Herald Loomis: Character Analysis

Herald Loomis: Character Analysis
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Set in Pittsburgh in the year 1911, just a little over 40 years after the emancipation proclamation, the play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone captures the unfolding drama of the times. As the promises made during the reconstruction era of American history was finally abandoned and the “savage man-hunting” characters like Joe Turner chased hapless former slaves out of their wits, black folks were driven out of the South and into the prosperous business community of the North.

Unlike most stories written at that time, August Wilson’s play focused on the in-between spaces of society. The story did not focus on the newly industrialized America, the fancy carriage, and the white glove but rather give us a vivid picture of the alienated new underclass of free black men and women and their struggles for self-identification. This is evident in the introduction of the story, which goes “From the deep and the near South the sons and daughters of freed African slaves wander into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, they arrived dazed and stunned, their hearts kicking in their chest with a song worth singing.”

One of the main characters in the story and perhaps the most powerful and compelling of them all is Herald Loomis. The arrival of the somberly clad and frightening Loomis with his Daughter Zonia to the boarding house of Seth and Bertha Holly is the heart and soul of the play. Loomis carries with him a sense of urgency, an ambiguity that stems from his inner conflict of having lost his identity. His search for his long lost wife is not so much as to take her place again as his wife but rather because he perceives her as his “starting place in the world.” Loomis is a lost soul looking for a place to start looking for himself. In short, a paradox waiting to be explored.
Loomis is a character wrapped in pain but is alive with hope. Half mad after spending seven years in virtual slavery to the vicious Joe Turner, he is tormented with violent and scary visions, which can be attributed to his past experiences and his search for identity. The visions of Loomis help the reader to capture the feeling of uncertainty and the urgency to find out who he really is and put meaning into his existence. For instance, the vision of Loomis of bones (most likely his own) that walk upon the water and then sink, turn to flesh and leave him washed up to shore unable to stand. Loomis cried, “My legs won’t stand up!” Symbolically, this can be construed that taking flesh and washed to shore in the vision of Loomis is akin to gaining form and freedom as in the emancipation. However, with the fact that Loomis could not find meaning in what he is doing, he is still seeking answers and unable to stand on his own. Standing can be a symbolic representation of true freedom and self-determination. “My legs won’t stand up!” is Loomis’ declaration of how lost he is in his newly found physical freedom. 

A powerful scene in the play is when Bynum sang the song of Turner, which agitated Loomis, so much. Somebody took “my song” and Loomis could not seem to find it. The song of Turner is apparently not the song Loomis was looking for since it represented captivity and his enslavement for seven years.  

Deep in his heart, Loomis is looking for answers that will bring him peace. In most parts of the story where Loomis appears, August Wilson was able to capture vividly the pain and anger of Loomis and how the newly freed blacks search for their place in the new American world. He is able to capture how important it is for somebody like Loomis to create his own vision, his own identity. This is evident in the climax of the story when Loomis finally found his lost wife Martha who is now a member of the White Society’s Christian Church. When Martha read the scriptures on Jesus and how Jesus shed his blood to save people from sins, Loomis somehow creates a new vision of Jesus. He construed the shedding of the blood of Jesus in saving mankind as a kind of shaping of mankind’s identity. For Loomis that is not acceptable, taking by analog on how Joe Turner shaped him and dictated his identity.  He simply cannot allow that. Thus, in a symbolic act, Loomis took the knife and bleeds himself.

Some authors view, in the spiritual context, the act of Loomis is a refusal to be saved. I disagree with them. Loomis was a man wanting to break the chains of his past enslavement. He wants to define his life, his future. The taking of the knife and bleeding himself is should not be viewed as blasphemous as he is only expressing his need to be free from the specters of the past. He wants to take responsibility for his own identity, free from the dictates of any norms and cultures which he does not believe to be his own. He wants to find “his song” therefore; he has to bleed for himself. “My legs stood up! I’m standing!” Wilson simply captured the will of a newly freed black to express who he truly is according to the modes of thoughts and traditions that defined his ancestors for hundreds of years.


 Wilson, August: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 9th ed. New York: Longman 2005. 2064 2113