Joe Turner's Come and Gone Historical Context

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Joe Turner

As one of the plays in his ten-play historical cycle, chronicling the African-American experience in the twentieth century, Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone is an overtly historical play. In this case, the play concerns what life was like for African Americans in the 1910s. Although slavery was technically illegal at this point, the notorious Joe Turner ignored the law and illegally impressed African Americans into slavery for seven years on his plantation. Says Herald, "Kept everybody seven years. He'd go out hunting and bring back forty men at a time." Actually, the name, "Joe Turner," is incorrect, historically speaking. Although the W. C. Handy song that Wilson bases his play on was called, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," the actual man that the song referred to was named "Joe Turney," the brother of Tennessee governor Pete Turney. This discrepancy is rarely mentioned by critics, most of whom still refer to the man as "Turner." Part of the reason for this oversight may come from the fact that, with the exception of Wilson's play and Handy's song, Turner's exploits are often overlooked. Says Jay Plum in his 1993 African American Review article, "Although the chain gang affected the personal lives of many African Americans, traditional histories of the United States make little or no mention of the phenomenon."

The Great Migration

Even when African Americans were not coerced into slavery, many of them worked in slave-like conditions, especially in the South. Many newly freed slaves, unable to find work elsewhere, were forced to work Southern lands as sharecroppers, or tenant farmers. Slaves who became sharecroppers would generally lease a portion of a landowner's cropland, farming it and giving a portion of the crop—or the money earned from selling the crop—to the landowner. However, while blacks were now paid for their efforts, it was rarely enough to survive. In the play, Herald and Martha are sharecroppers, until he is abducted by Joe Turner. When Herald is released, he recounts how he tried to return to his life. Says Herald: "I made it back to Henry Thompson's place where me and Martha was sharecropping and Martha's gone. She taken my little girl and left her with her mama and took off North." When Herald decides to take Zonia and go up North to find Martha, he joins many other African Americans who were also hitting the road, for a variety of reasons. In her 1995 book, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, Sandra G. Shannon discusses this massive northward movement of African Americans, known as the Great Migration. Says Shannon: "The historical context out of which the play evolves includes a backdrop of frustrated sharecroppers; hundreds of unemployed, unskilled laborers; countless broken families; and a pervasive rumor of a better life up North." This northward movement of American Americans was one of many such migrations that happened during the twentieth century, as many moved from the rural South to Northern cities. Herald Loomis's migration in the early twentieth century directly preceded a much larger movement, called the "Great Migration," which took place during World War I.

This section contains 520 words
(approx. 2 pages at 400 words per page)
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Joe Turner's Come and Gone from Drama for Students. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.