I once had a white student who chose to remain silent in class until we discussed the play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by the black playwright August Wilson. In this play, the Christianity is shown in contrast to the spiritual traditions of Africa. A “root worker,” “blood worker,” “binder,” shamanic character called Bynum, is the personification of African traditional spirituality. He is sort of the odd man out in the community of migrant ex-slaves, most of whom have adopted the Christian religion of their previous masters. Most characters are lost and searching for their identity as they move north to the mill-working jobs of 1911 Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit. The hero of the story is prompted into self-awareness of his own identity through the guidance of Bynum. The hero reveals his own blood with a knife and washes himself with his blood, symbolically expressing the inner truth he has discovered through his heritage. This is not the blood of Jesus, the white man’s religion.
The expectation of my students, who were mostly first generation in college, from coal mining, mill working, farming families is the basic “slavery is bad” lesson typically found in public education, if even that. A play with this depth and significance that runs counter to the tradition of Christianity as the superior belief, is often startling to them. Then, to contrast Christianity with a spiritual tradition akin to voodoo is down right blasphemy from their perspective. Now, they had all read the play (supposedly) and saw the contrasts being made between the two faith perspectives, but most of them, white or black, missed the significance of the inherent lesson from the playwright. The presumption that Christianity would ‘win’ any debate was so strong they could not bring themselves to fathom the other possibility. After spending three class periods discussing the symbols, language, historical perspective, and basic background I always saved the ending of the play for last. The revelation of Wilson’s message that black ex-slaves could find their inner salvation through their own blood(heritage) and not through the ‘white god’ was revelatory.
Many preconceptions had to be altered for them to understand the play and what it means. Most likely, the black students were Christian and had to address that revelation about their own faith. White Evangelicals were the ones who presented the greatest challenge for me, however. They were unable to conceive of a competing spirituality that did not have an authoritarian god in charge. The silent student I mentioned above said, quite forcefully, that her God is real after I had spent some time discussing the realm of mystical spirituality and how different conceptions of gods and spirituality exist. She refused to acknowledge her god as a belief. Rather she declared her version of God to be “real,” a fact, not a mere belief. This presented an impasse that was baffling. I didn’t want to battle her beliefs, but her refusal to acknowledge her beliefs as beliefs stopped the conversation. She was an older student, middle thirties or so who had a closed mind on this topic. She had stopped thinking so her staunch, smug refusal to consider any other points of view damaged her ability to comprehend Wilson’s point of view. If anything, she personified in real life the character from the play called ‘Pentecost,’ a black woman married to a minister who spews quotes from the Bible constantly while onstage. That adamancy of the unyielding Pentecost and her convictions looks foolish in contrast to the blood of the hero who reveals it during the climax of the play. The impact of the hero drawing a knife and slicing the skin of his own chest open to reveal the internal power of African heritage – the blood of his father and his father before him, is dramatic and cathartic and, despite its theatricality, real. His blood exists and no ‘belief’ can compete with that reality.
That adamant, previously silent student is the Trump base. She and they are satisfied with the minimal foundations of their belief and require no other perspective. Once they have achieved faith all else is irrelevant. If they make it into college they know how to answer test questions with the answer the teacher wants to get the grade, then ignore what they don’t already believe. They consider blacks to be inferior. For them, the hero’s choice – to ignore the belief of Christianity, and choose his own authentic heritage – is the wrong choice.
I’m not sure Joe Turner’s Come and Gone does what I always thought it did while I was teaching it. It is not anti-christian propaganda, it is pro self-respect. I know its ideological perspective helped the black and open-minded students, but racist Evangelicals only find reinforcement of their prejudice by that crazy black man who cuts himself, what a fool! A black heritage is still ‘black’ and therefore, in their limited mindset, inferior. There is no growth for them here, prejudice halts their intellectual development and they are content with that. The Oracle of Delphi said: “Know Thyself” implying self-knowledge leads to better understanding of one’s existence. Evangelicals say: ‘know thyself to be sinful’ which defeats incentive and disparages humanity. Donald Trump perfectly exploits this philosophy. August Wilson’s art exalts humanity, while Donald Trump’s commerce exploits humanity. Evangelicals support Trump who turns around and exploits them.
The play ends abruptly with the viscerally dramatic, bloody climax. The audience is at first startled, then joyous for Loomis, the hero, who has discovered the power within himself, his blood; he will succeed because of this spiritual awakening. There is no need to tie together any loose ends of the plot because we witness Loomis find what he has been searching for. His journey was to find himself even though that, ‘self’ has always been pumping through his heart. This is a universal lesson for all races and all of humanity; anyone can grow who is open-minded enough to learn and use it.