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The primary theme in the play is the search for identity. Although Herald Loomis believes he is searching for his lost wife, Martha, the African conjurer, Bynum, lets him know that Herald is really searching for his song or identity. Herald has forgotten his song as a result of his seven-year enslavement by Joe Turner, a notorious Tennessee plantation owner that illegally enslaved free African Americans to work for him. Bynum tells Herald that Turner captured him, not just to work on his plantation, but to try to steal Herald's song. Says Bynum: "Now he's got you bound up to where you can't sing your own song. Couldn't sing it them seven years 'cause you was afraid he would snatch it from under you." Herald's plight is representative of many African Americans in this time period who felt cut off from their African heritage as a result of the crippling effects of slavery.
The various characters in the play represent a cross-section of the different options that are open to African Americans trying to find their identities. At one extreme there are people like Seth, an African-American man who was born free in the North. Seth devotes his life to making money, embracing capitalism like many other American businessmen. When Selig tries to overcharge him for some inferior materials, Seth lets him know that he is not going to be fooled. Says Seth: "Don't come talking that twenty-five cent stuff to me over no low-grade sheet metal." In addition, Seth can do math quickly in his head, he demands payment in advance from his tenants, and he is shocked when Jeremy quits his job after refusing to pay an extortion fee. Says Seth: "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. That's seven dollars and fifty cents profit!" Seth is also very disparaging toward his African heritage, calling the African rituals that Bynum performs "old mumbo jumbo nonsense."
Bynum represents the other extreme, people who attempt to maintain a tight hold on their African heritage. An African root worker, or conjurer, Bynum has the "Binding Song," a power that binds people together so that they can find each other. At one point in the play, Herald says that Bynum is "one of them bones people," referencing Herald's vision of his African ancestors. In between these two extremes, there are people like Bertha, a Christian woman who also performs traditional African rituals. Says Bertha to Seth: "It don't hurt none. I can't say if it help . . . but it don't hurt none." Some, like Mattie, choose to find their identities in motherhood, searching for a man to make them complete, while others, like Molly, choose to live the single life.
When Bynum first meets Herald and asks him where he and his daughter are coming from, Herald says, "Come from all over. Which everway the road take us that's the way we go." This was true for many African Americans at the time. Later, Bynum refers to one of the causes of this mass migration, when he is discussing the individual situation of Herald. Says Bynum: "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." Herald wanders, unknowingly searching for his identity. However, Herald is not the only character who wanders in the play. Bynum has wandered his whole life, and Seth notes that this is a common trend: "I done seen a hundred niggers like him. He's one of them fellows never could stay in one place. He was wandering all around the country till he got old and settled here."
This migratory trend has been passed down to the new generation. Jeremy, one of the younger tenants, does not care when he loses his job. As he tells Seth: "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 no way." He lives with Mattie for a while, but feels tied down. When he finds Molly, a fellow traveler, he thinks he will be happy with her, and tries to encourage her to come with him. Says Jeremy: "Don't you wanna travel around and look at some places with Jeremy? With a woman like you beside him, a man can make it nice in the world." Likewise, Mattie keeps searching for her lost man, Jack Carper, whom she thinks will make her whole once again. Still, she notes that this strategy is not working for her, saying that "I ain't never found no place for me to fit. Seem like all I do is start over." The trend of searching for a lost mate continues even with the youngest generation, as demonstrated by the two children, Reuben and Zonia. When Reuben finds out that Zonia is leaving, he tells her that she is his girl, and says: "When I get grown, I come looking for you."
Racial Exploitation and Discrimination
Throughout the play, the African-American characters are exploited or discriminated against in various ways by white people. In the American South, this was fairly common at the time and some, like Martha, left to avoid intense racial discrimination. When Herald finally catches up with Martha, she explains why she migrated to Pennsylvania. Says Martha: "Reverend Tolliver wanted to move the church up North 'cause of all the trouble the colored folks was having down there."
However, discrimination and exploitation also happened in the . Jeremy gives two examples where this happens to him. Jeremy relates an example where some white policemen came up to him and one of his co-workers, after they had just bought a drink. Says Jeremy: "Asked us if we was working. We told them we was putting in the road over yonder and that it was our payday." However, even though Jeremy and his co-worker have a valid occupation, the police still "snatched hold of us to get that two dollars." The local police use their power to steal money from any black men that they find on the street, even if they are not vagrants. Later in the play, Jeremy is the victim of extortion. As he notes to Seth and Molly, at Jeremy's job, a white man goes "around to all the colored making them give him fifty cents to keep hold to their jobs." Jeremy refuses to pay, is fired, and notes the unfairness of the white man's actions: "He go around to all the colored and he got ten dollars extra. That's more than I make for a whole week."
Even Selig, who is a business associate of Seth's and who is welcomed in the boardinghouse with free food, comes from a family that has exploited African Americans. As Selig notes, "My great-granddaddy used to bring Nigras across the ocean on ships." In addition, Selig's father "used to find runaway slaves for the plantation bosses." Selig's people-finding business, on the other hand, is viewed as a positive endeavor by most of his African-American customers. However, this business is itself built upon the businesses of his forefathers, because if there had not been any slavery, there would not be a mass of dislocated African Americans trying to find their families. Selig himself notes this to Herald: "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."
This section contains 1,278 words
(approx. 4 pages at 400 words per page)