Professor Nina Floro
ENG 110 BB
27 September 2018
First Draft: 24 Oct 2018
Harboring a reasonable fear of the police is an important safety rule for African-Americans. Whereas law enforcement may represent hope, or safety to many communities within the U.S., the police and public office are two wings of American bureaucracy which have given black Americans obstacles rather than egalitarian courtesies. Institutional racism in this country serves to deter, retard, and marginalize African-American citizens in conjunction with an effort to associate black culture with criminal activity. The economic viability of African-American men and women was undeniable upon emancipation, for the skills and trades forced upon them in bondage distinguished them from crackers, ex-convicts, and debilitated civil war veterans. Resentment soon followed, and widespread racial bias soared beyond Jim Crow’s legal reach. A wall stands erect in the psychosocial economy of this country, preventing African-Americans from affirming the value of themselves, making contributions to their home country, and living their days unimpeded by the municipal works structured to serve propublica. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone conveys the journey of foreigners navigating the psychological and societal barrier, in two acts, courtesy of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-born author August Wilson.
This wall rejects anyone without proper clearance. The gatekeepers serve the state as elected officials, peace officers, and educators. Gatekeepers travel in the form of a land owner, and business operator, with status to deny access to not only housing, but a dignified life. Entire neighborhoods, and fields of employment offered black citizens nothing but repellent. Scores of white, often Christian men, acting as the moral arbiters. However, they were toeing the line to keep it white, rather than keep it right. “The threat of arrest and forced labor had become a fixture of black life in many rural areas of Alabama” states Douglas A. Blackmon, referring to the leasing of convicts from state prisons to companies such as U.S. Steel, Pratt Consolidated, and Schloss-Schloss-Sheffield Steel & Iron (Blackmon). An increase in arrests to perpetuate such vulgarity is likely fiber for the widely cast nepotic net that tangled Wilson’s Herald Loomis in the Turner brothers contributions to slavery (by another name). “Loomis: Had a whole mess of men he catches. Just go out hunting regular like you go out hunting possum . . . . He’d go out hunting and bring back forty men at a time. And keep them seven years” (Wilson 72). Incarcerated by a corrupt system, ensnared by a white man with public office and law enforcement at his disposal, and held for 7 years, Herald Loomis, when released from prison, is still locked-up. Bound to the road, navigating a land he was born to, and ducking hostile neighbors and peace officers who commit crimes with impugn: Herald, (a man who walks the path of the righteous) is surely foreign on such soil.
Emotionally and chronologically stunted, Loomis declares to Seth and Bynum (exclusively) “Joe Turner catched me in nineteen hundred and one . . . . I was walking down this road in this little town outside of Memphis . . . . 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” (Wilson 72). Far from fictional Tennessee, deep down Alabama way, the very same year in which Wilson’s play is set, brothers William M. and Robert B. Teal swap Barbour county law enforcement’s top positions (Blackmon). When William Teal, as sheriff, reached term limits in 1911, brother Robert became sheriff while William teal moves to the position of chief deputy (Blackmon). Preaching against gambling, Loomis is snatched off the street abruptly, apparently without provocation. “Based off jail records the brother kept, the Teals typically arrested fewer than 20 people a month. Then suddenly, every few months, dozens of minor offenders were rounded up over a few days, charged with vagrancy, alcohol violations or other minor offenses. Nearly all were sentenced to hard labor and shipped to a mine within 10 days” (Blackmon 333). The walk of life has Herald Loomis a Deacon, a husband, a guardian, and a prisoner; as a result, he is unable to locate or contact his wife upon release. The fracturing of his family protracts his path from completion of sentence, to complete man, with the search for his other half, Martha Pentecost.
Seth Holly, proprietor of the boarding at which the play is set, details the names of several white gents who will not stake him. Seth is looking to advance his achievements, firm up his name in the business community, and pursue happiness, it would seem. The relationship between Rutherford Selig and Seth is all business. A procurement, production, and retailing operation. Seth, an independent contractor, and Selig, a mobile retail syndicate. When the audience meets Selig, he exchanges words with Bynum that suggest much more than Selig’s flippant attitude toward Bynum’s ethereal tendencies. “The only shiny man I saw was the Nigras working on the road gang with the sweat glistening on them” (Wilson 8). As the play climaxes, Selig, who proclaims his slave trafficking lineage in resume format earlier in the play, physically walks martha through the door and places her within a breath of Herald (Wilson 88). This image, Bertha, Seth, Mattie, and Bynum in the kitchen receiving Martha from a “sure enough first-class People Finder!” incorporates plot and symbol equally (88). Afoot in search of Martha, Herald carries their daughter Zonia close to him on the paths they travel. Zonia, the flesh and blood of her parents union, serves as a reflection of her father’s memory of his wife. Much like a locket around a neck, fitted with a forget-me-not photo within, Zonia is Herald’s touchstone to both the past, and future.
Herald Loomis’ future, which he states can not begin until he knows where the world starts (Wilson 90). When Herald and Martha alas see one another, their reunion is brief and fiery.remain uncoupled. Loomis, bouncing from location to location for more than three years, can not maneuver in any direction other than that which he believes takes him to Martha. Yet, when he reaches her, his world opens before him in a form he could not have predicted. Similar to Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus, Herald, upon seeing his world before him, is transformed. Upon laying his eyes upon his prime meridian, his starting place, Herald denounces Jesus Christ as a slave driver and stands in receipt of a sermon-and it is this sermon which inspires the self-administered blood ritual. The Lord Jesus Christ was Herald’s touchstone for many years, and his faith has been smashed to bits through his travail with Joe Turner. Nonetheless, the baptismal salvation expressed when he slashes himself bloody at once unbinds Loomis and provides him with a new starting point. A new world awaits, where Herald Loomis is not alien, foreign, or hostile.
Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery By Another Name. Anchor, 2009.
Wilson, August. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Plume, 1988.