three . . . the best guitar player" and divides a paltry prize of twenty-five cents between the contestants with a "penny on the side."
The anecdote related by Wilson's character serves as a reminder that white efforts to understand the products of black cultures can be attended by arrogance and insensitivity, a tendency to hear one essential black voice speaking of a single black experience. White readers of Wilson's play should want to avoid both the arrogance of the tone-deaf white man who assumes that economic and social privilege qualify him to judge a black culture, and his insensitivity to the different voices within that culture. This insensitivity, as the anecdote makes clear, always renders the same leveling judgment, a judgment of unimportance or non-worth.
The anecdote and Wilson's play as a whole, however, are not primarily about an insensitive, indifferent or hostile white society but about the process of recovering and recreating black voices after the white judge has turned individual music into noise. The premise of the play, and the focus of my argument about the play, is that this recovery and re-creation can only occur with the recognition that Joe Turner, the personification of white oppression of African Americans, has "come and gone." Joe Turner is part of a past that, acknowledged and appropriated for the self, loses its power to determine the future. Consigning Joe Turner to the past does not mean naively believing that white oppression is at an end. Wilson's play depicts ongoing efforts by white society to deflect and misdirect black progress toward community and individual identity. But if white oppression extends into the present, its power to diminish or impugn the self is denied when the history of that oppression is confronted and countered with the collective and personal memory that grounds identity. In reclaiming the self by recovering the past, the individual becomes capable of constructing a future.
A play about recovering the past and leaving it behind, Joe Turner's Come and Gone appropriately treats a transitional phase in African-American history: the Great Migration. Over a period of twenty years, from 1910 to 1930, some one and a half million African Americans, a sixth of the nation's black population, left rural and urban areas of the South for industrial cities of the North—New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and the city that is the setting for August Wilson's play, Pittsburgh. What the migrants left behind, what they hoped to find and what kind of life greeted them in the North are questions of fact that historians of this period generally agree on. The migrants left racial violence, segregation, and disfranchisements in the South. They also left a Southern economy hurt by a boll weevil invasion that reduced cotton yields, low cotton prices, and a pattern of Northern investment that turned the South into a dependent colony with a shrinking labor market. They were drawn to the North by the promise of higher wages and after 1916, by the employment possibilities created when World War I stopped the flow of European immigrant labor. In leaving for the industrialized cities of the North, the migrants hoped to find not only higher wages but also economic and political equality, educational opportunities, and social justice. What the migrants found in the North was something less: voting rights that did not translate into political power, discriminatory hiring and promotion practices that kept them at the bottom of the employment ladder, segregated and substandard housing and education. Some gains were made in economic well-being, political rights, and opportunities in education. But, as James Grossman suggests in Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration, "the dreams embodied in the Great Migration eventually collapsed under the weight of continued racial oppression and the failure of industrial capitalism to distribute its prosperity as broadly as the migrants expected." In Carole Marks's succinct summary in Farewell—We're Good and Gone, reality never matched the dream of the Great Migration."
Though Grossman and Marks agree about many of the facts surrounding the Great Migration and though both find that the migration achieved little in the way of concrete economic, social and political gains, they do not agree about the meaning of this mass movement of people, particularly its meaning for those who made the journey. For Marks, the Great Migration was a drama in which the migrants themselves were "minor actors." The real stars of this drama were economic forces: the declining Southern economy, the need of Northern industrialists for cheap and expendable labor after World War I ended European immigration and, at the most abstract level, an economic order in which developed, capitalrich cores draw natural resources and cheap labor from undeveloped peripheries. Though the migrants created many of their own lines of communication and institutional supports for the move, labor agents were pivotal in inducing them to leave, and "much of the mobilization of the migration was orchestrated in the board rooms of Northern industrial enterprises."
In a review essay of Marks's and Grossman's books ["The Beginnings of a Renaissance: Black Migration, the Industrial Order, and the Search for Power," Journal of Urban History, May, 1991], Earl Lewis observes that Marks's claim for the primacy of economic forces will be disconcerting to "social historians who have dared to understand how African Americans empowered themselves during the industrial age. As one of these social historians, James Grossman rejects historical accounts that portray migrants as objects of economic and social forces and suggests that we can better understand the Great Migration by viewing it "as a conscious and meaningful act rather than as a historical imperative." This act, Grossman suggests, grew out of migrants' consciousness of their identity as black Americans and their willingness to adapt and recreate that identity in a new urban, industrial context. The same pride in racial heritage and identity that Marcus Garvey drew on in the twenties, he suggests, was central to the "ideology of the Great Migration." By migrating to industrialized cities of the North, black Southerners affirmed their power to make themselves, just as they had proved their freedom through spatial mobility of a more limited kind following emancipation.
As a "second emancipation," the Great Migration represented a break with the past but also its preservation and adaptation. Though migration entailed the abandonment of a long-standing ideal of land ownership as the route to independence and the ability to recast the self as industrial worker and city dweller, "the migrants," as Grossman puts it, "did not leave their cultural baggage at the train station." This cultural heritage informed the decision to migrate and the migrants' response to the institutions and social forms that they found in the North, at the same time that it changed that environment and was changed by it, a mutual reshaping evident, Grossman suggests, in "the aromas of southern cooking . . .; the sounds of New Orleans jazz and Mississippi blues; styles of worship; patterns of speech . . ."
However, not all differences of cultural heritage or of interest were reconciled in quite so harmonious a way, and in focusing on the Great Migration as a historical process in which African Americans asserted a common heritage and identity, Grossman does not assume a monolithic African-American culture. As Lewis points out in his review of Land of Hope, Grossman recognizes the interethnic conflicts that frequently marked relations between the "Old Settlers" and the new arrivals, conflicts generated by differences of class as well as region and that were often manifested as the fear that the newcomer's rural lack of sophistication in dress, manner, or religious expression would injure community image. In spite of these differences, however, migrants and the established black community shared a sense of ethnic identity which synthesized much of the experience of both groups and redefined African-American cultural identity both North and South. It is as a process of cultural self-creation that Grossman sees the Great Migration's chief significance and promise. Viewed from the perspective of subjects recreating themselves, from "forward" rather than "backward," the Great Migration, he suggests, was not a failure, for in this singular reversal of the historian's perspective, we see the migrants not as the objects of historical forces and the histories written about them but as agents in their own history.
Grossman's analysis of the Great Migration as a process in which African Americans drew on the past to remake themselves is close to August Wilson's dramatic interpretation of the migration in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Like Grossman, Wilson see[s] the Great Migration not merely as a demographic or geographical shift but a historical transition to a new identity, and in his play the image of movement, of traveling the roads, serves as an apt metaphor for the search for self. Joe Turner's Come and Gone presents this search as both personal and collective. Though Wilson's characters seek an individual "song" that will guide them along the road into the future, they are enabled to recover this song only through recovery of a collective as well as a personal past. Recovery of one's song, however, is not easy, and, as Jeremy's anecdote of the guitar contest suggests, that song is in continual danger from the effects of white racism.
Before I go to look more closely at what the search for self or "song" entails, I think it is important to understand something of the conditions and the world in which Wilson portrays that search. The world depicted in Wilson's drama consists of material and spiritual parts or aspects which must be brought into meaningful synthesis, a synthesis in which each is informed by or exists through the other. The search for self or "song" can be viewed as a personal version of this broader task of creating a world in which the spiritual and the material infuse one another. Or, again, since Wilson suggests the individuals, couples and communities can be worlds of their own, the two tasks are substantially the same task. Recovering the unique self of one's song is also the creation of a world in which the material and spiritual are in harmony.
Both interdependence of the material and the spiritual and the need to bring them into fuller relation are suggested in the opening scene of Joe Turner's Come and Gone. The setting for this scene and for the rest of the play is a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911. When the play opens, the owner of this boardinghouse, Seth Holly, is watching one of his tenants, a "rootworker" or shaman named Bynum, perform a religious ritual or rite. Seth reports the progress of this ritual to his wife, Bertha, while she cooks breakfast and they exchange comments about Seth's work in a Pittsburgh steel mill and his efforts to get a loan to finance a small shop for the manufacture of pots and pans.
The staging of this scene, dialogue, and characterization suggests that the material and spiritual aspects of the world are in intimate contact but somehow not fully integrated. On the one hand, the staging dramatizes separation. The material world of everyday concerns, of seeking business loans and baking biscuits, is located inside the boardinghouse, where it can be directly witnessed by the audience. The spiritual realm is outside and offstage, accessible to the audience only through Seth's description of it. This description, moreover, is made by a man who is somewhat scornful of what he witnesses. A skilled craftsman and a property owner, a practical man accustomed to dealing in the materials of his craft and the economic realities of running a boarding house and resisting exploitation in his work life, Seth is prone to see the ritual performed by Bynum as "mumbo jumbo nonsense," as something not quite civilized. Watching a ritual in which Bynum kills a pigeon and pours some of its blood into a cup, Seth speculates: "I believe he drink that blood."
Bertha's immediate reproach to her husband for this fantasy suggests that Bynum is not so far outside social norms as Seth likes to believe:
"Seth Holly, what is wrong with you this morning?
. . . You know Bynum don't be drinking no pigeon
"I don't know what he do."
"Well, watch him, then. He's gonna dig a little hole
and bury that pigeon. Then he's gonna pray over that
blood . . . pour it on top . . . mark out his circle and
come on into the house."
Yet Bynum does function as a foil for Seth. Described in the play's notes as a man "lost in a world of his own making and [able] to swallow any adversity or interferences with his grand design," Bynum represents a spiritual world that is antagonistic to the material and practical one, but different from and somewhat indifferent to it. This indifference and the potential for tension between Bynum's spirituality and Seth's materialism are humorously represented in Bynum's apparent unconcern for the vegetable garden in which he conducts his ritual, unconcern that leads Seth to yell, "Hey Bynum . . . Watch where you stepping!" from his station by the window.
While characterization and staging tend to present the material and the spiritual as separate realities, they do not present this separation as absolute or even as clearly marked. Though the vegetable garden provides bodily sustenance and ostensibly belongs to Seth, it is also the site of Bynum's ritual and the place where Bynum grows plants for use in magical preparations. The division of "Seth's" garden, moreover, reflects a similar division (or amalgamation) in Seth's character, for though he calls Bynum's rituals "mumbo jumbo," he has the conjure man bless his house. Likewise, though Bynum represents the claims and needs of the spirit, he is no enemy of the material world or of pragmatic, commercial realities that Seth deals in. He both relishes Bertha's biscuits and accepts payment for spiritual services. In a similar way, the staging suggests the intimate connection as well as separation of the material and spiritual. Though the spiritual world is off stage, it is connected to the material, the practical and the everyday by a window, and Seth's report on that world while Bertha bakes biscuits suggests that these two realities exist in close relation. Indeed, Bertha's matter-of-fact response to Seth's sacrilegious speculation about how Bynum will use the pigeon's blood suggests that, in some fundamental way, the spiritual or extramundane is part of everyday, pragmatic reality. Bertha knows the course of Bynum's ritual without looking because she has seen it many times, because it is a regular part of everyday existence.
The first scene's dialogue continues a pattern of showing the material and spiritual to be separated and interrelated, but it also shows how their integration can be subverted. Seth's commentary on Bynum's off-stage ritual is interspersed with discussion of more material, pragmatic concerns—his unsatisfying work on the night shift at a mill and his desire to start his own business with the financial help of white businessmen. Despite the practicality of Seth's plan, however, the white men he approaches refuse to lend him the money he needs unless he signs his house over to them. It is here that we begin to see why Seth's house needs to be blessed and in what way the spiritual and material may become not integrated and complementary but opposed realities. At least part of the material, pragmatic, and everyday world inhabited by Wilson's characters, that part dominated by whites, opposes their spiritual being because it is organized to oppress them.
Much of the oppression experienced by Wilson's characters might be described as material or economic. Thus, Seth's guitar-playing tenant, Jeremy, is jailed without cause and fined two dollars and later fired from his job on a road crew when he refuses to pay a white coworker fifty cents in protection money. Steady work and home ownership give Seth a certain financial security, yet he too is vulnerable to a white society bent on extracting what it can from him and limiting his opportunities for economic advancement. Commenting on the hopes of black migrants for prosperity in Pittsburgh, Seth notes that though he has lived in Pittsburgh all his life, white European immigrants have "come over and in six months got more than what I got."
Though the oppression encountered by Wilson's characters may seem to be solely economic or material, that oppression is spiritual as well in its capacity to deprive the individual of a sense of himself or of his unique "song." Since the play presents the material and the spiritual as interwoven or integrated, material oppression necessarily has an effect on the individual spirit, denying it value and even existence. The individual spirit or song, in Wilson's play, can only exist as a manifestation in the world, as an act or expression of self that "marks" or makes the world. This expression, in a sense, uses the self up to create the world, translates the spirit into material form. Bynum's song, for example, consists in the act of binding people together, but this use of his song "cost[s] me a piece of myself every time I do it." The use of self to create the world does not really entail the sacrifice or loss of self, however, but leads rather to that self's realization. As Bynum puts it at one point, "[I] got so I used all of myself up in the making of that song. Then I was the song in search of itself." Because the world created through the individual's song is a place in which the self is reflected, a place in which the individual is able to see and know how to identify himself, to use the self in the expression of one's song is also to create and affirm that self.
Material oppression as it is depicted in Wilson's play denies this essential bond with the world of one's creation and, consequently, the being of the subject who creates the world. To be defrauded of the products of one's labor, or to see that creation diminished (as that of Jeremy and the other musicians is in the guitar contest), is to be denied a reflection of individual worth and identity in the world. It is to be exiled from self and world together. This alienation and displacement of the individual, moreover, is accompanied by the severing of relationships and the fragmentation of community. "People cling to each other out of the truth they find themselves," Bynum says at one point. Hence, if they have been separated from this truth through the operation of oppression, their capacity to bond with one another, to form friendships, couples, families, or a people, is undermined. The social effects of the alienation felt by Wilson's characters are expressed in their stories of broken relationships and in the uncertainty or suspicion that they feel toward one another. As Seth puts it, "Anybody liable to be anything as far as I'm concerned."
The connection between oppression, alienation from self and inability to form bonds with others is clearest in the character of Herold Loomis, the hero of Wilson's play. Accompanied by his young daughter, Loomis arrives at Seth's boarding house while searching for his wife, Martha. Loomis became separated from his wife ten years earlier when he was imprisoned and forced to work on a chain gang for seven years by a white man named Joe Turner. When Loomis was finally released, he returned to the farm where he had been a sharecropper to find that little remained of his former life. Though he found his daughter in the home of his wife's mother, his wife had gone to the North with the church. Taking his daughter with him, Loomis went in search of his wife, but he also sought himself and the ability to connect with others. Joe Turner had separated Loomis not only from his family and the life in which he knew himself but, in a more fundamental way, from his sense of self-worth and identity. Turner's ability to oppress Loomis carried a judgment of non-worth which a guard made explicit: "He told me I was worthless." This judgment of worthlessness, which Loomis was forced to accept by the reality of the white man's power, has "marked" Loomis as "one of Joe Turner's niggers" at the same time that it has caused him to forget "how he's supposed to mark down life." It has, in other words, transformed Loomis from a subject into an object, a condition in which he remains bound to Joe Turner even after he has been released.
Marked by Joe Turner as a worthless object without agency or power, Loomis is not only alienated from himself but displaced from his relation to the world, for the world is home only to selves able to create it in their own image. He is unable to establish bonds with people around him ("I done forgot how to touch," he tells Mattie Campbell), and he wanders without a clear sense of either his origin or destination. Asked where he is from, Loomis replies: "Come from all over. Which everway the road take us that's the way we go." Deprived of a place in the world through oppression, Loomis is "bound up to the road." By finding the wife he has lost, Loomis hopes to reconnect with the past life which had grounded his identity and, in this way, to find a "starting place" for remaking the self in the future. As Loomis tells Martha when he finally sees her, "now that I see your face I can say my goodbye and make my own world."
In his search for the past and himself, Loomis enlists the services of a white traveling salesman or trader named Selig, who, besides selling pots and pans he purchases from Seth, hires himself as a "people finder" to blacks looking for lost loved ones. For a dollar fee, Selig writes down the name and description of the missing person and watches for that person as he travels around the country selling his wares. If one of the purchasers of his goods happens to be on Selig's list of missing persons, then that person has been "found" and can be reunited with Selig's client. By performing this service for African Americans in search of one another, Selig follows a calling he has inherited from his father and grandfather. As he tells Loomis,
[W]e been finders in my family for a long time.
Bringers and finders. My great-grandaddy used tov bring Nigras across the ocean on ships. . . My daddy, v rest his soul, used to find runaway slaves for the
plantation bosses. . . 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.
In a recent interview in which he was asked if Selig is an evil figure, Wilson replied, "[H]e's not evil at all. In fact, he's performing a very valuable service for the community." Given the continuity between Selig's "finding" and that performed by his father and grandfather, Wilson's defense of his character and his commercial sideline seems disingenuous. And the play presents Selig's people finding in quite another light.
In order to be "found" by Selig, a black man or woman must first buy something from him, must, that is, enter the market economy as customer. While this leveling of identity within economic relations does not reproduce quite the radical denial of intrinsic human worth entailed in the professions of Selig's ancestors, the parallel nevertheless seems clear. The economic system represented by Selig, a system which exploits and excludes blacks, is one that they can be "found" in only as "Nigras." And to be found in this way is to experience the same alienation from self and community that created the need for Selig's services in the first place. As Bertha Holly informs Loomis after he has hired Selig to find his wife,
You can call him a People Finder if you want to. I
know Rutherford Selig carries people away too. . .
Folks plan on leaving plan by Selig's timing.
They wait till he get ready to go, then they hitch a ride on his
wagon. Then he charge folks a dollar to tell them
where he took them. Now, that's the truth of Rutherford
Selig. He ain't never found nobody he ain't
Selig represents economic forces which not only exploit African Americans but deny their intrinsic worth as persons, in the terms of the dichotomy discussed above, as spirit. Though these forces may not be self-consciously "evil," the injury they inflict through indifferent exploitation resembles that inflicted by Joe Turner's more direct oppression.
If the search for the past and self through the economic system represented by Selig seems to be doomed to failure, a second possibility for self-recovery is presented through Bynum's account of how he learned "the Secret of Life" and discovered his essential self or "song." Bynum's experience of revelation and self-recovery is described in terms of a spiritual journey. While walking along a road, Bynum met a man who, saying he has not eaten for three days, asked him for food and for information about the road Bynum had come by. The stranger then offered to show Bynum "the Secret of Life" and led him back the way he, Bynum, had come. The stranger was able to serve as guide on this unfamiliar road because he had "a voice inside him telling him which way to go." After cleansing Bynum's hands with blood, the stranger led him to a place where "everything was bigger than life" and there left him, disappearing in a light streaming from his body so that Bynum "had to cover up my eyes to keep from being blinded." After the "shiny man" left, the spirit of Bynum's father appeared and took over his instruction, taking him to an ocean where he witnessed "something I ain't got words to tell" and teaching him how to find his song. Bynum chose "the Binding Song," he tells Selig, "because that's what I seen most when I was traveling . . . people walking away and leaving one another." Possession of this song conferred on Bynum both a new identity and a unique task in the world: "Been binding people ever since. That's why they call me Bynum."
Bynum's narrative of revelation and self-recovery resembles Afro-Baptist conversion narratives. In these narratives, according to Michael Sobel [in Trabelin' On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith], a "seeker" makes a journey that leads him not only to rebirth in Christ but to recovery of his essential self, "the 'little me' in the 'big me."' Though unique, this self is also a manifestation of a collective spirit that, Sobel suggests, "the Black had brought . . . with him from Africa, not as a deity but in his own inner self."' By recovering the 'little me,' the convert is both reborn in Christ and "brought . . . back to his African heritage." As in Afro-Baptist conversion, the self recovered by Bynum was both unique (his personal "song") and already there and waiting for him as part of his African heritage, a self related to an ancestral or ethnic past. Thus, the place where Bynum was taught "the Secret of Life" and learned how to find his song was one that lay on a road Bynum had already traveled, and he received instruction from an ancestor, the spirit of his father. As "the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way," the shiny man was potentially both spiritual guide and spiritual ancestor.
Elements of Bynum's narrative of revelation and self-recovery evoke the Biblical story of Saul's transformative encounter with a risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Reading Bynum's story through the Biblical one suggests that the shiny man who guided Bynum toward his song and then disappeared in blinding light was a Christ figure from whom Bynum received a new identity, just as Saul, the persecutor of Christians, was transformed into Paul, the great preacher of the gospel. Bynum himself, according to this paradigm, would be a reborn Paul and his "binding song" the task of uniting African Americans in anticipation of a returning savior or messiah. Bynum does, in fact, hope to see the shiny man again, but the person and the advent he waits for do not have quite the meaning that they have in the Biblical paradigm. If the shiny man is a messiah figure, he is not an otherworldly or even exceptional individual. As Bynum tells Selig, "I ain't even so sure he's one special fellow. That shine could pass on to anybody. He could be anybody shining." The shiny man is an ordinary man who, possessing his song as "a voice inside him telling him which way to go," is able to guide others toward repossession of their songs, toward becoming shiny men in their own right. And since "that shine could pass on to anybody," the shiny man is also the individual who has not yet found his song, one who searches for himself. That search takes place in the world, and for Bynum to see the shiny man "again" means assisting that search by acting as the shiny-man guide to another. Seeing the shiny man again does not entail Bynum's deliverance from the world but confirmation of his contribution to it. As Bynum's father told him, "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 . . ."
The shiny man is an ordinary individual who seeks himself or is sought by others in the world, so it is not entirely strange that Bynum engages Selig's help in this search, paying him a dollar to find that shiny man for him. Given that this search is for an individual's self, song or soul, however, Bynum's use of Selig's services is highly ironic, and his greetings to the "People Finder" carry more than a hint of sarcasm:
Bynum: If it ain't the People Finder himself.
Selig: Bynum, before you start . . . I ain't seen no
shiny man now.
Bynum: Who said anything about that? I ain't said
nothing about that. I just called you a first-class
Selig cannot find the shiny man because neither he nor the economic system he represents is able to recognize African Americans as persons or individuals. Bynum's description of the shiny man as "anybody shining" is an affirmation of the intrinsic value of each individual. The shiny man could be anybody because each individual possesses the potential for self-realization which the shiny man represents. Selig's observation that "there's lots of shiny Nigras," by contrast, implies that African Americans are indistinguishable from one another, that they are, in fact, not individual subjects but bodies that are ultimately the same body: "The only shiny man I saw was the Nigras working on the road gang with the sweat glistening on them" (emphasis added).
Though the economic system which Selig represents cannot see black persons, the shiny man cannot be found wholly outside that system since persons realize themselves in a world of concrete material relations. Bynum acknowledges the material basis of the search for self in his employment of Selig and in his description of the shiny man as one who "shine like new money." The shiny man's spiritual or inner shine cannot be divorced from the material or economic world, but it also transforms it, makes it serve the expression of soul, self, or song. Bynum uses Selig, then, but he does not rely on him, and the real "People Finder," as Bynum hints at one point, is Bynum himself: "I binds them [people] together. Sometimes I help them find each other."
Bynum can act as "People Finder," however, only to people who carry within themselves a sense of their own humanity. He can act as a spiritual guide only to the "anybody" who already searches for himself. As a man cut off from self and community, seeking himself through the recovery of the past, Herold Loomis is that anybody, as Seth unconsciously reveals when he voices suspicions about Loomis's identity: "Anybody can tell anybody anything about what their name is. That's what you call him . . . Herald Loomis. His name liable to be anything." Though Seth's distrust expresses the fragmentation of community that accompanies the self-alienation of its members, a community of anybodies is also one that might cohere as its members find their own identities through a past that is collective. Since Loomis is the anybody who could be the shiny man, his search and Bynum's are the same. Loomis is searching for himself through recovery of the past, and Bynum is searching for the man whom he can guide to himself and whose self-recovery will validate the efficacy of Bynum's own song, its "power in the world." The search for the shiny man is a collaborative and, indeed, a collective project, for the self that is its object can be found only in a past that is held in common with others.
Searching for the self in the past presupposes that the past is one which can ground a self, that it was made by other selves whose agency can function as the precedent for and promise of one's own. Initially, Loomis is unable to see the collective African-American past in this way, as can be observed in a powerful scene that begins when the lodgers of Seth's boarding house perform a variant of the "ring shout," an Afro-Christian ritual in which frenzied dance and ecstatic shouts mediated an experience of possession or inspiration by the Holy Ghost (Sobel). When Loomis walks in on this dance, he is angrily contemptuous of the boarders' evocation of a past which he clearly considers to have been marked by passive suffering and useless piety: "You singing for the Holy Ghost to come? What he gonna do huh? He gonna come with the tongues of fire to burn up your wooly heads?" Loomis, however, is fundamentally connected to the past and people he scorns, and his own challenge, giving way to dance, glossolalia and a visionary trance, merges with and continues the act of the collective memory which he has interrupted. The lodgers' ecstatic ritual, in fact, produces precisely the state of trance and vision which it was originally intended to, and the vision which Loomis witnesses is given expression in a collective act, a call-and-response exchange between Loomis and Bynum:
Bynum: What you done seen, Herald Loomis?
Loomis: I done seen bones rise up out of the water.
Ride up and walk across the water. Bones walking on
top of the water.
Bynum: Tell me about them bones, Herald Loomis.
Tell me what you seen
Asking questions, prompting, repeating images and phrases, interpreting earlier lines, Bynum is essential to the realization of Loomis's vision as more than a private experience.
The past evoked in Loomis's vision is one which affirms the possibility of agency Loomis has defined. Briefly, Loomis's vision records two journeys. The first is a journey of bones traveling across a body of water, a journey symbolizing the trans Atlantic voyage in which Africans, enslaved and taken from their homes, both died by the thousands and were treated as mere bodies without identity of human worth: "Wasn't nothing but bones and they walking on top of the water." The enslaved Africans of Loomis's vision do not remain insentient bones however. The bones sink into the ocean from which they are then resurrected as bodies with flesh and restored to life by a wind that fills them with breath or spirit. Resurrected, the Africans then begin a second journey which requires individual agency and decision. Standing up from the shore of the New World where a wave has thrown them, the Africans bid each other goodbye and leave the place to pursue their different paths: "They shaking hands and saying goodbye to each other and walking every which away down the road."
Loomis's vision is one which affirms the presence of agency in the African-American past, suggesting that it is not one of victimization alone, but of agency and self-empowerment. The vision suggests, moreover, that even the history of victimization can be and has been redeemed. The people of Loomis's vision exercise agency not only in the present following their resurrection, but in relation to the past that brought them to the New World. By beginning a second journey which parallels or repeats the first but adds the new dimension of choice and self-determination, the people of the vision change the meaning of the past, remake it retrospectively. This re-creation of the past might be called an act of transformative repetition such as is embodied in the call-and-response form itself. Moving from statement to repetition and restatement, the call-and-response exchange shared by Loomis and Bynum continually remakes itself as it develops, symbolically remaking the events which are its theme.
This history of self-empowerment is Loomis's by right of inheritance, for the people of his vision are his people: "They black. Just like you and me. Ain't no difference." But the connection that justifies the claim of co-possession of historical agency seems to go beyond inheritance and precedent, as Loomis becomes not simply like his ancestors but one of them:
Loomis: They ain't moved or nothing. They just
Bynum: You just laying there. What you waiting on,
Loomis: I'm laying there . . . waiting.
Bynum: What you waiting on, Herald Loomis?
Loomis: I'm waiting on the breath to get into my body.
Here the collapse of differences of time and identity would seem to open the possibility of reentering and enacting the past in order to fully claim its legacy of self-empowerment. Loomis, however, is not yet able to claim this legacy by standing up with the people of his vision. The part of the vision in which the Africans stand up, say goodbye to one another, and depart on their different journeys is recounted by Bynum alone, suggesting that this part of history does not yet exist for Loomis and cannot exist until he realizes it through an act of his own.
Before Loomis can claim the legacy of empowerment left him by his ancestors, he must confront and understand his own experience of oppression: seven years of false imprisonment and forced labor on the chain gang of Joe Turner, brother to the governor of Tennessee. Though this experience is part of Loomis's personal past, it is not one that he has suffered alone, but with the men imprisoned with him, those who lived in fear of imprisonment and the families deprived of their men. Loomis's experience, then, is once again part of a collective past, a past preserved for collective memory in a song. The refrain of this song is, "They tell me Joe Turner's come and Gone." As sung by "the women . . . down around Memphis" who "made up that song," the song is a testimony of loss. If "Joe Turner's come and gone," then husbands, sons, fathers and brothers have been taken away from their families. By singing this song, Bynum uses collective memory to confront Loomis with his personal loss and with the way this loss still affects him:
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 . . . See, Mr.
Loomis, when a man forgets his song he goes off in
search of it . . . till he find out he's got it with him all
the time. That's why I can tell you one of Joe Turner's
niggers. 'Cause you forgot how to sing your song.
Bynum's suggestion that a song of loss and victimization has displaced Loomis's own song and that Loomis is still in bondage to Turner, still "one of Joe Turner's niggers," provokes first violent denial, then implicit acknowledgement as Loomis recounts the story of his imprisonment, his release to find nothing left of his former life and his efforts to see his wife once more so that he can begin again: "I just wanna see her face so I can get me a starting place in the world." By acknowledging the past, Loomis is enabled to confront the judgment of worthlessness which keeps him bound to Joe Turner and counter it with his own truth. Joe Turner did not catch and keep him for seven years because he was "worthless": "Worthless is something you throw away. . . I ain't seen him throw me away." Rather, it was envy of Loomis's song that led Joe Turner to imprison him. As Bynum puts it, "What he [Joe Turner] wanted was your song. He wanted that song to be his. . . But you still got it. You just forgot how to sing it."
Once Loomis has understood the past in which he was victimized and has rejected the judgment of worthlessness which oppression forced upon him, it remains for him to say "goodbye" to what he has lost and reclaim the self that Joe Turner has not been able to take away. What Loomis has lost is the life he had with his wife, Martha, before Joe Turner entered it. He cannot reclaim that life except as a past he confirms by seeing Martha again: "I just wanted to see your face to know that the world was still there. Make sure everything still in its place so I could reconnect myself together." Loomis must "say goodbye" to Martha and the world they made, but this goodbye is everything. By relinquishing the past, Loomis also reclaims it as his own, in a sense, nullifying Joe Turner's expropriation. Loomis's declaration, "Well, Joe Turner's come and gone and Herald Loomis ain't for no binding," transforms the meaning of the words sung by women whose men had been taken away. The words no longer communicate present loss but consign Joe Turner to a history of which Loomis is the subject. Repossessed of the past, Loomis is no longer its victim but the measure of its meaning, free to judge it and reject what seems false, including the Christian faith that Martha tries to lead him back to:
Great big old white man . . . your Mr. Jesus Christ.
Standing there with a whip in one hand and a tote
board in another, and them niggers swimming in a sea
of cotton. And he counting. He tallying up the cotton.
"Well, Jeremiah . . . what's the matter, you ain't
picked but two hundred pounds of cotton today? Got
to put you on half rations." And Jeremiah go back and
lay up there on his half rations and talk about what a
nice man Mr. Jesus Christ is 'cause he give him
salvation after he die. Something wrong here. Something
don't fit right!
Loomis rejects Christian promises of salvation as complicit with African Americans' historical oppression and, declaring that "I don't need nobody to bleed for me!" slashes himself across the chest. This declaration of self-sufficiency and of break with the pieties of the past is also one in which Loomis reconnects with a collective identity and a heritage of self-empowerment: he finds that "I'm standing now" just as the ancestors in his vision had stood up. Reclaiming himself and translating a collective past to the present, Loomis becomes indeed the shiny man who knows his own song and, "shining like new money," shows the way.
Source: Douglas Anderson, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," in CLA Journal, Vol. XL, No. 4, June 1997, pp. 432-57.
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